*This post is an excerpt from a speech given by Alicia Tafoya, V.P. for Conference 2017, at the 2016 Annual Membership Meeting in Chicago.
ATHE 2017 will convene in Las Vegas, Nevada. Incorporated in 1911, Las Vegas is little more than a hundred years old, and though it is relatively new to the theatre scene, it has a rich history of performance traditions. It is the self-proclaimed Entertainment Capital of the World, and almost every major casino boasts at least one theatre space. Those spaces showcase a wide variety of talents and house shows that range from traditional theatre and musical theatre, to innovative performances that push the boundaries of performance and spectacle. There are even shows that constitute a modern form of rebirth or reincarnation. Where else on earth could Caesar’s Palace be reconstructed, the likes of Elvis and the Jersey Boys perform nightly, and mere mortals like Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez rise to god-like status?
This is a stark contrast to the reality of the academic departments, artistic communities, and the economic climate in which our members live and work. While Las Vegas is a city of excess, an adult playground, and an international tourist destination, many of our members face imploding departments, shrinking budgets, job disparity, and prejudice. However, it seems that we may have more in common with this city than we realize. Spoiler alert: Las Vegas with all its glitz and glam is a mirage. Perhaps we should consider the city itself the largest piece of interactive theatre in existence. I know it is a bit of a stretch, but, consider for a moment a few key facts.
Every building is essentially a set. It has a theme or gimmick and often utilizes artificial architectural elements, painted backdrops, and ornate stylized décor to create the world of the play.
Every locale has a location-specific soundtrack. Most venues play specific background music that reflects the concept of the location and defines the intended atmosphere. In addition, the music and sound effects streaming out of the various slot machines and the gentle tinkling of glassware create an underscore for the production.
Costuming is always specific to each venue. Some locals have clearly identifiable uniforms and others don elaborate stylized costume ranging from Roman guards to showgirls, to gondoliers.
Elaborate lighting designs showcase or adorn the buildings and shape our experience, while hiding the things we are not intended to see.
At this point, you might be thinking, where are the actors? In the words of William Shakespeare, “All the World’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Is not Las Vegas famous for being a space where you can cast off your cares and play whatever part you choose? After all, “whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” and this could only be true if the part of us we leave in Vegas is but an act.
With this in mind, might we have more in common with this city than we initially thought? If you were to step backstage, you would find a tremendous amount of invisible labor that makes this façade possible. Every detail has been artfully designed and crafted to create an experience. A tremendously diverse population living behind the scenes in this theatrical town comprises the scenic artist, stagehands, prop artisans, stage managers and other collaborators who run the fabulous show that is Las Vegas. Each night they reset the stage and the play begins anew.
In conceptualizing a theme that might engage this specific locale, we also considered the specific location the conference will inhabit. The Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino is part of the Ceasar’s Entertainment Corporation. So what does it mean to discuss theatre in a venue that in part celebrates movie stars as gods and heroes, owned by a property named after a Roman emperor and located catty-corner from a property that recreates Ceasar’s Palace? I’m not certain that any one answer will suffice — however a quote from Roman theatre proved to provide an entrance into this conversation. In The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire by Juvenal, the author asserts, “the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now concerns itself no more and longs eagerly for just two things — bread and circuses.” This phrase over the years has been become a metonym, wherein the term bread and circuses is used to refer to something as: extravagant entertainment, offered as an expedient means of pacifying discontent or diverting attention from a source of grievance. It is here that we intend the conference to enter into a dialogue with the location and with our scholarship. The title and theme for next year’s conference is Spectacle: Balancing education, theory, and praxis #ATHE2017OfBreadAndCircuses.
Spectacle is a multifaceted topic and we invite you to engage it from your unique perspective. We invite you to join us in this balancing act as we explore spectacle in one of the most spectacular locations. Where, among other things, we will discuss how we as artists, theorists, scholars, and educators prepare our students for a career in a society that prioritizes spectacle in performance. Does a necessity for ticket sales, in a department with box office-driven funding, result in a tendency to prioritize appeasing the masses and creating spectacle over creating theatre that is innovative, intelligent, and diverse (though admittedly these are not mutually exclusive elements)? The conference will allow us to discuss what it means when culture is appropriated and converted into a spectacle for the enjoyment of the elite while excluding the very people that built it. We can ask if, in appropriating this culture, are we celebrating and elevating it or is it being exoticized and monetized? We can explore advances in technology and performance. We hope to see first-hand what current innovations in design and technology are being employed both onstage and backstage. We also hope to explore institutional and pedagogical practices related to spectacle as well as labor practices in higher education... because you are a victim of your own success. Yes, you are too good at what you do. Your mere existence in the academy often signals to administration that issues of diversity have been resolved, your scholarship is proof that all voices are being represented, the ease with which you move, dance, and invoke a character on stage erases your hard work and the years of training you have received. The design elements are so flawless that they are taken for granted and the theory and research is often so subtly represented that it is not noticed from the outside looking in. How do I know? How many of you have ever received a phone call or an email from an administrator or colleague asking if you could bring over a little skit or show to enhance an otherwise boring event? My good friend Greg White calls this a request for a “Show in a Box.” Often the event is hours away with no budget, no stage nor script, and almost always for no compensation. In these moments two things are clear; they have no idea what we do, and we make it look too easy. I suspect you will agree with me that we can not package all the elements of spectacle into a box on the shelf to be accessed at a moment's notice for the entertainment of others — but if we could, what would we put in that box? What would you put in your box?
At the conference, we also hope to honor scholarship of the past, present, and future generations. We intend to find ways way to celebrate past ATHE presidents and to draw them into conversation with current and future scholars. We look forward to inviting new voices into our dialogue by engaging with local scholars and artists as we ask: Does what happens in Vegas truly stay in Vegas, or does it have a greater impact on theatrical performances worldwide?
Please join us next summer for a spectacular celebration of education, theory, and praxis in the fabulous Las Vegas!