Meet Your Humanities Faculty: Ryan Donovan

Our Spring 2023 tgiFHI series continues with Ryan Donovan, Assistant Professor of Theater Studies. Here's an interview with Prof. Donovan on his research interests, method, and practice.

Can you tell me about your research interests and how they developed for you?

My current research focuses on Broadway musical theater, specifically since 1970. My interests developed for me long before I ever became a scholar. When I went to grad school for my PhD, I had no idea that I could study musical theater as an academic–it seemed impossible to me at the time. I came back into the academy after some years as a dancer in musicals. I knew that I wanted to teach and do research, so I figured out a way to combine my performance experience with the research I was being trained to do as a PhD student. The skills I learned as a performer have served me well as a scholar.  

In grad school, I was doing my course work and things didn’t always resonate with me, especially when it came to theory. I took a class on modern adaptations of Greek tragedy and decided to look into Oedipus, which led me to read disability studies and queer studies. I was intrigued by the intersection of these fields. Those fields and fat studies–which I had already developed a prior interest in–became foundational to my dissertation and, later, my first book. I started immersing myself in those fields, which led me to think about bodies and stigmatized identity more broadly and to ask how musicals cast stigmatized bodies, figuratively and literally, and how casting rarely used its potential to challenge norms.

Can you say more about the role of interdisciplinary in your work?

My work is really centered on the body. The fields that I was drawn to–disability studies, fat studies, queer studies–are all asking what bodies mean and what bodies do. Each of those fields is already interdisciplinary. Scholars in seemingly disparate disciplines from food studies to sociology, to literature and health humanities are working in these fields. And then there is my home field of musical theater studies, which is inherently interdisciplinary–we have theater scholars, dance scholars and musicologists all under the same umbrella. Coming into the academy from a practice-based background meant I wasn't necessarily thinking in terms of discipline. So, to find these fields that cohere around many different disciplines just intrinsically made sense to me to begin with.

Can you talk about your research methods? Describe what your day-to-day research practice looks like.

My research starts with going to the archive and asking questions. For instance, on the project I’m just beginning I’m looking at an archive of theater business records. I don't always know what I’m going to find, but just going and looking at primary sources points the way for me. For example, for my book I looked at the papers of the costume designer for the musical Dreamgirls. I went into the archive asking, “Is there material evidence of how that musical participated in stigmatizing fat women?” I was looking at the costume designer’s records to see when certain actors wore padding–or what's commonly called fat suits–I discovered a lot of inconsistencies, which are exciting as a researcher to find—especially so in this case because the show’s conflict is about appearance and its creators publicly changed their story about that a few times. After visiting archives, I layer on theoretical approaches to analyze what I found. I like looking back at what I find in the archive, because that's what excites me and that’s when ideas start forming for me. I love the process of research beginning there.

While I always start with the archive as much as possible, I’ll also supplement that work with interviews. The last interview I did for Broadway Bodies was with a real Broadway legend named Baayork Lee. She was in the original cast of The King and I as a child and then most famously was in the original cast of A Chorus Line. She’s an inspiration for dancers and for Asian American musical theater performers. She is just the most generous, energetic, and enthusiastic person. I was always enamored with the anonymous ensemble member who goes from show to show as much as I was with the big Broadway stars, and Baayork danced in the chorus of over a dozen Broadway shows. The kind of living history she embodies and passes on through her work is so inspiring to me. It was a real gift to be able to talk to her and include her in the book.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you'll be presenting for tgiFHI? What is a takeaway you want people to leave with?

My book, Broadway Bodies, is organized in four sections. The first looks at the Broadway body itself and asks: What is it? What are its implications for casting? How is it then perpetuated? Each section after that looks at a particular stigmatized identity. There is a section on size, a section on sexuality, and a section on disability. For tgiFHI, I'll be presenting work from the section on size. I’ll be talking about size discrimination on Broadway and how it remains the norm to discriminate against people whose bodies don't conform to the idea of the typical Broadway body.

One of the takeaways I want people to leave with is that identity and appearance-based discrimination impact all of us, whether we know it or not. Who and what we see or don't see on stage implicitly sends a message about whose bodies and whose stories producers deem neither valuable in an ethical sense, nor profitable in an economic one.

What classes are you teaching?

Last semester I taught for Duke in New York Creative Industries. I curated a series of theater outings for the student cohort in addition to a range of other outings, which included everything from dance performances, independent cinema, and museums to artist studio visits, lots of food, and walking tours. The courses I taught in New York were Reading Theater in New York and the Arts, Culture and Performance of New York. For me it was kind of full circle life moment since I lived in New York for over twenty years before coming to Duke and it was a joy to get to share my hometown with my students.

This spring I’m teaching a seminar called American Musicals, which is always one of my favorite classes to teach. In the class, we interrogate the definition of “American” and “musical” and how that's changed over time. We think about who's included in those terms, who's not, and how the musical is a form where theater works out questions of national identity, ability, gender, race, and sexuality.

Associated Program(s)