A Unifying Accident: Theatre Education in Strange Times

One of the most exciting theatrical experiences is what the actor, Spalding Gray, called the “unifying accident.” In his solo show, Monster in a Box, Gray defined a unifying accident as a theatrical event so spectacular and unforeseen, “that it suddenly unites the audience and the cast together in the realization that they are all in this one moment together.” Because of the strangeness of the moment, “we all know that it will never be repeated in the same way again.”

A unifying accident is never intended and rarely pleasant. (By way of example, Gray offers his own experience when a young actor suddenly vomited during the Lincoln Center production of Our Town.) But it is always memorable.

For all their discord, such accidents often become the stuff of legend. Whether it’s the lead actress scooping up a phone from a front-row mid-scene, or that pesky wardrobe malfunction, audiences often recall most vividly the moments when it all went wrong and thrill to what happens next. This is, after all, what gives live performance its brio: the possibility that anything could happen and the anticipation of what will come next.

Of course, now the world is living through an “accident” of unprecedented scale, but while live performance is paused, some theatre companies and artists have never been more active.

For some, this is an entirely new event. (It’s been rather amusing to watch as critics previously dismissive of theatre on screens suddenly warm to it when it’s the only game in town.) But, of course, some of us have been working in this area for literally decades and amid all of the struggle and strife, there’s something really exciting in the current moment.

Both new performance techniques such as virtual reality and digital performance, and older forms such as radio drama and living-room performances that previously existed at the periphery of theatre are suddenly at the centre of global attention. Previously inaccessible shows are newly available (some for the first time), and local events with specific audiences and missions are able to reach wider audiences, bringing diverse stories and perspectives into deserved focus.

Here in Toronto, I’ve been following Factory Theatre‘s online projects and Soulpepper Theatre‘s Fresh Ink series (which, to be fair, has cost me a ton in the plays I’ve ordered from the playwrights featured there).  Companies across Canada are finding ways to bring performance to audiences at home, through radio, podcasts, or as in Theatre SKAM’s “Pop-Up Theatre: Home Delivery” performances at your door.

In addition to new work, the advocacy and labour of BIPOC artists and companies and allies, as evidenced in projects like Stratford’s “Black Like Me” and panels on the experiences of Indigenous theatre artists, have meant that as live performances move online, audiences do not hear the same voices. This moment is not about waiting to go back to how it was before, but as I wrote in an open letter to creative arts students, it’s about re-imagining what theatre and dance, and indeed all the arts, can become in the future.

Theatre is an ideal model for accident-prone times because it reminds us not only that anything can happen, but that even the most terrible and sometimes frightening moments create new spaces for what comes next. The show, after all, goes on.

That’s why it’s been so discouraging to see the dominant narratives emphasize loss and futility, and I see the effect this is having on students, who believe that their education and their very work is being impossibly compromised. But this assumes that there is truly only one way that the arts — including embodied and performing arts — can be taught. This has never been true and it’s not true now.

To take only one example from my own university:

In the Department of Theatre at York, we have commissioned playwrights to write original one-act plays for performance in an online environment as we work with emerging actors and designers to develop their theatrical skills and technique for the online environment. We see this as a critical part of their training for the future of theatre. “The Ashley Plays,” a cycle of original site-specific plays written by our 3rd and 4th year playwrights, will be staged virtually in October, and we have created a virtual Devised Theatre Rodeo for high school students that will bring together drama classes from across the GTA and beyond to hone their techniques in both devised and digital theatre. Live arts education does not stop when physical venues close. It evolves.

This is not to discount the real challenges that many performing artists are experiencing right now, nor to dismiss the long-standing and painful inequities and exclusions that have been part of both arts organizations and educational institutions for too long. But these conditions are precisely why we will wait for things to return to “normal” or simply try to replicate what was happening in the past. As we struggle through our current moment, we have the opportunity to experience not just the accident, but unity as well.

Now, then, is an unprecedented opportunity for meaningful, positive change in arts education. It will not be easy, but it is necessary and, indeed, long overdue. The lessons in this coming year will not be about teaching how to work in the ways we know, but in learning together what new forms of work can happen and how our processes can better serve everyone, artists and audiences alike. Education will not be a top-down exercise, but a collaborative and mutual exchange in which we are all learners. This is the lesson of the unifying accident: the realization that we are in a unique and strange moment together and that we can all shape what happens next.

