I am a college professor. I work at the University of North Texas. I teach classes on Performance Studies in the Department of Communication Studies. Before you ask, I’ll go ahead and explain that the difference between Theatre and Performance Studies as academic disciplines is that Theatre is ultimately always concerned with professional training. Whether it’s a class in Acting, Directing, Scene Design, or Theatre History, the Theatre department always has an eye to preparing the student to have the knowledge and skill base necessary to become a theatre professional of some sort. Performance Studies takes a broader, more purely academic approach to the study of the functions and implications of our shared fascination with mimicry and role-playing. We look at questions like: How do performances shape and maintain cultural values? How does performance persuade? and Seriously — Men in tights — What’s up with that?
What is your most recent book?
I’m the author of The Lady Actress: Recovering the Lost Legacy of a Victorian American Superstar. It’s a book about the life and career of Anna Cora Mowatt, a person who was rather famous during her lifetime and is almost completely unknown now. She was the first woman to author a hit comedy on Broadway. She had successful careers as a public reader, an actress, a novelist, and a poet as well. Mowatt, the daughter of wealthy New York family, skillfully and tenaciously held on to her status as a person respectable enough to be received in high society while arm-deep in what was considered a to be a very depraved profession. In those days, actress were generally assumed to double as prostitutes. Although there were accomplished theatrical professionals like Fanny Kemble and Charlotte Cushman who were greatly admired by even the most stuffy, moneyed, Victorian Americans, rank and file female performers were considered vulgar, possibly criminal personages. A proper pre-Civil War parent of any income bracket would look on the announcement that their daughter had decided to become an actress much the same way a contemporary parent react to their child saying, “Mom, Dad, I’m dropping out of college and becoming a stripper!”
It was, therefore, no mean feat for Anna Cora Mowatt to double as her own best spin doctor, keeping her reputation and high society status intact over the span of her long career. In this book, I look at the many different ways she was able to consistently paint a pleasing picture of herself as a lady while still aggressively re-inventing herself and doing whatever was necessary to keep putting butts on Broadway seats.
Although this last sentence makes her sound very contemporary, part of my fascination with Mowatt is that she was very much a woman of her time. Although she was remarkably talented and creative, she was no bohemian. Although she was a trail-blazer, she was probably a social conservative. Although she wrote very sympathetically about the plight of working women in her profession, she was no feminist.
I think that when we read and write history, we look for people and events who, with a few minor costume changes, could step into the world we live in and speak to problems we face today. Mowatt remains stubbornly in her curls and crinolines. I’m not saying she isn’t relevant. Her polite rebellion against the arrogantly puritanical snobbery of her peers probably did as much to change attitudes about women in the workplace as a hundred street corner speeches by a multitude would-be Susan B. Anthonys did. However, she was not a character from “Sex in the City” who magically found herself transported to 1855. She was a real Victorian who whose views don’t comfortably translate to the modern mind. She was an insider who liked being an insider. She was a privileged, white, conservative lady who decided to do something with her life that privileged, white, conservative ladies just did not do at that time — and she made that choice work with success that was nothing short of remarkable.
What inspired you to write this book?
Short answer — A question I couldn’t answer. When I was in graduate school at LSU, we had to take an entrance exam of sorts. The professors wanted to get an idea of what we did and did not already know about the field of Performance Studies. Everyone told me not to take the test too seriously. What they meant by that was that the test didn’t go toward any grade. It was just a general, diagnostic sort of test.
What I and my friend Dan took “don’t take the test too seriously” to mean was that when we didn’t know an answer, we should come up with the funniest answer possible.
I was told that we alarmed, but amused our teachers greatly. This, I feel was a fair and appropriate beginning for our future student/professor relationship.
