Faculty Research: Dr. Randy Lewis’s Original Comedy, “My Dinner With Bambi,” to Premiere in Austin

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Although our university won’t be back in session for several days yet, we couldn’t wait to post this exciting news about one of our faculty members. Dr. Randy Lewiswho we’ve featured in the past for his expansive work on topics from surveillance to media studies to public scholarship, has penned an original play that will premiere in Austin later this month. We asked Dr. Lewis for a few words about his new work, and how it relates to his broad interests in all that American Studies has to offer…

So a funny thing happened on the way to the lectern—I wrote a play, a dark comedy called My Dinner with Bambi (A Shocking Comedy) that is now in rehearsals under my direction. Is it funny? Outrageous? Insightful? You be the judge when it opens on January 22 at Austin’s FronteraFest.

The main character is a force of nature called Bambi Krill. She’s a media celebrity extraordinaire, a powerful woman with hints of Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Stephen Colbert, and Mephistopheles. The basic set-up is that she’s holding court with her two young acolytes, Sarah and Roger, one of whom is not yet converted to the dark side of big money punditry. Drinking heavily after a widely protested campus lecture, Bambi spars with her minions until an explosive encounter with Sarah’s parents brings deeper tensions to the surface. And no one—on the right or left—gets off unscathed. (I mean this quite literally: a real Taser is one of our central props).

As anyone who knows me can deduce, Bambi is another version what I often talk about in the classroom. For instance, last fall I was working on Bambi while teaching undergrads how to make documentary theater out of Internet troll comments (talk about tragedy!). I love this overlap between my academic and creative work. For me, it all flows together—especially when I’m teaching courses with titles such as “The Politics of Creativity.” Bambi also has many literal connections to UT: we auditioned actors at night in a seminar room in Burdine, we ended up casting several alums and one faculty member, and we’re working with a consultant from UT’s Drama Department, which is something I really appreciate as a first-time director.

We have an amazing cast and know that you’ll enjoy the show—especially if you have any connection to American Studies. After all, how many plays have jokes about Moby Dick, Thomas Kinkade, and turducken? (Not King Lear—I checked!). Even if you’re not part of the American Studies world, we hope you’ll come see Bambi in action starting January 22.

More information about the play can be found at its website and Facebook page, and tickets for all four performances are available here. We recommend you buy tickets in advance if you’re interested in checking the show out – they’ll sell out!

Undergrad Research: Review of AMS Senior Kelli Schultz’s Play, “Our TEKS”

Texas Capitol.

Last Monday night, senior Kelli Schultz premiered her American Studies/Plan II honors thesis play titled, “Our TEKS,” to an eager and curious audience. The play was the culmination of a year’s worth of diligent and passionate research into the Texas textbook controversies in 2010 when the Texas State Board of Education drafted a list of over 100 amendments to the Social Studies curriculum for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). Taking a critical and creative look into the historical hoopla and media coverage of the new standards, Kelli referred to her play as “Our Town meets Barnum & Bailey meets The Colbert Report.” As a form of documentary theater, it combined true accounts and reenactments from board room transcripts, interviews, video and audio clips, and even a surreal recreation of a Colbert Report segment with Alexandra Reynolds as the ever-vigilant Stephen Colbert.

Kelli began by providing a brief overview of what this is all about—policy, history, and memory—before introducing us to the 15 elected “experts” on the Texas State Board of Education. Each member was represented as a circus performer in silhouette, dazzling and dismaying the audience with their rhetoric and apparent expertise in the matters of K-12 standards for education in the departments of Language Arts, Science, Math, and Social Studies. There was the “strong man” Bob Craig; Barbara Cargill, unfurling a long cloth from her mouth as she spoke to the crowd; skilled-balancer Pat Hardy; Siamese twins, a cannon-ball man, a mime, a few clowns, and more. It was an ingenious way to represent the so-called “experts” administering these standards, only one of whom actually holds a degree in history and has experience teaching this information in the classroom. Two are ministers, four are professors, one is a dentist, and another holds no college degree at all.

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Undergrad Research: Overview of Undergraduate Honors Symposium

Last week, the Department of American Studies had the pleasure of featuring the work of six exceptional undergraduates at the first annual Undergraduate Honors Symposium. The students presented their thesis projects, with topics ranging from resource extraction policy to the American coming-of-age narrative. These projects take the form of thesis papers as well as websites, documentary theater pieces, and novellas.

