Prof. Lisa Merrill
Prof. Lisa Merrill, Professor of Writing Studies and Rhetoric, Program in Rhetoric and Public Advocacy, Department of Writing Studies and Rhetoric, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, USA
1) What is your discipline of study and what are the specific fields and sub-fields to which you contribute?
I am a performance historian. I smiled when I read this question because my work is very interdisciplinary; sometimes located in performance studies, cultural studies, history, visual rhetoric, art history etc. In fact, my late mentor, Dwight Conquergood, used to talk about the “ ‘apartheid’ of academic disciplines” because of the ways institutions privilege some disciplines over others.
I started out as a theatre historian, but I have always been interested in what happened offstage, in the streets, as well as onstage. And I have been fascinated by the ways cultural artifacts and experiences, especially live, embodied ones in the time before radio, television, film, or other media both reflected the social and political issues of the time and influenced the hearts and minds of spectators.
2) How did you come to study these specific domains?
From the time I was a child in Brooklyn I was always interested in history (perhaps as a result of having a great-grandfather who lived into his 90s, and being named for my great grandmother, who appeared to be mixed-race). When I was a young child my parents took us to the wonderful Brooklyn Museum that was both a fine art and history museum. Left to wander on my own, in addition to looking at the fine art, I found my way into each of the Period rooms and played imaginary games of “house” where I pretended I “lived” in the time period on display in each room.
I also loved performance and started performing and studying theatre in my teens at Brooklyn’s Teen Age Performing Arts Workshop and majored in theatre and English Literature as an undergraduate at City College of New York in Harlem, where I earned my B.A. and played Titania in an interracial production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. My professor, the late, amazing James Hatch was an authority on Black Theatre and invited me into his (and his partner, artist Camille Billops’) archive.
After that I studied at New York University where I was awarded a teaching fellowship and earned my M.A. and Ph. D. studying in programs of Performance Studies and Educational Theatre. At NYU the late Brooks McNamara introduced me to the world of nineteenth-century popular culture, where parades, riots, street performance, and political speeches on soapboxes were as much a reflection of the daily life and culture of spectators as what happened onstage within theatres. That is still the time period I focus on in most of my research.
3) Tell us something about your process of study, formal and informal education, and the nature of your degrees and training. When, where, and how did you become qualified to do what you do?
I decided early in my studies to apply performance theory and studies of spectatorship to the wide range of cultural events that interested me. Because I was drawn to explore the impact of representations and performances of race, gender, and sexuality – particularly in the nineteenth century when these concepts were being created and challenged – I decided to focus my dissertation on an archival study of American born actress Charlotte Cushman, who was celebrated for performing as male characters, among others. Thousands of Cushman’s letters are in the Library of Congress, in Washington D.C. I examined these, and archives in Philadelphia, Boston, and London and Edinburgh. My subsequent biography of Cushman When Romeo was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators (University of Michigan Press, 1999) won the prestigious Joe A. Calloway Prize for Best Book on Drama or Theater.
I have since published other articles and book chapters about Cushman and members of her circle and my work has been featured in podcasts at the Folger Shakespeare Library and elsewhere.
As an expatriate in Italy, Cushman set up a community of women artists and sculptors that included African American and Chippewa sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Although there were few letters that mention Lewis in the voluminous collections of Cushman material, I remained fascinated about her presence in the circle of expatriate American women artists, and have long speculated that Sallie Mercer, the Black woman who was Cushman’s maid and dresser, stage prompter and major domo of Cushman’s households may have played a role in Lewis’s time in Rome.
In addition, for more than a decade I have been doing work on nineteenth-century transatlantic representations of race on and off stage, and I have been invited to present this research at the International Museum for the Study of Slavery in Liverpool, and have been an active member of the Institute for Black Atlantic Research at the University of Central Lancashire, in Preston, England, where I have spent two sabbaticals, and given numerous invited talks.
4) What were the greatest obstacles that you had to overcome to achieve the success that you now experience? What challenges have your experienced and how have you overcome them? What goals do you have left to accomplish?
I come from a very working-class family, and attended a local high school that didn’t have an actual guidance counselor, so when I was awarded a National Merit Scholarship that would have paid my tuition to any Ivy League university in the U.S., no one explained that to me, and my parents did not know. So even with my grades and scholarship I didn’t apply because I just assumed my family could not afford it. This has made me committed to helping students understand and explore the options they may not know about.