After we took the test, one of my peers — who was incapable of NOT taking anything very, very seriously — was complaining about how unfair the test was. She felt our professors were making us feel stupid and inferior in a very manipulative sort of way by flaunting their mastery of outdated academic jargon and obscure historical figures in this way. “For example,” she complained loudly in the teaching assistant’s office. “Who the hell is Anna Cora Mowatt and why the hell should I care?”
At that moment the mystification of elusive data worked its magical spell on me. I resolved on the spot that before my graduate career was over I would know who Anna Cora Mowatt was and why people should care.
I think that, in short, is a big part of my fascination with this lady. In her day, (and adjusted for contemporary celebrity inflation rates) I’d say she was Patti LuPon-grade famous. Although pre-Civil War cowboys in Arizona might give you a blank stare if you mentioned her name, if you were a New Yorker or Bostonian who knew Broadway, you’d know who she was. Although people in China might scratch their heads, Theatre fans in England and France would recognize the name. Like Madonna, she was constantly re-inventing and re-marketing herself. Antebellum ladies who hadn’t heard of her acting or play-writing career might know her as a novelist or a poet. She was pals with famous folks like Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Clay. Franklin Pierce came to her second wedding. Now, admittedly having someone who always shows up in the lists of our worst presidents as a guest is a bit of a dubious honor, but it does go to show that she was somebody who was somebody. And yet, today this pioneer of women in Performance is so forgotten that even one staunch feminist graduate student I know of complained about being asked to name her.
The contrast between Mowatt’s contemporary celebrity and her current obscurity has made me do quite a bit of thinking on the fickleness of fame and how that intersects with what becomes known as history. A mind-boggling number of unpredictable factors go into gaining the level of notoriety necessary for a person’s life and career to make the leap from being merely of contemporary interest to being historical — a significant figure in the story we tell ourselves about our country or our world. Anna Cora Mowat, successful and pioneering actress, playwright, novelist, and poet didn’t make the cut. Mrs. O’Leary, who merely owned a clumsy cow, did.
Well, that’s show biz for ya…
What research did you do for this book?
For this book, I had the delightful experience of doing “Special Collections” research. Most research is not glamorous. When Steven Spielberg put together the Indiana Jones movies, he didn’t blow a lot of footage on scenes of Indy sorting through the card catalog. Yes, there was the scene where they found the clue in the library in Venice and busted through the floor and found the tomb with all the rats — but I probably don’t need to tell you that such experiences aren’t very typical. I mean, I don’t doubt that most (maybe all) libraries have a rat-filled crusader tombs hidden below the sub-basement, but generally the hazards of research trend more towards getting headaches from looking at too much microfiche than to getting sprayed with machine-gun fire as you flee with your secretly Nazi-spy girl assistant. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a girl assistant on any of my library adventures — Nazi or otherwise…
Special Collections research, though, is lovely. You even wear gloves. The Special Collections room is frequently wood paneled. Special books must like to be surrounded by other special wood. Even if the rest of the library is a 1970’s pre-fab, moldy, florescently-lit horror, a decent university will still cough up the extra cash to put some nice paneling in their Special Collections Room.
I think the kings and queens of Library Science must work in Special Collections. As a breed, they have gravitas. They are not lowly book-stampers or angry shush-ers. Yes, they will toss you out on your gauche butt if you break any of the many, complex, and frequently idiosyncratic rules of their Special Collections domain, but they do it with an authority you cannot question. Usually these royal librarians are genial despots. They welcome you into their kingdom with a regal, silent nod, since merely being brave or foolish enough to cross the imposing threshold of a Special Collections room is a sign that you too share their deep and abiding reverence towards the printed page.
The best part of Special Collections research is that you literally get to touch history. Beneath those cheap cotton gloves you’re required to wear are things that the person you’re researching touched. At the very least, you hold paper that was around while they were still alive. It’s a quiet, profoundly moving experience for a researcher — definitely calling for wood paneling…
Did you learn anything from writing this book?
