Today, February 16, 2023, is Anthropology Day!
The Anthropologists was founded in 2008, named for the primary definition of anthropology: the study of people in time and space. This defined our most essential ingredients: an ensemble of actors and a director/writer who wanted to study people in different places and time, using those two fundamental elements as storytelling tools.
We wanted theatre that made sense of the most pressing issues of our time, theatre that embraced complex characters who weren’t often seen onstage, theatre that shortened the distance between people - be that historical or geographical.
Rather than start with an already written script, we began creating theatrical works using source material.
Our earliest endeavor, in 2007, sought to challenge a famous explorer’s mythological status, using text pulled directly from his journals (The Christopher Columbus Project). From there we realized that our greatest potential lay in looking for the voices of those who were not a part of the historical record. People who had been intentionally excluded or lost in the footnotes. In 2009, using newspaper reports, memoir, recipes and scant photographic archives, we told the story of immigrant women on the Lower East Side rioting for lower food prices in 1917 (Give Us Bread).
I recently found a piece of text I’d saved years ago, from a blog entry on ethnography (a type of qualitative study used in anthropology):
“Anthropologists are fascinated by what inspires, motivates, structures, influences and inhibits people and social systems. They want to understand performances, rituals, mythologies, genders, codes, interactions, spaces, places, systems and more.” (source unknown)
This seemed to me a brilliant description of theatre! This was, and continues to be, the driving force behind our own artistic inquiry.
Over the years, we’ve continued to gather source material - cultural artifacts, scientific research, first-hand testimonies, photographic archives and more. Using physical theatre techniques, we bring these research archives to life, unearthing hidden stories. Through live performance we grapple with difficult questions, creating space for contemplation and action. Our guiding questions are:
Can we use source material to challenge our own assumptions?
Can we use research to broaden or break dominant narratives?
Can we use archival materials to better understand our present?
These questions are rich and complicated and continue to evolve the art and artmaking itself.
This year, we are forging a partnership with the American Anthropological Association. Their motto -- “Advancing Knowledge, Solving Human Problems.” -- is, I think, a beautiful counterpoint for our own motto, "Where Art Meets Action." Thanks to the vision of Executive Director Ed Liebow, we have co-created a fellowship position for an anthropologist-in-residence at our theatre company.
We are thrilled by this possibility to deepen our research practice and expand what dramaturgy for new plays can look like. We hope you'll continue to follow us on this journey. We'll be announcing ways to connect with our anthropologist-in-residence soon!
Image credit: American Anthropological Association