College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Forging interdisciplinary conversations

Ann Shanahan

Shortly before she started in her new role as chair of the theatre department, a colleague shared with Ann Shanahan an inspiring reminder of what involvement in the arts can do for an individual, and in turn for the world.

The article explained the role that music and theatre played in the college life of Purdue’s most famous alumnus, Neil Armstrong.

Of course, Armstrong is best known as the astronaut who in 1969 became the first human to walk on the moon. But as an undergraduate working toward a 1955 degree in aeronautical engineering, Armstrong co-directed a musical, titled “La Fing Stock,” for the 1954 Varsity Varieties program, played baritone in the “All-American” Marching Band, and served as musical director of his fraternity, Phi Delta Theta.

The article reinforced the notion that it took a well-rounded person with the technical skills and imaginative capacities to fly to the moon and then to deliver a line as poetic as “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” once he set foot on the lunar surface.

“It got me thinking about my students at Loyola, some students in sciences, and what good artists they are,” said Shanahan, who started as Purdue’s theatre chair in January after teaching for 19 years at Loyola University Chicago. “I thought about how it’s wonderful that Purdue has chosen its slogan for the 150-year celebration to be ‘Giant Leaps.’

“Here we’ve got an engineering student at Purdue, Neil Armstrong, who was also a musician and a theatre artist. Who is to say that he wasn’t able to make his giant leaps because he had that artistic background, let alone to narrate it? That’s a poem he wrote for his experience. That’s an artistic process of framing a story – ‘This is the meaning of what I’m doing’ – and then Purdue chooses that as the slogan.”

Every student might not leave an imprint on society as visibly as Armstrong did, but Shanahan views the interdisciplinary influences that aided his development as models for what she hopes the theatre department and Rueff School can help provide today’s undergraduates.

“We can’t make such giant leaps in technology or sciences without also training our brains in the humanities and in the arts,” she said. “So I’m thinking of how we shine light on what we’re doing here in theatre, that we’re training brains and bodies that will go to the moon, that will cure cancer.”

Shanahan says that the Jesuit missions of knowledge in the service of others and educating the whole person greatly influenced her work as an educator and theatre artist. The Jesuit sensibility also appealed to her own interests, as Shanahan initially chose to become a theatre artist in part because, as an embodied, interdisciplinary art, pursuing theatre allowed her to simultaneously engage mind, body, and spirit.

Those interests and experiences have only strengthened her feeling as an administrator that the theatre department should encourage such disciplinary intermingling – especially at a STEM-focused school like Purdue.

“I found over and over again teaching in the core classes at Loyola that scientists in my classes were among the most creative folks,” Shanahan said.

“A lot of things drew me here, but academically, culturally, the idea of interdisciplinarity, of conversations between things as being necessary, of breaking out of these silos between, ‘This is my field, this is my department’ and having those cross-disciplinary conversations, that’s where I thrived at Loyola. “A lot of my work is in women’s studies/gender studies, which is inherently interdisciplinary. That’s where we’re going to move the world forward – in forging interdisciplinary conversations – especially those that include the presence of real bodies, such as theatre and dance.”

Shanahan was pleased to learn that her department is already engaged in some of those conversations with rigorous graduate degrees in performance and design and production.

As a scholar-artist in theatre direction, Shanahan theorizes about the relation of gender to space and the capacity of theatrical representations of space to further research in these areas – specifically to forge liminal spaces “between” boundaried territories or binaries. A significant portion of Shanahan’s time is devoted to enabling collaboration, in and out of the theatre. Now as an administrator, she believes that background will help her manage the many responsibilities that come with leading a department whose work continuously crosses artistic and disciplinary boundaries.

“What a director is doing is negotiating, navigating, collaborating between the various constituencies in addition to the practical realities of putting on a play,” Shanahan said. “I see a director’s work as really tied with this field we call dramaturgy, which is the science of dramatic structure. That’s where the liberal arts come into what we do – researching the world of the play, thinking about how that world intersects with the world of the audience.

“So a director really draws on several sensibilities when they create the event that comes together in a meaningful community experience. I think it’s no accident that a lot of directors end up being called on for administration.”