Theatre article wins accolades

10 August 2015
Emma Willis
Dr Emma Willis

A recent article by Dr Emma Willis has been awarded the Vera Mowry Roberts Research and Publication Award from the American Theatre and Drama Society. The article was also short listed for the Marlis Thiersch Prize.

The Vera Mowry Roberts Research and Publication Award is awarded annually for the best essay published in English on Theatre and/or Performance in the United States.

Emma’s article, ‘Emancipated spectatorship and subjective drift: Understanding the work of the spectator in Erik Ehn’s Soulographie’, was published in the October 2014 issue of Theatre Journal.

In the article Emma responds to Jacques Rancière’s elusive “third way” of conceptualising spectatorship — the “emancipated spectator” — by considering American playwright Erik Ehn’s Soulographie, a cycle of seventeen plays concerned with genocide.

The plays were staged at La MaMa theatre in New York in 2012 over a week-long season, which culminated in a “marathon” in which all plays were shown back-to-back over two days. The season drew together a broad international network of theatre-makers and the subject of genocide was explored across a range of settings.

In considering this work, Emma asked how the “emancipated spectator” might be understood in more fully theatrical terms than those that Rancière outlines in The Emancipated Spectator, and furthermore, how such a figure — and the relationships that constitute him or her — might be read ethically.

Emma said that “it’s wonderful to have such a positive response to the work from an international audience. I really love Erik Ehn’s playwriting, which for me is so exciting because of the formal innovation that comes from his unique theatrical responses to genocide.

“Ehn’s work feels very important to me at this moment in time, so the recognition of the essay is as much about Soulographie and what theatre and playwriting can offer in response to events such as genocide, as it is about my account of the plays.”

The judges for the Marlis Thiersch Prize commented that “Willis presents a very careful, close reading of Rancière’s arguments in The Emancipated Spectator as a frame for analysing Erik Ehn’s Soulographie.

“With this essay, she uses Rancière’s work as leverage for a sensible critique of the work at hand at the same time that she inserts herself constructively into the big ‘where to now?’ debate for theories of socio-political or ethical or affective engagements of performance.

“In examining the desire to recuperate in some way ‘the aesthetic-contemplative’ mode of spectatorship, Willis makes a significant contribution to current thinking about what the ‘good’ of performance might be and what kinds of dramaturgical structures might best foster this kind of experience.”

Emma explained that the award was “a really great encouragement to keep developing this aspect of my research. Since I started teaching at the University of Auckland I have had the opportunity to teach and supervise playwriting, so I’m enjoying being able to introduce elements of my research into my teaching practice.

“This year I assigned one of Ehn’s plays to my playwriting class, and it was great to see the volume of Soulographie plays sitting on the UBS shelves.”

Read ‘Emancipated spectatorship and subjective drift: Understanding the work of the spectator in Erik Ehn’s Soulographie, Theatre Journal, 66, 3, 2014, pp.385–403.