Here is an open letter from Tony McCaffrey re the UC College of Arts Change Proposal
Dear Professor Adelson,
I would like to respond to the College of Arts Change Proposal with particular reference to the proposal to disestablish the Department of Theatre and Film Studies.
I write as a Ph D candidate, part-time, in the Department, enrolled since 1st December 2007, as a full-time Lecturer in the Faculty of Creative Industries at CPIT and as the Artistic Director of Different Light Theatre Company (established in Christchurch in 2004), an ensemble of performers perceived to have intellectual and other disabilities.
In the change proposal various references are made to the approach to scholarship and practice of the Department of Theatre and Film Studies as a combination of theory and practice informed by research in Performance Studies.
“The PVC's preliminary view is that, with a philosophy underpinning its programme of theory informed by practice, TAFS does not easily fit into either a traditional theatre performance or traditional scholarly area.”
You have in fact here outlined the innovative, leading edge strength of the Department's approach. This approach has been adopted by a number of globally significant academic institutions. One of the ‘house journals' of Performance Studies, TDR to which Sharon Mazer, HOD TAFS, has contributed and to which I have been invited to contribute, is a publication published under the specific auspices of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Brown University, Princeton University and Shanghai Theatre Academy.
At the most recent Performance Studies International Conference in Utrecht, at which I gave a paper, there were scholars presenting from the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, the Sorbonne, Berkeley, Stanford, Bologna, Leiden, Leipzig, Melbourne, Singapore and Tokyo to mention but a few.
In July I have been invited to present a paper and to attend the inaugural meeting of the Working Group on Disability Performance at the International Federation of Theatre Research Conference in Santiago Chile, which is organized through Cambridge University Press Online Journals who publish the Conference proceedings.
All of this activity suggests both the scholarly worth and the global importance of the Performance Studies approach taken by the Department of Theatre and Film Studies.
The Department's approach reflects changing cultural contexts: the audience for ‘traditional theatre' in many vibrant cultures is dwindling and a shift is taking place to performance that explores intermediality. Even within as conventional form as the Broadway-style musical, the use of video technology and other mediatized techniques is rapidly developing. Issues around ‘liveness' and/or technical mediation have long been present in film but have taken an interesting contemporary twist with questions over the ‘performance' of actor Andy Serkiss as Gollum and King Kong in Peter Jackson's films. The Performance Studies approach of Theatre and Film Studies is crucially relevant to the contemporary performance environment in all its diversity.
Speaking from a personal perspective what you characterize as a hybridity of approach of learning informed by practice is integral and crucial to my own work. If I were studying the performance of people perceived to have intellectual disabilities from a solely theoretical viewpoint then I would be part of the problem for such people rather than part of the solution. Engagement in practice with the people whose performance I am studying is essential otherwise I would be taking the transcendent position of the medical or social scientist classifying and making judgement on such people and thus contributing to a long history of stigmatization, marginalization and exclusion.
This brings me to references in the Change Proposal to community involvement. I find it difficult to comprehend that there should be any question over the community engagement of TAFS. Others I am sure have made the case for Gap Filler, Arts Voice and Free Theatre. In my own way since enrolling in 2007 my work with Different Light Theatre has been integrally engaged with the community with a complex network of funding and other stakeholders.
Different Light Theatre Company, whose work represents the performance component of my thesis, engages with the KiwiAble intiative, the Metropolitan Communities programmes and Creative Communities scheme of Christchurch City Council. We continue to receive funding and support from Canterbury Community Trust, CPIT Foundation, Creative New Zealand, IHC, Arts Access Aotearoa, Skillwise and had a longstanding funding arrangement with Adult and Community Education Aotearoa. We are constantly finding new ways to locate the performance research within the community and further afield overseas. We have performed at the Awakenings Festival in Australia, the Arts Activated Conference in Sydney, the Society for Disability Studies Conference in San Jose, California and have been invited to perform at the Ludus Festival, and international Festival of Performance in Leeds at the end of June 2012.
The reason this work, devised locally, has such significance within Christchurch, within New Zealand and overseas is that the performances are asking specific research questions informed by the TAFS methodologies which are highly relevant to the place of people with disabilities in contemporary performance and culture. This is both an innovative area of performance and research and at the frontier of questions of human rights and the dignity of all human life in the face of increasingly eugenicist developments in other scientific fields.
My own experience of building this work and this platform for research in Christchurch when taken into account alongside the work of my colleagues with Free Theatre, Arts Voice and Gap Filler suggests that we can apply creative solutions if consulted on matters of venues and facilities as we recognize that new solutions and new collaborations will be necessary to maintain artistic activity as part of the recovery process. My suggestion to you would be to consult us on such issues and make use of our creativity, passion and deep commitment to the rebuild and the place of the arts within that.
On a personal note I have certain clear, ethical responsibilities to members of a disadvantaged sector of our community with whom I have been working now for eight years. I am committed to make sure their voices are heard in our culture, that they have access to the buildings and the infrastructures of a reconstructed Christchurch and that their participation within the community is meaningful.
I have worked on my thesis for five years. During that time of also working full-time at CPIT and devising and running a performance programme for Different Light Theatre there have been major earthquakes in which I have lost two close friends and two proposals to disestablish the Department within which my PhD sits. The reason I have maintained my commitment in such difficult circumstances is not for personal pride or advancement but because I owe it to the people I work with, historically one of the most disadvantaged groups in most societies, to do the best I can for them. I am committed to their empowerment, their access to cultural activity and their struggle for meaningful inclusion, an inclusion that will benefit all of us, people with and without disabilities, in our efforts to foster a civilized community.
How can you make a decision to take away the possibility of completing that work of five years of my life and the lives of those with whom I work? How can you make a decision to prevent the impact of this work on the future people of Christchurch, with and without disabilities? Whatever your titles, you and your colleagues are trusted servants of the University and the community and I am making my case to you now and I would suggest, with respect, that you should make as strong a case as possible to government ministers and officials, elected for comparatively short periods of time, that the University of Canterbury and Christchurch needs an internationally recognized Department of Theatre and Film Studies, a centre of research excellence, with a unique and vital outreach into the community and the rebuild of this city. There are a lot of intelligent and creative people associated with the Department, speak to us, engage with us and we will do our best to help you in this task of trying to persuade central government or of finding other, collaborative, community-led solutions to ensure the continuing existence and success of this Department.