| in Community

Carrie Preston is a professor of English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies in Arts & Sciences. Her research focuses on modernist literature, performance, dance, feminist and queer theory, and transnational and postcolonial studies. In fall 2024, Preston will be teaching courses on border and critical displacement studies and a hub cross-college challenge course that works with the Rio Valley Relief Project. 

What experiences led you to study theater through the lens of gender and sexuality? 

I was a theater and dance nerd as a kid. I started taking dance lessons when I was four and fell in love. I have danced all my life. So part of it is definitely my personal passion for theater and performance and dance, which has been a core part of my work. I believe in those art forms, particularly social forms of art, that engage audiences and have a risk of changing each time you perform. Having to respond to audiences in real time really excites me, particularly as I’m interested in how art and literature function in relation to social change and activism. For me, theater and performance are particularly powerful. All art forms, I believe, have a role and function. But theater and performance are alive and dangerous and done with an audience right there. When I was studying the Japanese Noh theater for my second book, my teacher in Japan would say, “there is a person who is living and dying in front of you.” And, in fact, given the nature of the theater and the fact there are many older people performing in the Japanese Noh theater, he would tell stories of people who actually did die on the stage. That was his example of the relevance and the reality that someone is giving their life on that stage. The potential for pain, hurt, injury, and in fact, deaths on this stage is part of what makes it powerful.

What do you believe to be one of the most fascinating pieces of literature or theater performance you’ve studied and why? 

I’ll bring in an example that I’ve just been thinking about and working on because I have a book coming out that takes up this example. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a contemporary playwright and published a play called “An Octoroon,” which is a remake of a 19th century play that I’ve also studied. There’s this kind of theater history nerdom in the text itself. I was in the audience and was really interested in the production. They took the really dangerous step of staging an auction of enslaved people. The audience had auction cards on their seats, so they were actually playing the people bidding. This is an example of the power and the danger of theater. I talked with the dramaturg at length, and they fully expected that no one would participate. They expected them to be horrified by the staging of an auction of living human beings who were enslaved. But actually the audience did participate at length. The actors had to develop strategies for moving the scene forward because people were so seemingly happy to participate. That’s an example of a fascinating, dangerous, unexpected, but really important moment in the theater, where we need to reckon with ‘what is the psychic power of a moment like that? Why did mostly white Boston audiences seem to enjoy participating in a staged auction? And what is that doing? Is there the danger of that pleasure solidifying stereotypes and biases and prejudice?’ I think the production was hoping that people would later reflect on what happened and be really disturbed by it and overwhelmed. I mean, this is what happened for me. I had to write a chapter about the play and really figure out what was happening. The play was doing a lot of interesting work with audience participation. But that particular scene, I’ve thought about so much. It’s an example of a production not expecting a particular audience response and having to adapt while it was painful for the actors. People were being bid on, and the people doing the bidding seemed to really relish the experience, and that was very hard.

What is your most valued take away from your time as the director of the Kilachand Honors College? 

There were so many things I loved about that job. I have to say that the most rewarding thing was being able to really transform a curriculum from what I would call a “great books, big ideas” sort of curriculum. That is something that I studied as a student and found really valuable in my own educational experiences, but I think that curriculum  feels quite outdated now. In some ways, it’s irrelevant to students who are coming to Kilachand from every school and college who aren’t necessarily planning to do a lot with “the great books.” Students also have really crucial questions like ‘what are the standards of greatness that we’re using?’ and ‘what were the cultural factors that prompted someone, usually a white man, to produce the so-called “great work”?’ These are really important questions that I think students are bringing to their education today. My work with a lot of collaborators and with the associate directors was to change the curriculum to what I think of as a “global challenges” curriculum studying big problems, major ideas, and how we can be part of solutions. We developed a lot of fascinating courses. I learned so much by working with faculty from across the schools and colleges to put together some really interesting and challenging courses, many of which were team-taught, many of which, like the class I taught on forced displacement, had no answers for the problems we were bringing forward. That is tough on students because their whole job is to figure out, in a sense, what the answer to the problem is, or what you think the professor wants to hear, or what kind of argument in a paper the professor will appreciate. We were presenting a set of problems for which nobody in the world has an answer. That’s really challenging for students. I think often they have great learning experiences, but also walk away from the class sometimes frustrated. In fact, they should be disturbed that they know millions of people are displaced from their homes and we seem to have no solutions for this major problem. We had really interesting team-taught courses on gun violence, medical misinformation, and other huge problems that faculty really don’t have the answers to. We’re working through these challenges with the incredible students at the Kilachand Honors College.

Tell me a bit about your current book project “Complicit Participation.” 

It should be out later this year. The example that I gave of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon” is the primary example of the kinds of theatrical moments that I’m looking at in that book, and also an example of why the title is “Complicit Participation.” I realized, over the course of writing a book that’s focused on audience participation in theaters of racial justice, that so much of this participation was more like the auction scene that I described. While the goal of the production might have been to disturb racial prejudice and to ask audiences to confront white supremacy, audiences are often participating in a way that I call “complicit.” They are participating in ways that are entrenched in white supremacy, and maybe they’re enjoying the challenge to them. In this case, there is the opportunity to perform some of their prejudices and deep psychic interests and see what it would be like to, for example, bid at a “slave auction”  from history. I came to feel that audience participation in theaters of racial justice often did not do what the productions were hoping it would do. Sometimes they were participating in the theater as a sort of outlet for concerns, for the opportunity to pat yourself on the back and say, ‘Oh, look at me, I’m a good ally and I supported this experimental theater production that featured authors of color and actors of color on the stage.’ Then they could participate in these kinds of safe theatrical ways and avoid having to participate in efforts that make social change. So unfortunately, the book takes a hard look at the limits of what theater is doing and at the limits of white allyship. Allyship can  become just a performance, just knowing the words to say, or knowing the ways to perform in the world so that you seem like a good white ally without taking any steps to give up privilege or to lift up the people that you’re supposed to be allied with. 

What does Women’s History Month mean to you? 

It’s an important moment for me as a professor and researcher to make sure that the courses I’m teaching include women’s history and that my research is thinking about where women’s voices are. Often, with so much of history, women’s voices weren’t recorded, they weren’t considered important. Back to what we were talking about with the “great books.” There wasn’t the possibility through much of history for women’s voices to be designated   as great. They were discouraged at every turn. We must remember that  traditional history has silenced women, and we don’t have so much of their history. It’s good to take this month to think about that—to make sure that we aren’t repeating those historical patterns in our own curriculum, our own teaching, our own research efforts. We can pause to reflect on what was lost from  women’s history.

Interview by Kelly Broder (COM’27)