Focus on Faculty

Emily Sahakian

Photo of Emily Sahakian
Emily Sahakian (Photos by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Emily Sahakian, associate professor of theatre and French, has developed community partnerships that include a mentorship program at local high schools, an after-school theatre program at a middle school, and workshops at local nonprofit organizations.

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I double majored in theatre and French at Grinnell College, which is a small liberal arts college in Iowa. After college, I moved to France to teach English in the Parisian suburbs and completed my master’s degree (Maîtrise) in theatre studies at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3). Then I earned a joint Ph.D. from Northwestern University (in theatre and drama) and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (in sociology). At UGA, I’m an associate professor, jointly appointed in the departments of theatre and film studies and Romance languages. My responsibilities are split evenly between research and teaching. I teach courses and supervise student research in theatre and performance studies and Romance languages (mostly French-language literatures and cultures). I also serve as undergraduate coordinator of theatre and co-coordinate a joint Double Dawgs degree between theatre and nonprofit management and leadership in the School of Social Work.

When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
In the spring of 2011, as I was completing revisions on my dissertation, a job was posted at UGA seeking a candidate who could teach theatre studies and French courses and collaborate with the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Institute. The number of scholars who work between theatre and French is quite small, and there are even fewer of us who focus on the Caribbean, so several of my friends and colleagues read the posting and forwarded it to me. It was funny because the job seemed to be written for me, so much so that I was confused, since I didn’t know anyone at UGA and had never read such a specific job description before. I later learned that it was a response to the president’s initiative to hire faculty across units, and the departments happened to have needs that intersected with my background exactly. I applied in February, interviewed in March, got the job in April, defended my dissertation in May, packed in June, and moved to Athens in July.

What are your favorite courses and why?
My favorite courses include “Community-based Theatre” (the first service-learning course in theatre at UGA), “French-language Theatre,” and all of my graduate seminars (on topics like theatre and performance historiography, performing French colonial legacies, and African diaspora theatre and performance in the multilingual Americas). My favorite part of teaching is facilitating discussion, so the courses I enjoy most are the workshop- and seminar-style ones. Rather than giving students answers, I thrive when I am challenging students to articulate their own readings and explanations, asking penetrating questions, synthesizing ideas and putting different perspectives into dialogue. I also love facilitating experiences where my students learn as a community— courses that enroll students across disciplines, courses that meld theory and experiential learning and courses that engage students and community partners outside of our classroom.

What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
As part of the Experience UGA program, I worked with high school teacher Ashley Goodrich and Claire Coenen of the Office of Service-Learning to concoct an ambitious plan to bring hundreds of 10th graders to UGA to experience the interdisciplinary arts and to implement a youth leadership program surrounding the trip through my “Community-based Theatre” course. Watching our dreams unfold before our eyes was definitely a highlight of my career at UGA. Another highlight was devising, with education professor Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor, an interactive play about the state of public K-12 schooling in Georgia as part of a summer course we co-taught. Theatre enabled us to discuss timely issues like standardized testing, highly mobile and homeless students, English-only mandates and the cutting of arts and language programs, and to engage in community problem-solving with a group of pre- and in-service teachers. The icing on the cake was seeing our performance on the front page of the Athens Banner-Herald. Watching staged readings of my co-translation (with Andrew Daily) of the play “Histoire de nègre” (Tale of Black Histories) has been so rewarding. Bringing the internationally renowned Caribbean director Gilbert Laumord to UGA to work with our students on a staged reading as part of an international conference about the play was amazing. Another highlight was presenting research from my book at the Université des Antilles in Martinique: it was thrilling and humbling to bring the research to the place whose realities, art, culture and intellectualism inspired it. Of course, I was incredibly honored to receive the Michael F. Adams Early Career Scholar Award and the Service-Learning Excellence in Teaching Award.

How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?
My research focuses on the French-speaking islands of the Caribbean, French-language theatre in international context and the legacies of slavery and colonialism. My first book, “Staging Creolization: Women’s Theater and Performance from the French Caribbean” (2017) illuminates previously neglected Francophone Caribbean women writers who can be considered among the best playwrights of their generation and draws from original archival research and oral histories to document for the first time the history of their plays’ international production and reception—in the Caribbean, France and the United States. While scholars have generally framed “creolization” as a linguistic phenomenon, I theorize it as a performance-based practice of reinventing meaning and resisting the status quo, and thus expand our broader understanding of Caribbean theatre. My book has been described as “impeccably researched, impressively documented, and original in its bringing together cultural analysis, textual analysis, and performance analysis” (Judith Miller), “essential for Caribbean specialists” (Jeannine Murray-Román, review in “Modern Drama”) and “essential reading—across all disciplines and languages—for scholars and students alike of theater and performance studies” (Nicholas R. Jones, review in “Bulletin of the Comediantes”). My book has been reviewed in eight scholarly journals, across a range of scholarly and disciplinary topics (i.e., theatre studies, drama, French studies, Caribbean history, women’s literature, theatre of the early-modern Hispanic world), which indicates a wide impact. The number of important invitations for talks and publications that I’ve received from the U.S., Canada, France and the Caribbean also speaks to my research’s national and international impact.

