Still Images from the Staged Workshop of I WAS NEVER ALONE

One of the interesting challenges of conducting performance ethnography is learning anew how to document non-text-based happenings that become part of the ethnographic record. The recent staged workshop of I WAS NEVER ALONE, my ethnographic play script, produced an overwhelming barrage of moments of meaning-making and storytelling as actors, directors, lighting and set designs, and our access researcher, came together to create two performances and move the work toward a full staging (the workshop engaged professional actors and MFA theatre student designers in a very short a two week process with light tech and props, but no set. In director Joseph Megel’s hands, this stripped away aesthetic was just enough to draw the audience into the stories in the play, presented with stirring energy by the talented cast.

Regan Linton, a woman with blond center parted bangs, sits with legs crossed wearing a leather jacket and silver earrings, facing the camera, but lookign elsewhere. Behind her and to the right, out of focus, Vladimir Rudak sits behind a music stand illuminated by two small lights over the music. He holds a guitar in his lap, and his reading glasses are fogged or made otherwise opaque by blue-tinted stage light that washes across the image; the background of the photo is black. They are both seated, but only someone who saw other angleswould notice that they are both seated in wheelchairs because the wheels and handles hardly appear in the frame.

Regan Linton as Vera, and Vladimir Rudak as Musician, during the October 2016 staged workshop of I WAS NEVER ALONE at UC San Diego’s Shank Theatre. Photo copyright Jim Carmody, please visit his website for a full gallery and contact him for usage requests.

As an ethnographer, of course, I wanted to capture every moment of the process. What notes did the director give the actors? How did disability theatre specialist Jason Dorwart, the assistant director for the workshop, who also played the role of Rudak, differ in his interpretation of the script from our nondisabled director? What kinds of problems – embodying a role, pronouncing Russian words, working out what a Russian speaker might mean when referring to a particular political issue – arose during the rehearsal process? Most of these elements were captured by my digital audio recordings. And, with the help of Communication Department graduate student Olga Lazitski, who has a background in television news production, we were able to capture research quality video for several rehearsals and the two performances.

Finally, Jim Carmody, of the Department of Theatre & Dance at UC San Diego, brought his theatre & dance photography artistry to our final rehearsal, producing a series of stunning photos. View his gallery here:

As performance ethnography scholar Dwight Conquergood underlined in his discussion of textocentrism, the process of knowledge production, and the kind of knowledge that is ultimately produced is curtailed if we cave to the hegemony of text-based forms of recording and knowing. Visual media like video and photography can only capture a limited glimpse of the social phenomena that live performance produces; a photo of a still moment in a performance can hardly produce the kind of communitas or social shift in emotive and interactional awareness that live performance creates. But these forms of documentation help us to understand the ways in which those performances continue to reverberate in the lives of people that the work has touched. How these images are taken up and used in the future is a question that interests me as a methodological problem: are they data, or are they objects in and of themselves? Are the publicity, interventions, illustrations, or texts? How will they be edited, read, shared, compiled, critiqued, or ignored? In an increasingly mediated world, these are questions that no longer pertain only to digital, media, or visual anthropology, or performance ethnography, but to many ethnographers whose fieldwork archives become increasingly media rich. In this way, I suspect that looking again to theatre, and understanding how our colleagues in those institutional locations have understood production photos, can be a useful pathway (as was Victor Turner’s alliance with Richard Schechter). Just some thoughts as I sort through the various media piling up in the wake of the play workshop.


I WAS NEVER ALONE keeps on moving

I WAS NEVER ALONE (IWNA), a play script based on ethnographic fieldwork in Petrozavodsk, Russia with adults with disabilities, just keeps on moving – developing in new ways and finding collaborators and possibilities that, as a first-time documentary playwright, continue to astound and amaze me.

The February  2016 staged reading  of IWNA (dir. Joseph Megel) at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill was the focus a recent video from Carolina Performing Arts. Check out a few clips from the reading, and me, trying not to not say the wrong thing, in the two-minute video feature.

Thanks to a grant from the FISP program, the play is moving forward with a more elaborated workshop that will take place in the fall at the University of California San Diego. Auditions for cast members, and meetings with prospective production team members will take place on June 2 & 3rd at UCSD (Dept of Theater & Dance, Galbraith Hall, Rm 20 on the lower level). Sign up for an audition slot here, or contact me or assistant director Jason Dorwart for more information or with access requests.

