Branislav Jakovljevic, associate professor and chair of the Department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS), believes that artists of all levels – up-and-comers, mid-career and masters – all have something to teach Stanford students.

Branislav Jakovljevic sitting on a bench in a theater

Branislav Jakovljevic is chair of the Department of Theater and Performance Studies. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Enter Vital Signs, a guest performance artist series, curated by acclaimed transgender artist Cassils. The series, which begins with Harry Gamboa Jr. and Xandra Ibarra Oct. 19-20, pairs an emerging artist and an established artist to present or perform their work. The duo will also engage in public dialogues on their work, which encompasses performance art, identity and social justice. The series aims to highlight neglected performance forms such as experimental performance art, durational art and body art by artists from underrepresented communities.

Gamboa’s artist talk, “Urbanscape of Mirage,” will begin at 4 p.m. in Roble Gym on Oct. 19. Ibarra’s performance, Nude Laughing, is at the Anderson Collection at 11 a.m. on Oct. 20, followed by a dialogue between the artists at noon.

Jakovljevic’s vision is to expose Stanford students to the cutting edge in all forms of performance. He hopes students – themselves up-and-coming artists – will find common ground with the innovative artists invited to campus this year, who include:

  • Artist-in-residence Young Jean Lee, hailed by the New York Times as “hands down, the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation”
  • Guest director Dominique Serrand, founder of the Tony Award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune
  • Guest director Mina Morita, artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater in San Francisco

Jakovljevic, who is teaching Revolutions in Theater this quarter, is an expert on avant-garde and experimental theater, performance theory and the intersection between performance and politics. His latest book is Alienation Effects: Performance and Self-Management in Yugoslavia 1945-1991 (University of Michigan Press 2016) for which he received the 2017 Outstanding Book Award from American Theater in Higher Education.

Jakovljevic discusses the role guest artists play on the Stanford campus and what is in store for TAPS and Stanford students in the coming year.


The first Vital Signs pairing is the well-established performance artist, writer and educator Harry Gamboa Jr. and local emerging performance artist and community organizer Xandra Ibarra. Do you know why Cassils wanted to bring them together for a public dialogue?

Vital Signs is Cassils’ curatorial debut and they had complete autonomy in putting together this series. I found it amazing and intensely rewarding to recognize in the series the same kind of conceptual rigor that informs their performance work. Namely, Cassils often contrasts contemporary performances with the works of conceptual and performance artists of the previous generation, such as Harun Farocki and Edward Kienholz.

The fact that Harry Gamboa Jr., who started his work in the 1970s, and Xandra Ibarra, who is a young performance artist, are addressing some of the same issues when it comes to the representation of Chican@ artists in the American art world already speaks volumes. So, yes, they approach this question from different perspectives, but with the same sense of urgency.


Another local artist coming to Stanford this year is Mina Morita, the artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater in San Francisco. Crowded Fire focuses on new works and emerging artists. What are some of the projects she will be involved in on campus?

Initially, we invited Mina to direct one of our main-stage productions, and she selected Bertolt Brecht’s landmark play The Good Person of Szechwan. Leslie Hill, our artistic director, came up with the idea of a collaboration between TAPS and Stanford’s Asian American Theater Project. So, in addition to directing our main-stage production, Mina will mentor our student who is going to direct the play World of Extreme Happiness, by contemporary Chinese-American playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. This will be the first collaboration of this kind between TAPS and one of the student-run theater groups, and we hope this will become a model for our future work with on-campus theater groups.


What skills and insights do you hope students will gain from working with an emerging artist like Morita, and how will that learning experience differ from working with a seasoned veteran like Dominique Serrand?

While they belong to different generations, both Mina and Dominique have a very engaged approach to theater making. Although both of them will direct the classics of dramatic literature for us at TAPS, neither is solely interested in classic theater. They are both interested in investigating how these well-known dramatic texts speak to contemporary political and social issues. All of that being said, Mina brings a different sensitivity to certain issues, such as race. That is generational, but also personal.

Dominique will explore the possibilities of devising a theater performance based on playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca, rather than making a straightforward staging of his heralded work Life Is a Dream. Also, he will focus on working with actors, and this could be a good opportunity for our advanced students to get a solid pre-professional experience.

On the other side, students who work with Mina could have opportunities to collaborate with her in Crowded Fire. Each production brings a different set of challenges and opportunities.


The Stanford theater and performance community is growing. There are 50 student theater and dance groups and the Nitery Theater is the first student-run theater space on campus. What role does TAPS play in fostering the theater and performance community outside the classroom?

The department sees itself as a hub of theatrical activity on campus. During the academic year of 2016-17, TAPS provided cost-free space to roughly 93 different groups, including a large number of individual students using space for themselves or small groups of independent projects. TAPS also provided supervised space for 16 different groups for performances. It is hard to think of a theater or dance group on campus that didn’t collaborate with TAPS – and by “collaborate,” I don’t mean only use our spaces, but relying on the expertise of our faculty and staff in making their performances.

TAPS faculty also helped transform Nitery Theater into a student-run theater space. Last year, we invited our undergraduate and graduate students to join the board of Nitery Experimental Studio Theater (NExT). The board worked on building its first season, and this fall we will have the grand opening. The idea of NExT is to provide TAPS students with an opportunity to interact with the wider theater community at Stanford.