Research & Creative Activities

performers performing

Theatre Arts & Dance faculty and graduate students are both thinkers and makers. Some produce scholarly research—they deepen and question our understanding of theatre history, dance, and performance practices of all kinds, publishing in scholarly journals, writing books, editing and translating, and presenting their research in a range of academic and public venues. Others produce creative research—many of our directors and dancers create original performance works, beginning with research into social or historical events, problems, places, people, or other artistic work that has inspired them. Designers and directors alike work collaboratively to materialize this research on the stage in live performance—their exploration of the expressive possibilities of the media in which they work (lighting, sound, choreography, costume, and set design, for instance) is also an important form of research.

Our faculty members are known throughout the vibrant arts scene of the Twin Cities, as well as regionally or nationally, as innovative, experimental, challenging, and deeply thoughtful artists and scholars.

The following examples provide a glimpse of some of our faculty at work:

Marcus Dilliard is an award-winning professional lighting designer for theatre, opera, and dance companies working across the country. His research investigates lighting design as a non-verbal art form. His goal is to better understanding of how we use the information we gather visually and apply that understanding to lighting. Two aspects of lighting design that most interest him are color, or the lack thereof, influencing a perception of a physical environment (particularly emotional and intellectual perceptions evoked with color) and contrast (i.e. light and shadow).

Ananya Chatterjea, dancer, choreographer, and dance scholar and educator is also the founding director of Ananya Dance Theatre, a dance company of women of color who believe in the powerful intersection of artistic excellence and social justice. Her innovative company recently toured, performing in the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, and conducted workshops there on women’s rights at the invitation of the US State Department.

Consider the work of Michal A. Kobialka, an expert in medieval drama, the avant-garde work of Polish theatre artist Tadeusz Kantor, and theories of historiography which challenge the political and ethical stakes of how we go about writing history.

Also teaching in the PhD program, Sonja Kuftinec investigates how we can use performance and theatre to create social change. She has written books on LA’s community-based theatre company, Cornerstone, and on theatrical facilitation with youth in the context of violent conflict in the Balkans, and in the Middle East.

Lisa Channer specializes in directing, physical theatre, creating original work, Russian theatre, and ensemble theatre in her teaching. She is co-artistic director of Theatre Novi Most, a professional company that recently toured RANT, an original work, to San Francisco’s FURY Factory Festival. Earlier this year, she co-directed a three month Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht Festival with the University of Minnesota’s School of Music, the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch, and the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance in which she produced a Weill–Brecht Smorgasbord of newly translated, little known works by these giants of twentieth-century theatre.

Margaret Werry studies performance practices in public culture. Her recent publications examine the relationship between tourism performance, cultural policy, and ethnic politics in New Zealand, and the role of performance in national museums.

Meanwhile, Cindy García’s work looks at the politics of popular performance practices, such as social dance. Her recent book shows how men and women compete for social status in the salsa clubs of Los Angeles, frequented by Latino/a migrants.

Carl Flink with his professional company Black Label Movement collaborates with Professor David Odde to build computer models of cellular and molecular self-assembly dynamics using dance movement. Current applications include the modeling of chemotherapeutic effects on cell division and the crawling of cancer cells through the brain. Ultimately, they seek to use the dance models, combined with computer modeling to perform virtual screens of potential therapeutic strategies. View their TEDMED talk from 2013.

Joanie Smith is the Artistic Director of Shapiro & Smith Dance, the company that has served as her research laboratory since 1987. S&S Dance has done extensive performing in Europe, Asia, Central Asia, South America, and almost all 50 states including 10 seasons in NYC.

Matthew J. LeFebvre, an award-winning theatrical costume designer is much sought after in regional theatre and opera. A versatile artist whose work ranges from classics to musicals, to contemporary works, is informed by extensive historical and cultural research and marked by a great attention to detail. His work is character-focused; visual impact is essential, but more importantly, his costume designs are a psychological extension of the characters, thus informing and enhancing the performances for the actors as well as the audience. Currently in his research, LeFebvre is exploring the tension between design excess and the "less is more" approach by beginning a design by layering as many elements conceivable, then gradually stripping away everything but that which is essential to telling the story.

Michael Sommers works in venues ranging from major cultural institutions to backyards and the street. As a creator, interpreter, and maker of theatre, he strives for a synthesis of the physical act of making, the animation of ideas, the embrace of process through collaborative genesis and intuitive response, while applying a deep understanding of tradition, theory, and practice with the primary responsibility of audience engagement. From his research into traditional theatrical forms, classical text, populist entertainment, folk art, and “the Comedy and Tragedy of our daily lives…I create original work that speaks in a contemporary voice directly to the audience.” Trained as a visual artist, Sommers practices the theatre arts as a designer, director, composer, performer, playwright, and technician, both locally and nationally. He co-founded, with his partner Susan Haas, Open Eye Figure Theatre in 2000, whose original work has been presented at the Walker Art Center, in New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Winnipeg, Canada; Mexico, and in their intimate performance venue in South Minneapolis.

Talvin Wilks is a playwright, director, and dramaturg. His plays include Tod, The Boy, Tod; The Trial of Uncle S&M, Bread of Heaven, and An American Triptych. Directorial projects include the world-premiere productions of UDU by Sekou Sundiata (651Arts/BAM), The Love Space Demands by Ntozake Shange (Crossroads), No Black Male Show/Pagan Operetta by Carl Hancock Rux (Joe’s Pub/The Kitchen), Banana Beer Bath by Lynn Nottage (Going to the River Festival), the Obie Award/AUDELCOAward-winning The Shaneequa Chronicles by Stephanie Berry (Ensemble Studio Theatre), Relativity by Cassandra Medley (Ensemble Studio Theatre – AUDELCO nomination for Best Director 2006) and The Ballad of Emmett Till, by Ifa Bayeza (Penumbra Theatre Company). He has served as co-writer/co-director/dramaturg for ten productions in Ping Chong’s ongoing series of Undesirable Elements, and dramaturg for five collaborations with the Bebe Miller Company. He won a 2005 Bessie Award for Going to the Wall. Currently, he is writing a book on black theatre, Testament: 40 Years of Black Theatre History in the Making, 1964-2004.

My ethnographic research on stage, street, and digital performance focuses on youth culture in the Arab world. My first book Theaters of Citizenship: Aesthetics and Politics of Avant-Garde Performance in Egypt (Northwestern University Press, 2020) examined the cultural politics of identity in Egyptian underground theater, before and after 2011. A second project on digital performance began with articles on Egyptian bloggers who talked about self, sexuality, and revolutionary politics, a Saudi beauty YouTuber, and an Egyptian hijab influencer on Instagram. I studied the algorithmic, technological, and bodily strategies they used to assemble signature embodiments, developing a methodological toolkit for performance ethnography on digital platforms. My current research centers on digital entrepreneurs in Dubai - including those marketed as icons of modern Emirati identity and others who embody third-culture cosmopolitanism in an immigrant-majority nation. While they capitalize on the UAE’s thriving influencer marketing industry, these digital microcelebrities also use TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and podcasts to produce culture under the radar of national ideology. I am intrigued by the dialectic of branding and self-realization, commodification and iconoclasm in their performances. Sonali is currently researching digital performance on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok in the United Arab Emirates, and the broader Arab world.