The Image of Theatre

In her final issue as editor of Theatre Journal, Joanne Tompkins put together a special issue on theatre, performance and visual images. The essays in the issue engage in images in theatre and the image of theater, she writes in her introduction to the special issue. Tompkins, a professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at the University of Queensland, Australia, joined us for a Q&A about the issue and her tenure as editor of the journal.

In your introduction, you mention that visual culture and visual images have been the focus of previous journal issues. What brought about the development of this recent issue on the topic?

I came into the position of co-editor, and subsequently editor, with a range of ideas for special issues. Some of them have come into being, but inevitably, some ideas that initially seemed exciting don’t work out. That is, there’s some distance between an idea and how that idea gets ‘translated’ into what we hope is an appealing call for papers. The topic that I was planning for my final special issue failed to translate cogently from idea to call for papers, so I looked around for a replacement. At the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR) conference in Stockholm in 2016, the theme for which was “Presenting the Theatrical Past. Interplays of Artefacts, Discourses and Practices,” I listened to many papers that spoke, in some way, to images. Of course images are always helpful for description or illustration, but these papers were deploying images in comprehensive and critical ways. From there, I researched the topic and found there to be scope for further investigation now, particularly in the context of digital images in performance and in documentation and research on performance. And I looked back to the history of Theatre Journal special issues and thought that an issue on visual images could usefully build on Ric Knowles’s issue on Spectatorship and on David Roman’s on Visual Culture. Finally, I’ve found myself attracted to topics that engage with other disciplines, and this one crossed over into art history and visual culture, among others, so that clinched it. And we received some very fine contributions that, as usual, brought very different (but exciting) interpretations to the call for papers than I anticipated.

How important is the journal's new online platform for an issue like this?

The online platform is hugely important to the journal as a whole, but of course for a special issue on the image, it highlights the opportunity to examine the images in colour, in greater detail. Ironically, we were not able to upload as many images as I’d originally hoped, because, as several essays in the special issue point out, there are so many restrictions on image use. But, I’m pleased to say that one year after the platform was launched, one of the items that we have included with the December issue is an update from the December 2017 special issue on “Theatre, the Digital, and the Analysis and Documentation of Performance” in which Mark Vareschi and Mattie Burkert published an essay on eighteenth-century playbills. Their archival work has continued and the platform links to their blog.

What did you learn in putting together this issue?

I always learn so much: from the content of the individual essays to the research I do to write the editorial comment, including many interdisciplinary ways in which the visual image in and about theatre communicates. Working out a logical order for the essays provides additional insight into how the various interpretations of the special issue topic fit together, or even provide opposing perspectives. I also feel like I get to know the authors through the process (or in some cases, get to know them better), and this interaction is one of the most satisfying aspects of being an editor.

How does it feel to end your tenure as journal editor?

Editing a journal like Theatre Journal is a lot of work, work which almost always seems to coincide with day-job pressures (and holidays!), but I enjoy editing very much and am already missing both it and working with the fantastic team. It is remarkably rewarding to work with an author to help transform a piece with a good idea and a slightly shaky framework to an essay with a groundbreaking idea and a strong, integrated structure. I am proud of the journal and what I’ve been able to do while being editor, but I look forward to picking up new issues and reading them without knowing the history of each essay! 

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