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Remembering Sarah Bryant-Bertail

Submitted by Caroline Rensel on July 29, 2021 - 4:30pm
Sarah Bryant-Bertail

We are profoundly sorry to share news of the passing of School of Drama emeritus faculty member Sarah Bryant-Bertail, who died April 13, 2021. Sarah taught theatre history, theory, and criticism at UW for twenty years. Her contributions to our field were enormous, both in terms of her brilliant scholarship on European and American theatre performance, semiotics, feminism, and intercultural theatre, and in terms of her work as an advisor to a generation of scholars whose voices and ideas she nurtured and championed. 

Below are remembrances from her PhD advisees. 

Samer Al-Saber '13

During my first year as a PhD student, I walked out of Hutchinson Hall with Sarah BB after her Semiotics seminar. I offered to carry her bag of books to her car and we walked up the hill to the parking lot. Sipping latte from her travel cup with the usual green straw, she asked me how I was doing in my first quarter. I told her that I am thirty years old and confused, but “mostly angry because we have too much reading and they are all full of words I don’t understand.” She said: “you can look up the hard words in the dictionary but for the anger, you’ll just have to calm down.” Then she continued: “We all start out angry. You’re a young man. You’ll grow up.” I committed time and effort to the dictionary and I did a lot of growing up in her classes. We all did.

Sarah BB taught me what it meant to be a feminist. She was the first to explain to me the function of critical theory, and then, she lived it. It was Sarah BB who assigned Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, Salman Rushdi, Homi Bhabha, Bell Hooks, Roland Barthes, Albert Memmi, Erich Auerbach, Walter Benjamin, Michel de Certeu, Theodore Adorno, Hélène Cixous, Jean Genet, Karl Marx, Terry Eagleton, Judith Butler, Louis Althusser, Virginia Woolf, Raymond Williams, Frederic Jamison, and Michel Foucault. Without her classes, I wouldn’t have known to engage with the Frankfurt School, Poststructuralism, and the Subaltern Studies collective. Her assigned readings opened up possibilities of thinking differently and, on occasion, her feedback offered frameworks and inspired arguments for my sensibilities as an Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian. Unlike the mostly insincere culture of “care” in the American university industry today, Sarah BB actually cared for her students, showing up in the classroom and through her insistence on teaching uncompromised ideas.

When I was told by a journal editor that they were not willing to consider my work for publication because I was a student and not a “legitimate scholar,” Sarah BB said: “Don’t let them drag you down. Keep writing. You ARE a legitimate scholar,” then she offered to write to the editor to discuss that gate-keeping based on status was not acceptable. The scholars Sarah BB taught went on to do great work because they were nurtured with layers of complexity and boundless earnest interest. She helped make more spectacular scholars than I ever will be, but I have no doubt that sitting in her classes made me far better than I ever could be. Her written feedback remains on my seminar papers, a testament to an intellectual whose influences imprinted complex thought processes in my mind and scholarship.

While the graphite of her pencil on her students’ papers may fade, Sarah BB’s voice and influence will resonate permanently.

Dennis Barnett '98

 I have many fond memories of Sarah. She was one of the best teachers I've known. I came to the Ph.D. program at the advanced age of 43 and hadn't written a word since high school (only a slight exaggeration). Sarah taught me how to write. There's no other way to put it. 

Elizabeth Bonjean '05

My memories of Sarah Bryant-Bertail are tied to so many physical places and spaces. Beyond the formal teaching done in a seminar room in Hutchinson Hall, Sarah’s role as a mentor and dissertation advisor was one of deep commitment. It took me places. From meeting at the Burke Museum Café to receive her feedback on a chapter I had written, to walking around Green Lake and discussing ideas for the next chapter, Sarah’s generosity was endless. I recall awaiting her arrival at various Starbucks and Peet’s coffee houses, where she would enter with travel mug and straw in-hand, returning pages filled with the dense, penciled marginalia filling the white borders of the paper that anyone who ever worked with her had come to expect. I vividly remember attending a production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog at Seattle Repertory Theatre with Sarah. Seated in the front row, with house lights dimming before the play began, I saw a glint of white out of the corner of my eye, followed by the sound of a pencil on paper as she began to write notes about the performance. I observed her now and again throughout the play where she remained intently focused, her artistic curiosity almost over-filling her own pages.

My favorite place to remember Sarah might be the back deck of her home surrounded by flowers, trees, and her beloved cats. There, while drinking iced coffee and receiving her guidance, Sarah might laughingly interject a story about her own dissertation, share a recollection of her advisor Patrice Pavis, or discuss Brecht. Yes, this is the place and time I will remember most. I am forever grateful to have experienced her intellectual acuity and her kind spirit.

