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Setting the stage for academic conversation

May 24, 2016

Academic writing gets a bad rap.

The journals, books and periodicals of colleges and universities are often viewed as divorced from the real world; there is a large gulf separating theory from practice and academic research from everyday life.

But that gulf is slowly diminishing as academic discourse opens up to a larger audience, thanks to the Internet. Websites and blogging platforms are helping to bring both theoretical and practical discussions to a larger community, creating a space for discovery and innovation.

In the realm of theater, HowlRound is that space. The online journal and blogging platform was established four years ago as “a place for artists to provide feedback, learning, expertise, frustration, and vision — in an effort to enliven the fields of theater and performance to the aspiring and established artist alike.”

Just this year, Arizona State University was named No. 1 in innovation by U.S. News and World Report 2016 college rankings. It comes as no surprise, then, that the ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre is at the cutting edge of innovative discussions, both in the classroom and online. Since HowlRound’s founding, nearly a dozen ASU-affiliated students, alumni and faculty have contributed to the site on topics ranging from stage combat to immersive theater.

"ASU faculty and students are bringing artists, scholars and theatermakers of all kinds into conversation with one another,” said Jamie Gahlon, senior creative producer of HowlRound. “Their contributions to HowlRound are helping to bridge the gulf between theory and practice for the advancement of theatrical form and discourse."

Julie Rada, an alumna of the MFA in Theatre (concentration in performance) program at ASU, who now works at the University of Utah as a Raymond C. Morales Fellow, has written for the blog on three separate occasions, covering such topics as casting practices in devised theater. She said she writes for HowlRound both because it is speedier than writing for an academic journal and because of the ethics of the site (it’s free to users, unlike journals, which are only free to people with academic institutional affiliations). 

“It really is a kind of ‘melting pot’ of academic, scholarly, interrogative publishing, practical how-to’s and idealistic musings from emerging artists,” Rada said. “There’s space for everyone at the table, particularly with the three possibilities for submission (blog, article or series). There are some heavy-hitters in the field who contribute: heads of academic departments, founders of seminal theater companies and ensembles, published playwrights, etc. There’s always the possibility that someone you admire and respect will read and comment on your writing. That’s very exciting.”

Dan Fine is an alumnus of the MFA in Theatre (concentration in interdisciplinary digital media) program, a joint degree of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre and the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. He’s teaching a graduate class on performance technology in the theater department at ASU. He was encouraged to write by Lance Gharavi, assistant director of theater in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, and he ultimately decided to share that writing (a series of instructives on media design) on HowlRound because he felt it would reach a larger audience. 

“What I find with a lot of practitioners is that we are just too busy to write about what we’re doing — because we are constantly doing things,” said Fine. “So there tends to be a lot of information that’s not shared because of that.” 

Fine said the online format of HowlRound seemed like the best way to get that information out to people, especially in a field like media design, which is digitally based to begin with.

“It’s something that feels less physically tangible, because you can’t pick it up and touch it, like a book or a journal,” he said of online writing. “But in a different way it feels more tangible because it’s active, it feels like it has more life.”

"HowlRound and similar outlets are opening up new ground for discourse in the theater profession,” said Jacob Pinholster, director of ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre. “Where previously we had a ‘never the twain shall meet’ gulf between popular websites and academic journals, we now have an amazing new field for true interplay between ideas and practice. It is an eloquent statement about both HowlRound's and ASU's relevance to emerging practices and trends in theater that so many of our students, faculty and alumni are consistent contributors."

And the dialogue can only expand further. HowlRound is always open to pitches for essays, blog posts, series and criticism.

“Better thinking makes better art,” Rada said. “The ability to organize your thoughts can make the ephemeral and often evocative work of the theater more tangible and communicative to a wider audience. This requires agile, flexible thinking. And thinking is made better by writing.”

ASU Art Museum
klmontg2@asu.edu