Profile: Shonni Enelow

Whether writing about theater or participating in it, Professor Shonni Enelow is committed to producing new knowledge, new ideas, new approaches.

On leave for the 2015-2016 school year, Enelow is currently researching sweat in performance for a project tentatively titled “Sweat in Public.” The project seeks to examine the relationship between affect, materiality, and labor in performance, especially through the works of Tennessee Williams and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Enelow argues that Williams’s characters, who talk excessively about sweat, reveal Williams’s thinking about the affective technology of performance. Enelow also contends that Fassbinder frames the sweat of his actors to index and reflect on the labor of performance. For her project, Enelow may also study the works of Elfriede Jelineck and Reza Abdoh.

This year Enelow published the acclaimed Method Acting and Its Discontents: On American Psycho-Drama, which analyzes the influence of the cultural atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s on American theater history. Combining cultural analysis with dramaturgical criticism and performance theory, the monograph provides a new perspective on Lee Strasberg, the Actors Studio, and contemporary drama, and it explores method acting’s revelation of the tensions within mid-century notions of individual and collective identity.

Enelow became interested in researching method acting after she earned a BFA in theater from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and entered a PhD program in comparative literature and literary theory at the University of Pennsylvania. “I realized there was very little scholarship on a practice that completely transformed American performance,” she said. There were “many popular manuals, many polemics, but very little scholarship that discussed the historical context for method acting’s emergence and why it became so famous and infamous.”

Enelow has recently delivered a series of lectures, both nationally and internationally, on topics from her monograph.

In September, she introduced a screening of William Greaves’s film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. In her introductory lecture, which drew from her book’s chapter on the film, she spoke about Greaves’s dual career as documentary filmmaker and method acting teacher. She also discussed the film’s resonances with 1960s cultural debates on theatricality and authenticity. 

Also in September, Enelow delivered a talk with conceptual artist David Levine at “Bystanders,” Levine’s gallery installation in Toronto. They discussed the link between the theories of method acting and the mythologies of 1960s and 1970s paranoid possession thrillers. Enelow talked about the emotional memory exercise, one of the core exercises of Strasberg’s technique. She and Levine then performed a version of the exercise on one of Levine’s actors. “I gave my best Strasberg impression,” Enelow said.

This month, Enelow lectured at an event she co-organized called “Method Acting and Documentary” at UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art in Brooklyn. The event also featured a performance by David Levine called “Private Moment,” a short film by James Kienitz-Wilkins called Special Features, and clips from a recent documentary called Actress by Brandy Burre. The four then partook in a panel discussion about acting and documentary, a pairing that Enelow admits “may once have seemed odd or even paradoxical but which more and more artists today are exploring.”

Enelow does not simply research theater. “I've been making theater for a long time,” she said. She works as both a performer and a dramaturge, and she has written numerous plays and performance pieces. Most recently, she wrote the text for “The Power of Emotion,” an experimental opera. Last year, along with director Katherine Brook and composer Taylor Brook, she showed a work-in-progress version of the piece at the Public Theater's Under the Radar festival.

Given Enelow’s theatrical background, it is no wonder she seeks to combine performance theory with cultural criticism in her research. “I always want to think about history and the broad landscape of emergence for cultural forms,” she said, “but I also really care about aesthetic and theoretical practice, and the ways they make possible new forms of knowledge that challenge and transform convention.”

This is one of a series of faculty research profiles that will appear in English Connect