Jennifer Roberts-Smith and the intersection of theatre, history, and digital media

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Jennifer Roberts-Smith is an Associate Professor in Theatre and Performance. Jennifer’s interests lie in the intersection of theatre, history, and digital media. 

For her current project, Jennifer is leading the Virtual Reality Development cluster of the Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation (DOHR) research project. DOHR is a community-based partnership among former residents of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children (NSHCC), educators, historians, legal experts, and designers. They are working with emerging technology – the Oculus Rift – to bring former residents’ life stories into grade 11 classrooms. DOHR will assess how virtual reality may work to engage young people with the oral histories of survivors from the NSHCC.

digital rendering old school


The DOHR project is inspired by the principle of Sankofa, a mythical bird flying forward with its head turned backwards. It symbolizes looking to the past in order to understand the present and move forward into a better future.

As a leader and member of many interdisciplinary teams, Jennifer has been developing speculative feminist project management. It is a way of doing work like the DOHR project that is difficult to do using traditional management approaches. Speculative feminist project management is based on six principles:

  • challenging the status quo
  • designing for an actionable ideal
  • searching out the invisible and under-represented
  • considering the micro, meso and macro
  • privileging transparency and accountability
  • welcoming critique.

It all started for Jennifer when she was a PhD candidate.  Her supervisor decided to teach her XML encoding for a project they were working on.  She worked with him to digitize some of the earliest English dictionaries, dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. She then used those dictionaries to write her thesis on Shakespeare.  This taught her how beneficial digital tools can be to theatre research. Now, Jennifer uses her projects as a medium to gain insight about the difference art creates in the world.

Art is one of the ways we can tackle problems that are too complicated to have simple solutions. Making art helps me see what kind of ethical agency I and my students can have as artists, to help solve intricate world issues.