Meanwhile, script development continues on the Russian side of things, with the Russian-language version of the edited script nearing completion thanks to the collaboration of Valeriya Markina, my colleague at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, whose own project looks at disability theater in Moscow. This version of the Russian-language script will be shared with research participants, who will have the opportunity to review their own segment privately, and then, in late July, participate in a day long table reading and workshop about issues of disability representation that the script brings up. I’m looking forward to heading back to Russia for the first time since 2014 in order to conduct that workshop!

I guess the show’s subtitle, Oporniki, might have something to it — this thing really does seem to have a backbone!



I WAS NEVER ALONE workshop and staged reading

This week takes me back to North Carolina to work on logistics leading up to a planned workshop and staged reading that will take place at UNC-Chapel Hill Performance Studies during the first week of February 2016.

The workshop will be the second process presentation for I WAS NEVER ALONE, a documentary play script and performance ethnography project that I am developing in collaboration with Joseph Megel (UNC Performance Studies artist-in-residence and director of FREIGHT) and collaborators in Russia. The script focuses on the personal narratives of  seven adults with disabilities living in contemporary Russia, presented in a 90 minute play as a series of monologue-type portraits. The narratives are drawn nearly verbatim from translations of interviews with Russians with a range of disabilities in Russia who have participated in the development of this project since 2012.

Find more information about the casting needs please contact me (cassandra.hartblay@gmail-dot-com) or Joseph Megel (megel@unc-dot-edu). Casting will continue through November 2015.

Society for Disability Studies takes Minneapolis!

I find out what a nerd I really am when I realize how excited I am for the Society for Disability Studies conference. The conference will take place this week, June 11-14th, in Minneapolis. This will only be my third time attending, but I truly love this community. I look forward all year to finding out what people have been working on, congregating in hotel lobbies (bundled up to bear my Reynaud’s in the too-cold air-conditioning), and building new relationships. It’s also an extra-fun year for me to attend SDS, because I went to college at Macalester College, just across the river in Saint Paul. So, the Twin Cities are where I first got to delve into disability studies as a field – taking classes with Cindy Wu, doing campus activism (Disability Awareness Month) with SDS board member Joan Ostrove, and interning, then working at Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. Now in the culminating years of my graduate studies, it all comes full circle.

The poster for Disability Awareness Month 2005. Artwork adapted for this poster is RUSTY CAT MEOW, tempera on matboard, by Ron Christopherson, 2005. RUSTY CAT MEOW was one of the works featured in an exhibition on the 2nd floor of the Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center at Macalester College in October 2005. The exhibition included narratives and photos that Ron and I gathered together, as well as his multimedia artworks.

The poster for Disability Awareness Month 2005. Artwork adapted for this poster is RUSTY CAT MEOW, tempera on matboard, 8.5×11″, by Ron Christopherson, 2005. RUSTY CAT MEOW was one of the works featured in an exhibition on the 2nd floor of the Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center at Macalester College in October 2005. The exhibition included narratives and photos that Ron and I gathered together, as well as his multimedia artworks.

This year my presentations will be as follows:

Dual regimes of productivity?: tracing ableisms and resistances in Soviet and postsoviet welfare states” a paper presentation extending the questions raised in my recent DSQ article, on a panel titled Performing resistance outside of capitalism: Interrogating Soviet, postsoviet, and global leftist ableisms with Anastasia Kayiatos (Presenter in absentia), Stevie Peace Larson (Presenter), David T. Mitchell (Discussant/update: Dr. Mitchell is unable to attend at the last minute) and Louise Hickman (Moderator). Panel 9d/Friday 5:00-6:30 pm.

“Do You Like This Installation?” a paper presentation about my Ethnographic Installation investigating the built environment of public space and cyberspace in Russia, on a panel titled Cripping Cyberspace: Exploring Online Disability Aesthetics. With Amanda Cachia (Panel Organizer, Presenter, this year’s Zola award winner!!), Sara Hendren (Presenter in absentia), and Margaret Price (Chair/Moderator). Panel 5c/Friday 8:00-9:30 am.

I’m really lucky to be engaging with all these amazing folks, and I can’t wait to see what unfolds.

A screenshot from the home page of the installation website, showing the heading, the menu, two paragraphs of text, and three photos of unusable ramps in RussiaFellow graduate students, if you’re not already a member, check out the Facebook group for the SDS Grad Student caucus (you need to request membership, but one of us administrators will add you promptly). Join us for a happy hour at Brit’s Pub on Thursday evening, and for the Caucus Meeting Saturday 6:45-7:45 pm (holla, caucus coordinator Adam Newman) and the special panel on professionalization (how do you get a DS job, y’all?) that Jess Waggoner put together (Thursday 12:15-1:15pm).