Ken Cerniglia '01

Going to graduate school and writing a dissertation are hard. Really hard -- mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Sarah was the kind of teacher, mentor, and friend who understood all the parts and approached her job, her vocation, holistically. Her mind sparkled with fresh ideas and deep insights. She was an incredible listener, keying into what we really wanted to say and pulling it out of us with patience and rigor. I came into the School of Drama Ph.D. program a good writer, but her care in filling the margins of every paper with thoughtful comments on both content and style -- and her insistence that I rewrite -- made me a better writer, a better thinker. Most importantly, Sarah valued the human behind the scholarship. She opened her home and shared Georges and Jessica with us. She got to know me personally and consistently inquired about my parents and my sister long after I graduated. Her friendship got me through grad school and still means the world to me. Rest in peace, and thank you, thank you, dear Sarah!

Gibson Cima '12

Not only was Sarah BB brilliant, but she was also something rarer: deeply kind and encouraging. In a program that offered many models of how to engage with students, hers is the one that I always seek to emulate. Out of more than a dozen classes, my notes from her seminars are the ones that I continually consult. I am overwhelmed by the debt of gratitude that I owe her, which I will never be able to repay.

Michelle Granshaw '12

I was very fortunate to study with Sarah Bryant-Bertail during my time at the UW. As member of my dissertation committee, Sarah's incisive critical commentary helped me become a more thoughtful and imaginative scholar.Somehow she always knew when I needed a kind word of encouragement, both during my time at the UW and after graduation, and I will always be grateful for her support and guidance. Throughout my career after the UW, I find myself coming back to our many conversations at the Burke Cafe that continue to shape my work as a scholar and teacher today. Her generosity, rigor, and sense of humor as a mentor continue to inspire me as I now work with graduate student mentees of my own. I am thankful for everything I learned from her.

Jeanmarie Higgins '11

Sarah thought expansively and wrote practically. My current grad students consistently borrow (and do not want to return) Sarah's book, Space and Time in Epic Theater: the Brechtian Legacy. They find what folks in my grad cohort have found--that the introduction to this book is the single most useful piece of scholarship not only on the Epic theater, but in thinking about performance as event that unfolds in time and space for audiences. That was Sarah's gift to me--through her own critical writing, she showed me that critical performance theory is not a tool but a lifelong practice, and a pleasurable one. I miss her speaking voice, but I am so grateful that I have her written voice to remind me that theory is a serious, joyful practice, one that connects us to our colleagues and our forebears.

Dorothy Holland '99

Sarah Bryant-Bertail was such a wonderful mentor.  I could not have had a better dissertation advisor than Sarah.  I am eternally grateful for her insight, her wisdom, and her delightful sense of humor.  Her warmth is still palpable, as is the sudden spark of energy and excitement when an idea particularly intrigued her.  I will always remember how engaging it was to go to the theatre with Sarah.  She was so present and attentive to everything. It is reported that Gertrude Stein, in a conversation with Alice B. Toklas, referred to some clouds as “fresh eggs.” When challenged by Toklas, Stein replied, “I’m reading the signs. I love to read the signs.” Sarah Bryant-Bertail loved to read the signs. And it was a joy to be with her when she did so.

Victor Holtcamp '96 & '03

I was lucky enough to have Sarah as a teacher both as an undergrad and grad student, and got the chance to work as her reader/grader for Drama 302. The opportunity to revisit such a memorable and influential class, and get to watch how Sarah constructed the course and the discussion was remarkable. It was like a backstage pass into Sarah's teaching, and it was such a joy to see the students have a similar experience of deep engagement and learning that I had had. Sarah's course encouraged students to bring their creativity to bear on a variety of critical lenses, and the results were illuminating, comedic, intellectual, and personal all at once. I treasure one memory in particular: the students had staged a skit depicting a revolution against a fictitious regime which, in the way of improv, had gone somewhat off the rails. As the students broke character laughter began to spread around the room, and Sarah was right in the middle of it, surrounded by students, laughing along with them. Her enthusiasm was one hundred per cent genuine, and her constant partnership with those in her classes was equally thorough and complete. She remains a critical role model for me, and lessons I learned from her, about both critical theory and teaching and learning, will remain with me all my days. 

