Eleanor Owicki is a Powers Fellow who has committed her doctoral studies to observing cultural and political conflict through the medium of performance. She is a Performance as Public Practice student in the Theatre and Dance Department of the College of Fine Arts.
Her research focuses on performance in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where violence raged between Catholics and Protestants from the 1960s to the 1990s. The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, has set a path for peace in the state. “It’s a segregated society in a lot of ways, and that breeds tension. Also, many people are still traumatized by the violence,” said Eleanor. “It’s an issue of ‘what do we do with all of this history, how do we move forward? Do we not talk about it, or do we address the issues in a systematic way?’” This struggle has prompted Eleanor to utilize performance and performance history to explore the problems facing the society.
“I’m arguing that if you look at theater you get a better idea of what the issues are and how they might be worked out. You can also see the value of people coming together, even if it’s just for an evening.” Eleanor is looking at nine different plays, and examining what happens on stage during the performance itself, paying attention to the artists’ interpretation of the conflict and the state’s future.
Eleanor is excited for the opportunities that the Powers Fellowship gives her research project. “The Powers Fellowship gives me the funds to do primary research, and the flexibility to get the most out of it. I’ll be going to Belfast for the fifth time in October during an arts festival. It is such a luxury to have full attention on my dissertation. I don’t have to worry about lesson plans, I feel like it’s really letting me go deeper into my research.”
Eleanor has loved performance for as long as she can remember, but also knew that her interest wasn’t in being a performer. “When I studied theater history at NYU, I knew I wanted to make theatre my profession in a different way,” she said. When she received her degree from NYU, she was drawn to this program at UT for many reasons.
"This really is a fantastic program. My adviser, Charlotte Canning, is amazing. The program encourages us to use both theatre history and performance studies to examine all different kinds of performances, from theatre to ritual to daily life. Also, the program has a real commitment to thinking about performance as more than an isolated event - it’s always part of a community. My work focuses on traditional theatre, but the program has given me a much richer understanding of the many kinds of performance in Northern Ireland. Events like parades and funerals have political significance, and the way you talk or move through space can tell someone what community you belong to. Knowing all of that helps me understand what happens on stage on a deeper level."
For Eleanor, the theaters in Belfast have been welcoming and helpful. “Traditionally, in Irish performance studies, the focus has been on the script. People are excited to talk about their performances in broader ways. I have tremendous experiences with the directors and actors.”
Each chapter of Eleanor’s research looks at different topics, and as the research has progressed, she has been able to realize unexpected additions. “There is now a chapter about people who weren’t a part of the two communities. For example, one of the works I examine is about a Jewish community, and it takes place in a synagogue. It’s writing them back into the history of the state. There is also one about the gay community, which faces discrimination from both Protestants and Catholics.”
She feels that her time at UT has been marked by a wealth of resources and opportunity. “It’s such a big school, and there’s so much going on. There are wonderful speakers. Last year, Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland was here. All of the high-profile events and resources are great, and I’ve gotten to take lots of fascinating classes in other departments that impacted my work, such as Irish Literature. We’re just so lucky that there are so many different brilliant scholars and different perspectives.”
Eleanor plans to stay in academia, and hopes that her dissertation will wind up being a book. She is drawing from a number of disciplines and scholarship in her work and that “provide other angles to those larger debates about the peace process in Northern Ireland and what’s at stake.”