See you all there!

Play premiere in Petrozavodsk!

This month my friends and collaborators in Petrozavodsk present the city’s first-ever social theater project. The play, which premieres on November 27th and 28th, is a collaborative work, coauthored by children with disabilities in the city and knit together by theater professionals Oleg Lipovetsky and Lidiya Pobedinskaya.

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 7.40.45 PM

The brain child of an open collaborative of enthusiastic young people, the idea for the project started as a spark to create something new in the city that would be both artistic and socially meaningful. In the fall of 2012, I was invited to join the loose-knit crew of volunteers, with the idea that it might be possible to do some project involving children with disabilities in the city.

By mid-winter, my friend Lyuda was running from school to school around town, recruiting teachers to participate in the project and collect stories from children who, based on their disability, were sent to particular institutions; meanwhile Zhanna was holding music classes at the rehabilitation center to gather and record original compositions; Nadya was looking for sponsors; and Oleg was rustling up support in the theater community.

With all the drawings and music and stories collected, Oleg and Lidiya sat down to spin these threads into a story. The result, Privokzalnaia Skazka, or, A Train Station Tale, is set in a busy train station hall. A mysterious stranger encourages passersby to look in his suitcase — and all come away with memories of the creative spirit and true selves of their own childhood selves — represented here with the texts composed by the children. But the dialogue that ties the children’s dreams together paints a different picture. The characters in the train station themselves are complex, the texture of their interactions rich, and darkly humorous, and the language of the play is both accessible and nearly ethnographic in its patterning on the cadences of every day life. A call for creativity, and pausing to appreciate the little things in a bustling world, the story appeals to children and adults alike.

Just before I left Petrozavodsk in May 2013 at the end of 10 months of dissertation fieldwork, we hosted a staged reading and Q&A for families whose children had participated as coauthors. It was the first time the play had been read aloud, and the families were the first to hear it.

I wish I could be there for the big premiere!

Russian speakers, you can find articles about the play in the local press here, here, and here. And don’t miss the video below!

A Train Station Tale


Installation Launch: Cripping Cyberspace

I am absolutely thrilled to announce the launch of my new ethnographic installation in its digital incarnation this Friday, September 27th!!A screenshot from the home page of the installation website, showing the heading, the menu, two paragraphs of text, and three photos of unusable ramps in Russia

The project, Do You Like This Installation?, is one of four commissioned works featured in a contemporary online art exhibition titled Cripping Cyberspace. The broader exhibition is curated by uber-talented Amanda Cachia, presented by the Canadian Journal for Disability Studies, and is debuting as part of the Common Pulse Arts & Disability Festival, taking place in Durham, Ontario, Canada.

This week I’m also launch a beta version of the physical installation as an open studio work. It will premiere to the general public for viewing and interactive engagement later in the fall of 2013.

Starting now, everyone is invited to visit the digital interface for the project, to view the installation photos and videos, and to VOTE for their preference!

Additionally, Amanda has recorded an interview with me about the project, which you can watch below.

Please take a few minutes to engage with the ground breaking work presented by the other artists & collectives in the exhibition. Katherine Araniello takes up a beat to break it down – I particularly like the moment when she hits us with “infectious, infectious, infectious”. Sarah Hendren, as usual, is out of the this world, pushing limits with an extension of her slope : intercept project that explores the possibilities for audio description as descriptive soundscape. The Montreal In/accessible Collective has created a phenomenal series of digital public service “posters” that sets out to crip the landscape, “to impair ableism and damage the structures of power that reinforce the ‘normalcy’ of ableist architecture.” I can’t quite get over being included in this badass-sophisticate collection of rad ruffian crip activists!

It’s been a long road to this moment of seeing activism, art, and critical disability theory come together in such an exciting way. Preliminary feedback confirms the convictions that performance ethnography methodology & engaged scholarship have suggested – a public anthropology, a non-textocentric anthropology, a digital/visual/embodied ethnographic output provokes a dialogic engagement with audiences and collaborators in ways that text alone simply can’t.


Call for Contributions

HEY YOU! Contribute to my current project, UNDOING ABLEISM // A VIDEO ASSEMBLAGE!!

The prompt: Capture a part of your body that does not have a name (e.g. that you can’t describe in two words or less). Submit your digital video to be a part of a larger assemblage, which will be presented as a video installation and shared online.

How does *your* body fight against medicalized or partial views of itself?

Read on HERE.