As I stood lost on a street corner with a suitcase and two of my best friends, a couple briskly passed by us, wearing matching face masks. I took a deep breath of the muggy Shanghai air, thick with smog. On what should have been a sunny afternoon, the sky was a bright gray. We laughed deliriously, realizing that we were lost in a foreign country with nowhere to go. We could not find our hotel, and none of us spoke Chinese. How did I end up here?
In the fall of 2013, I played Ophelia in Georgetown’s production of “Hamlet.” Our production explored the loneliness and alienation of Shakespeare’s classic work in the lives of 21st-century college students. Some scenes were lit by characters holding devices — iPads, iPods, cellphones — up to their faces. Contemporary music and frenzied dance filled transitions. We wanted the audience to consider how technology influences our identities and relationships. It was awesome. I made great friends, I played a role I had always dreamed of playing and, six months later, I was asked to attend the 20th Performance Studies International Conference at the Shanghai Theatre Academy.
The theme was “Avant-Garde, Tradition and Community,” and the conference sought to explore performance studies in a global context over a week filled with workshops, discussions and performances. Artists and educators from around the world assembled in Shanghai, and I witnessed some pretty inspiring interactions between cultures.
My friends and I performed selected scenes from our production of “Hamlet” for a workshop at the conference. Many of the people in our audience could not understand a word we said. Later in the week, we saw “Hamlet” performed as a traditional Chinese opera. As I watched familiar characters move through their world in a distinctly unfamiliar way, I began to understand how the conception of art varies so widely by place and culture.
Where I am from and who I am shape what I consider beautiful, quality, traditional or avant-garde. However, beyond these differences in opinion, there are significant differences in what people consider the purpose of art. My particular worldview informs my opinion of art’s function within society. The way I talked about art at the conference was drastically different from how a Chinese musician approached it or even how an Austrian professor discussed it.
Georgetown is unique in that its theater major is a combined study of both theater and performance studies. Balancing the creative with the scholarly, our department teaches us as much about why we make art as about how to make it.
I have loved theater since I was a child. I love what theater is — the form of it. Georgetown has taught me to also love what theater does. As a theater and performance studies major, I have learned that the most important question to ask of your art is: “How does this intersect with the world?”
Situated in our nation’s capital and within a university dedicated to creating global citizens in service to others, our department of performing arts is uniquely positioned to create quality theater with an emphasis on social justice, politics and international issues. One of my favorite professors, Derek Goldman, recently co-founded the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, a collaborative program with the School of Foreign Service that focuses on the power of art in humanizing global politics.
Perhaps this sounds like creative mumbo jumbo to you. I often find discussions about theater frustrating as well, filled with buzzwords and metaphors. But, the reality is that the theater we make at Georgetown is substantive. Quality in form, it is also challenging in content. My professors have taught me how to use my voice as an artist — as an instrument for social and political change.
Over a bowl of rice in the cafeteria of the Shanghai Theatre Academy, I was struck by the unifying power of theater. We sat across from students, educators and performers from around the globe, discussing the day’s workshops and activities. Though we had little in common with these people, the thread of theater wrapped around us and tied us together. Through this shared art form, though it varies wildly in form and intention by culture, borders disappeared and my worldview opened up.
This year, I am finishing my thesis for my TPST major. I am writing an adaptation of Ovid’s “Philomela” set in my home state of Kentucky in a coal-mining town in Harlan County, one of the poorest communities in the country. Allowing exploration of my voice as an artist, an opportunity to refine my craft and a platform to address social and political issues that are important to me, this project feels like the perfect culmination of my Georgetown theatrical experience.
Studying theater at Georgetown has made me a better global citizen and artist. My experience in China was incredible, but even if I had never left the Hilltop, my TPST experiences would have instilled in me a desire to create art that makes an impact and that is connected to our global community and shared history. Art with substance has the power to change the world.
Olivia Duff is a senior in the College.
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