How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
My research and teaching are always inspiring, influencing and driving each other. I love to share my research with my students, and I think that the experience of witnessing and participating in the creation of a research agenda or collaboration is a valuable pedagogical exercise for students. I like to take my students “behind the scenes” to discuss and experience how research is planned, conducted and executed. A line of research inquiry I am developing with Jennifer Palmer in the history department—about what performance can teach us about history and what history can teach us about performance—uses our classrooms as our laboratory through interactive theatre workshops with our students based in archival documents from French history.

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
One of my students in the “Community-based Theatre” course told me that my teaching taught him to listen: “After your course, I realized that my friends often talk at each other, each one waiting for his or her turn to speak,” he said (paraphrasing); “your course taught me to truly listen and to engage in discussion.” After this conversation, I realized that effective, compassionate analytical listening was in fact one of the major skills I hoped students would gain. Critical thinking is another big one for me, which includes formulating and reformulating explanations, synthesizing ideas and questioning our assumptions. I also hope that my courses teach students to write and speak with precision, to make reasoned choices, to appreciate their unique creativity, intellect and problem-solving skills and to see the impact they can make in their daily lives.

Photo of Emily Sahakian in the Fine Arts theatre.Describe your ideal student.
My ideal student is thoughtful, curious and open-minded—someone who engages not only with the professor but the other students as well. They enjoy learning and take the reins to make the course content meaningful on their own terms. It is a student who rises to the challenge of continually going deeper in their understanding of the material and questioning their own assumptions; someone who is patient and trusting enough to sit with complex ideas and contradictory truths, to reflect and to follow me and their fellow students as we investigate and build on our understanding of the topic at hand together as a group.

Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is …
My favorite place on campus is probably the Founders Memorial Garden. The path I walk between my two departments, from the Fine Arts Building to Gilbert Hall, goes right through the Founders Memorial Garden; the walk is always beautiful and energizing. The Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, Latin American and Caribbean Studies Institute and Office of Service-Learning houses feel like homes on campus to me: the environments are welcoming, and these units give me invaluable support to make my big dreams come to fruition. The Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries Building is impeccable and my favorite place to host speakers. I also have to say that I really enjoy the Ramsey Center and am not embarrassed when I run into students there (though I can only speak for myself).

Beyond the UGA campus, I like to …
… spend time with my family and friends. I have a 4-year-old, so we like to do things like go to the farmers market, the pool and the playground. I also love to travel, both for work and vacation. Thanks to UGA’s Sarah H. Moss Fellowship, I was able to travel with my family to Paris, to present my research and conduct new research for my second book, a couple years ago. We will return to France (to Paris and Lyon) for more research and presentations combined with family travel in May, thanks again to the foundation’s fellowship. We are excited.

Community/civic involvement includes …
This one is big for me, as you can see from my other answers. As part of my “Community-based Theatre” course, I work to develop reciprocal community partnerships, based in the needs of both groups. Examples include a mentorship program with the local high schools, an after-school theatre program at a middle school and workshops at local community organizations and a housing project adjacent to our campus. My community involvement also involves sharing my research beyond university and academic communities. Speaking at the international theatre festival in Avignon allows me to engage with artists and theatre-goers who do not necessarily read my scholarship. As co-translator and dramaturg for the community-based play “Histoire de nègre” (Tale of Black Histories), I have been able to share my research with community members in several U.S. locations, as well as in France and Martinique.

Favorite book/movie (and why)?
Maryse Condé’s “Tales from the Heart” (Le cœur à rire et à pleurer) is my favorite book to teach, and Condé is probably my favorite author. The way she blends together irony and sincerity is brilliant. I love Condé because she is constantly tricking her readers and playing with our assumptions, clichés and ready-made values. She challenges me to think and speak the true complexity and contradictions of our realities.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be …
The first time I taught my “Community-Based Theatre” course, in the spring of my first year at UGA, we created a show, “He Said, She Said, Ze Said,” about social problems facing our campus and community. I’ll never forget those students, the trust they had in me and my new course and the zeal with which they approached the course content and the culminating performance. It was exhilarating to watch the arena theatre fill up with people: we ran out of chairs, so folks sat down on the floor. I was so proud of my students for the performance and the dialogue they facilitated. Collaborating with the Lambda Alliance, Project Safe and other organizations enabled us to make our performance relevant to our campus. I realized that day how my “Community-based Theatre” course enables my students to shine through social action.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
In November, as part of the Spotlight on the Arts Festival, in the Fine Arts Theatre, we will debut a unique performance about incarceration and labor, created in collaboration with Spelman College, area prisons, archivists and community partners. The project is co-directed by my colleague Amma Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin (theatre and film and African American studies), myself, and, from Spelman, Julie B. Johnson and Keith Arthur Bolden. With our students, we devised the play from several archives, notably the Special Collections Libraries and particularly the upcoming Hargrett exhibit on Georgia’s history of convict labor. It is also based in and inspired by the contemporary writings of incarcerated students completing coursework through Common Good Atlanta and the workshops our ensemble will facilitate in area prisons. I hope you will come see The Georgia Incarceration Performance Project presents: “By Our Hands.”