How can an archive tell the story of a cultural practice that resists the very idea of being archived? If performance, in Peggy Phelan’s formulation, “becomes itself through disappearance,” what might it mean to document this endless disappearance? And what can we learn about the relationship between performance as an artistic project, theater as a cultural institution, and the everyday, intimate existence of those who made performances happen from examining such an archive? We will examine these questions through the lens of the Alma Law Soviet Theater Collection, recently acquired by the Amherst Center of Russian Culture. Over the course of nearly thirty years, Alma Law (1927-2003), the best-informed American scholar of Russian and Soviet theater in her generation, amassed a treasure trove of materials that chronicle the theater scene of the late-Soviet period. Hundreds of interviews with actors, directors, designers, playwrights, critics, and scholars working in Soviet theater at the time, which Law conducted during her frequent research trips to the USSR, are complemented by video and audio recordings of live rehearsals and performances, thousands of photos and over a hundred reels of microfilm. They give us access to very rare testimony about the “backstage” existence of a crucial cultural institution. But what kinds of things can we actually learn from these diverse pieces of evidence? This tutorial will begin by exploring key methodological insights from the fields of performance studies and cultural history, which will help us formulate the research questions that we will pursue, individually and in pairs, as we examine Law’s diaries, notebooks, and card catalogs. All of these materials were originally created in English, so no knowledge of Russian language (or Soviet culture or theater studies) is required. Students who are able to read Russian are highly encouraged to participate and will receive research assignments that allow them to employ their proficiency. This course is part of a tutorial series that engages Amherst students in substantive research with faculty in the humanities and humanistic social sciences.
Open to juniors and sophomores interested in research. Limited to 6 students. Spring semester. Professor Wolfson.