Conference Suggestions (From A Theater Perspective)

Created for theater students but useful info for all


by Ashley Lucas

In my humble opinion, going to conferences is one of the greatest perks of being in graduate school. You get to travel to fantastic places (and not-so-fantastic places, depending on the conference), meet other people who are interested in the same things you are, and get a look at current scholarship which relates to your work. If you attend a theatre conference, most of the time you get to see several performances as well. A wide variety of academic and professional associations hold conferences, and you can certainly attend conferences outside your prescribed field. Some conferences, like those connected to academic organizations, are held annually, while others are held biannually or just once in a lifetime. The conferences that only happen once are generally devoted to a particular topic which the conference organizers see as an important issue at the moment. I recommend attending a broad variety of conferences to see which ones are most useful to you in your work. I have gone to conferences on a variety of topics and in many different academic disciplines, including conferences on theatre, feminism, education in the arts, and ethnic studies. Each helped me in different ways, even the ones I would choose never to attend again.


The two major academic organizations for theatre professors are the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) and the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE). I highly recommend becoming a member of both organizations. All academic organizations charge annual membership fees, but those fees get you a discounted price on the conference registration and often a subscription or two to scholarly journals in the field.
ASTR holds a pretty small conference every November and is a wonderful place for networking. Many members of our faculty attend this conference every year, as do a number of us grads. Rather than holding more traditional three- or four-person panels, as most conferences will do, ASTR holds seminars on particular topics. Sometimes up to ten or a dozen people each talk for a couple of minutes each about their papers, and then the moderator(s) asks questions and opens up a broader discussion of the seminar topic. Usually the panelists have exchanged papers via email in advance of the conference and can therefore start a higher level conversation immediately, rather than listening to each panelist read papers aloud, as would happen at most other conferences.
At the end of each July, ATHE holds a very large conference. While ASTR caters exclusively to scholars, ATHE includes scholars and theatre practitioners, which means this conference also has many performances and practical theatre workshops on playwriting, acting, directing, and a variety of other topics.

How to Apply to Present a Paper at a Conference

You are certainly welcome to attend any conference without presenting a paper, but you’ll want to present a few times before you graduate. (Remember that it takes most of us about five years to graduate, so you’ve got time! Don’t stress about it in your first year if you don’t feel ready to present a conference paper yet.) Our professors often forward us emails with conference calls in them, inviting folks to submit papers for presentation at the conference. You can also find the conference calls on the website for any academic organization. Most paper calls will ask for an abstract of about 500 words, rather than the whole paper. You email the appropriate folks with an abstract about what you’d like to present at the conference. Sometimes calls for papers will be very broad and just ask for anything related to the general topic of the conference, but many times people will have an idea for a particular panel or seminar and ask for abstract submissions on that more specific topic. I find that it’s much easier to get yourself on a panel if you cater as much as possible to a specific topic. The very broad general paper calls receive so many submissions that the conference organizers must then sift through all of them and put your topic together with several other people’s in order to have enough related papers to have a decent discussion.

Focus Groups: ASTR and ATHE both have focus groups (sometimes called caucuses) within the organizations which deal with a particular area of theatre scholarship, such as Latina/o theatre, women in theatre, playwriting, LGBT theatre, etc. The members of the focus group often keep in touch with one another via email throughout the year, and generally the focus group will create a series of panels, roundtables, and/or workshops at the annual conference. It’s a good idea to get involved in focus groups which specialize in your areas of interest because you’ll meet most of the folks working in your area and get to know them better in this small group setting. Many focus groups have officers, such as conference organizers, treasurers, secretaries, etc., who perform certain duties for the group throughout the year. Holding one of these positions can be a stepping stone towards becoming an officer in the larger organization, which looks good on your c.v. and can even count toward tenure points under the category of service (depending on the university that hires you).

Networking: The folks you know at any given conference (and you’ll probably know at least a few if you go to ASTR or ATHE) will inevitably introduce you to others in the field, and this is vitally important because these are the people who will be hiring you for a job some day. Meet as many of them as you can and remember who these people are. We work in a very small field, and if you attend these conferences every year, you’ll run into many of the same folks over and over again. Many of these people are scholars you will recognize, whose work you have read and possibly even taught, and knowing them personally can often lend insight into their work.

