Theater linked to collective memory

Paul Eiss, a history professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, didn’t know what to expect when a woman from a regional theater in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula told him about some old papers that the recently deceased company copyist had kept lying around. “I went to his house thinking, ‘Why not?’ and found a room filled with scripts almost up to my knees,” Eiss said. “This 80-year-old man had saved every play he’d transcribed since he was a teenager.” Eiss plans to make the plays available in a digital archive, as part of a project that recently earned him the highly prestigious New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew Mellon Institute.

New Directions fellowships are given to professors who have finished their post-doctoral studies, but would like to pursue research outside of their chosen field. The grant is unusual in that it awards money based not on expertise, but on potential. Eiss, whose academic interests lie in the cultural politics of colonialism and its aftermath, with emphasis on how indigenous cultures are represented by their oppressors, plans to use the fellowship to pursue performance studies. Acquiring training in theater, Eiss hopes, will add a necessary dimension to his studies of theater in the Yucatan Peninsula, and illuminate the subtle ways in which regional theater expresses and records the suffering endured under colonialism.

Eiss, who received his undergraduate degree from Princeton University in 1990 and completed his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 2000, has been teaching at Carnegie Mellon since he received his doctorate. Not originally drawn to theater, Eiss found this research interest through a long chain of accidents and chance events. Originally planning to do his graduate ethnographic work in Algeria, then Chiapas, Eiss was forestalled by violent uprisings in both regions and settled on the Yucatan Peninsula instead. While interviewing Yucatecans about historical events, Eiss was struck by how often people cited plays that had been written about the events, rather than their own memories. “*Teatro regional*,” said Eiss, “or, the regional theater, was obviously a powerful medium for people to understand and commemorate difficult times in the community.”

The fellowship, according to the Andrew Mellon Foundation website, is meant to continue through several years and promote long-term academic growth and the achievement of meaningful results. Over the next couple of years, Eiss will work with professors at New York University, Yale, and the University of Pittsburgh to develop an extensive working knowledge of acting, directing, and other theoretical aspects of theater studies. Eiss will also attend international conferences focused on cultural representations of theater, and will work closely with theater troupes in Latin America, participating in workshops and production activities.

H&SS Dean John Lehoczky acknowledged the great honor of the fellowship in a press release, calling Eiss’s achievement, as well as the two other New Directions fellowships given to Carnegie Mellon professors in the last four years, “a testament to the strength of our faculty.” The fellowships are particularly impressive, Lehoczky added, considering the relatively small size of Carnegie Mellon’s college of humanities. Other recipients of the New Directions Fellowship hail from such humanities powerhouses as Cornell, Yale, and Princeton, among others.

Although Eiss’s training and work as a historian and anthropologist are rooted in traditional academia, he believes very much in the relevance of his research on Yucatan theater to regional political struggles occurring today. “This is an art form with contemporary vitality as well as historic importance, a genre that works by relentless borrowing of ancient as well as modern theatrical and cultural elements,” Eiss explained; as an example, he cited Yucatan theaters’ recent tendency to borrow from the plots of popular telenovelas, or television soap operas. As well as incorporating political themes and cultural trends, Yucatan theater is also an active political force in its own right, with actors often running for office. The plays themselves create a forum for political dialogue — lampooning, satirizing, and calling for change both openly and subversively.

When speaking about the Yucatan and the work he hopes to accomplish using theater to examine cultural identity, Eiss’s voice and face are animated with a deep excitement. With 15 years of experience doing ethnographic research in the Yucatan behind him, Eiss, who speaks Spanish as well as Mayan, ultimately hopes to use the New Directions grant to give something back to the rich, vibrant culture he has studied for so much of his academic career. He sees the planned digital archive of plays as a potential inspiration to Yucatan artists seeking to express their complex identity as a colonized people, as well as a resource for scholars and theater artists everywhere. As a scholar himself, Eiss is also just excited to be going back to school. “Usually, academia requires you to root yourself further in your chosen area as you get older,” Eiss said. “This is a wonderful opportunity to be a student again, in a discipline I’m a novice in.”