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Killam Award committee applauds UCalgary theatre expert's achievements

Susan Bennett's work focuses on Shakespeare and early modern English drama

Susan Bennett is one of five UCalgary professors who are recipients this year of the Killam Annual Professorship, which honours faculty members for outstanding teaching, mentoring and research activities, as well as service to the broader community. Photo courtesy Susan Bennett.

By Mike Fisher
October 12, 2017

Given that all the world’s a stage, UCalgary English professor, Royal Society of Canada Fellow and renowned Shakespeare and performance scholar Susan Bennett is stepping into an exciting new role.

She is one of five UCalgary professors who are recipients this year of the Killam Annual Professorship, which honours faculty members for outstanding teaching, mentoring and research activities, as well as service to the broader community.

Performance and Shakespeare are two important themes of her research, which examines contemporary cultural, artistic and literary practices. Considering the early modern period to the contemporary era, she examines how performance can influence the way we conceive gender, economics, art, culture and the self.

Her work in the areas of Shakespeare and early modern English drama have made her a sought-after speaker internationally at venues that span the Shanghai Theatre Academy to more obvious Shakespearean venues such as the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon and the Globe Theatre in London, England.

The Killam award comes on the heels of Bennett being inducted last year into the Royal Society of Canada as a Fellow of the Academy of the Arts and Humanities, one of Canada’s highest distinctions for scholars.

“I am delighted that the Killam committee has adjudicated my field contributions and given me this honour,” said Bennett, who is using part of the prize money that accompanies the award to do research and attend live performances in Ottawa during Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations.

Born in London, Bennett got an early start on her way to being a seasoned expert on theatre and audiences. Her father was a professional musician who played in theatre orchestras and her mother took her to see performances. She was attending the theatre at the age of two and experiencing staged Shakespeare plays by age 10.

“Going to the theatre rather early sparked my interests,” said Bennett. “Later, I learned that it is a way one can enter one’s own identity, as well as engage vital political and societal issues.” Subsequently, her groundbreaking work Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception (Routledge, 1990) has had a powerful impact on scholars, altering the way they perceive the relationships between audiences and stage.

“Shakespeare’s plays are all about the important things in our lives, such as what it is to be a good person, what it is to fall in love, what it is to have a family and to lose a family, ethical behaviours by individuals and governments,” she said.

Her love of Shakespeare’s works and their global impact translates into a failsafe strategy when teaching — enthusiasm, she said. “The challenge when teaching an introductory Shakespeare course, where you have some first-year students who want to be English majors and others who want to be business or science majors, is making it interesting and engaging for everyone.”

When mentoring graduate students, she tries to get them involved in, say, co-presenting at a conference or co-writing an article, important first steps as they enter the profession.

UCalgary grad Erin Wunker (English PhD, 2008), who is now assistant professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, found Bennett’s mentorship invaluable, providing Wunker with practical skills while encouraging her growth as a scholar.

“(Bennett) has written countless letters of recommendation, counselled me on strategizing for research projects in an incredibly austere job market and celebrated my successes,” said Wunker. “Any research and teaching successes I have are thanks, in great part, to her teaching me how to be brave, bold and diligent.”

Bennett has been a frequent Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) adjudication member, a member of various prize committees and journal boards, and was the acting director, Calgary Institute for the Humanities, 2014-15, among other roles and services.

She has twice received the Gerald Kahan Prize given by the American Society for Theatre Research that recognizes editing and mentoring work with a junior scholar and, in 2016, was recognized with their Distinguished Scholar Award (the first time this hounour has gone to a professor at a Canadian university).

In the broader community, she has helped to establish prizes through the Canadian and American associations for theatre research that recognize emerging talent in academic writing in students.

In Calgary, Bennett has with her colleague Stefania Forlini built a bridge of sorts between the university and the community through a partnership with Calgary Public Library. A course entitled Community Engagement Through Literature, which she teaches again this fall, enables the study of community engagement and civic responsibility, while connecting volunteering English majors with high school students to work on English Language Arts skills.

“The idea behind the course has been to engage the community and give something back,” said Bennett, who hopes to pass on a passion for service to her students. “We can all learn to pay it forward.”