Lisa Jackson-Schebetta '10

“Your papers for Sarah will come back and look like they are bleeding, she gives you so many notes, but they are all really, really useful!” Such was the tip Jeanmarie Higgins gave me, when I started the PhD program, in Fall 2006.  One of my two seminars that fall was Mimesis with Sarah (and I remember thinking how on earth can we spend an entire quarter on mimesis?)  Jeanmarie was correct. Every one of my writing projects for Sarahbled—sometimes red, sometimes purple, sometimes blue—in carefully formed cursive (rife with question marks), the letters leaning into the headwinds of Sarah’s thoughts like sails, as if conditioned to the rapid, relentless marathon of Sarah’s pointed, rigorous, unabashed yet generous critique.  And, so, with consistency, tenacity, and joy, Sarahhoned my thinking and my writerly voice, emboldened my writing, and cultivated my insights, always asking me to think more deeply, write more clearly, take more leaps, to “theorize here,” to show my voice there.   My first major publication, in Modern Drama, came from a class with Sarah. I am so fond of that first, fancy article—the process intuitive as well as intellectual, writing on my own, trained and coached by Sarah.  It is a touchstone for me, that process memory. And a quarter on Mimesis, with Sarah, was not too much.  On the contrary: it was not long enough.  And Epic Theater—the clearest writing and explication on Brecht, from her Space and Time in Epic Theater, that I have ever encountered, and which is a constant companion to me as I teach Brecht every year, often alongside Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” also a gift to which Sarah introduced us. Sometimes I dress up as Brecht, donning a coat and carrying a cigar, to demonstrate gestus. . . and I imagine Sarah, laughing her sly, throaty laugh, a set of glasses perched atop her head, reveling in a croissant and a small, hot coffee, at the back of my classroom.  She remains my constant companion, as well; a key star in the constellation of my journey as a scholar, thinker, artist, and human. I am so grateful to her, as a teacher, mentor, and role model. 

Katie Johnson '96

I came to Seattle to study with Sarah.  We shared interests in feminist theory and German theatre, spoke German fluently, and loved cinema.   How could she not be my dissertation director?

 From the minute I met Sarah in my first graduate seminar, I was blown away by her intellectual acumen, her breadth of knowledge, and her persistent challenges to deepen my engagement with my work.   Sarah walked into that classroom with a stack of books in her arms, piled high--seemingly precarious in her petite arms.  We would be reading those books—and more—that semester.  She put together a monumentally thick course packet for our seminars, which were comprised of theoretical readings, historical contexts, and cutting-edge research.  When she spoke, her intensity was accompanied by her soft voice, piercing blue eyes, and dynamite laugh. Those of us who studied with her realized her unique ability to lecture through wide swaths of history and theory without notes, matching the skill of Scheherazade.   

Sarah was not only a feminist in the classroom, but also in the real world, and this shaped me as a critic and activist.  She was a role model for me as an educator, thinker, and human being.  I still hear her voice at times when I write to suggest a change of phrase, or a clarification.  I hope to continue to honor her memory with my teaching and writing.  Sarah, you will be missed, aber nie vergessen.

Mimi Kammer '11

My remembrance is pretty simple:

Sarah believed in me when no one else would.

Sarah Marsh Krauter '17

It was her notes on your returned papers. Soft lead marginalia, an elegant, almost illegible scrawl crammed along the edges, the tops, cutting through sentences. She would tear open your clumsy argumentation in one paragraph and then bother to bracket others--whole pages, even--with a simple “Good” next to it. Sometimes with an exclamation point. Sarah BB never failed to tell you, in writing, where you were flying, snugged up to where you needed to do more work. Her voice was "define your terms," "thesis at the top, " and "explain this!" Her edits were conversations about style and content, theory and practice in the stroke of a number 2 pencil. If writing is thinking, then it was her who showed me how to think for myself. She made me brave on the page.

Theresa May '00

Professor Sarah Bryant-Bertail, Sarah BB to students who loved her, was one of kindest souls I have ever encountered in academia.  She always had time to talk through the challenges of being a graduate student, and to offer keen feminist insight that calmed the soul.  She was passionate about her scholarship, but not at the expense of small delights, warmth and compassion, tea and scones at the Burke café.  I remember sitting on her deck looking at the blossoming plum in her yard.  Her calming voice told me to just notice the tree and listen to the birds -- for a few moments, critical theory be dammed!  She taught me that it is okay to love my graduate students; that above all they must be loved into their roles as scholars and teachers.  I follow her lead and think of her as I fill the margins of student papers and chapters with road map edits.  In her classes I learned there is a word for the way we are all part of the multi-voiced simultaneously speaking world: polyphony.  That word describes dearest Sarah for it is a wonderful abstraction for the sheer joy of life. Even now, I hear her sweet voice and watch as she pushes her glasses back up from the end of her nose.