5) Did you have any role models or mentors either in your domains of work, research, and creation or outside of them? Who were they and how were they instrumental in shaping you as a person and as a professional?
Yes, see question # 2 above.
6) What does your process of research look like? Where and what are your archives and what artworks, artifacts, documents, or specimens do you study or examine?
Following Michel De Certeau, I like to consider myself a “prowler” in the archives, looking for what isn’t there, what is missing, as well as what has been saved and collected. Since I focus on the lives and works of women and persons of color, often the absences are most noteworthy and challenging and a mere mention in an unpublished manuscript letter can lead me to another collection. In the US I have spent much time in the Library of Congress, N. Y. Public Library, NY Historical Society, Smithsonian Art Archives, Boston Public Library (Antislavery Collection), Philadelphia Library Society, and the archives at Columbia University, recently University of Rochester (Frederick Douglass Collection), and Oberlin College.
In the UK, I have spent years at the British Library, where in 2010 I was awarded the Eccles Visiting Professorship in North American Studies. I have also done research in archives at University of Kent, Canterbury, the International Museum for the Study of Slavery, Liverpool (where I gave several invited lectures), the John Rylands Library, Manchester, the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, and, most recently, the archives at Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, Scotland.
7) What are your fundamental research questions and what defines your methodology or approach? How do you determine how you engage with your objects, individuals or communities of study?
Because history is a narrative, told by those in power, I am always looking for what is missing from the dominant narrative; whose lives, images, and stories have not been recorded, saved, and accounted for? And the absences are what leads me to ask more questions, to follow the threads. Often the absences are intentional, as when Cushman wrote ‘Burn this letter’ atop passionate personal letters to a lover, and I realized for every letter or artifact saved, there may be countless letters missing. Sometimes a story is incomplete because the subject was a person of colour and/or a woman not recognized as noteworthy in their lifetime. So for example I hunt for the traces in unusual sources: extant scrapbooks, brief local newspaper mentions or in collections of communities to which they may have belonged, such as abolition organizations.
8) What are you working on now and when and how will it be shared?
I am working on several current projects: A) In 2015 at the University of Kent, Canterbury, England I discovered some of the re-written script from Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama The Octoroon, and my colleague Dr. Theresa Saxon and I published our account of that discovery in Lisa Merrill and Theresa Saxon, “Re-Playing and Re-discovering the Octoroon”, Theatre Journal 69 (June 2017):127-152.
We are continuing to trace ways in which this melodrama about enslavement in the United States was received in a range of British colonies where spectators were other indigenous or persons of colour. We will be presenting some of this research at the upcoming Association for Theatre Research Conference in Providence, Rhode Island in November 2023.
B) Following my interest in the neoclassical sculptor Edmonia Lewis I am tracing some of the ways Lewis’s early years in Ohio, which was a hotbed of abolition activity, influenced her later career. With my colleague Dr. Anjuliet Woodruffe I have examined traces of Lewis and other nineteenth-century Black women as students in Oberlin, Ohio, and Lewis’s later life when her work was commissioned and purchased by the Marquese of Bute and others. Dr. Woodruffe and I will be presenting a preliminary talk about this work at the University of Cincinnati on October 18, 2023.
C) Finally, (shhh) I am working on a novel that features the self-liberated performer Henry Box Brown and actress Charlotte Cushman . . .
9) What are you proudest of in your career?
This falls into two categories. I am very proud of certain projects related to both my teaching as well as my research.
A) With regard to my research, I am proud of all that I have discovered, uncovered, in archives and published. My biography of Charlotte Cushman took 10 years of archival research, and although many others have since used my transcriptions of thousands of letters by and about her, I was the first work to recognize their importance for lesbian history.
More recently, I am extremely honoured to have been awarded the 2016 Oscar G. Brockett Essay Prize for my essay “Most Fitting Companions: Making Mixed-Race Bodies Visible in Antebellum Public Spaces,” which was published in Theatre Survey (May 2015).
And I am very proud to have had my work on the theatricality of the work of contemporary visual artist Lubaina Himid included in the 2021 Tate Modern catalogue Lubaina Himid that accompanied Himid’s extraordinary one-person show at Tate Modern.
