By Louisa Brady
Recently I spoke with Prof. Brandon Woolf, a visiting instructor who taught two courses in the English Department this semester: “Drama in Performance” and “History of Theater and Drama II.” I learned all about his academic history, his two ongoing book projects, and his history of teaching and performing in both New York and Berlin.
Prof. Woolf did his undergraduate degree at Columbia University, receiving a B.A. in Philosophy and English Literature in 2005. From there, he went on to U.C.-Berkeley for his Ph.D. in Performance Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory, which he completed in 2014. While a graduate student, Prof. Woolf lived in Berlin, researching contemporary German theater and performance.
When I asked him if his academic interests changed at all over time, Prof. Woolf replied in the affirmative. “I began at Columbia as a philosophy major in a very analytical department,” he said. “It wasn’t until much later in college that I added literary and performance studies and became very interested in aesthetic and critical theory.” Prof. Woolf’s interest in academic literary study began with a Milton course he took at Columbia with Prof. Julie Crawford. “Even though I was the least talented close-reader of 17th-century poetry,” Prof. Woolf recalled, “I begged the professor to let me into her graduate seminar on Donne and Herbert the following semester, knowing full well I’d get a B or C in the course but wanting to be in the presence of that passion, of the kind of person who found such joy each day. She let me into the course. And I got a B-. And it was fantastic.”
Later in college, while studying abroad in Scotland, Prof. Woolf stumbled upon the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, and it was then that “things truly clicked.” He “became obsessed with everything Brecht,” going on to direct his first Brecht play at the end of college and write an honors thesis on Brecht’s aesthetic theory. Prof. Woolf commented that his work is no longer “Brecht-centric,” but “most of what continues to excite [him] is somehow attempting to contact that spirit.” He added, “I remain fascinated by that combination of interests…fascinated by the power and the faith he found in the theater – theater as a social practice.”
As a graduate student, Prof. Woolf taught at U.C.-Berkeley and the Freie Universität in Berlin, where he was subsequently hired for a year as a visiting lecturer in Performance Studies. After researching and working for almost a decade in Germany, Prof. Woolf decided to return to New York, both to teach and to explore the theater scene here. He applied for, and ultimately was offered, a job in the Program in Dramatic Literature in the English Department. “It seemed like an absolute dream scenario – but one that was so very unlikely. But I was very, very fortunate.”
Prof. Woolf said that having the opportunity to teach exciting new courses has been one of the highlights of his time at NYU. The first course, “History of Theater and Drama II,” is the second course in a sequence of two courses required for the Dramatic Literature major. The course surveys Western theater, drama, and performance histories from the 18th through mid-20th centuries. In the course, students read texts from these periods as well as study how the social, political, economic, and cultural conditions affect aesthetic theater output.
His second course, “Drama in Performance,” focuses on “the dynamic relationships between theater, performance, and the city of New York.” While exploring critical approaches, students in this course also think about the city and its varied performances. The course ultimately addresses “how performance serves as a mode of understanding urban processes.” Prof. Woolf and his students make weekly trips to a wide array of performances and do theoretical, contextual readings in preparation. Among this semester’s performances are pieces by Okwui Okpokwasili, Daaimah Mubashshir, and Suzan-Lori Parks.
In addition to his classes, Prof. Woolf is also working on two long-term book projects. Postdramatic Theatre and Form, which will be out from Bloomsbury in 2018, “examines the stakes of continuing to use ‘postdramatic’ as a lens for studying contemporary performance.” The collection ultimately insists that despite “seemingly limitless performance practices” within the postdramatic, postdramatic theater is actually a formal category of performance. His second project, tentatively called Stages of Disavowal, expands Prof. Woolf’s dissertation project. This book reads Berlin as “a paradigmatic site to explore how theater and performance provide us with means to reshape our infrastructures of public life.” Prof. Woolf explores Berlin’s current reputation as a global “creative mecca” in contrast with the fraught history of this emergence. Of this project, he says, “I focus on the seemingly paradoxical circumstance in which those artists who receive public support make use of it in order to critically question its conditions and, simultaneously, work to imagine just how infrastructures of public culture could, even should, be organized differently.”
Finally, Prof. Woolf is also a theater-maker, having founded two public performance ensembles. The UC Movement for Efficient Privatization, founded in 2009, featured an activist performance ensemble that engaged performance as a tactical means of “creative protest.” Prof. Woolf worked with this group during his time at U.C.-Berkeley. The second group, Shakespeare im Park Berlin, created site-specific performances in Berlin’s Görlitzer Park and other significant locations, in hopes of “rethinking those dynamic spaces as sites of multi-lingual and inter-cultural performance, (post)dramatic experimentation, and participatory art.”
Since Shakespeare im Park Berlin closed in 2014, Prof. Woolf has worked at NYU-AD Arts Center, Barrow Group Theater, Dixon Place, the Connelly Theater, and the Kennedy Center. Additionally, he says, he has several New York-based projects in the works, including “a biographical reimagining of Brecht’s Mother Courage as a site of the destruction of the American ‘home’; a devised investigation of the five pages in the Talmud that tackle the ‘Messiah’; and a song-cycle about contemporary Black-Jewish relations.”
The English Department is lucky to have the multi-talented Prof. Woolf, with a strong, varied academic background, a range of ongoing projects, and a passion for what he does for theater.
You can visit Prof. Woolf’s website and read more about his projects here: http://www.brandonwoolfperformance.com/