Published: Aug. 10, 2012

 “You’re doing it right when you’re playing,” says Dr. Amma Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin.  This may seem like a strange statement to make in an upper-level class where students use complex technology and challenging archival material to re-imagine the 1901 New York World’s Fair on stage. Yet, Dr. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin’s Spring 2012 class, “Performing the Archive,” thrived on fearless experimentation, the willingness to make mistakes, and energetic collaboration.

Collaboration occurred at all stages of the process.  For several years Dr. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin has been developing a new musical called “At Buffalo,” which Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin describes as “a multimedia, historical musical that reconstructs and deconstructs black performance from the 1901 Buffalo, New York World’s Fair.” Now collaborating with New York artist Jim Augustine to complete the professional production, the pair hopes to eventually take it to Broadway.  Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin has also workshopped the musical at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, UC Berkeley, and CU Boulder, allowing students to assist in developing the production further.  Blending contemporary multimedia technology and archival material, students in CU Boulder’s “Performing the Archive” class acted out scenes, conducted research, and generated material which could be used in the final musical. Students taking the class had a range of acting abilities and varying levels of experience with technology.  Some were professionals, others had never been on stage, and few had any knowledge of the 1901 New York World’s Fair.

One “student”, ASSETT technical director Grant Matheny, wasn’t even technically enrolled.  According to Dr. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, Matheny was one of the most important collaborators involved in “Performing the Archive.” Along with financial support in the form of an ASSETT professional development grant, Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin was able to meet with Matheny and the ASSETT technical team, including Amanda McAndrew, to discuss unfamiliar equipment.  One of the most complicated hurdles that Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin presented to ASSETT was that of projecting moving images onto live actors. Choosing the right equipment and learning how to use it properly was vital to the success of the class. “ASSETT allowed me to sit down with them and brainstorm ideas,” says Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin.

In addition to offering equipment support, Grant Matheny attended every class and worked with technology expert Aisha Jackson to train students to use the digital projectors.  He also filmed the class, uploaded video to the Desire2Learn courseware platform, and coordinated Lecture Capture conversations between the class and virtual collaborator Jim Augustine.  “It was amazing to see the students able to work with someone across the country in New York almost as if he was in the same room,” says Matheny.  After a while, Matheny also begin contributing ideas and interacting with the performance. “He became a part of it,” said Dr. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin.  “He freely began to respond to the material.”

The final collaborative aspect of “Performing the Archive” involved instructor Robert Shannon’s Video Projection Design Concepts and Practice class. Shannon’s class experimented with the technology and then shared their discoveries with Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin’s students, allowing them to push the material further.  “So, the ASSETT grant not only affected my course but also Robert Shannon’s course,” she says.

Dr. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin speaks proudly of her students.  At the end of the semester, students delivered performances that drew from their newly acquired skills and knowledge.  It was often the non-actors, those who had few preconceived notions about what theatre could be, who most impressed her.  One senior undergraduate student from the sociology department had no acting experience at all, but, says Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, “she played brilliantly.” Student reactions to the class varied, but many thought “Performing the Archive” was one of the hardest classes they had ever taken.

Students, teachers, and collaborators alike left the class with new insights and skills. Dr. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin said that Jackson, Matheny and McAndrew “showed me what it looks like to play with technology.” And in return, she introduced her students to the power of theatre and taught them how to play with a story.  The final lesson learned by everyone involved was that rich possibilities unfold when artists, technologists, and students decide to work together and exchange knowledge.

Article written by Ashley E. Williams, ASSETT Research Assistant