Presenters with their instructor, Dr. Janet Davis

The evening began with a presentation by Miriam Anderson on hydraulic fracturing. Miriam offered a charming and funny visual presentation on the natural gas industry and its detractors set to the words of Dr. Seuss‘ The Lorax.  Miriam also shared her website, which explains the economic and environmental impacts of the fracking process from multiple perspectives. Miriam was followed by Julie Reitzi, who discussed the drug war in Ciudad Juarez, focusing on the involvement and responses of women and youth. Julie’s presentation provided perspective on a much talked about issue, and she shared striking images of women and youth who are both implicated in and responding to the violence and poverty in the city, including Las Guerreras, a group of women on pink motorcycles who distribute food and other supplies to impoverished neighborhoods. Rounding out the first half of the night was Kelli Schultz, who described her ambitious documentary theater project, “Our TEKS,” which is a play based on the controversy surrounding recent changes to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills by the Texas Board of Education. Kelli discussed her process and inspiration for creating the play, which draws on circus imagery and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. For more information on Kelli’s production, check out our post last week, and head on over to the Winship building April 30 or May 1 at 8pm.

David Juarez presents on Jack Kerouac

The second half of the evening featured presentations by David Juarez, Alexandria Chambers, and Laci Thompson. David led off the second half with a description of his project on Jack Kerouac’s early years of devising fantasy sports games, which David reads as early writing exercises for the budding Beat writer. David shared a number of images and score sheets from these whimsical and impressively detailed games, illustrating the way that the young Kerouac exercised control over a life that was often depicted as lacking it. Alex Chambers followed David’s presentation with a discussion of American boy’s choir schools, focusing on two in particular: the St. Thomas Choir School in New York City and the American Boy Choir School in Princeton, New Jersey. Alex’s thesis project took the form of a novella that introduces the choirboy school upbringing into the American coming-of-age discourse, and she shared a wickedly funny selection from the beginning of her novella. The final speaker of the evening was Laci Thompson, whose eloquent presentation described the multiple representations of the night in Western thought and literature. Laci’s thesis centers on the unique contributions of Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith to this discourse of the night, and Laci ended her presentation with a strong call for academics to own their passions and to “have more fun,” because that is what rock music like Patti Smith’s is, first and foremost, all about.

Laci Thompson presents on Patti Smith

The evening of presentations was a fabulous success. It was wonderful to be able to chat with the presenters in group discussion and in one-on-one conversations afterward. I was particularly struck by the range of topics and formats represented by these thesis projects. One of the particular strengths of American Studies scholarship is the way it encourages both innovative themes and innovative forms, and both were on display at this event. It is clear that these senior AMS students are headed toward greater and greater things, and the Department should be proud to call them alumni.

Stay tuned for more photographs from this event! And remember to follow us on Twitter for updates on new posts!

Undergrad Research: “Our TEKS,” a Theatrical Production and AMS Senior Thesis

Today we share with you news about an upcoming theatrical production, “Our TEKS,” written by and directed by American Studies graduating senior Kelli Schultz.

Texas State Flag

As Kelli describes,

“Our TEKS” is a theatrical exploration of my American Studies/Plan II senior thesis. Over the past year, I have followed the Texas textbook controversy by conducting dozens of interviews with educators, government officials and textbook publishers. These interviews, along with transcripts of Board meetings and media coverage, were combined into a play, which explores the 2010 Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). It’s Our Town meets Barnum & Bailey meets The Colbert Report.

And, in a bit more depth, here’s the official abstract for the project:

In 2010, the Texas State Board of Education drafted a list of over 100 amendments to the social studies curriculum, which explicitly defined what teachers must include in their K-12 classrooms. Some of the changes include replacing the term democracy with constitutional republic, emphasizing the religious foundations of our country and removing “Hip Hop” as a cultural art form. While the media charged the board with rewriting history, others would commend the elected officials for correcting an already liberal bias in the educational system. Utilizing a documentary-based style of devised theatre, we will explore the straight facts, pure fiction and implications surrounding the 2010 Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).

We were lucky enough to learn about the project from Kelli last week at the Undergraduate Honors Symposium (side note: expect a write-up and photographs from that wonderful event soon!) and, we must say, we’re very excited to see the production. If you have an interest in education, Texas, American history, theater, or the intersections between politics and artistic representation, you best not miss it.

The production will run two nights, April 30 and May 1, at WIN 2.180. Both shows begin at 8pm. More nitty-gritty details can be found here.

We are also told there will be cookies and balloon animals, so… there’s also that.

Announcement: Interview with Kelli Schultz, AMS Senior and Dean’s Distinguished Graduate

Today, we’re pleased to share with you an interview with one of our undergraduates, Kelli Schultz, who was recently recognized as one of only twelve Dean’s Distinguished Graduates in the College of Liberal Arts at UT. Congratulations to Kelli on this very prestigious honor!

What was/is your favorite class in American Studies?

I loved Prof. Ware’s AMS 310: Intro to American Studies course. I have taken a lot of specialized AMS 370 courses which I loved but I’m intrigued by how each professor teaches the whole story of American History in one semester. Her underlying mission, it seemed, was to tell the untold accounts of US History, the ones you weren’t told in high school. We learned about the Carlisle Indian School, Japanese Internment and Coney Island. This was the first class I took in the Department and it sparked my interest in the pedagogy of social studies, which I ultimately ended up writing my honors thesis on.

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