From London to NYC to ASU: Professor returns after a summer on center stage

Ayanna Thompson says her focus for the academic year will be continuing the growth of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies

Ayanna Thompson and King Charles III greet each other in a group of people.

Regents Professor of English Ayanna Thompson speaks with King Charles III at the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's First Folio at Windsor Castle in London in July 2023. Photo courtesy Ian Jones Photography


Ayanna Thompson, a Regents Professor in the Department of English at Arizona State University, is one of the world’s leading scholars on the works of Shakespeare.

This summer, while a rather busy one for Thompson, was one of extraordinary experiences and memories.

In July she attended a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio at Windsor Castle in London.

The event was attended by King Charles III and Queen Camilla, along with top scholars, art organizations and teaching organizations whose work focuses on Shakespeare. Renowned British actors performed monologues and dialogues from Shakespeare’s work.

She also spoke at several conferences and festivals and, most recently, served as a dramaturg in New York City, providing feedback and resources to help improve the quality and accuracy of a play in production and set to hit the stage in 2025.

“I feel like I have the most amazing privileged life right now that I get to work with world-class artists and scholars,” Thompson said. “I feel incredibly lucky to be in those spaces with those cool people.”

A new model for premodern studies

Thompson’s focus now turns to the upcoming academic year and continuing the growth of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, which she has been the director of for five years.

The center, housed in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, promotes medieval and Renaissance studies, and serves a community of scholars worldwide by supporting research that engages the past and points to different, more inclusive futures.

“Over the last five years, we’ve been able to put the center at the forefront of premodern studies, everything from the classics to the 18th century,” she said. “Almost every other research center focusing on Shakespeare, early modern or even early classical, has copied our program.”

Thompson and her staff have been transforming education and breaking down barriers by focusing on values listed in ASU’s mission and goalssuch as inclusion, academic accessibility, local impact and social embeddedness.

They have made all their books, journals and other research materials publicly accessible through ACMRS Press at zero cost; provided academic scholarships to researchers, students and scholars; and developed projects exploring complex topics relating to race in premodern studies.

“It’s why I came to ASU — because the charter and mission align so fundamentally with the kind of work that I do and the kind of work that the center could do for the field as a whole,” she said.

One of the center’s most important initiatives is RaceB4Race.

RaceB4Race comprises an ongoing conference series and a professional network community by and for scholars of color across the country to engage on issues of race in premodern literature, history and culture.

“All of the work at the center is about diversifying the field," Thompson said. "The series is at the forefront of discussing premodern studies and race.” 

The symposium has grown significantly since its inaugural year in 2019, receiving a $3.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation in 2021 to allow the center to sustain, build and innovate on the crucial work RaceB4Race does.

“It’s pretty exciting, and I know that we are doing something good when everyone wants to copy our lineups and we continue to get funding from various sources that see our work as important,” Thompson said.

As the center enters a new academic year, Thompson and her staff are thinking of how they can continue providing the best for students, scholars, educators and the community.

“We are hiring incredible people to be part of the center. Incredible playwrights and directors, bringing in artists, offering amazing internship and job opportunities for students,” she said. “Anything that can help us continue to innovate even more.”

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