At the recommendation of the Outreach Prize Committee, the SCS Board of Directors awards the 2010 SCS Prize for Scholarly Outreach to Peter Meineck for the Aquila Theatre’s program Page and Stage: The Power of the Iliad Today. A model for outreach, the project represents productive collaborations between the academy and civic institutions, interactions structured for different types of group, around a range of activities, all enabling the exploration of meaning of ancient texts from multiple perspectives. More than two hundred events, from live theatrical performances to book group discussions to lectures and workshops, engaged close to 125,000 people with the Iliad.
Since its inception in the early 1990s, Aquila Theatre has been dedicated to bringing classic works to the broadest possible range of audiences, recognizing the tremendous capacity of live performance to catalyze public interest in ancient culture. Years of planning led to the partnership with the SCS, the Urban Libraries Council and the Center for Ancient Studies at New York University to develop a program that reached across a range of civic institutions to address the disparate strengths and concerns of academics, arts organizations and public libraries. Aquila Theatre was able to overcome some hesitation on the part of community stakeholders, impressing them with their commitment to open and continued communication among program partners, to build bridges between cultural institutions and lay foundations for sustained collaboration. The use of media was vital to maintaining partnership connections; in addition to advertisements in local print outlets, bookmarks, flyers, posters, and essay pamphlets were produced and distributed to promote and inform. Although individual events were designed to stand alone, cross-promotion in different event locations encouraged cross-over participation, to tempt book-club members into the lecture hall or the theatre and vice versa, benefiting libraries and arts centers alike. The unifying website for Page and Stage brought together background scholarship as well as thematic podcasts, performance and workshop videos, production information and details for local events.
A clear strength is the group of four program themes developed by Aquila Theatre to serve as focused pathways to access classical materials; each theme was open enough to allow local programs to explore Iliadic themes from multiple cultural viewpoints and to connect, in turn, with traditions of multiple communities. “From Homer to Hip-Hop” was especially appealing along these lines. In Memphis, a performance by local rappers D’voted enriched participants’ reception of Homer and oral tradition as a human phenomenon. In Newark, NJ, scholar consultant Rosa Andújar presented readings from Homer alongside Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus. Andújar remembered the last reading group “… had a long and productive discussion (over an hour and a half long!) in which everyone actively participated.” In Los Angeles, the series paralleled the Homeric tradition to Hip-Hop Theatre within the performative cultural traditions of the African diaspora. James Sherman, librarian at the L.A. Public Library, was struck by how discussions were “lively and focused on words, power, tradition and change, masculine and feminine discourse, rap traditions and African oral discourse as a precursor to Greek traditions.” One patron in Los Angeles called the program “transcendent”; another one found it “extraordinary beyond words”, an assessment echoed by the librarian, who described the audiences as “mesmerized”.
Page and Stage has been a great success in engaging new audiences. An Urban Libraries Council representative noted the program’s attraction for “a broad demographic mix in highly diverse communities around the country”, an impression documented by on-site surveys distributed at each event as well as questionnaires circulated by the libraries. A patron at the Newport News Public Library confessed “I’ve never been to this library before, it’s great!” Some participants articulated a larger social value in the program. One patron in Palm Beach noted that this kind of “stimulating and relevant events” were “great for the community, especially in this economy.” At the Brooklyn Public Library, one participant expressed the hope that “this program continues in the near future so it teaches society the value of reading and how it applies to real life.” A West Palm Beach participant pointed out that “special events like this add value to libraries and can revitalize the local area to include patrons who might not [otherwise] visit”. The cross-promotion was clearly successful as well; many participants were introduced not just to Homer but also to live theater. Members of the Aquila Theatre company were impressed by how strongly even novice audiences could commit to an unfamiliar and demanding but profoundly human experience. After one challenging performance, “the astonished audience burst into applause and leaped to their feet.”
Aquila Theatre has laid groundwork for future outreach programs. Participants in Page and Stage were asked to contribute essays evaluating their experiences for a special dedicated issue of Classical World. The articles are informative in their own right and will serve as planning resources in years to come for classics, for local arts groups and for libraries. Deploying the contacts built through Page and Stage, Aquila Theatre is continuing and expanding its mission of bringing classics to the masses. The new project, Ancient Greek/Modern Lives, is well underway and was recognized by the National Endowment for the Humanities with a Chairman’s Special Award and the grant of $800,000.Alison Futrell, Chair
C. W. Marshall