Kara Reilly '06

Sarah Bryant-Bertail was the best teacher I ever had. She was also a mentor and a friend. I took classes with her at University of Washington from 2002-2006 and she supervised my dissertation. Her dedication to her students was unwavering and she was always present in the classroom.  Her seminars taught me how to teach and she embodied a Socratic spirit which I admire. She would always ask more questions than she answered. Her influence on my life and my career were enormous. I’m grateful to have known her.

Susan Russell '93

Thank you for this opportunity to share some memories of Sarah B-B. My name is Susan Russell, and I graduated with PhD from the UW in 1993.

It isn't as easy as one might think to find a fellow Arkansan to talk about Brecht with in Seattle, Washington, but Sarah and I found each other, and I feel so lucky and blessed by her friendship and love.

I came to the UW to study with Sue Ellen Case (which was a great experience), and when Sue Ellen decided to leave, I did not want to go with her to an English department in California. I wanted a PhD in Drama, and I loved Seattle. So when the University of Washington hired Sarah, I was a little nervous, as I would be the first to work on my doctoral dissertation under her direction at the UW. The chair (Barry Witham) said, "We have to find someone who's a Germanist for Susan's sake." Not only was she a Germanist, her scholarship was far more wide-ranging; also I couldn't have asked for a more supportive, wonderful, inspiring and brilliant mentor--who liked to remind me that we were also fellow Arkansans! Under her guidance, I completed my classes and dissertation (as I had a scholarship and needed to do so). Sarah continued to mentor and guide me as I secured my first and second jobs, continuing to write letters of recommendation for me for various opportunities even ten years out.

I will share two of my favorite memories of Sarah. One happened when she came to school one day and told us that she had a new kitten. With that characteristic merry twinkle in her eyes and dry/wry sense of humor, she explained in her soft voice that the old cat wasn't taking too well to the new kitten, so the vet had prescribed what Sarah called "kitty valium" for the older feline. When she took the prescription to the pharmacist, she laughed as she told how the pharmacist, seeing the name "Boots Bertail" on the label (or whatever kitty's name was), looked at her quizzically as she explained that the prescription was intended to calm down her big cat who was irate over the wee interloper. The pharmacist told her to be sure not to let him operate any heavy machinery while under the influence, and she assured him she wouldn't. I loved that story, and even more, I loved to hear her tell it!! ((She often mentioned George, Jessica and the cats and it was super clear that she loved them all very, very much.))

My other memory happened after I graduated, and I was reunited with Sarah and some other graduate students for a comparative drama conference in Florida. We had such a great time, driving around, looking at the sights, laughing at the drive-through McDonald's that sold $100 bottles of champagne! The best part was when Tonia Steed, Lue Douthit and Dean Wilcox and I sat laughing with her in the hotel room while she showed us how she could curl her tongue into a "u" shape. (Why were we doing this? I'm not sure, but I think perhaps a little bit of alcohol was involved, though it wasn't that drive through champange!) I can make a tongue "U' too (not everyone can), but I wasn't nearly as cute as Sarah was when she did it. I actually have photos of this monumental occasion that I hope to send on as soon as I can get my hands on them. She was such a good sport that when I asked if I could photograph her in this silly pose, she readily agreed to it. Thank goodness!

I'm sad because I always imagined seeing her again. But who knows? Maybe I still will. May God bless her and continue to bless her family! She truly was an extremely significant mentor to me, and I'm greatly indebted to her, not only because of her brilliant mind, but also her sweetness, wit and impish grin. As a teacher myself, my students will be lucky if I can impart even half the generosity of spirit and curiosity of mind that Sarah gave me. Thank you for this opportunity to share.

Kristin Seifert '19

Sarah was a remarkable mentor, teacher, and friend. I had the great honor of being the last dissertation that Sarah was appointed to chair. Sarah shared her exceptional advice and knowledge with me as we worked on my prospectus, meeting at a Panera Bread near her home when she was no longer commuting to campus. Although Sarah was in the early stages of the disease that would take her from us, being an aspiring Brechtian scholar, I would fill in a missing name or date and Sarah would be off and running with yet another brilliant thought or example. I am eternally grateful and humbled by this incredibly meaningful and memorable time that we spent together. Sarah influenced and continues to influence my work in so many ways. Her course structure and scholarship paved the way for my core research on intersections between performance mediums. Although Sarah was unable to continue as my dissertation chair, she remained a reader on my committee for as long as she was able. Facing serious health issues of my own, I nearly gave up all hope of completing the dissertation without Sarah’s guidance. When I finally started writing again, Sarah’s voice and advice were very much alive in my head. I graduated in 2019, thinking of Sarah throughout my defense and missing her greatly at my hooding. My dissertation, Brecht Between Mediums, is dedicated to Sarah. As chance would have it, Sarah passed away on my birthday, so I will now celebrate and remember her great life on that day as well and strive to pass along her legacy of knowledge and desire to make the world a better place.

