Meet Catherine ColeAugust 22, 2008
Catherine Cole: Professor, Performer, Survivor
Most universities have a wide range of professors — from the snore-invoking ones who can’t draw students away from their newspapers to the engaging teachers whose students get out of bed early to grab the front-row seats in class. Next week I begin master’s classes at American University. I have been nervously asking myself, Will the material be interesting? Will the teachers be as excited about teaching as about conducting researching? Will I be engaged?
After interviewing Catherine Cole, a 1995–96 American Fellow, I find myself hoping that my professors have her enthusiasm and dedication. A tenured professor in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at University of California, Berkeley, Catherine is writing a book about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. The book looks at the theatrical elements of the commission proceedings, which took place entirely in public.
Catherine’s interest in Africa began while she was working her way up as a director in New York, where she met the Ghanaian-American filmmaker, Kwame Braun. After a trip to Ghana, Catherine began graduate study in theater with a focus on Ghanaian concert parties, a cultural practice previously understudied because of its affiliation with the lower class, improvisational style, and use of African languages. She spent a year in Africa, interviewing community members and even participating in a televised concert party performance in which she spoke in Twi. Catherine received an AAUW fellowship while writing her research-based novel, Ghana’s Concert Party Theater. “It was a privilege to have a year to concentrate on writing. My work was more sustained, concentrated, and focused,”she said.
In 1999, Catherine’s path took an unexpected turn. She developed a cancerous tumor in her thigh and spent two years trying to save her leg, which eventually had to be amputated. Afterward, Catherine said, she regretted not having danced more. “My dance colleagues just wouldn’t accept that my dancing days were over.”A choreographer at the University of Santa Barbara, where Catherine was teaching, created a dance project looking at disability through theater. Catherine danced in the performance without her prosthetic leg, which she says “was an amazing experience, because I was reclaiming my body and learning to inhabit a new body.”The show expanded to become a full theatrical production that toured in six U.S. cities.
Looking back on her career, Catherine is pleased with where she’s ended up. “Everything has worked out better than I could have ever imagined. I love my job, my department, and teaching. I feel deeply rewarded by this path and really fortunate.”
This is article #5 in the Following the Fellows Series.