Sean Metzger is a self-proclaimed workaholic. Since arriving at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in 2012 from his first tenure-track teaching post at Duke University, the professor and author, who works at the intersections of visual culture as well as Asian American, Caribbean, Chinese, film, performance and sexuality studies, has also become the theater department’s vice chair of undergraduate studies and the president of Performance Studies international.
Most recently, the Bay Area native became the co-editor of Theatre Journal, the preeminent scholarly journal for theater studies, and in May he will celebrate the publication of his second book. Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he is staying safer at home on campus where, for the past seven years, he has lived among students as one of 20 faculty-in-residence who provide educational programming, mentorship and fun activities for students living on the Hill. Though there’s now a diminished student body, Metzger, who is also part of the film, television and digital media faculty, is keeping plenty busy with his spring quarter classes as well as his various writing and editing projects. He recently took a break to chat about his life at UCLA during the pandemic, his work with Theatre Journal and his after-hours love for small-screen programming and superhero films.
How are you?
What does a typical day look like for you right now?
I take turns with my partner walking the dog a couple of times a day (Cleo is a chow mix who is a hit with students). Otherwise, I spend my days reading material for class, prepping slides for my lectures, and responding to Ph.D. dissertations or undergraduate student concerns. Recently we held our virtual open house, and that event took a lot of prep time. I’m trying to block out one day a week for my own writing and editing projects. At night, I’m prone to binge-watching series: I just caught up with “Babylon Berlin” and am going through “Ozark” right now. I’ll turn to “Westworld” and “How to Get Away with Murder” soon.
How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic is going to impact the theater?
Even though I’m quite depressed by the pandemic, I think it’s going to generate a lot of innovation in terms of theatrical practice and its relation to new technologies. There are multiple ways of thinking about what “viral” means — in terms of contagion but also in terms of how we reach each other and contact each other through different media platforms. This is going to continue, and I see a lot of theater companies moving in that direction.
What about in terms of the stories that might be told?
This quarter at UCLA TFT, theater professor Sylvan Oswald and documentary film professor Kristy Guevara-Flanagan are both doing classes that explicitly explore this topic. I am also working with the Skoll Center to encourage student work in this vein.
What are you doing, exactly?
We are exploring the pedagogy pillar within the Skoll Center’s overall mission. Our idea is to curate a handful of student projects recommended to us by professors who are working in the social impact space (whether or not the individuals themselves use that vocabulary to describe the activity). During the course of this quarter, we will investigate and pilot a program in which the Skoll Center enhances the student learning experience in whatever medium a student has chosen to create a response to the current pandemic.
What was it like, after the announcement that UCLA was moving Spring quarter classes to remote learning, to have to suddenly prepare for teaching?
It was easier for those of us who are working in theater and performance on the studies end because a lot of our work involves people reading and responding to that work. Theater professor Michelle Carriger and I teach larger classes for undergraduates, so we already had PowerPoint presentations assembled. It was just a matter of shifting them to an online platform. Even so, I do like to do activities with my students where they get up and do things in class together, such as a tango lesson, which I often incorporate into my classes, but that part isn’t possible now. I'm just talking to my computer all the time, so it’s hard to get a sense of what does and does not register with students.
Outside of UCLA, you recently became the co-editor of Theatre Journal.
Yes. It’s the official quarterly publication of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. I have quite a lot of latitude to shape what I want to do. I’m wholly responsible for two of the issues each year and, for one of those, I curate articles around a specific theme that I select. Overall, the range of what gets submitted for consideration is really astonishing. I’ve been reading stuff about Senegalese drama as well as stuff about Shakespeare.
Your first issue came out in March. What’s inside?
It has four essays: One is about contemporary Syria and representations of Syria through photography in a “post-truth” climate. Another is a feminist take on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s “Lulu” plays. Then there’s an essay on Canadian Mohawk (Haudenosaunee) writer E. Pauline Johnson, who is often considered one of the earliest Native American authors and performers. The last one is about Shakespeare in Iran, which I knew nothing about; now I have a good idea how his works have been incorporated into the culture since the 19th century.
Have you started thinking about the next issue?
Yes. It will be called “Minor Asias.” I’ve been thinking about what it means to think about Asian populations when they’re not the majority but the minority in another place: I just finished writing “The Chinese Atlantic: Seascapes and the Theatricality of Globalization” (Indiana University Press, 2020), which looks at Chinese cultural and financial circulation in places like the Caribbean and South Africa. I also co-edited a special issue, “Expressions of Asian Caribbeanness” in the journal Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas and worked on a catalogue essay for “Circles and Circuits: Chinese Caribbean Art” on these same themes. Before COVID-19 came along, there were also two conference and festivals planned within three months of each other (GENesis 2020 and the CAATA ConFest 2020) that would be focusing on Asian diasporic themes, so it seemed like the right time to do an issue that recognized this emphasis on Asia in transnational contexts.
You’re also the outgoing president of Performance Studies international.
I’ve been the president for four years and I’ve been on the board, which is scattered across the globe, for six years. Performance Studies international is a group of scholars, artists and curators who are thinking about performance as an object of analysis as well as a methodology. We do an annual in-person conference somewhere in the world; this summer it was going to be in Croatia, but we postponed it. We've been thinking about what can we do in the interim. How can we keep a conversation and a practice going in response to world events right now? I don't know what that is going to look like yet, but I’m pretty excited about it because you have so many minds and artists from different places thinking about a similar issue that is affecting us all but in different ways.
What do you like to do in what little time off you have?
I’m usually reading for work and pleasure. At the moment, I have a pile of Asian Canadian plays as well as William Ging Wee Dere’s memoir “Being Chinese in Canada” on the shelf. In this vein of fun and scholarship, I’m also reading Philip K. Dick’s “Man in the High Castle” and critical responses to it. I’m reading plays by indigenous theater artists for a project on a longer timeline. Oh, and I recently returned to my former colleague Priscilla Wald’s book “Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative,” because she was doing an online seminar that I attended.
Do you watch movies?
Despite my politics and especially my thoughts about gender, I’m a big superhero film fan.
What are your favorites?
I know the genre is quite male heavy, but it does allow for strong female characters, which I like a lot; I’m quite into the “Wonder Woman” series. I also liked the Netflix Marvel series “Luke Cage,” with all of this African American culture and literature in the mise en scene, like Chester Himes’ novel “The Heat’s On.” Little things like that are quite compelling to me. I like it when filmmakers give viewers cultural signifiers to think about.