Programs often talk about “state-of-the-art” in relation to professional arts training. Well, this is the state of the arts profession now. How we learn, adapt, and create today will shape the ways that professions in the arts and media emerge tomorrow. We cannot simply put our programs on hold but must adapt and adjust to the new opportunities.

The unifying accident onstage can be challenging, but it often comes to define the specific performance and can even shape the industry more broadly. After all, the familiar “break a leg” for theatrical good luck is an ironic tribute to one of the defining accidents in theatre history.

So, to all my theatre colleagues, students, and artistic fellow travellers of all sorts: Break a leg this year.

An Open Letter to Students: “Don’t Wait”

Dear arts student:

You are essential.

I hope that wherever you are in the world and whatever discipline you practice or field you study, that you’ll continue your creative work this year. We need you.

Amid all the current uncertainty and planning, it is so tempting to wait for things “to go back to normal.” As the parent of someone who just finished his first year of university, I see the challenges of the zoom classroom and understand the appeal of taking a break until this current situation is all over. But it’s not clear yet what the next “normal” will look like or when it may come. Some things may resemble what we remember; others will be forever different. While this uncertainty can be a cause of anxiety, it also offers a rare opportunity, especially for the next generation of global artists.

Emerging artists, designers and scholars entering universities today have a rare opportunity to explore what the arts can do and to encounter questions of the past with fresh eyes. Those who participate in this exploration, will set the stage for the future of creative practices to come. Now is the time to take part in these changes and to determine what kind of future we all will have.

Beyond the university, creative fields and industries are rapidly changing in response to the current crisis. Arts education will change alongside, working together with community and professional partners to navigate these shifts. Students learning today have the chance to participate in these discussions from the beginning and to prepare in real time for whatever comes next. This is what real experiential education is all about. It’s not just about adapting to changes as they come, but also having a say in what comes next.

As the Dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University,  I’m committed to supporting students in this work over the next year and beyond: to helping learners across the arts and design navigate these changes, prepare for the future, and be a part of a sustainable future for the arts. It’s not just about making things different; it’s about making them better.

Around the world and in many different kinds of institutions, faculty and staff are working tirelessly to adapt and to prepare for this future. But we need your help.

If only a few people participate in defining the future of the arts, then the inevitable changes to come will benefit only those select few. In the wake of COVID-19, we have seen just how essential the arts are to our collective and individual well-being and also how unequally the effects of this disease are experienced. We cannot afford to lose a new generation of voices and a diversity of perspectives now. The changes underway are too big and too important to be left just to established artists, no matter how experienced or talented. To ensure a sustainable and inclusive future for the arts, we need many different perspectives, most especially those who are just beginning their arts education.

So whatever you do, don’t give up. And don’t sit this one out. You have the opportunity to drive the changes that will define the future of creative arts and industries. A former coach of mine had a favourite phrase that hung over her desk: “Good things come to those who wait. But only the things left by those who hustle.” Now is the time to hustle.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that anyone should risk either their own health and safety, or those of their loved ones and their communities. The first priority right now must continue to be our collective well-being. This priority is precisely why we need the broadest range of people engaging in the discussion of what comes next in arts and design. We need to continue to revise our practices with the most vulnerable in mind and to ensure maximum inclusion and participation for all.

We cannot afford to wait and we can’t just look back at what has been lost. If we’re going to get through this time together, we need to expand what’s possible. More than anything, we need to ensure that whatever changes may come our way, that they work for everyone.

That’s why I hope that you — young artists, thinkers, designers, scholars, and innovators —  will continue your creative and educational journeys this fall. Wherever you go, know that your voice, your perspectives are needed to help us all make sense of this time and to create a better version for tomorrow.

However those of us in the arts are working over the next year, it won’t be about equipment or technology or buildings. It will be about people and ideas and imagination. We will learn to communicate differently and to collaborate in new ways. These changes are too important and far-reaching to happen without the active involvement of emerging artists. To create an inclusive and sustainable future for the arts, industries, arts organizations and universities need you, the next generation, your ideas and talents, to define this future.

We need the next generation to define and improve the next normal. I can’t wait to get started.

ASTR 2019 – hello!

