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Blog: Classics Everywhere: Recreating Ancient Drama for the Modern (and Digital) Stage

The new Classics Everywhere initiative, launched by the SCS in 2019, supports projects that seek to engage communities worldwide with the study of Greek and Roman antiquity in new and meaningful ways. As part of this initiative the SCS has been funding a variety of projects ranging from reading groups comparing ancient to modern leadership practices to collaborations with artists in theater, music, and dance. This post centers on two performances of ancient plays that were canceled when the pandemic put a halt to them last March.

Countless projects in the performing arts are now canceled or postponed due to the unexpected arrival of Covid-19––some at the last minute. The University of Vermont (UVM) and Columbia University were both in the final stages of rehearsing for their productions of ancient plays––scheduled for late March and early April, respectively––when it became necessary to cancel the performances. In the case of UVM, the anticipated production of Aristophanes’ Clouds was supposed to open just a few days after the lockdown was imposed. Thus, the most intense work had happened just prior to the time of cancelation. 

In the case of Columbia, Cristina Pérez Díaz, PhD candidate in Classics at Columbia University, was working on directing Euripides’ Andromache in collaboration with Argentinian music composer, Alejandro Kauderer. Since the performance was unable to run, Pérez Díaz and Kauderer have been reconceptualizing the work they had done on the stage, and are producing two distinctive “reverberations” of the play. Classics Everywhere supported the creative process of UVM’s anticipated production of Aristophanes’ Clouds, and the reconceptualization of the Andromache undertaken by Pérez Díaz at Columbia University.

Figure 1: Glynnis Fawkes wearing the headdress – a crown made of thick wooden shapes laser-cut at the UVM FabLab – for the chorus of Clouds. They were to be spray-painted silver. Photo by Jenn Karson.

John Franklin, Professor and Chair of Classics at UVM, who spearheaded Aristophanes’ Clouds, inaugurated a collaboration between UVM, Burlington High School (BHS), BFA St. Alban’s High School, and Vermont Tech, bringing together students, faculty, and artists of different ages, backgrounds, and stages of life. Aiming to create meaningful bonds among the Burlington and larger Vermont community and bring Classics to a wider audience, Franklin engaged multiple artists from outside UVM, including the visual designer, choreographer, costume production manager, chorus trainer, and set construction supervisor. Franklin also began collaborations with units within the university that were not familiar with Classics: Jenn Karson of the FabLab, one of UVM’s engineering labs, for example, agreed to make the components for the headdresses for the play, and co-design them, thereby initiating a collaboration between the Departments of Classics and Engineering.

Figure 2: Catie Michael (UVM 2020, now campaign manager for Rebecca Holcombe’s gubernatorial race) as the Chorus Leader in her costume designed by Glynnis Fawkes and costume production manager, Rachel Cosgrove. Photo by Rachel Cosgrove.

Responsible for the play’s aesthetic appeal and for immersing the audience visually in the ancient world was Glynnis Fawkes, visual designer, archaeological illustrator and artist at excavations in Syria, Turkey, Israel, Cyprus and Greece. Fawkes oversaw the sets, costumes, and headdresses, as well as the screen projections that would be used during the choral odes. These projections were meant to help the audience understand the relevance of the choral odes as well as the play’s mythological references. In designing the set and choosing the colors – Strepsiades’ house and the Thinkery/Brainetarium – Fawkes referenced ancient representations of buildings on vases and on the glass mosaics from Kenchreai, a harbor near Corinth where she worked as illustrator for approximately nine years. She aimed for “the overall effect of the sets, costumes, and projections to be solidly based on ancient Athenian iconography, but with contemporary and humorous elements, and in this way follow closely with the aesthetic of the translation.” 

Figure 3: The sketch for Strepsiades’ house made by visual designer Glynnis Fawkes.