B) With regard to teaching, I am most proud of staging historic performance reenactments on my campus, Hofstra University, on the occasion of three United States Presidential debates held there in 2008, 2012, and 2016, when journalists from all over the world came to my campus to witness the debates between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, and Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016. On these occasions I directed costumed performers to reenact incidents from Black and women’s histories, so spectators could witness the events that led up to a Black man, and later a white woman, running for the Presidency.
In more recent years, because of my interest in the rhetoric of public art and monuments, I have directed students who engaged in costumed performances as historical figures at the site of sculptures and monuments. My colleague, Aashish Kumar and I devised an augmented reality project where these performances would also be recorded against a green screen, and then with AR technology made into holograms. We have placed QR codes at the site of these sculptures, so spectators using their cellphones outdoors at these sites can see hologram performances of historical figures from Black and labour histories such as Mary Seacole, Nina Simone, Clara Lemlich or Frances Kemble.
I was pleased to be able to present this work in at the University of Ghana in Accra, this past summer at the International Federation for Theatre Research Conference in July 2023.
10) What are you proudest of in your life?
I am most proud of the success of each and every one of my students that I have kept in touch with over the years. The African motto: “Each one, teach one” has been a guiding principle in my life.
11) What academic book should be essential reading?
It’s hard to pick one; so here are 3:
12) What TV show or film should be essential viewing?
Too many to mention …
13) How do you relax and take care of yourself?
I enjoy travel and am fortunate that in the past year my research and speaking engagements have afforded me opportunities to do work in Brazil, Ghana, Ireland, England, and Scotland. Closer to home in NYC, I am so grateful to be able to enjoy long, relaxing walks in Central Park. And whereever I am, I seek out live theatre and music performances, and visits to museums and galleries to enjoy and inspire me.
14) What’s next?
Finishing my novel …
Dr. Lisa Merrill, Ph.D. is Professor of Performance Studies and Rhetoric in the Program in Rhetoric and Public Advocacy, Department of Writing Studies and Rhetoric at Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, USA. Professor Merrill’s research and publications are in the fields of performance studies, critical race and cultural studies, and women’s and LGBTQ+ history. She applies her work on performance, spectatorship, and visuality to a range of cultural artifacts, artworks, and performances. Lisa Merrill was Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Black Atlantic Research, UCLAN, England, Spring 2016 and 2021. Professor Merrill delivered an invited lecture “Spectacularizing Black Bodies on 19th Century Stages” at the International Museum for the Study of Slavery, Liverpool, England, June 2017, and has recently given lectures about her research on race and representation in Larnaca, Cyprus (2022); Rejykjavik, Iceland (2022); Rio de Janiero, Brazil (2023); and Accra, Ghana (2023).
Merrill’s critical biography, When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators (U. of Michigan Press, 2000) was awarded the Joe A. Callaway Prize. In 2010-2011, Professor Merrill was awarded the Eccles Centre Visiting Professorship in North American Studies at the British Library for “Performing Race and Reading Antebellum American Bodies.” In 2016, she was awarded the Oscar Brockett Prize for her essay “Most Fitting Companions: Making Mixed-Race Bodies Visible in Antebellum Public Spaces,” Theatre Survey: Special Issue on Racial Hybridity, May 2015. She has published “Amalgamation, Moral Geography and Slum Tourism: Irish and African Americans Sharing Space on the Streets and Stages of Antebellum NY,” in Slavery and Abolition Journal (September 2016). Prof. Merrill and Dr. Theresa Saxon have published “Replaying the Octoroon,” in Theatre Journal (June 2017) and Prof. Merrill and Dr. Saxon’s essay “Black Americans in Russia: Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson,” was published in Revolutionary Lives of the Red and Black, David Featherstone, et al., eds. (Manchester University Press, 2022). Prof. Merrill’s work on Turner Prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid’s “Memorial to Zong” was included in an exhibition at Lancaster Maritime Museum (2021), and Professor Merrill’s essay about the performativity of Lubaina Himid’s work, “The Exhibit as Theatre,” is included in the Tate Catalogue, Lubaina Himid (2021), as the compendium to Himid’s one-woman show at Tate Modern Museum, London.