Theatre in Motion: Moving Through Time and Space with Peter Campbell

In Theatre in Motion, we discuss theatre's movement across stages, through time, and within communities with its creators and practitioners. We talked about theatre’s history and how that history resonates on stages today with Adjunct Professor, Dr. Peter Campbell ’97 (GSAS ’03).

Anastasia Ellis
October 25, 2022

In Theatre in Motion, we discuss theatre's movement across stages, through time, and within communities with its creators and practitioners. 

We talked about theatre’s history and how that history resonates on stages today with Adjunct Professor, Dr. Peter Campbell ’97 (GSAS ’03).

Dr. Peter Campbell is a writer, teacher, dramaturg, scholar, director, and installation artist. Professional productions include Can’t Get There From Here, which was developed in residency at MASS MoCA, medea & medea/for medea, iph.then, and Yellow Electras at the Incubator Arts Project in New York City. He is currently working on a six-part performance work about the legacy of Aristotle. He has published essays and reviews in venues such as Theatre Topics, Modern Drama, Theatre History Studies, Contemporary Theatre Journal, The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, and numerous edited anthologies. He founded the online journal Theatre/Practice, and was the first editor for online content for both Theatre Topics and Theatre Journal. He recently served as President of the Mid America Theatre Conference and as Interim Dean of the School of Contemporary Arts at Ramapo College. He is Professor of Theater History and Criticism at Ramapo College.


As a theatre historian, could you first tell me about your personal theatre history?

Peter Campbell: I started doing children's theatre when I was a kid, as an actor primarily, and I continued through high school. I actually was in a professional children's theatre company called The Peanut Butter Players, which ended up having some very famous people in it, like Sutton Foster, when I was in high school. I was oriented toward theatre pretty early on and knew that I was interested in it, though I thought I would probably be a performer, because I think that's what most teenagers in theatre think they’re going to be. When I went to college, I at first decided I wasn't gonna study theatre, but after a semester I was miserable—so I started studying theatre. I performed, I auditioned, I was in some fun little pieces, and then I began to grow interested in the academic side.

I think what cemented my interest in studying theatre was, when I was a sophomore in college at the University of Michigan, I got cast in a musical adaptation of Lysistrata. I was cast as the leader of the old men's chorus. It was directed by a fantastic director named Kate Mendeloff, who had earned her MFA at Yale and then worked with San Francisco Mime Troupe. So the production was very movement based, very spectacular and fun. And also it had a very critical feminist perspective on ancient Greek tragedy, culture, and comedy. So I started to think about where this theatre “stuff” came from. That piqued my interest in what would become my study of dramaturgy. Luckily, I had access to some people at the University of Michigan who studied dramaturgy, one of whom was a Brecht scholar.

We worked on some Brecht pieces in my junior and senior years. Then I came to Columbia for my MFA in dramaturgy and I went on to get my PhD here as well. But I think my interest in theatre history really came from that Lysistrata production, and that interest has continued, because most of my work, both scholarly and creatively, is in the realm of ancient Greek adaptations, particularly of tragedies. That's still what I'm doing to this day for the most part, although my exact focus has moved a little bit. In the past decade or so, my work has become really focused on the chorus, and the way that the chorus isn't just a reflection, narratively or literarily, of a society. Through movement, gesture, song—the sort of non-literary or non-Aristotelian elements—the chorus relates to culture, politics, power, and representation. I've been exploring that both as a scholar and as an artist for the past decade or so.


Still from 'medea & medea/for medea' by Peter Campbell, photography by Heidi Beaver

Speaking of the ancient Greeks, I know you completed your MFA thesis on an adaptation of several versions of the Cassandra myth, which brings me to my next question. What is your opinion, as a theatre maker and scholar, of the role of adaptation and translation in the movement of theatre?

PC: I start my History and Theory of Theatre courses off by talking about ghosts, using Marvin Carlson's idea of “the haunted stage.” I think that theatre, as is true of life, is filled with ghosts and the past is continually present, but only in the way that we either choose or are forced to confront it. In that respect, to me, adaptation is what art has always been. It's this sort of intertextual idea, that we're always just remaking material that we have experienced, or read, or heard about. The artist's job is just to, in a sense, remake the material of our own existence, whether that material takes the shape of a cultural artifact, or presents as a psychological, political, or social experience. 

My adaptations tend to be an act of juxtaposition, more than an act of trying to make something old fit into a new vessel. I'm much more interested in putting different things next to each other, and then seeing how they might speak to one another or not. And I enjoy letting spectators have the experience of seeing them. One of the pieces that I did premiered in 2011 at Incubator Arts Project at St. Mark's Church. It was called medea & medea/for medea. It was a mashup of Euripides’s version of the myth and Heiner Müller’s version of the myth, with the film Thelma and Louise, which is also a story about the way that women are positioned within a culture and how any kind of defense against the patriarchy is usually seen as an act of revolution and rebellion that needs to be suppressed. 