I’m currently at the American Society for Theatre Research. Perhaps you are, too! Today, I’m participating in a roundtable and giving a workshop on public presentations for academic research. Much of what I will say will be disappointing because most of what I can say on this topic is fairly well known and even self-explanatory. I’m certainly no social media influencer. But, I’ve had some success sharing my ideas with colleagues accros different media and I’m happy to share what I know. Sometimes, reminders on the familiar may be helpful. If you’re following along at the conference, or simply interested, here are my notes for my talks today, along with a few preliminary resources that I’ve found helpful.

Plenary Rountable &
Shop Talks: Presenting Work to an Engaged Audience
Sarah Bay-Cheng, York University
ASTR: November 8, 2019
Arlington, VA

Reminder: “Distillation & Delivery”

Public Presentation Types

  • Public lectures
  • TEDx Talks
  • Podcasts
  • Social Media Campaigns: IGTV, Stories
  • Remarks

Key Elements

  • Defined Audience – Clear Objectives
  • Key Ideas
  • Structure & Rhythm
  • Punctuation
  • Accessories


Anderson, Chris. 2016. TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“Podcasting for Beginners: The Complete Guide to Getting Started.” 2014. Buffer Marketing Library (blog). June 18, 2014. https://buffer.com/library/podcasting-for-beginners.

TEDxEast – Nancy Duarte Uncovers Common Structure of Greatest Communicators 11/11/2010. December 10, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nYFpuc2Umk&feature=youtu.be.

The 110 Techniques of Communication and Public Speaking | David JP Phillips | TEDxZagreb. February 1, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0pxo-dS9Hc.

“The Beginner’s Guide to Podcasts | WIRED.” August 27, 2017. https://www.wired.com/story/podcasts-beginners-guide/.

Happy (Academic) New Year!

Happy New Year to all my academic friends: faculty, students, staff, and administrators. I again pledge a new year’s resolution to update the blog and website more frequently and one of these days, I’ll get around to it. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to a new crop of dancing polar bears here at Bowdoin College, great new shows from my faculty colleagues, and the beauty of a New England fall. Enjoy the coming semester and remember to savor the good stuff and let everything else go by the by (as my late grandmother used to say).

warm wishes from rainy Maine,


Upcoming Talks & Visits – spring 2018

Over the next few months, I’m looking forward to a series of talks and visits. March 9-10, I’ll be attending the Conference for Research on Choreographic Interfaces at Brown University and giving a public lecture on digital history and performance in museums. I love this conference format and am excited to connect with the excellent Sydney Skybetter and Kiri Miller among an *amazing* list of participants (though, honestly, if you look at the photos, I am the stodgiest among us). I’m giving a lecture, “Everybody’s Historiography: Playing the Digital in Museums” on Monday, March 12, 1-2pm in the Digital Scholarship Lab in the Rockefeller Library.

Next, I’ll be visiting the University of Georgia and meeting with David Z. Saltz in preparation for our NEH Summer Institute on Digital Technologies in Theatre and Performance Studies, June 17-19. (If you’re interested, there’s still time to apply. Deadline is March 1).

In April and May, I’m busy attending Bowdoin student performances, theses defenses, and end-of-the academic year festivities. But, then, I’m excited to return to The Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research at Harvard University, June 13-14. The deadline for applications to the Mellon School is also coming up quickly on March 1.

If you happen to be in the area for any of these, contact me privately and I’d love to connect.

Hello, Toronto! 1.19.18

I’m delighted to be back at the University of Toronto to deliver a lecture, “Everybody’s Historiography: History, Performance, and Playing the Digital in Museums.” I’ll be at the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies. Many thanks to Alexandra Gillespie and the U of T – Mississauga’s Jackman Humanities Institute Digital Humanities Network, and to Tamara Trojanowska at the Centre for hosting me. I’m delighted to be here.

The lecture includes work from visits to several museums featuring interactive digital history display, with primary focus on the extraordinary POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland (http://www.polin.pl/en). Many thanks to Bowdoin College, who generously supported my travel to Poland and elsewhere.

Happy Fall!

With the fall semester up and running for most of us, let me wish all my academic colleagues, fellow faculty, and students a happy new academic year. I’m hoping to post more regularly this year, but no promises. In the meantime, the first On TAP (Theatre and Performance studies) podcast, episode 15, of this academic year is available at http://www.ontappod.com/. Episode 16 will be coming soon with a special artist interview in October. More soon.

