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5 Questions with Faculty: Sheila Curran Bernard

ALBANY, N.Y. (Nov. 16, 2016) — Sheila Curran Bernard is an associate professor in the Department of History and Documentary Studies Program, College of Arts and Sciences, and the director of the Graduate Program in Public History.

Bernard, an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and writer, came to UAlbany in the fall of 2008. She says she was attracted to the University by a tenure track job offering an academic home with an opportunity to continue working in history, documentary and storytelling.

A member of the University's Strategic Planning Committee, Bernard was co-convenor along with Danny Goodwin of the Department of Art  and Art History for a futuring paper on the role of arts and humanities in a public university.

Sheila Curran Bernard during a masterclass at the Docville International Documentary Film Festival in Leuven, Belgium. (Photo by Joel D. Scheraga)

What are your working on now?

I’m working on a multifaceted project that looks at the life and legend of Huddie Ledbetter, the musician known as Lead Belly, in the context of racial justice in the post-Reconstruction South.

The narrative is built around his brief collaboration with song collector John Lomax (and his young son, Alan). They spent six months, 1934-1935, collecting songs in the South, primarily in prisons, and then began a performing tour of the North. It fell apart in March, around the time they performed here at Paige Hall. The research will be presented through digital and print publication and also as a stage presentation. I’m very fortunate this year to be the inaugural community fellow of UAlbany’s new Institute for History and Public Engagement, which offers research support and some time to focus on writing.

What made you decide to pursue your field?

One of my earliest jobs in documentary was as a producer/director/writer on the PBS series Eyes on the Prize, a 14-hour archival history of the modern civil rights movement.

Executive producer Henry Hampton and series writer Steve Fayer decided that for the series to engage viewers at a visceral level, the history should be told using techniques of three-act dramatic storytelling: someone wants something that’s very difficult to get but worth getting, and they either succeed or not. As someone who already loved theater, I was hooked by the power this brought to documentary.

I went on to study many, many films, books and plays to really understand how they worked, structurally, applying what I learned not only to my own film work but also to a book I wrote, Documentary Storytelling. This past year the fourth edition of that book was published, and it’s been translated into Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, and Polish.

What’s your favorite class to teach?

Every class has its rewards and challenges, and even the same class changes with every new group of students – it has a different energy and there are always surprises. I tend to get students from a wide range of majors, and it’s fun challenging their preconceptions about what documentary is and how tremendously creative nonfiction filmmakers can be while also adhering to journalistic standards. It’s also interesting to undermine conventional wisdom about “bias” in media, and to help students learn to evaluate whether or not evidence used in support of a particular argument or position is trustworthy.

I also really enjoy a section I designed for the history department’s graduate professionalization course, a workshop on how to go after opportunities: research funding, fellowships, awards, that sort of thing. There are a few basic strategies that can help strengthen a good proposal and make it more competitive, and it’s nice to see worthy projects get the support they deserve.

Dinner tonight with anyone, living or not: Who, and why?

Can it be a dinner party? There are several playwrights I’d love to gather for a good meal and their thoughts about putting history on stage. I’d ask David Henry Hwang (M Butterfly), Tom Stoppard (Arcadia), Deborah Brevoort (The Blue-Sky Boys), Robert Schenkkan (All the Way) and Lynn Nottage (Intimate Apparel), to start. Every writer has his or her own approach, and it’s always fascinating.

What was the last book you read for pleasure?

I tend to read a lot of nonfiction, which I enjoy but which usually relates to work. For pleasure, I like to lose myself in one of the extraordinary new series being created these days for television. Recent favorites include the Norwegian political thriller Occupied, Kenneth Branagh in the adaptation of the Swedish Wallander novels, and the British crime drama Broadchurch.

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