I realized exactly how hard it is to write about a woman’s life without falling into the cliché of domesticity. When we tell stories — and remember that history is always at heart an exercise in storytelling — we tend to fall into familiar patterns. It’s a necessary part of formulating stories. The complex, anarchic multitude of details that is life must be boiled down into representative word pictures in order to make a coherent narrative. For example, look up for a moment and try to list all the things you can see in the room where you are reading this. After about 10 seconds, you give up, right? Even if you’re in the plainest most colorless space imaginable (and what are you doing there, by the way?) there are an almost infinite list of items you can perceive and name. This is to say nothing of the things you can hear or smell or touch. However if you were to mention this moment in a story about your day, you might only say, “I read a fascinating interview with this charming lady who wrote a book about this other charming Victorian lady.”
If you tried to capture every sensation you were experiencing, people would stop listening to your stories and start worrying about the combination of meds you are taking. Therefore, to tell stories, we rely on a lot of shorthand, a lot of conventional routes for describing life journeys. To tell the story of the lives of women — be they actresses, politicians, or fighter pilots — we tend to tell the stories of their interactions with their families. Be they rebel, sinner, or saint, authors still feel obliged to tell the stories of their lives in terms of answering questions of: Were they close to their mother? Did they disappoint their father? Who did they marry? Did they fight with their children? or Were they haunted by the disappointment of never having children? (This last trope is so well-established that I am sure that even though I really have no patience for most children and have never wanted a child, a biographer would find some way to work in how “haunted” I was by a suppressed desire for a snot-nosed rugrat so secret I myself was not aware of it.) When we talk about men’s lives, we tend to focus on things they did. When we talk about women, we have to tick off how successfully they rounded the bases of daughter, wife, and mother before sliding into home.
In writing this book, I decided to take a topical approach. I wanted to focus on Mowatt’s work instead of a strictly chronological reporting of the soap opera that was her life. I wanted to focus on her journey of negotiating a path in the world for herself rather than telling the story of how she passed from the tutelage of a dominating father to a dominating husband, to authoritarian professional mentors, to a no-good second husband, to the sometimes smothering companionship of life-long male friends and acting partners, and then to the grave. The call of that soap opera was strong, though. Let me give you a taste: She was a child-bride who married a man who she said was more father to her than husband – because in those days before everyone had to take freshman Psychology, even smart people freely admitted freaky things like that about the people they slept with. She was friends with Edgar Allen Poe and was somehow involved with some crap that went down amongst the rich and famous set about him hooking up with his cousin. Mowatt had a life-long relationship with Epes Sargent, another person who was very well-known in his day and is very, very, very obscure now. I waver between believing Sargent was gay and suspecting the two of them had an off-again on-again affair going on. Like Fanny Kemble, Mowatt married a rich Virginian plantation owner. They never divorced, but around the time of the Civil War, she went to England for a visit and just never came back. And there were her experiments with Mesmerism… And then there was this actor named Davenport that she had a very congenial professional relationship with for years and years and years…
So, you see, there’s material for a whole series of Lifetime Channel movies about her. Knowing all the juicy bits of her life story ultimately doesn’t tell you anything about why she was important, though. Like any famous man, the important things to know about her stem from the work she did. It’s a surprisingly trickier story to tell, though.
What is the best advice you can give other writers about writing or publishing?
I have no advice at all on publishing, but as far as writing goes, I do have one nugget that I continually preach to my students. I am always ready and willing to give this advice. People are always ready to listen… then smile and promptly relegate my pearls of wisdom to the circular file because it’s not a quick fix. My advice is this, if you want to produce good quality material, write every day.
