Since last summer, I have been working on pulling myself together, owning what I’ve learned, and putting myself out there—standing in the front lines, risking, and making mistakes. From initiating a student lab in NYU to interning in a theatre in Tokyo, it’s all been very exciting, but it hasn’t been easy. The more I engage with different communities, the more I realize that, to quote Socrates, “I know that I know nothing.”
Figure 1. Laura Trying to Pull It Together
In spite being told multiple times to “just get the PhD over with,” I must have changed my mind about my dissertation topic three times before finally coming to a decision about it. I didn’t do so because I wanted this to be the pinnacle of my graduate student career (or the narrow road that would dictate my future as a theatre-maker forever), far from it; but I did want a meaningful topic that would ring true to where I was in my life’s journey: my current strengths and weaknesses, my interests, and, most importantly, my values. Unsurprisingly, it took coming home to Asia to find some clarity. For my dissertation, I am returning to the Philippines to engage in place—Katipunan Avenue, to be exact—through theatre-making, with college students from Ateneo de Manila University.
Pursuing this topic combines my interests and experiences thus far, such as working with youth in school settings, devising theatre, and interacting with a physical locale. It gives me the opportunity to not only pursue my academic curiosities—i.e., Helen Nicholson’s “relational ontology of applied theatre,” which “suggests that affective experience may prompt a disposition towards the political by recognising that human agency and non-human actants are mutually embedded” (Nicholson, 2016, p. 253; emphasis mine)—but to also reflect on, in an embodied manner, what I feel to be is an important question in our era: what does it mean to civically engage as an individual and as a collective? Finally, because this topic will bring me back to Asia, I get to more deeply wrestle with what it means to be an Asian practitioner of applied theatre.
There are challenges ahead:
The biggest hurdle is rediscovering what it means to me, personally, to be in academia. Late last year, I became disenchanted with the entire enterprise. I didn’t want to quit, but I had begun to drag my heels. I didn’t speak to anyone about it because I was ashamed. After all, I knew what I was getting into right from the beginning, i.e., publishing in journals, presenting in conferences, etc., so it didn’t make sense for me to suddenly be so resistant. Yet when I was confronted with the requirements of the candidacy portfolio, I felt anxious about publishing for publishing’s sake and presenting for presenting’s sake. I also didn’t like how inaccessible and disconnected academia felt from society, i.e., writing in journals that aren’t open access, even if our very field espouses inclusivity. Moreover, I became conscious about the fact that I’ve separated my “academic” voice from my “creative writing” voice; I had bought into the mythical narrative of what an academic should sound like. For the sake of sounding intellectual, I set aside the vulnerable, heart-on-sleeve, tongue-tripping-over-words quality of my writing.
What helps is that I know I’m not alone in this and that there are other emerging researcher-practitioners from various fields looking for different ways to academe. Taking Gary Anderson’s Participatory Action Research class in Steinhardt has been particularly helpful in this regard. Through his class, I was able to hear about and from researchers doing research using more community-centered and alternative processes. This 13th of May 2019, I will be part of the pedagogy-focused pre-conference of CUNY Graduate Center’s “Screening Performance, Performing Screens: New Projections in Theatre and Media.” There I hope to meet and dialogue with more like-minded people.
Another significant challenge is, strangely enough, gathering more information about the Philippines, i.e., documents about Katipunan Avenue, more context about place-based applied theatre practices in the country, etc. These data aren’t easily accessible over the internet. While I am more than willing to return to Asia, I can’t imagine how this will affect my status as an international student and the dissertation proposal process, assuming I even reach that stage. But more than that, it isn’t as if I hadn’t built a life in New York City as well. By choosing Asia, I know that I am foregoing the countless artistic opportunities the city has to offer, not to mention staying close with the colleagues and friends that I care deeply about.
God’s garden is huge and my arms can only span so much.
I intend to talk to my academic advisor, David Montgomery, and my mentors about this for guidance.
I expect more gaps in knowledge and experience to appear the further along the doctoral process I get. The time I’ve spent so far in graduate school has prepared me to address them as they come, either through doing further research or reaching out to others for help. I look forward to these gaps because, if anything, more than growing academically, being in graduate school has been a journey of self-discovery: what are the things that matter to me? How can I connect with others? How are we to meaningfully and equitably live in this planet?
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in the four years I’ve been in the United States is that there isn’t much value to asking questions I already have an answer for.
So I bend down and tighten the laces on my ratty sneakers. I stretch some while paying attention to how strong the wind is blowing. I breathe in deeply, take a few steps backwards, and begin to run. I have no idea what’s on the other side or if I’ll even reach it.
But gaps are meant to be leapt through.