The play’s music was created by Franklin himself. He was trained as a composer and works on music archaeology. In his essay on Euripides’ Helen, whose production and music he was responsible for in the spring 2018, Franklin explains that his goal in creating music for ancient plays is to combine “accurate interpretation of meter with original melodies based upon the ancient principle of ‘accent composition’ and harmonic material drawn from ancient theoretical sources and the few surviving scores.” An ancient double-oboe, called an aulos, and an electric lyre were used to re-create the ancient sounds; five other musicians — three UVM students and two community artists — were going to play in the band along with Franklin himself. 

In addition to producing the play, Franklin had planned on enhancing the play’s academic impact with four pre-performance talks (to be given by Jeffrey Henderson, Roberta Stewart, Pavlos Sfyroeras, and Penny Evans). He also sought to maintain the play’s Dionysiac characters by recruiting four different wineries to serve wine with the lectures. Burlington’s Second City Dionysia was unfortunately unable to take place. However, the experiences gained and the relationships created will inform UVM’s next City Dionysia––hopefully in spring 2022! For Franklin, the most rewarding part of the experience was working with the director and being part of all the details that must be taken care of to put on a production. The college and high school students reported taking particular pleasure in learning how to work with each other and seeing the text come alive. Charles Young ’20, who graduated from Vermont Tech this spring and was scheduled to play the role of Strepsiades even though he had no prior training in Classics, found the experience rewarding:

It was interesting joining the production as an “outsider.” I had to learn a lot about the culture and was always on my toes. One thing I found truly inspirational was the dedication of everyone participating. Even though the production has ended, every moment is cherished and was worthwhile. As for my character, Strepsiades, although I personally found his humor to be childish, I was able to relate his life with mine or with my family. Strepsiades is a poor guy from the country that likes to joke around and is in massive debt. I was born and raised in the country too, in a small town almost no one has heard of. My favorite line was one I said that goes “I had a wonderful life in the country, part of the great unwashed, scruffy, lounging about without a care in the world.”

At Columbia University, Cristina Pérez Díaz was also faced with disappointment when her play was canceled just two weeks before opening night. Pérez Díaz had translated and was directing Euripides’ Andromache for the Barnard-Columbia Ancient Drama Group in New York. Having the opportunity to direct a play was a major factor in her decision to pursue a PhD in Classics at Columbia, so when the play was canceled she wanted to find a way to direct her work into new channels. For her production, Pérez Díaz chose to highlight the domestic elements of Euripides’ tragedy, emphasizing the household and domestic labor. As it turned out, these are themes and issues that have taken on a new significance during the Covid-19 pandemic, not only because many people have been spending a lot more time at home, but also because of renewed calls for a higher valuation and greater recognition of domestic labor. As Pérez Díaz explains:

The chorus was a chorus of domestic employees, and their costumes were floral smock aprons, gloves, a sponge, a cleaning brush, a duster. Their “dances” were choreographies of domestic gestures related to cleaning and housekeeping. Andromache held a broom, Hermione was moved around the stage by the chorus like a piece of furniture. The translation, on its part, fleshed out all the ways in which the female characters’ actions and dilemmas are also, in a sense, domestic labor.

Figure 4: William Steere in the costume for Andromache. Photo by William Steere.

For the music Pérez Díaz collaborated closely with the Argentinian music composer Alejandro Kauderer, who specializes in music for film and theater, and creates site specific installations for live performances. The music he composed for the play focused on the soundscape of the house. Pérez Díaz describes his process further:

Kauderer recorded sounds of his own house (the sound of someone washing the dishes, of the vacuum cleaner, running water, a dog panting) as well as sounds of the exterior (a street vendor, birds, frogs, a motorcycle)–the kinds of sounds that permeate through windows and small openings. Taking those real sounds as a base, he then abstracted them to create an ambience that situates those very concrete sounds in the darker, emotional, and psychological recesses of the household. The result is an enticing soundtrack that transports you to a house suspended in tension, where something terrible is happening in the midst of normality.

