History of the Center for Performance Studies

The Recession

The long recession that began in 2008 re-shaped the American University into a smaller and in many ways a more challenging place that will have lasting effects even beyond the economic recovery.  It is not likely that we will return to levels of faculty lines or areas of specialization and deep discipline that we once enjoyed.     It will remain the new burden to ensure the accustomed excellence in graduate training with fewer faculty, smaller budgets, and less resources.   To this end, the great recession taught us to share where we can.

Like so many other institutions, when the recession’s effects first hit, the University of Washington was reduced by nearly one fifth of its operating budget.  Some of this loss was offset by a sharp tuition increase, but departments across the board were still required to trim, cut, and in some cases close programs.   Across campus services and personnel, staff and faculty, were reduced. The doctorate program at the University of Washington’s School of Drama lost 40% of the program in one year.   It was suggested that we close the program.

The Invention

We did not.  Instead, we sought out every faculty member who taught in some context of performance culture/performance history from a wide menu of departments across campus and brought them together for a meeting. Forty-four of us gathered and we laid out two distinct futures: shrinkage by discipline, cut by cut, department by department, program by program, our own the first installment on that grim future; or a new organization model that would allow us to share resources, to build a consortium of common graduate teaching and research interests to protect against our losses, and preserve our field.

It was a hopeful, strained, idealistic, practical, sometimes cynical conversation that netted many responses. Some departments, though we may share certain research interests in performance, were reluctant to move outside of established disciplines; some representatives belonged to larger departments who could frankly survive the loss of lines. Most however, (small graduate programs in the humanities) recognized the advantages of sharing curriculum, faculty, students.   We began to explore the ways our separate disciplines might intersect, to the advantage of us all.

The result was the creation of The Center for Performance Studies a consortium of graduate programs, all teaching in some aspect of performance culture.


We secured support from the graduate dean for the building of a Web site as a first point of presence. It features a list of relevant graduate courses of each department, a list of faculty in the Center, links to bios, as well as events, calls, conferences, teaching workshops, and guests. We used the course catalogue to begin to re-shape traffic flow between departments that would allow students to migrate more easily, moving seminars up or down an hour. We began to encourage more porous borders between the disciplines, less insistence on ownership of the field.

We looked at the things we had in common, what we already shared.   We looked at what courses might be combined to our advantage.    We explored rotational courses, team taught courses.   Seminars began to grow, to take on new shapes, opening themselves to the interests of others as well as the in-house population.    Departments which no longer had faculty enough to cover their own programs might avail themselves of shared seminars to preserve their curricula.  We began to explore how we might share guests, workshops, professionalization, research methods and pedagogy.   Most importantly, students from separate disciplines might learn from each other.

We began to conceive of an additional product: Center Seminars.

Center Seminars are truly inter-disciplinary seminars based on a theme approached by three or four faculty from different departments. One seminar, Rebuilding Culture, Reclaiming Identity through Performance, was taught by faculty from Drama, Dance, Ethnomusicology, and the School of Social Work. Each faculty conducts a two and half week micro-seminar with a common text around a common theme, approached from their own discipline.

To construct these seminars without creating an additional teaching burden on the faculty, we created a system through which credit for teaching can be banked and carried from year to year. Credit banking allowed faculty one/third of a course credit for teaching in the team-taught seminars, banking it and withdrawing it later (after three seminars) as a full course release. It allowed a pool of faculty to draw from, to engage under different themes in different years. Participation in three such seminars netted a full course credit, redeemable at some future quarter of choice.

In the end, such consortiums can never compensate for the loss of deep in-house specialization; but in a world of loss, we look beyond our own into the possibilities of deeper, broader approach to training that partners students with common research interests in performance culture from a host of disciplines from whom we might learn.