Don Wilmeth: TLA member for over 50 years
Your authorship and editor history make you a leading figure in the theatre research field. When reviewing current research, what do you look for in new publications or new authors? Are there writing styles or particular topics that have become more popular in recent years?
I have tried as a theatre academic to stay abreast of publications in our field as much as possible, and have facilitated this effort in several ways. Since the 1960s I’ve been a frequent reviewer for Choice – to date I’ve reviewed over 300 titles for them. In addition I have been a juror for the TLA and Freedley committees for something like three decades. I have no idea how many books I’ve read for the Freedley, but the number is in the hundreds. These two activities have served me well in my effort to stay up to date with current scholarship (and more popular studies in the field). I’ve also done dozens of reviews in professional journals and regularly read book reviews in all our major academic journals. I’ve tried not to limit my activity to theatre journals but have accepted review assignments in non-theatre journals (e.g., American History journals).
I don’t think I read new works (publications or authors) with any objective in mind (i.e., looking for something specific). I am a theatre historian so a historical component is important to me and I still prefer fairly traditional historical studies over hybrid approaches or studies that are dependent on some theoretical foundation (I’m not opposed to theory in general but am not too fond of new works that are primarily theoretical). I would say, then, that some academic or scholarly tomes today fail to communicate to some of us and some of these efforts get bogged down in academic jargon. The best of our efforts, in my opinion, tend to eschew most jargon and try to communicate using elegant, sophisticated, but accessible language. I hope this never changes. Trends are hard to nail down, so I do not consciously try to do this. I think I’ve read so much over the past 50 years that I consider myself fairly capable at recognizing good, well researched, and effectively argued writing.
As a long-time member and contributor to TLA, ASTR, and other professional organizations, what advice or guidance would you give to someone thinking about joining the performing arts library community?
It was a natural thing to do when I was a young academic—i.e., join all the appropriate professional organizations, attend the meetings, participate when feasible, etc. I ran for various offices early on. For example, I was VP of TLA but chose not to run for President. I was on the executive committees of both ASTR and TLA for many years (too many probably). In addition to serving as President of ASTR, I was its secretary for a decade. All of these involvements served me well and brought me in contact with all the “right” people in these organizations. I might add that one of my interests has always been libraries – I was the volunteer curator of a Magic Collection at Brown for some years, and have been on the board of the Friends of the Brown Univ. Library for something like 20 years. I am currently completing my tenth year on the board of the Friends of the Keene Public Library and will soon become a Trustee. In Providence, I was a member of the Corporation of the Providence Public Library. I’ve almost always had one foot in that door, and I think this kind of participation is very important.
I was very interested to read about your long teaching career and how you have bridged your professional research into performance fields such as acting or directing. How does live performance complement or augment your theatre research?
I always thought of myself as part theatre artist. I directed as part of my academic job every year of my employment, and when possible I’ve been an amateur actor. My research has gone in many directions as well. I’ve always sought challenges that led me in new directions: I’ve co-edited 19th century plays, researched and wrote the life of a late 18th century actor (using many traditional archives in numerous countries and in some of the best library/collections available to scholars), and compiled and edited numerous reference works (both full-length and specific contributions) such as the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre and (as co-editor) the three-volume Csmbridge History of American Theatre. I’ve contributed to reference works, including World Book Encyclopedia – a unique challenge since this is mostly designed for teen readers.
I actually don’t find theatre research of a more traditional kind much different from the research I’ve done as a director. When it was within my control, I’ve requested assignments unlike any I’ve done previously, thus leading me to unique and applicable research to the directorial project at hand. I do believe that I was a better director than I might have been because of my work as a director and as an actor! I’ve always been interested in the actor as a phenomenon and for many years taught a course on the historian and theory of acting. My time on stage or as a director of actors I believe made me a more credible teacher of that course and led to a number of relevant publications, including several published bibliographies on actors and acting.
In addition to your current editing work for Macmillan’s “Studies in Theatre and Performance History,” are there upcoming projects you would like to tell us about?
The Palgrave Macmillan series is my second book series, the first with Cambridge University Press. That series published around 30 titles on some aspect of American theatre/drama. The first title was published in 2005 and since then we’ve published some 50 monographs. Unlike the CUP series, this one includes a broad range of theatre studies (both geographically wide-ranging and broad in topics and approaches). My goal when accepting the editorship of this series was to encourage work both by young scholars (often with their first book) and more senior, experienced scholars. As time has passed, I notice that we’ve had a better balance of these two.
This is a long-winded way to say that I have little time left over for my own projects. I did take on a challenge in 2011 with my colleague Milly Barranger to co-edit the manuscript by Helen Krich Chinoy on The Group Theatre. She had worked on this project for at least three decades and left, after her death, an unfinished manuscript that required two very full years of editing – much rewriting, confirming as many sources as we could, getting permissions for photos, etc. The book is also in the Palgrave series and has done fairly well.
Since I retired in 2003, I’ve also spent a good deal of my time wearing another hat—that of collector of theatrical materials (including ephemera, memorabilia, etc.). I’ve especially sought prints (engravings, etching, posters, etc.) by theatre caricaturists, e.g., Thomas Rowlandson, the Cruikshanks, James Gilray, and others of their ilk. I’ve also mounted four library exhibits: one on actors with ties to New England at the Cheshire County Historical Society, and two at Brown – one on popular amusements and one, currently being planned, on Theatrical Satiric Caricatures, which will be at Brown next Spring and will also feature a special lecture by Prof. Joseph Roach from Yale (this will be the annual Wilmeth Lecture for 2015-16).
Don B. Wilmeth, Emeritus Professor (retired in 2003) at Brown University, is the author, editor, coeditor, or series editor of over six dozen books, including the award-winning three-volume Cambridge History of America Theatre and a new edition of the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre, a standard in the field. Don is a former president of the American Society for Theatre Research and dean emeritus of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre. He has lifetime achievement awards from a half dozen professional organizations. In 2008, Brown bestowed upon him the William Williams Award, the most prestigious honor given by the Brown University Library, and in 2012 The (NY) Theatre Museum presented him its Theatre History Preservation Award. In 2015 the University of Illinois (Ph.D., 1964) awarded him its Alumni Achievement Award. He is currently editor of Palgrave Macmillan’s “Studies in Theatre and Performance History.”
Interview conducted and edited by Rachel Smiley, Events and Member Profile Editor for TLA Website Editorial Committee