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Classics Everywhere: Engaging with Antiquity through Film and Theater at Home

The 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.

Trips to live performances and viewings of films are often used by teachers as resources for enriching Classics classrooms. Engaging with contemporary artists, actors, and directors makes students see the relevance of the ancient works they are studying. “The texts came alive!” students told me after seeing Aquila Theatre’s A Trojan War a few years ago. This Classics Everywhere article focuses on two projects that not only enrich but also inspire the study of Classics. They also bring the joy of learning about ancient literature and civilization into our homes, through a biographic film on Ovid’s life and work and via virtual performances of Greek tragedy.

Benjamin Weisman, the producer of the promising new independent feature film Ovid and the Art of Love, was awarded Classics Everywhere funding to organize a virtual panel scheduled for October 27 at 7pm EST to discuss the film’s impact on our world and Ovid’s on his. The panel will feature Esmé von Hoffman, the film’s award-winning screenwriter and director; Ryan Stitt, author of the History of Ancient Greece podcast who interviewed von Hoffman on his podcast; Stephanie McCarter, Associate Professor of Classical Languages at Sewanee the University of the South and the first female translator of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in over 60 years; and Rachel Philbrick, Assistant Professor of Classics at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies (ICCS) in Rome. The panel discussion will be framed so as to engage multiple audiences: both those who were inspired by the film to learn more about Ovid and Roman history, and also Classicists who, as connoisseurs, will learn about the film’s vision, its educational value and ways in which it can be used to bring out Ovid’s relevance today.

Figure 1: Michael Angelo Zervos (producer), Esmé von Hoffman (writer-director), and Benjamin Weisman (producer) on set at Art Park in Detroit during the movie’s filming. Photo by Glenna Lang.

Ovid and the Art of Love, which was released on streaming platforms on May 19 and on DVD on July 14, tells the story of Ovid through the eyes of a modern-day teenager. It dramatizes Ovid’s creation and presentation of his provocative poem Ars Amatoria (‘The Art of Love’), and focuses on the poet’s relationship with the emperor Augustus. The film, whose trailer can be seen here, is set in a lively mash-up of contemporary Detroit and ancient Rome. The characters live in both worlds at once: they wear both togas and sneakers; they recite classical poetry and dance hip-hop. Detroit, Weisman explains, is America’s long-lost empire, a contemporary yet dilapidated city filled with ruins from its past glory. It thus seemed an appropriate vehicle for evoking aspects of Rome both as Ovid lived it and as it stands in the popular imagination today.

Figure 2: Corbin Bleu as Ovid performs with fellow musicians. Scene from Ovid and the Art of Love filmed at Detroit's Packard Plant.

Interested in creating a movie that would appeal to people of all backgrounds, the film’s creators also drew upon African-American receptions of Ovid and Roman history. Jamal, the teenager through whose eyes we travel into Ovid’s world, is black and he imagines Ovid, whom he considers a hero, as being black too. As he reads about Ovid finding his voice, Jamal too finds himself and becomes more grounded. In a recent interview about the film in Theater Pizzazz, African-American actor, Corbin Bleu, who plays the character of Ovid commented:

What makes me really happy is to be an African-American playing roles originated by white men. I love inspiring kids by being someone who looks like them. I felt like no one looked like me when I was growing up and I feel like all people should be able to see themselves everywhere.

Figure 3: DaJuan Cook Jr. as the teenager Jamal reading Ovid and imagining Ovid's world coming to life around him. Scene from Ovid and the Art of Love.

Weisman, who has been a non-profit professional working with arts, health, and human services organizations for over 15 years, has been successful in using various forms of media and creative methods to facilitate meaningful conversations that have inspired new ways of thinking and strategic action. When he first read von Hoffman’s screenplay for Ovid and the Art of Love, he was immediately taken and wished to be a part of the film’s production. A strong believer of using art as inspiration for learning, Weisman thought that a film on the popular, witty, and controversial Roman poet Ovid would provide a wonderful entry point into Roman history and literature, perhaps as Hamilton: An American Musical has inspired so many to learn about the American Revolution.

For Weisman the film is also “an empowering tale of an average citizen who stands up to an intimidating, authoritarian, and hypocritical leader when no one else dares to.” It shows how Ovid used poetry to fight inequity and help keep leaders in check. In addition, the film offers viewers an Ovid who aims not purely for personal success, but who also wants to work with other artists and to inspire people with his words.

Figure 4: Corbin Bleu as Ovid performs at The Olive Tree, a slam-poetry club. Scene from Ovid and the Art of Love.