Tamara Underiner '97

My favorite memory:  Sarah at her kitchen table, interrupting whatever academic thing we were talking about to muse over the mysterious sociality of neighborhood cats.  What contagious pleasure she took in their doings!  My favorite lesson: is her “rheostat” metaphor of difficult critical theory – how it dawns on one slowly, so one may as well be patient with oneself.  My lasting sense of Sarah:  the way she made it seem she had all the time in the world for those of us fortunate enough to be her advisees; heaven knows she mentored me well past the expiration date. How lovely it would be to bask in that attention just one more time.  Sarah, this iced latte’s for you.    

Dean Wilcox '94

I first met Sarah when I enrolled in the graduate lighting design program at the University of South Carolina in 1986, where she had just been hired to teach in the Department of Theatre and Dance. I signed up for her Dramatic Literature course and by the end of the first week I was the only student left in the class (this should not be seen as a reflection on Sarah’s teaching ability, but rather the apathetic attitude toward theory and criticism in a department focused on practice). So, in this respect, I was among her first graduate students, if not the first.  Needless to say, spending a couple of hours a week one-on-one with such a brilliant and insightful mind was nothing short of  intimidating. But it was also fascinating and inspiring. In these sessions she introduced me to feminism and semiotics, deepened my understanding of Epic Theatre, and her focus on space and time became my focus on space and time. Like the best teachers, Sarah awakened and nurtured an intellect I did not know I had, and instilled in me a curiosity about the world that sustains me to this day. After graduating from USC I followed her to The University of Washington. While my background as a designer was an anomaly for the PhD program, Sarah vouched for me and I was able to continue to study with her (and with Michael Quinn, Jack Wolcott, and Barry Witham). It is an understatement to merely say that she had an impact on my life, meeting Sarah changed the course of my life. I can trace the entirety of my career as a teacher and scholar directly to those one-on-one conversations. Over the years, while there had been sporadic conference meetings (a memorable one about six years after I graduated from UW where, in a hotel in Lyon, like an encouraging parent, she complemented my rudimentary French pronunciation, to which I could just blush and giggle), emails and phone calls (where I got updates on her daughter Jessica and her cats Bisoux and Minette), the last time I saw her I was in Seattle for a conference and I got to spend the day with her exploring the fledgling Experience Music Project. Wandering around an exhibit on Bob Dylan’s memorabilia she surprised me by recounting how, growing up in Minnesota, she had been a few years behind Dylan in school. Looking at his albums and dogeared books (Brecht on Theatre was prominently displayed),  Sarah was Sarah, taking in information, asking penetrating questions, and making connections that few would make. It was a lovely and very memorable afternoon. People so bright and so giving of their time and intellect are rare in this world. Sarah was an amazing person, a brilliant scholar, an incredible teacher, and a valued mentor. She is deeply missed.

Malcolm Womack '13

Sarah was my dissertation advisor and I would meet with her at a Starbucks in a strip mall in Lake Forest Park where she would bring two things – a massive amount of notes on whatever chapter I had been working on, and her own straw. Her notes made my writing better, of course, because she was a fine teacher and an excellent writer (her book Space and Time in Epic Theatre continues to be as clear, sharp, and – rarest of all – useful a piece of theater theory as anything I’ve ever read), but the fact that she had spent so much time writing all those notes was far more valuable. I think for any of us who were fortunate enough to have Sarah as our advisor, her warmth and grace and good humor were precious, but it was the care she took with our work (one more dissertation for her, but work of ridiculous, consuming, outsized importance to us) that made it feel like work worth doing and that we were important enough for her to invest so much effort.  I always, always walked away from a meeting with Sarah feeling better than when I walked in.

I can only hope that when I engage with my own students I can do so with a fraction of her insight, skill and warmth, but more importantly that I can bring with me Sarah’s best, unspoken lesson – that while it’s good for a student to know how to break down a theatrical moment or structure a thesis statement, it’s better for them to know that someone has spent time thinking about their work, that their thoughts and opinions are worth engaging with, and that they themselves are worthwhile.  

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