That's the kind of thing I'm talking about when I'm talking about juxtaposition. The show also used a bunch of texts from the mid-20th century historian and essayist, Rebecca West, who always took a historiographical and culturally specific view, meaning she was always very aware of her own positionality and her relationship to whatever story she was telling. Her work preceded a lot of the feminist movement in the later part of the century; she was protofeminist in terms of the way that she thought about history and its relationship to, for example, gender relations, which was something she wrote about concretely at a time when that relationship wasn’t particularly well understood or established. 

Still from 'medea & medea/for medea' by Peter Campbell, photography by Heidi Beaver

Interesting! Now I know you also have an interest in stage directions throughout theatre’s history; what, to you, is the value of stage directions, given that they can range from wildly specific to frustratingly vague?

PC: I unfortunately can't quote this particular stage direction off the top of my head, but I'll paraphrase it: Sarah Ruhl has a stage direction in Eurydice where the father character is meant to build a house out of string. The direction essentially says that he builds a house out of string and it takes a long time to build a house out of string. I love the suggestiveness of that, but also the specificity that it then demands of the director and the actor. It's not just a throw away gesture, it's something that's meant to take up time and space in the dramatic world, or in the universe that's being created on the stage. I love that. Sarah Kane has genius stage directions that often are also impossible, but I love the provocation of them—the suggestion of them. Stage directions that are vague or seemingly impossible demand interpretation; they demand that actors and directors have a creative artistic response to solve or resolve the stage direction. At the end of Kane’s Phaedra’s Love—and I'm paraphrasing again—it simply says, Hippolytus dies. And then the next line is Hippolytus saying, “If only there could have been more moments like this.” So that kind of demand for imagination is something that I love about stage directions. 

The last example I'll mention is from the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, who has her own specific vocabulary. At the beginning of her published plays, she has a key for her theatrical grammar. She uses ellipses and pauses and wants them to be spaces that directors and actors intentionally fill up. In her key, she defines what each of the terms of her theatrical vocabulary means in terms of how an actor or director should approach it. Again, I love that space for interpretation much more than the novelistic description of the detail of everything, as we would see in stage directions of plays rooted in realism.

You have so many incredible stories of theatre history within your grasp; is there a particular story from theatre history that resonates with you or has informed your work, as a scholar and/or creator?

PC: I’ve got a fun one, because you’re not supposed to say the name of the play at or near a theatre. The Scottish Play, if you will. Garry Wills has a book about it called Witches and Jesuits. And I remember reading that and being intrigued by the way that it draws a relationship specifically between King James I’s fear of a religious uprising and Shakespeare’s story of this Scottish thane who becomes king. I was specifically interested in the way that it related the politics and religion of King James I to a play that wasn’t a biographical account of King James, but shared the same themes. It’s all about the idea of equivocation: when Shakespeare wrote the play, he was writing about Catholics and Protestants while using language that didn’t exactly reveal characters’ religious inclinations. That idea was pivotal to me in terms of thinking about the way that history affects theatre, and how theatre is a part of history.

How does theatre move you as an audience member?

PC: Theatre moves me when it changes the way I see the world and when it makes me think about something differently. I particularly love coup de théâtres, when all of a sudden I recognize that what I thought I was looking at isn't what I was looking at. There's a piece by Andrew Schneider, an artist and performer, called YOUARENOWHERE. When you start watching the play, you're watching a solo performer. It's Andrew Schneider, and he's speaking and he's doing some movement. And then at some point a curtain rises and you see a mirror image of him performing. 

I was watching and I was thinking at first, “oh, that’s a mirror.” And then I started to question it. I got a little bit of a look at the face of this “mirror image.” I started to think that it was perhaps a projection that I just hadn’t been able to figure out. I watched a little bit longer, and then I started to look at the audience in the “mirror”—and I saw a friend of mine who I knew was not in the audience with me. I couldn’t believe what was happening. The mirror was another performer, live mirroring the performer that I was watching, with a separate audience on the other side.

That was a moment of theatre that I will never forget because it made me really think about what I was looking at, and then I had to deal with the consequences of the fact that I had been wrong. And the other cool thing was that that was an experience that I shared with other people. I spoke to a friend of mine who saw the performance on a different night, and he expressed that he had had the exact same experience. I loved that it didn’t even have to be the same performance, just that he had seen the same piece and we had shared an experience as a result. That sort of demand to revise and re-envision what you're seeing is what really great theatre does, and it does it like no other art form can do.