Professor Brenda Foley has been a globetrotter for much of her life.

“My dad was in the Navy so I have a little of everything from everywhere,” says the new Carol L. Zicklin Honors Academy Chair and visiting professor of theater at Brooklyn College. And that includes Jacksonville, Florida, where she was born; England, where her parents moved to when she was two years old; California, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in theater at the University of Santa Clara before receiving her master’s of fine arts degree from the California Institute of Arts; New Hampshire, where the scholar, professional actor and, more recently, playwright, lives with her writer/stonemason husband and dogs when she is not on the road. And now Brooklyn.

“I’m so glad for this endowed chair; it is one where people can venture into studies that are not necessarily part of their department curriculum,” Foley says, adding that when she saw the job description she immediately realized that, as a senior interdisciplinary scholar, she could reach out to students through her work in gender and disabilities studies.

A member of the faculty at Marlboro College in Vermont since 2007, Foley earned a special graduate studies Ph.D. in 2004 in theater and performance studies, women’s studies, and history from Brown University, where she served as a teaching fellow. Thanks to a Mellon Fellowship in original sources from the Council on Information and Library Services that helped fund her research, Foley published Undressed for Success: Beauty Contestants and Exotic Dancers as Merchants of Morality (Palgrave 2005), a comparative analysis of beauty pageants and striptease.

“That started me on a whole different path,” Foley says of her interdisciplinary work, explaining that her most recent project has had her looking into archival documents about case studies of women forcefully institutionalized in 19th-century asylums. “Most first-person statements from patients are only ever articulated as historical quotes,” says Foley, “written through an arbitrated perspective and position of authority. The challenge in writing a counter-narrative to the dominant account lies in using the same history that created the societal assumptions my work seeks to dislodge. In order to avoid such a reinscription, I draw upon the fields of disability and women’s studies to disrupt the continued association between women, disability, instability, and insanity through a focus on individual patient case studies not yet explored.”

In addition to organizing a day-long symposium on disability and performance with colleagues in the theater department (scheduled for next spring), Foley continues to explore women’s voices and stories through her play, Forever Unknown, and book project, Bind Up the Broken Hearted: Women and Narratives of Violence in Nineteenth-Century Asylums.

“Women in general were designated as normally living under stressed conditions, while any form of deviant behavior in the Victorian mentality could be defined as an illness by the exclusively male medical establishment,” Foley says. That included postpartum depression, epilepsy, even grief.

“Coming from a disabilities studies and performance perspective, I can see how women who had agency instilled fear in some men,” she says. “I felt, and feel I need to give those women a different kind of voice,” which she does in a play called Forever Unknown, which has not yet been staged.

Foley’s latest theater piece, Fallen Wings—about the complex relationship between a mother and daughter—was one of ten winners of the British Theatre Challenge for one-act plays hosted by London’s Sky Blue Theatre Company.

“The play was performed this weekend and went quite well,” says Foley. “In fact, I was offered a contract to publish it by a U.K. publishing house that specializes in dramatic literature.

And the day she returned from London, Foley found out she was named a finalist for the New Perspective Theatre 2017 Short Play Lab and selected to have another one of her short plays, Loyalty, performed in February as part of the Theatre Project 2017 Think Fast Festival. As Foley puts it, “the Zicklin Chair has enabled me to work with the imaginative and talented Brooklyn College students which, in turn, has benefited my professional theater work. It’s a win-win and I am very grateful for the opportunity.”