Linking Course to Production: The Oresteia Project, by Ruth Weiner and Clara Shaw Hardy

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The Oresteia demands a large canvas.  Its trajectory, from the end of the Trojan War to Athena's creation of the first trial by jury, is huge. It is the story of the movement from a tribal cry for blood revenge to a system of justice designed by a god but carried out by men. It addresses the struggle between male and female, chthonic and Olympian gods, tribe and polis, law and tradition, justice and revenge. When we first contemplated the notion of staging the Oresteia at Carleton College we were of course aware of the scale of this undertaking. But even so, the full magnitude of the production that resulted, and its impact on our campus and community, ended up taking us by surprise.

The Oresteia was performed in the inaugural season of Carleton’s new theater, and was one of the largest and most ambitious productions we have ever done. For the script we commissioned a new adaptation of the trilogy by Rob Hardy (classicist and poet, as well as Clara Shaw Hardy’s husband); the production incorporated an original score by composer Mary Ellen Childs, ten choreographed choral dances, video imaging, a World War II jeep and an ambitious and beautiful lighting plot that at one point flooded the stage with graffiti in ancient Greek. There were thirty-three students in the cast including three speaking and sixteen dancing members of the chorus, and more than ten students working behind the scenes, as well as those who worked on costumes, sound, lighting, props, set construction, and more. By the middle of the spring term, it felt to us like most students on campus were either working on the show or knew someone who was.

Oresteia production image by Linnea BullionAt the heart of this massive endeavor was a structure invented by Ruth Weiner, theater director and professor of Theater and Dance: the project course. This innovative system links a team-taught course (taught in this case by Ruth together with Clara Shaw Hardy from Classics) to the term’s production by the Carleton Players (directed by Ruth). The course focuses on material centrally related to the production, and students enrolled in the course are required to participate in the production in some capacity (acting, dramaturgy, stage managing, designing and executing associated events, writing essays for the program, etc.).

Ruth has linked productions to project courses in collaboration with faculty in the departments of English (for productions of Hamlet and The Country Wife), Mathematics (for a production of a biographical play about Turing, The Lovesong of the Electric Bear) as well as Classics (for a production of Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis as well as, most recently, the Oresteia). Classics, however, has a unique relationship with theater. The surviving tragedies and Aristophanes’ comedies are primary texts in the study of the ancient world.  They are also basic to the history of the theater and the study of dramatic literature. Just as Classics is an essentially interdisciplinary field, so theater relies on collaboration—the two make ideal partners. The idea of going back to a foundational text like the Oresteia for the inaugural year in our new theater, therefore, was appealing to both of us, and we knew that a project course linked to the production would be a productive way of leveraging contributions from students and faculty in both departments.

The production was an ambitious one. We knew we couldn’t perform the full three plays of Aeschylus’ trilogy, but we didn’t want to sacrifice the overall scale and trajectory of the original work. We therefore commissioned a new translation / adaptation of the text, which telescoped Aeschylus’ three plays into a single two-hour drama.

The set had to represent Argos both at the time of Agamemnon’s return for the first part of the first act, and under the tyranny of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra’s rule in the second part, then Delphi and Athens in act two. While we never wanted to recreate the space of the Theater of Dionysus in which the trilogy was first performed, Ruth did want to incorporate important elements of that space: the strong central doors, the long entering crosses and the strong vertical axis of the ancient theater.  This design was organized around a clear central area that provided room for the choral dances.  Joe Stanley’s very large set was built in an L formation with the doors at the bend of the L and a long system of platforms of varying heights extending to stage left and across the upstage area.  Oresteia production image by Linnea Bullion

A central element in the production was our collaboration with the Dance department.  Carleton’s faculty-directed dance company, Semaphore, along with three speakers, made up the chorus, and dance contributed greatly to the energy of the performance.  The dynamism and sensitivity of the dancers’ work resolved major questions that came up in the Oresteia course about the function of the chorus and whether the choral segments would detract from the linear plot. The sound score was entirely composed of music that accompanied the dances and underscored much of the spoken text.

The course (“Visualizing Greek Tragedy: The Oresteia Project”) focused on problems around the production of Greek tragedy. We used Simon Goldhill’s How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today (University of Chicago Press, 2007) as our central text, and we read a selection of extant tragedy, Aristotle’s Poetics, and some secondary material on the plays. While we did have some Classics students in the course, it enrolled a wide variety of students in related fields (e.g., English, Philosophy, Women’s and Gender Studies, and History, as well as of course Theater). With each tragedy we read, students needed to confront the question of how to make use of informed understanding of the original performance context to bring the text to life most effectively for a modern audience. Throughout the term we circled back again and again to the Oresteia, and our production of it, as a test case. As a final project at the end of the term, groups of students presented their versions of a production plan (including set, lighting, and costume design) of a number of different tragedies, explaining how their decisions sprang from their understandings of the core issues in the texts themselves. The presentations showed the ways in which the students had internalized the necessity of understanding the ancient bones that are the texts of tragedy and making them intelligible to and meaningful for a modern audience.

