Chris Dearner, 2016 Public Fellow

Chris Dearner, a PhD candidate in English, shares how working with the South Coast Repertory Theater enriches his own scholarly work.

One of the disciplinary challenges for members of English departments who work with drama is reminding oneself that the text of any given play represents only a very small portion of its larger life – that, in addition to words on a page, every play requires actors, a theatre, and an audience to be performed.  Spending all day reading makes it easy to forget that plays are not written for those who study them, but for those who produce and watch them be performed.  One of my personal challenges, as I’ve been writing my dissertation on phenomenal upheavals in Renaissance drama, is imagining career paths for myself in nonprofits or the public sector, and understanding how my research and writing work is applicable outside of its historical period or literary area of focus

Through the Humanities Out There Public Fellows program, I have been placed in an internship that has given a new perspective on both of these challenges.  For the past two quarters, I have had the opportunity to work with South Coast Repertory, Orange County’s largest and oldest resident theatre.  The SCR is nothing short of a cultural institution in Southern California: In their fifty-two years of continuous operation, they have staged over five hundred and commissioned over three hundred plays, won a Tony award, been profiled in TIME Magazine as one of America’s top five regional theatres, and have been sponsoring the Pacific Playwright’s Festival since 1998.

In the wake of their fiftieth anniversary, SCR has been digitizing their historical promotional materials and photos to eventually make available on their website, and I have been assisting them in developing a document that not only provides an overview of the theatre’s history, but also builds a narrative framework for website visitors that puts SCR and its history in context.  In addition to working closely with the theatre’s public relations director, Tania Thompson, I have had the opportunity to discuss topics ranging from individual theatrical productions to the future of theatre more generally with one of SCR’s founding artistic directors, David Emmes.  I’ve also been able to spend time at SCR’s facilities and attend all of their recent productions, including the fantastic Office Hour by Julia Cho and the richly-produced Amadeus, which is currently on stage.

My work at SCR has been valuable to my research, certainly: it has made me more aware of the sheer amount of work and space that go into producing the plays that I am used to encountering only on the page, and has provided a physical and spatial context that enriches my more abstract or textually-oriented understanding of drama. 

But more than that, it has given me an opportunity to observe and participate in a nonprofit organization that is deeply tied to its community and forms a part of the artistic life of a county with over 3 million inhabitants.  Through this engagement, I have gained a much better understanding of how my particular humanistic skills – the ability to digest and synthesize large amounts of information, the ability to communicate clearly and directly, and the ability to engage with complicated and interdependent systems – can and will translate into meaningful work outside of the academy after graduation.

Through the Humanities Out There Public Fellows program, six humanities graduate students interned one afternoon a week with a local cultural organization. These public fellows applied and expanded their humanities research, writing and analytical capacities – skills developed in a PhD program – in a non-profit setting. The 2016 Public Fellows were funded by individual donations to the Humanities Out There Program.  The Humanities Commons recently received a grant from the Luce Foundation to expand the Public Fellows Program in 2016-2017.