Following the publication of two previous Historical Dictionaries on American Theater, one focusing on Modernism (co-authored with Felicia Hardison Londré, 2007) and a solo venture turned into two volumes focused on Contemporary American Theater (2011). The newest installment, Historical Dictionary of American Theater: Beginnings, is set to release this April. Dr. Fisher took a moment to share some of his experience with us.
- How would you describe the importance of your work in this publication and within the field of theatre history as a whole?
As long as I’ve been in theatre as a practitioner, I’ve been concerned that even the finest and most experienced of our actors, directors, and designers seem to know so little about the vast history and literature of American theatre. So working on this book, which covers the American stage from 1538-1800, as well as two earlier volumes on Modernism (1880-1930) and Contemporary (1930-2010) I have written, the latter in itself covering two volumes, led me to attempt to ferret out the great artists (actors, directors, designers), playwrights, plays, producers, theatre facilities, terminology, etc., and present these in a way that might entice the reader to go beyond what’s in the book and dig more deeply into the individual or work mentioned. Also, of course, another goal was to provide a quick reference. Finally, there is also the opportunity to recover individuals and works that are little-known or forgotten and to make a case for their value and significance. Often, I feel, American theatre is thought of as something less than the European stage, but a deep study of the American stage and its drama is a revelation. We should be much more proud of our theatrical heritage and I hope to make a small contribution to that.
- What was/is your favorite part of the publication process?
Most of the steps in the process are fascinating to me. In the case of this book, as in the previous ones on the Modernist and Contemporary eras, the research and deciding what entries to include and how much attention each merited was a very involved process. Having the opportunity to read and respond to many little-known plays truly expanded my knowledge of how our stage in America has evolved – and this was after teaching American theatre for 40 years! Of course, the writing was very engaging – I especially enjoyed writing the longer “catch-all” entries on such things as Native American theatre, Yiddish theatre, the changing involvement of women in theatre, international companies on the American stage, melodrama, etc. And the editing process is a great learning experience – getting feedback from readers and having the opportunity to rework and rethink choices I had made. And, of course, it’s very satisfying to see it completed and in print, which I am waiting anxiously for at the moment.
- What advice would you give to aspiring academic writers?
I think my only advice would be obvious things such as caring deeply about the subject you choose. And to be as open as possible to feedback from others, both individuals who know a great deal about your subject and those who know little of it. My own particular prejudice is against academic jargon, which I work very hard to avoid, and, more importantly, to have your audience (readership) in mind. Hoping I don’t sound a bit fuddy-duddy, I think the act of doing research can be a truly thrilling experience – the act of discovering facts and ideas you did not know. It’s a chance to uncover unique angles of your discipline and understand your discipline more fully. There’s no end to what you can learn – and writing isn’t only about sharing what you’ve learned or thought, but it’s ultimately about learning more than you know going in. Otherwise, research and writing requires a great deal of will, but I would prefer to call it a love of what you are working on. Finally, I think you need a questioning nature – challenging the standard view of things, going beyond what is already known, and providing questions for future researchers to take your work and go beyond it. It’s like teaching – sharing what you know and hoping your student takes it and runs further down the road with what you’ve been able to give them.
- What is your favorite part of Theatre at UNCG? Being a part of the arts community?
Oh, so many things. As a proud alumnus of UNCG Theatre (MFA in Acting/Directing, 1976), it’s marvelous to know that what was a great program then is an even greater one now. We have an extraordinary faculty and wonderful students who are very talented and love what they do. For me, it was a dream come true returning to UNCG in 2007 as Department Head and to spend the remaining years of my career at a place that made everything come together for me at the beginning of my career. I first came to UNCG in 1973 with a great love of theatre – especially acting. I found my way into directing here and my interest in theatre history and dramatic literature was greatly inspired by Kathryn England, my advisor. And a desire to teach was born here, too, as I learned from Miss England, as well as Herman Middleton, Andreas Nomikos, and others. And, I met my incredible wife here as I was finishing my degree. So, I think I can say that UNCG gave me a life that I have loved leading.