When I was in the seventh grade, I had an Art teacher who I really liked. He seemed to like me too, despite the fact I couldn’t draw a realistic likeness to save my life — a characteristic that tends to cause even the most Abstract Art-loving Art teachers ignore, dismiss, or pity you. One day, when I was complaining about my lack of skill, he told me, “If you want to be able to draw, draw something every day. In a year, you’ll be able to draw whatever you like.” Being enamored not only of his killer blue eyes but of the idea of being able to obtain this much-coveted skill that I had previously assumed one had to be born with, I bought an inexpensive art pad and began to spend a little time every day sketching. At the end of the year, I had not become Picasso, but, as promised, I could produce a reasonable likeness of anything I chose to. True, I was no more talented or creative than I was on the day I bought the sketchpad, but through practice and persistence I greatly increased my level of skill. I had also worked through the negative assumptions that made me afraid to try. I no longer felt I had to say, “I can’t draw.”
Writing works the same way. Write a little every day and you’ll get better at getting your ideas on paper. You’ll learn how to deal with the mental noise that prevents you from writing. When you establish a writing regime, not every word will be golden. A lot of it will be like those sketches in my old art pad — just exercises for the fingers. The more important thing is that you develop habits of thinking, seeing, and paying attention that will help you generate material and a work routine that will put you in the right place at the right time to get those words on the page. You have to learn what works for you. Are you at your most fluent in morning or night? Does music help the flow of ideas or distract? Are you a computer person or the pen and pad type? Something I’ve found is that works well for me is combining writing with exercise. I find that I’m at my most ready to write after I’ve been walking or riding my bike – engaging in some solitary activity that is invigorating, but not so strenuous that I’m fatigued afterwards. I’m able to “rehearse” ideas and wording while I walk or ride. This puts me in an active, motivated, “gotta get this down before I forget” frame of mind when I sit down to type, rather than the dreaded “Oh, God, what do I want to say?” blank screen horror.
So, if you want to write, write a couple hundred words every day for a year. At the end of the year, I can’t promise that you will have magically turned into Shakespeare, but I do guarantee you won’t have to say, “I just can’t write.”
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
The book I’m working on now is about as completely and profoundly different from The Lady Actress as possible. Over a year ago, I was in a traffic accident. I was knocked off my bike and landed on my head. I suffered what is called Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. Don’t let the “mild” in the title fool you. It’s not the green light that it is in a Mexican restaurant. You might know that you can’t handle the “caliente” brain damage, but, trust me, the “mild” is going to burn your metaphorical digestive track at both ends too.
Fortunately for me, I was pointed towards the right doctors at the right time. I am now around 98% restored to full cognitive/emotional function. I am still celebrating the miraculous pleasure of feeling “normal” each day. As soon as I was capable of doing so, I started to keep a journal of my recovery. So far, it reads kind of like the happy part of “Flowers for Algernon.” I get a little smarter every day. I’m working now to turn that journal into a book to help people understand this all too common and all too misunderstood affliction.
Right now, I’m calling it Bad Brain Rising. Beyond the charitable impulse to get information out on MTBI, as a storyteller, I just can’t resist trying to get this bizarre tale into words. I’ve been on a hell of a journey for the past year.
When you break your leg, it hurts. Doctors plaster you up, you get well. Case closed. Not much of a story there. When you bruise your brain, you go on a wild spiritual adventure. Every day becomes part midlife crisis, part surreal existential drama, and part freak show with you as the star. I’ve been on a wild roller-coaster ride through sanity and the lack thereof for a year and a half. I’ve got to tell this story.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?
I have become disenchanted with the traditional 20 page paper that is such a fixture of the typical graduate seminar. For this class, I asked my students to present their research in the form of a website so that instead of writing a paper that would be read only by me and quickly forgotten, they could share the information they had gleaned and conclusions they had drawn with other scholars (professional and amateur) all over the world. If you’d care to surf through some of their offerings, you’ll see that this is an idea whose parameters I’m still developing to insure the type of scholarly rigor that goes into writing a paper goes into compiling a website. (It turns out that Wikipedia is both a bad source and a bad role model for would-be internet historians.) However, I am proud of their efforts and think you may find some fun and interesting tidbits in these pages.