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April 10: New Directions Grant Allows History Professor To Examine Theater's Role in Shaping Collective Memory


Jonathan Potts

New Directions Grant Allows Carnegie Mellon History Professor
To Examine the Theater's Role in Shaping Collective Memory

PITTSBURGH—Paul Eiss, an associate professor of anthropology and history at Carnegie Mellon University, has been awarded a New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to study the role that popular regional theater in Yucatan, Mexico, plays in shaping the local cultural politics of memory. The grant will allow Eiss to receive training in theater and performance studies.    

Paul EissNew Directions fellowships are for faculty members in the humanities or humanistic social sciences who received their doctorates between five and 15 years ago and wish to acquire training in topics outside their own disciplines. Eiss is the third Carnegie Mellon faculty member in four years to receive the award. In 2003, Associate Philosophy Professor Jeremy Avigad received a grant to study the development of mathematics in the 19th century; and in 2005, Associate Philosophy Professor Alex London received a fellowship to develop rigorous standards for evaluating whether medical research is conducted ethically.     

"Given the relatively small size of our humanities departments compared to other universities, it's a great honor and testament to the strength of our faculty to have three of its members chosen for New Directions Fellowships in such a short period of time," said John Lehoczky, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon.    

Eiss has dedicated the last 15 years to archival and ethnographic research in Maya-speaking communities in contemporary Yucatan on topics including labor, religion, and cultural and historical memory. Through his work with Carnegie Mellon's Center for the Arts in Society, Eiss became interested in both the place of memory in the arts and the insights that performance studies offer for the study of cultural memory. His interest was also shaped by courses he has developed at Carnegie Mellon, such as "The Politics and Culture of Memory" and "Arts, Anthropology and Empire."    

"The New Directions Fellowship is one of the only opportunities I know of that will allow me to step out of my own boundaries and train to do something radically different," Eiss said. "It offers not only a means of support, but also a challenge to work across the boundaries between disciplines and beyond them."

Eiss will use his fellowship to lay the groundwork for future research into Yucatan's teatro regional — a tradition of popular theater dating from the mid-19th century that draws upon indigenous and Spanish performative traditions — as well as contemporary cultural forms like televised soap operas, or telenovelas. Eiss hopes that his study will demonstrate the powerful influence that Yucatan's provocative regional theater continues to exert in shaping citizens' interpretation and memory of political and cultural events. The theater has broad popular appeal, and its performances are rife with social and political satire. Residents make frequent references to the performances, and their memory of important local events is often shaped by how those events were portrayed in the theater.  

"The theater itself becomes a source of cultural memory that provides a context for performing, embodying and remembering what it means to be indigenous, mestizo [mixed race], Yucatecan and Mexican," Eiss said.     

The New Directions Fellowship will allow Eiss to expand his academic training into theater arts, as well as Latin American theater, through Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama, the Department of Theater Arts at the University of Pittsburgh, the Department of Performance Studies at New York University, the World Performance Project at Yale University, and NYU's Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics.     

Eiss will also use the grant to support the creation of a digital archive of a rare cache of hundreds of original scripts, dating from the 1930s through 1990s, which he recently discovered in a home whose former owner had been a copyist — a person whose job was to make copies of scripts for actors. He hopes that this archive will serve not only as a resource for future study, but also as a way to preserve an invaluable part of Yucatan's and Mexico's cultural heritage — one that he hopes might provide inspiration for Yucatecan regional theater troupes in the future.