New Post on Theatre & Digital Methods

Among other things, I currently maintain a blog on Digital Research and Scholarship (DRS) for the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR). I typically aim for 2 posts per month: one focused on news and updates related to digital technologies in theatre and performance; and another featuring a project by an ASTR member. I’ve been pleased to feature the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project and the Harry Watkins Diary Project, among others and am always interested in suggestions. The blog is currently available through the ASTR members website. The most recent entry posted on February 5, 2017, but all past posts and information are archived and available. The group also offers shared Zotero libraries.

If you have a chance to visit the site or read the blog, I welcome any and all feedback and am always looking for new work to highlight on the site. Unfortunately, the site is only available to ASTR members, but annual membership is relatively accessible. See here to join.


Social Media in Theatre & Performance: a podcast postscript

I recently listened to the most recent episode (010) of On TAP: Theatre & Performance Studies podcast, which I co-host with Pannill Camp and Harvey Young. Listening to the last segment on social media, it occurred to me that I never answered Pannill’s central question about trends in social media use in theatre and performance studies. To address this oversight, I’ve written this post on trends in social media broadly with some thoughts and observations in social media among theatre and performance studies in particular.

For a broad overview of research and analysis on social media use, there’s no better resource than the Pew Research Center and its studies on the internet, science, and technology. The 2005-2015 report on “Social Media Usage: 2005-2015” is available here. f7w7rrirThe “Social Media Update: 2016” is available here. As Pannill noted, Facebook is by far the most commonly used social media platform with 79% of online adults (68% of all Americans) currently using Facebook. (Twitter is the least used overall at 24%.) According to Pew, social media is used more by those who have been in higher education with the most usage by those with “some college” (37%), followed by those with college degree or more (33%), and users with a high school diploma or less (27%).

More specific data are hard to come by, although researchers are able to access Pew’s raw datasets here. Most often, discussion of social media in higher education is focused on how to use social media in support of teaching, either in the classroom experience (i.e., how to integrate social media into specific assignments) or marketing strategies to attract students. That said, the Times Higher Education site has a nice overview of various digital media resources and tools for academics here.

On the theatre and performance side of things, attention has focused primarily on social media as content and context for specific theatrical productions (for example, the Guardian review of “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning” from 2012) or as a rival for audience eyeballs, when it is also often blamed for declining decorum in the theatre itself (cf. Patti Lupone). Patrick Lonergan recently published Theatre & Social Media in the Palgrave theatre& series. Lonergan’s book offers a helpful overview, noting the connections between social media and performance, including “social media as performance space” and “social media in theatre.”

From my entirely unscientific and largely impressionistic perspective, it seems that every theatre performer, company, and academic is using some form of social media. (Of course, looking online how would I know if they’re not?) As the Pew Center report documents, nearly 80% of Americans use social media, and I would expect that performers and academics have even higher rates of use. After all, the essence of social media is performative (I’m looking at you, Jason Farman) so performance types have a logical affinity with the overtly demonstrative platforms of Facebook, twitter, YouTube, etc. (Perhaps, too demonstrative, if you’ve been following James Harding’s or Elise Morrison’s research on surveillance and performance.) Without looking at real data, it’s hard to make claims about trends. My personal social media bubbles are dominated by theatre and performance types, as well as artists of various media. As such, my feeds are typically filled with political commentary, small children, animals, and witty GIFs. Living in the US in 2017, it’s clear that my bubble is not the only bubble out there.

Writing this post, it occurs to me that social media may have become so ubiquitous in our daily performances that analyzing social media and theatre is a bit like talking about social media and space. It’s clearly present and there are numerous important works that critically evaluate its specific role in theatre and performance. But, even when social media is not the focus of our critical analysis, it’s still a major part of what’s happening on stage and there’s no getting away from it. Maybe it’s time we added a new criterion to Peter Brook’s famous requisites for theatre: a performer, an audience, a designated space, and social media saturating the experience.

CFP: Theatre Topics Latina/o Performance

Theatre Topics cfp: Special Issue: Latina/o Performance. Deadline July 15. https://www.press.jhu.edu/journals/theatre_topics/calls.html