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August 5, 2002

UCSC professor teaches theater around the world

By Ann Gibb

Don't ask theater arts professor Kathy Foley how she's spending her summer vacation. It's the story of her spring semester you'll want to hear.

Kathy Foley, left, and Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn listen to simultaneous translation of a speech by Fidel Castro, which he delivered to Semester at Sea participants when they visited Havana, Cuba.
Photo: Nathan Foley-Mendelssohn

Foley spent almost four months circling the globe aboard the SS Universe Explorer, teaching classes in acting and world theater and directing a student performance for the Semester at Sea program.

Semester at Sea is a floating campus, combining shipboard classes with international fieldwork for up to 650 students.

The University of Pittsburgh has operated the program for more than 30 years, with the goal of advancing the exchange of knowledge and understanding between cultures.

"It was a broadening experience for the students, it really opened up a world perspective for them," said Foley. "There were some faculty on board who had done Semester at Sea as students, and it changed their lives."

Faculty for Semester at Sea, chosen by the program's academic dean, must demonstrate excellence in undergraduate teaching as well as resident field experience in two or more of the countries on the itinerary. A specialist in Asian theater, Foley was well suited for the assignment. She has done extensive research in Indonesia, other parts of Southeast Asia, and India; held the Chandra Bhandari Endowed Chair in India Studies at UCSC; and led many UCSC performances of Sudanese rod puppetry and gamelan of West Java in Jakarta and other Indonesian cities. Foley was able to participate in Semester at Sea by taking a two-quarter sabbatical leave.

The first stop outside the United States was Cuba, visited by Semester at Sea participants under educational visas, where students, faculty, and staff heard a speech by President Fidel Castro and were invited to a reception at the Presidential Palace. From there the ship continued to 10 ports in eight countries, including Salvador, Brazil, and Shanghai, China, returning to the United States at Seattle.

The program's itinerary had been modified following the terrorist attacks of September 11. "The administrators took Islamic countries off the itinerary, and I can understand why, but it left a gap in the curriculum," said Foley. "We missed the opportunity to discuss issues of those cultures."

While at sea, Foley taught classes that met on alternate days. During the four- to six-day port stays, she accompanied her students on fieldwork. One field experience was in Ho Chi Minh City, where Foley and her class attended a performance of Vietnamese water puppetry. A traditional theater of the Red River region in Vietnam, water puppetry is being promoted by the government as a national art. Drawing on her earlier research into water puppetry, Foley helped students understand the political and social implications of advocating a local theater tradition as a national art.

The combination of shipboard course work and fieldwork in a new country at each port created a rigorous schedule. Unlike traditional education abroad programs in which students have time to adjust to a new culture and learn the language, the Semester at Sea experience sometimes felt like repeated culture shock. Students and faculty had to adapt quickly as they disembarked in new countries.

But for Foley and her students, the benefits of seeing national theatrical rituals and performances in different cultural milieus compensated for the challenges. In Cape Town, South Africa, Foley and some of her students were able to see a performance of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The play, whose two main characters choose to wait helplessly for someone or something to save them rather than taking their fate into their own hands, was cast with a white actor and a black actor as the leads. The casting had a powerful significance in the context of a country where citizens of all races are jointly striving to transform society.

"It was a very unusual situation, to talk about a national theater and then be able to take students right out to see it," said Foley. "I found that if you embrace the schedule and run with it, Semester at Sea is a very engaging teaching experience."

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