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What Are You Looking At? Staging the World in London

Published: March 24, 2017

What Are You Looking At? Staging the World in London

Whether students are checking out Tube stations or going to the theatre, sharpening their visual literacy skills will be a focus of the assignments in Visiting Faculty Director Susan Jaret McKinstry’s course on Staging the World in London.

“You go to London and you turn a corner and you see something you’ve never seen before, and it’s surprising,” said Carleton College professor Susan Jaret McKinstry. “It’s a really magical experience.”

Jaret McKinstry’s obvious love of the city, along with her scholarly and teaching interests in 19th century British literature, have drawn her to lead Carleton’s London Theater and Literature program three times. Next year, she’ll be back in England again, this time as spring 2018 visiting faculty director in London for the ACM London & Florence: Arts in Context program.

Susan Jaret McKinstry

Susan Jaret McKinstry

The course she will teach, titled Staging the World in London, focuses on theatre, but Jaret McKinstry plans to connect what is going on inside a theatre’s walls with the bustle of daily life pulsing through the streets outside its doors.

“There’s this sort of nighttime life of the theatre which is very deliberately staged,” she said, “but then there’s also this more electric, startling staging of the city itself that is unfolding all the time.”

She will teach visual literacy or visual studies — observing what’s in front of you and thinking about how it’s made, how it creates arguments and forms opinions, and how it answers questions — to connect theatre and the city.

“When we read [a book or a play script], we picture what we’re reading about, but when we go to a play or film adaptation of the work, we see the character brought to life by somebody else’s visual decisions,” Jaret McKinstry explained. “How their decisions shape our understanding is part of what visual literacy wants us to think about. Those are not casual decisions and they are not neutral decisions. They are really powerful.”

Developing visual literacy is important for students, she said, “because otherwise they’re looking at theatre passively — a director has done it, the actors are doing it, the audience is receiving it. I want them to be thinking what those choices mean.”

Visual studies infuses Jaret McKinstry’s teaching and research, and she takes full advantage of London’s environment and theatrical riches to help her students develop their visual literacy, whether they are watching a play, viewing an exhibit in a museum, examining a Tube station, or interpreting their surroundings to gain a greater understanding of British culture.

“My interest really is trying to bring all of those skills to bear,” she said, “so it’s not just that you’re interested in theatre, but you’re using observation and you’re using creative thinking and problem-solving to figure out what [the creators of the production] are trying to say by making the choices they made.”

“I’m excited about getting the students to look at the city very carefully, as a place where they are seeing things happen around them as if on a stage,” said Jaret McKinstry. “These are deeply interdisciplinary skills: what better place to practice them than in London.”

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