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Raising the Stakes: Mary-Kay Gamel and the Academic Stage

Amy R. Cohen

In the version of Sophocles’ Ajax that Mary-Kay Gamel devised and directed with Jana Adamitis at Christopher Newport University in 2011, Ajax was seen (in silhouette) to slaughter not sheep and cattle but rather human war prisoners.  With that change, and by setting The Ajax Project in the modern setting of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gamel and her collaborators changed the terms of the play and reframed its issues of honor.  When asked at a talkback the reason for the different victims, Gamel answered, “Raise the stakes!”  With that exclamation, she expressed the theatrical philosophy she embraces, but she also named what she has inspired for ancient drama on the academic stage.

Gamel’s extraordinary career has proven that the adventurous work being done in the halls of colleges and universities cannot be dismissed as mere class projects.  Her bold adaptations have always spoken to their times: that means, of course, that they addressed the social and political issues of their day.  It also means that they were in conversation with, and influential upon, the professional stage.  While she has educated generations of students by having them do Greek drama (experiential learning at its best), she has also made academic productions of ancient works vital to the continuum of modern thinking—artistic, practical, and philosophical—on theatre.

The Ajax Project, for instance, developed ideas from Bryan Doerries’ Theatre of War series: both projects used Sophocles, and Ajax in particular, to address the hardships of the modern warrior.  The Ajax Project also used techniques that appeared again in Aquila Theatre Company’s Herakles: Gamel, Adamitis, and their students used the words of modern veterans to rewrite the choral passages of the play, and Aquila used video interviews of veterans to form the choral parts of their production.  Both performances succeeded, with much the same thought and technique, in insisting that we understand the tragedies in terms of our modern world. 

This paper will trace some of Gamel’s achievements and give voice to her vision for the essential place of the academic stage in American theatre.

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Performance, Politics, Pedagogy

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