UChicago to offer joint PhD program in Theater and Performance Studies

The University of Chicago will begin offering the only joint Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) PhD program in the country, placing students in direct dialogue with humanities disciplines across the University.

David Levin, the Addie Clark Harding Professor and chair of the new doctoral program, began the undergraduate TAPS program nearly two decades ago in collaboration with David Bevington, professor emeritus in English, and Curt Columbus, now the artistic director of Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, R.I. Since then, Levin decided it was time to offer a graduate program.

“TAPS as a field, as with many comparatively young fields, has been a bit insular,” Levin said. “It struck us that the kind of TAPS we’re interested in at the University of Chicago is irreverent when it comes to disciplinary boundaries. To try and lasso students into one academic area went against the type of work we find most exciting, challenging and interesting.”  

This past year, current UChicago PhD candidates were able to join the TAPS joint program. This August, TAPS will admit its first cohort of new students. Arianna Gass is an incoming student in English and TAPS who researches alternate reality games. She said that the ability to combine her two fields of study is what attracted her to UChicago.

“My work doesn’t fit exactly into English or into theater,” Gass said. “English lets me look at narrative in digital formats, hypertext novels, or alternate reality games, while with the theater side I can look at how embodiment finds its way into those games.”

Gass said she enjoys not fitting into just one academic box, and that the ability to both study and practice her art is the advantage this unique program affords her. 

“One of the things that was important looking at a program was I didn’t just want to write papers,” Gass said. “I think praxis is particularly important in a field like media studies. If you’re not actively pursuing performance or media research by creating, you’re missing something.”

Providing students with that “missing something” was what Levin and his colleagues had in mind when they envisioned the TAPS joint PhD program, especially at a time when universities are increasingly seeking faculty with multiple areas of expertise.

“Pragmatically, a joint degree means you can apply for jobs in multiple departments,” Levin said. “But what if you’re not interested in going into academia? We can train students not just for an excellent academic position, but for exciting positions outside the academy.”  

Evan Pensis is a first-year PhD student studying ethnomusicology and TAPS. He said that his experience with the joint program has given him new perspective on his work thanks to exposure to so many other different fields of study.  

“The TAPS program really helps put into perspective what I do in music, it puts it back into a world that has a larger context,” Pensis said. “One of the strengths of the program is that we have a cohort where we can come together as equals who are striving to find a common ground.”

Levin said that in addition to growing the student body, he is excited to continue to expand the faculty involved with TAPS, including internationally renowned contemporary performance artist Annie Dorsen, who has been hired to teach one quarter a year, and former curator of the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, a prominent Chicago-based director whose work encompasses devised physical theater and dance-theater, and who has joined TAPS this year as assistant professor of practice.

“We purposefully seek out exceptionally bright and creative working artists,” Levin said. “They become familiar with students but don’t have to give up careers to teach. We want them, and our students, to see UChicago as a laboratory for important work being done in the world.”