For an upcoming issue, Callboard magazine recently spoke with Dean Emily Roxworthy to discuss her goals for the School, her work as a scholar-artist and more. Here, below, are a few questions and answers from that conversation. Look out for the Fall 2021 issue of Callboard, releasing this semester, for the rest of her interview.
Interview by Allison Engel
What in your growing up years led you to major in performance studies and English literature at Northwestern?
Roxworthy: I always had a sort of theatrical personality. There are lots of photos of me upstaging my younger sister, holding puppets and things like that. When I was 11, a performance group at the middle school approached me because they were preparing for an Odyssey of the Mind competition where you had to make a musical based on Greek mythology. I felt like they saw something in me and I joined their troupe. I think it is fate to end up in the Trojan Family as the Dean of SDA because my first theatre experience was ancient Greek iconography and mythology! There was no turning back after that.
In terms of English and Performance Studies in particular, my mother was a journalist and she passed down to me this journalistic interest in the larger world. That’s obviously where my love for reading and writing came in. But Performance Studies is using the principles of theatre to study the world, looking at stage performance but also the performance of everyday life. So I was very intrigued by that major when I got to Northwestern.
What led you to write about Japanese American internment camps and then to teach about Asian American theatre?
Roxworthy: Asian American theatre came from a confluence of three factors when I was in high school. One, my best friend was Japanese Canadian and I was very intrigued by the negotiation of Eastern and Western culture in her home. The second is that my father was in the import-export trade business. He used to go to Japan and bring back a lot of what I now recognize as what Edward Said refers to as “Orientalist” art objects—figurines of geisha and the like. And the third was that Japanese was my foreign language in high school. So I had a really strong interest in Japanese culture. I used to go to my best friend’s house all the time and her parents only spoke Japanese and I would get to experience Japanese culture that way.
Growing up in the Detroit area, I learned a lot about the Holocaust, as there were a lot of Holocaust survivors and their descendants there. But I had never heard of the Japanese American internment. It was not something that was in our history books at all. In college, I still never encountered that history. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school at Cornell, when I took an Asian American literature class, and for the first time learned about the internment and learned about the idea of Orientalism. I had gone to Cornell to study what I saw as Japanese theatricality in the way Imperial Japan had fought in World War II, but I came to realize that this whole construct of Japanese war-waging as theatrical was actually an Orientalist construct through a Western view. And I started to be interested in looking at that angle, how looking at Japanese people as theatrical is partly because of the amazing artistry of Japanese traditional theatre but that ends up conditioning the way we look at Japanese people and other East Asian people by association. That was part of the rationale of incarcerating Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor.
That was how I became interested in the camp experience and reconstructing the many theatrical performances staged by internees in the camps. I wanted to explore how Japanese Americans used performance as a form of resistance. There really hadn’t been any good documentation of the performances that happened in the camps, particularly the ones that were in Japanese rather than English.
Your dissertation on this, The Spectacle of Japanese American Trauma: Racial Performativity in World War II, was published as a book, correct?
Yes, in 2008. I added a few chapters and revised a lot. I worked a great deal in the archives at UC Berkeley which have now all been digitized, but at the time was all microfilm and microfiche. Every internment camp had a newspaper and the newspapers were all in Japanese and English. And while the Japanese version was supposed to be just a direct translation of the English version, it’s not clear that anyone in the U.S. government ever checked. And it turned out it was totally different.
I also spoke to survivors of the camps, including at a Day of Remembrance event at East West Players here in Little Tokyo, which is the oldest theatre company of color in the United States. Those accounts didn’t make their way into the book but into some subsequent articles. And that was the genesis for the video game project, which attempted to be innovative in a few ways. One innovation was to have the game follow a female protagonist, a Nisei girl. This was based on my conversations with Takayo Fischer, a prominent Japanese American actress who was interned in the camps, and with others who had been interned. I wanted to make a game about what their experience was as teenagers at the time.
On the subject of video games, how do you see SDA connecting with the massive video game industry?
One of the ways is a very practical, straightforward way, which is training our actors for voiceover work and motion capture work, which is hugely important to the video game industry. But I think the larger answer is what we can contribute as theatre artists. What I was trying to do with Drama in the Delta is to bring theatrical storytelling and theatrical roleplaying into 3D gaming in a very deep and intentional way. We should be asking: how does 3D roleplay function in video games? Does it actually bring the strengths of theatrical performance to the medium or could it be a deeper experience for players?
We’re a school that not only trains actors but trains them to be entrepreneurs, content creators, and multi-hyphenate artists. But we also have degrees in production and stage management, design and in dramatic writing. I think all of those strengths have so much to contribute to the video game industry and so many other industries, both within entertainment and beyond it. I have colleagues who write for games and who perform in games, and I think that much like we’ve seen playwrights infiltrate TV and film lately, I think we’re going to see a lot more of that with the video game industry. I’m already in conversations with digital media executives about how to make sure that the SDA education is really preparing students for that.