Getting Money to Attend the Conference and What It Will Cost You:

Generally if you are presenting a paper at the conference, the department will pay for your airfare to and from the conference. Simply go online and research the cost of airfare, then email the head of the PhD. program (currently Janet) and quote the lowest airfare price you’ve found. Also forward her the email saying that your abstract was accepted to the conference. Janet will reply via email after she runs it by the department head, and she’ll tell you how much money the department will give you. Usually they’ll give you the cost of airfare, but sometimes if it’s really expensive, they can’t pay the full amount.
The department will not reimburse you until after the trip, and you need to keep your receipt which shows how you paid for the ticket as well as your boarding passes. Turn all of this in to Hedi when you return, along with the email from Janet saying how much money the department has awarded you for the trip.
Keep in mind that airfare will not be your only expense at the conference. You’ll also have to pay conference registration fees and membership fees for the organization if you’re not yet a member. Register for the conference as early as possible because often they have discounted prices for early birds. Then there’s the cost of the hotel, which I would recommend sharing with somebody else you know who’s attending the conference. If you don’t know anybody else going to the conference, try emailing the folks on your panel to ask if anyone wants to share a hotel room with you. Conference hotels almost always offer discounted prices to conference participants, but that doesn’t mean that this will be the cheapest place to stay. Often the host hotel for the conference is more expensive than other hotels in the area, so look around online for cheaper hotels within walking distance of the hotel where the conference will be held. You’ll also need to pay for transportation to and from the airport, which you should also try to share with somebody.

Conference Papers:

The person chairing your panel will let you know how much time you have to present your paper. Generally conference papers should take no more than ten to fifteen minutes to read aloud. Stick to the amount of time given to you. Some people will even carry a small clock with them to watch their time while giving their papers. Sometimes the panel chair will give you time signals to let you know how much time you have left, and other panel chairs will not give you any indication of time. You want to make sure you have time left over for a decent question and answer period, and nobody wants to hear you read for twenty solid minutes. Sticking to your time is a

matter of respect for the other panelists and your audience.

Some people read directly from their papers and others speak from an outline. Either way, you should be very familiar with what you are presenting. Practice at home or for the other grad students before going to the conference. We’re happy to listen to you and offer constructive criticism about both the content of your paper and your delivery style.
Keep in mind that things that make sense when others read them do not always make sense when your audience has to listen to them read out loud. Make sure that your paper is intelligible to a listening audience who only gets one chance to hear you read the paper and cannot reread any portion for clarity.
If you’re reading something excerpted from a longer paper/chapter that you are working on, realize that some of the things you think are really important have to be left out. If folks want to know more or have questions, they can bring up their concerns during the discussion period. You don’t have to find a way to say everything about your topic in ten pages.

Conference Publications:

Sometimes conferences will publish the proceedings of the conference. Usually they’ll tell you this up front when you’re applying for the conference, and after the conference is over, one of the conference organizers will ask you for a copy of the paper you presented, which you may have to shorten and/or edit a couple of times in response to this person’s comments. Be forewarned that conference publications generally take forever to get published. I have been waiting three years for one of mine to appear and two years for another, and I haven’t seen either of them yet, though their editors assure me that these publications will one day exist. Having a conference publication looks good on your c.v., so it’s worth the very long wait.

International Conferences:

Watch your email for interesting conference calls from other countries. Occasionally ASTR or ATHE will host a conference in Toronto, but for the most part their meetings are in the U.S. The International University Theatre Association (IUTA) hosts a very interesting and extremely disorganized bi- or tri-annual conference in locations all over the world. (Be sure to ask Summer and me about our adventures in Greece!) Other conferences will be specifically about the theatre of a certain country, such as the Irish theatre conferences which Heather, Michael, and Summer have all attended in Ireland. Ask your advisor about conference opportunities in your field and scour the internet for conference calls. If you really want to go abroad, having a conference to attend is a wonderful excus

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