In their culminating projects our students were replicating the process that we and our many collaborators had been through with the central production itself. We had chosen the Oresteia, and begun talking about what a course and production might look like, a full eighteen months earlier in the fall of 2010. Many of our initial discussions had taken place in the shadow of the Arab Spring as it unfolded through 2011. In this context the Oresteia’s concerns with the birth-pangs of democracy and the move from tribal to civic justice felt urgently contemporary.

What was extraordinary to us, though, was the range of ways in which the students found the text relevant to their world. By the spring of 2012 the acute repercussions of Greece’s debt crisis had started casting a somewhat different light on the tragedies, making us all more attentive to Aeschylus’ repeated concern with the relation between wealth and justice, as well as reminding us of the fragility of those institutions whose foundations Aeschylus staged. Many students also were struck by the fact that our country, too, had just finished a ten-year war, and was coping with the repercussions of the sacrifices that war had required.

While many of the decisions about the production, by necessity, had been made before the course began, there were also practical ways in which what the students were learning in the classroom percolated into the performances. One of Goldhill’s chapters centers on the challenges of presenting supernatural figures on stage. The students playing Apollo, Athena, and one of the Furies were all in the class, and they were naturally particularly interested in this issue. In class one day we had them perform a section of the trial scene from the Eumenides, and then the class engaged in a lively discussion of the stakes of the trial, the power relations between Olympian and chthonic gods, and the extent to which the outcome was fixed in advance. The conclusions we reached that day in class in turn colored the performances of all the actors involved in the play’s finale.

We asked the students to keep journals in which they reflected on the relationship between the coursework they were doing and their work on the production. The student who played Electra, for instance, said:

…. After reading the other Electras… it became clear to me that Electra isn’t just glad to see her brother after all these years, she’s thrilled to have an accomplice…. I am so grateful to have been able to take this course in conjunction with the performance.  As you can probably tell from the previous entries, taking this course has forced me to look deeper into each aspect of the production of this Greek tragedy as we layered in each element step by step…

Oresteia production image by Linnea BullionWhile making these connections was more challenging for, say, the stage hands than it was for the actors, it was clear from the journals both that the production deepened their understanding of the more abstract discussions we had in class, and that the class enabled a much more thoroughly informed and thought-out production.

The structure of linking course and production enabled us to mount a much more ambitious Oresteia than the Players on their own could have produced, and gave it an intellectual weight that would have been impossible otherwise. At the same time the theater adds a self-evaluating dimension for students involved in the production, making them actors in their own education.

The combination of course and production, the collaboration with the Dance program, and the large scope of the project generally guaranteed that the Oresteia had a wide impact across campus. The production also reached into the Northfield community and the Twin Cities region. During the spring, Rob Hardy participated in a drama class at a local high school (Arcadia Charter School), and taught a class on ancient drama to senior citizens in the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium, so that the production attracted a wide and multigenerational audience from Northfield. Classicists and theater faculty from surrounding colleges (St. Olaf, Gustavus Adolphus, St. Thomas, Macalester, etc.) attended and brought students. Eric Dugdale reviewed the production for the online journal Didaskalia, and he ends his review saying:

My colleague Yurie Hong and I brought a group of seven students to the first night of the show; most of them had just acted in their own performances of Greek drama. The elation that they exuded at seeing Greek tragedy come alive and the flurry of energetic discussion that the performance provoked are testimony that it had succeeded in offering audience members “some juicy food for thought,” to quote a line from the program.

Both of us continue to hear from colleagues around the region about how memorable they found the performances.

We as well as our students learned a great deal from the Oresteia production.  This huge work still holds enormous appeal for us.  We know from the experience of doing it that this work closely and effectively examines the struggles between the personal and the political, between the family and the state, between men and women.  These struggles have not been resolved and continue to generate important questions to this day.  The Oresteia’s close examination of channeling a fierce personal sense of right and wrong to the state, of justice, continues to be enormously resonant to us.

Ruth Weiner (rweiner@carleton.edu) is the Class of 1944 Professor of Theater and the Liberal Arts at Carleton College.  This is her second collaboration with Rob and Clara Hardy.  The first was on the 2000 production of Rob's new translation of Euripides' Iphigeneia at Aulis, central to a course on Greek tragedy.

Clara Shaw Hardy (chardy@carleton.edu) is professor of Classical Languages at Carleton College, where she has taught since 1990. Her interests include the performance of Greek and Roman drama, gender studies, and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

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