Adjusting to our new reality, Pérez Díaz and Kauderer reconceptualized their work into two projects accessible to now isolated audiences in households all over the world. First, Kauderer adapted the play’s music, which was meant to accompany the acting, into a sound installation that can be enjoyed as a solitary experience within one’s home and is available on Spotify for free. Second, Pérez Diaz is creating a handmade and handwritten booklet in the shape of a cd album in two volumes which will be available to the public at large. Volume one is about the original form of the play and includes the English translation of the script and drawings inspired by the play; volume two is about its transformation since it was not able to run.

In this second volume, which is being created during this summer through funding by Classics Everywhere and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Public Humanities Initiative, the actors of the play will be writing short monologues on the new domestic and historical circumstances from the perspective of their characters. Pérez Díaz is editing and organizing the texts for the booklet, which will also include portraits of the actors in their homes; her own poetic texts, responses to the issues of the play in the context of the pandemic; and her original drawings which are based on the imagery she had designed for the stage. Pérez Díaz’s hope is to distribute the booklet to academic and public libraries around New York and to find a way to make it available to the broad public. A website is also under construction which will include much of the information which will go into this second volume.

 

Figure 5: The cover for the Andromache booklet. Photo by Cristina Pérez Díaz.

Reflecting on the goals of her new work, Pérez Díaz noted the timeliness of staging ancient dramas today:

We are offering an experience of Greek tragedy that is quite unique and suits the moment in surprising ways. Audiences already wearied of spending most of their days on video calls and of watching live performances online will appreciate the format we are offering, which does not require one to be looking at a screen but rather brings us back to the body and connects us to our senses and to the work done by the hands of other human beings. Seeing how important the senses of hearing and touch have become under the circumstances of isolation and so much loneliness, we expect that our aural and tactile pieces will bring a valuable sensorial and humane, if brief, escape.

Contemporary productions of ancient plays have long formed vital connections between past and present, scholars and public. They not only promote and strengthen interest in Classics, but also offer crucial opportunities to explore the ever-evolving relevance of ancient artforms to contemporary issues, in a context where research and creative work go hand in hand. The damage the Covid-19 pandemic has dealt to the art world is enormous. Yet it may also provoke us to examine once more the value of the works that we are missing, and return to this medium with renewed appreciation once the pandemic has passed. We look forward to the restart of staging performances in the US, hopefully in 2021.

Until then, to support audiences longing to watch live theater, the Athens and Epidaurus Festival will be live streaming for the first time ever its new production of Aeschylus’ Persians directed by Dimitris Lignadis, the new director of the National Theatre of Greece. The performance will take place this Saturday July 25 at 9pm Greek time. According to Lignadis: “The National Theatre of Greece, in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, invites the entire planet to the most beautiful theatre in the world, at Ancient Epidaurus, to share and participate – even if only online – in our production of The Persians; a ritual that takes us back to the past, reminding us of the essence and the core of existence, which is at the same time a bridge between people and cultures.”

Figure 6: Pages from volume one of the booklet. Photo by Cristina Pérez Díaz.

Header Image: Mosaic of Hippolytus and Phaedra, 2nd century CE, from Daphne now at the Antakya Archaeological Museum. Image by Dick Osseman under a CC-BY-4.0. 

Nina Papathanasopoulou's picture

Nina Papathanasopoulou works as the Public Engagement Coordinator for the Society for Classical Studies, overseeing the Classics Everywhere Initiative and finding opportunities to bring together scholars and students of Classics with the broader community. She taught classics and theater courses at Connecticut College as a Visiting Assistant Professor from 2013-2019. She is currently living in Athens where she is excited to have joined the faculty at College Year in Athens. Nina specializes in Greek drama and mythology and her current research explores interpretations of Greek myths through modern dance, especially the choreographies of Martha Graham. ninap@classicalstudies.org

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