Winners announced for annual Marvin Carlson Award

May 13, 2021

Each year, the Department of Performing and Media Arts (PMA) invites Cornell undergraduate and graduate students to submit essays for the Marvin Carlson Award competition. The recipient of the 2021 award, which is given to the best student essay in theatre or performance as selected by a PMA faculty committee, was Ph.D. student Brian Sengdala for the essay “Listening as Cambodian American Memory Work.” Ph.D. student Samuel N. W. Blake received honorable mention for the essay “Ghosting History: Queer Disappearance, Stage Specters, and Minoritarian Performance in/of the Past.”

The award, which consists of a cash prize ($250) and certificate, honors CUNY Professor Marvin Carlson (CU PhD '61). Carlson earned a PhD in Drama and Theatre from Cornell University in 1961, where he also taught for a number of years. He is currently the Sidney E. Cohn Distinguished Professor of Theatre, Comparative Literature, and Middle Eastern Studies at the Graduate Centre, CUNY.

Sengdala says that "by remembering a narrative that is both intimately personal and entirely foreign, Listening as Cambodian American Memory Work attunes us to performances at a refugee camp (Khao I Dang) as a site of what I call transgressive memory work—a tactic that remembers Life in the face of erasure. The work in this paper also points to my upcoming public project with geographer Hudson McFann called The Bamboo City Archive which engages the survivors who went through the Thai refugee camp and their families who are seeking to remember these stories with them." He found inspiration from his mother and maternal grandmother, and called the essay "my letter to her," revealing that it came from work they did together "remembering her journey out of Democratic Kampuchea to Thailand to Hong Kong and finally to the United States." Sengdala refers to "the space inhabited by refugeehood" as crucial to remember, and hopes to show "other kinds of public engagement that we can do in the academy which uses our resources to listen to communities and address the problems they tell us they are facing." This work will progress in his dissertation, which "will think about second-generation Cambodian American performance as transgressive memory work."

Blake's essay uses Paula Vogel's play Indecent (2015) to "examine how queer folk use performance to disrupt, challenge, and alter historical narratives from which queer identities and personhood have been erased." It refers strongly to a "haunting absence" of queer disappearance in history, a phrase that stems from Blake's A Exam reading list. "In reading these plays I was struck by how many of them contained some kind of haunting. Some have ghosts appearing onstage, others where haunting absence is part of the driving force of the play." Indecent was selected "primarily because it seeks to retell not only history, but specifically theatre history, which was particularly useful for this project." Blake revealed that Marvin Carlson was also on the reading list, specifically his book The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine. "It was from this work that I specifically borrowed Carlson’s term “ghosting”, although I re-purposed the term slightly to focus on haunting absence, rather than the haunting presence he so adroitly explores."

Brian Sengdala headshot