East Meets West

Soon to be named a 'founding mother' for her expertise, Professor Emerita Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei discusses a subject on which she is an authority: Asian Theater Studies

At their annual conference on July 23-24, the Association for Asian Performance (AAP) will honor UCLA TFT Professor Emerita Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, one of the organization’s founding members, for her numerous accomplishments, including her role as a “founding mother” of Asian Theater scholarship, a great distinction in the world of Asian Theater Studies. David Jortner, a scholar of modern Japanese theater, will present a paper on Professor Sorgenfrei's scholarship, playwriting, teaching and other achievements and his paper will be published as part of a special “founding mothers” section in the Fall 2015 issue of Asian Theatre Journal .

Professor Sorgenfrei first became interested in Japanese theater while she was an undergraduate at Pomona College. Her academic career began at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in where she received both her MA (1974) and PhD (1977). She segued to Northern Arizona University later that year where she had her first teaching assignment and began her career at UCLA in 1980, teaching both graduate and undergraduate courses in playwriting, directing, theater history, and Asian and Japanese Theater Studies. She retired in 2011 but is still actively pursuing both scholarly and creative work.

During the course of her career she has published more than 100 essays, articles, reviews and encyclopedia entries, has given nearly 150 conference papers, keynote addresses and other presentations, has written 17 original plays, has translated 13 plays and essays from Japanese, has directed 39 plays and play readings, and has been the recipient of numerous grants, honors and awards including a 1991 National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2007, she was chosen as one of 10 international scholars invited to be the first Research Fellows at the Institute for Theatre Studies (Interweaving Performance Cultures) of Berlin’s Freie Universität. Professor Sorgenfrei recently spoke with UCLA TFT’s Noela Hueso about the origins of Asian Theater Studies, her work as a scholar of contemporary Asian Theater and the definition of a founding mother.

What is the purpose of the Association for Asian Performance?
Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei: AAP started as a scholarly organization for those of us who worked in Asian Theater. It is now an international organization, the largest of its kind for scholars and artists of Asian Theater. We have members from all over the world. We chose the name “Asian Performance” because we wanted to include dance and music. In Asia, there isn’t a distinction between spoken, sung and dance drama. We also created the Asian Theatre Journal, which has been in existence since 1984.

Why was the decision made to honor the founding fathers, and now, the founding mothers?
Several years ago, one of the founders of AAP passed away. We wanted to honor his memory. It was decided to do a panel at our conference, and we realized that this first generation was getting on in years. Some great scholars had, in fact, already passed away. So it seemed to be the right thing to do to honor them, hopefully while they were still with us. Then the editor of the Asian Theatre Journal, UC Santa Cruz professor Kathy Foley, suggested that we needed to honor not just the first men, but the first women scholars, too. So it was agreed upon to do a group of “founding mothers.”

An aspect of your AAP honor recognizes the textbook you wrote about theater history.
Yes. “Theatre Histories: An Introduction” is the first textbook that deals with global theater history. I co-wrote it with three other theater experts. We’re working on our third edition now. Most theater history textbooks are Western theater history with only a chapter or so about the rest. It’s the only textbook that really looks at the entire world and all of its differences.

Where does your interest in Japanese theater come from?
I became interested in Japanese theater when I was an undergraduate student at Pomona College. My professor, Leonard Pronko, was one of the first people who became knowledgeable about Asian and cross-cultural theater. His book, “Theater East and West: Perspectives Toward a Total Theater,” was one of the early books that taught about the ways in which Asian Theater had inspired contemporary 20th century theater. I was in his French class, which focused on 20th century French drama and the theater artists who were influenced and inspired by Asia such as Antonin Artaud and Paul Claudel. I was simply blown away by some of the most incredible theater I had encountered.

At the same time, Pronko decided to direct some Kabuki plays in English and European plays in Kabuki style at Pomona College. I got hooked. I loved the theatricality and fabulous mythology and color and beauty and music and dance. Instead of spending my junior year abroad either in England or in France, I decided to go to Japan. I enrolled in a Japanese university to study Japanese language and culture.

What are the origins of Asian Theater Studies?
Asian Theater Studies as a field barely existed prior to the Second World War. Asians generally didn’t study their own theater and with the exceptions of artists such as Yeats, Brecht and Artaud, most scholars had little knowledge of or interest in non-Western theater. But during and after the war, some former U.S. soldiers found themselves fascinated with the Asian cultures they had experienced overseas. They went back to college to study Asian Theater and then went on to teach what they had learned. Other early postwar scholars and artists who fell in love with Asian Theater did so because they found it more theatrically satisfying than Western psychological realism. These were the first professors who wrote books about Asian Theater Studies and the ones we call the “founding fathers” of Asian Theater Studies – because they were all male. Those of us in the next generation became their students. Even though I’m being honored as a founding mother, I am a second-generation Asian Theater scholar.

What is the status of Asian Theater in the United States?
You have to make a distinction between Asian Theater and Asian-American Theater. Asian-American Theater is theater created by and for Americans of Asian decent. The East-West Players in Los Angeles is one of the first Asian American theater companies ever created. In recent decades, Asians wanted to express the experiences of Asian Americans and weren’t particularly interested in anything about traditional Asian Theater. That began to change when David Henry Huang wrote his groundbreaking M. Butterfly, a huge success on Broadway, which used Chinese opera techniques and performance and had a main character that was a Chinese opera performer. That play, although there had been a few others that tried to fuse traditional Asian performance with Western theater, brought it into the mainstream. Asian Theater has been popular with avant-garde types since the 1920s. William Butler Yeats’ play At the Hawk’s Well is a beautiful Irish poetic play based on and inspired by Noh. These types of intercultural or cross-cultural plays have been floating around for decades.

At the same time, innovative theater artists who have experimented with Asian Theater forms have recently broken out of the rarified world of the avant-garde and have also entered the mainstream. A great example is the Broadway and international touring hit, The Lion King. Julie Taymor, the director, began as a student and designer of Indonesian puppetry and masks, and went on to incorporate many aspects of other Asian performance into her works, including this play. When Disney hired her for The Lion King it really opened a lot of eyes. Now, everywhere you look there are elements of Asian Theater – Asian puppetry, Asian masks, Asian staging of all kinds.

Contemporary Asian Theater is becoming more interesting to people. You see translations quite often of very intriguing contemporary Asian plays being done at more daring theaters. You don’t usually see that on Broadway because it’s a different audience but you’ll see them at universities or other intellectually progressive theaters around the country and around the world.

Posted: June 13, 2014