Given the current political tumult in the US, the virtual panel scheduled for October 27, 2020 may serve as a platform for comparative reflection and inspire many into action. For Weisman this panel comes at an important moment in time:

As we face the realities of the world in which we currently live, there is plenty we can learn from Ovid’s experiences and life – and plenty of topics that can form the basis of a facilitated discussion. As so many of us find ourselves confined to home, now is the optimal time for the discovery (or re-discovery) of a poet who dealt with a ruler not unlike many modern leaders and effectively used the power of the pen in resisting authoritarianism.

Those wanting to join the panel can visit www.ovidandtheartoflove.com for a link to sign-up.

Weisman is also working on making the film accessible to underprivileged communities and classrooms. His plans include providing educators with free or lower-cost access to the film for use in their courses.

Ovid isn’t the only ancient author to receive renewed interest during Covid-19. Eager to make Greek tragedy accessible to people isolated in their homes, Joel P. Christensen, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Brandeis University and Paul O’Mahony, Artistic Director of the award-winning Out of Chaos Theatre Company, collaborated with the Center for Hellenic Studies and the Kosmos Society at Harvard University to create Reading Greek Tragedy Online (RGTO), a series of virtual performances of Greek tragedies interspersed with commentary on select scenes. The project came into being overnight, shortly after lockdowns had been put in place in most countries in mid-March. 

As everyone was going into isolation, Christensen (in the US) and O’Mahony (in the UK) felt the need to create an international community that would explore the plays and their enduring relevance and impact. Experimenting with the problem of how to ‘stage’ tragedies in the strange virtual world in which we were more and more compelled to operate, they were happily surprised to discover that creating a play with someone on the opposite side of the world could be an eye-opening and inspiring experience.

From March to September of 2020 they have performed 25 tragedies, with over 40 professional actors from 5 different countries and over 25 academics from numerous countries. They anticipate having presented all extant Greek tragedies by the end of 2020. Christensen and O’Mahony along with RGTO’s Executive Producer, Lanah Koelle, discuss the RGTO project during a podcast hosted by the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama.

Figure 5: Poster featuring an image by John Koelle for the Reading Greek Tragedy Online performance of Aristophanes’ Clouds on July 15.  Poster design by Allie Mabry.

For Christensen, RGTO has transformed the way he sees Greek tragedy. Even in the new constraints of a virtual format, these are actors breathing new life into the plays, as they acquire and project a deep understanding of the characters and what they are going through. The actors’ willingness to take the side of their characters, Christensen noted, has really affected the way he sees the characters’ motivations and perspective.

O’Mahony, who is responsible for casting the actors for every week’s play and works with the actors on staging and performance, believes that RGTO is an amazing outlet for everyone involved. Many of the actors have had no experience with Greek tragedy but often report how extraordinarily moved they have been by the plays. Audience members from around the world – a family in a farm in California, viewers based in Ireland and Australia – regularly express their gratitude for the series. The response to plays such as Philoctetes which deals with isolation, and Oedipus Tyrannus which is set in a time of plague, has been very moving.

Figure 6: Poster featuring images by John Koelle for the Reading Greek Tragedy Online performance of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris on August 19. Poster design by Allie Mabry.

With funding from the SCS, RGTO is now launching a competition (called Playing Medea) for university and high school students in the US and Canada on Euripides’ Medea. Amy Pistone, Assistant Professor at Gonzaga University and RGTO Director of Outreach, is working with Christensen and O’Mahony to bring the competition to as many people as possible. Students must work alone or in groups to perform and record their own 5-minute interpretation of a scene from Medea. Each group can download a dramaturgy pack and resources from RGTO’s dramaturg, Emma Pauly, who helps to select the scenes that are read each week, plus an e-book about Medea created by the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama. Recordings must be sent in by October 23, 2020 while the winners will be announced during the virtual performance of Medea on November 11. Cash prizes will be awarded to first and second place.

With this competition, Christensen, O’Mahony and Pistone hope to further a variety of goals: to increase interest in Greek tragedy among younger audiences and students in inter-related fields; to encourage online reading and performance as part of the ongoing interpretation of Classical texts; to show that tragedy is an effective resource for exploring current issues; and to create networks of schools that actively engage in projects based in classical texts. Committed to providing access to underrepresented groups who have limited access to Classics, they are also working with the outreach program Classics For All in the UK, and hoping to launch a version of the competition in Greece, Italy, and Ireland.

Christensen comments further on their vision for the competition:

By opening this competition to students and teachers across the world, we hope to give people opportunities for engaging creatively and critically with Greek drama. But we also hope to share with them what we have gained ourselves in this project: a sense of a larger human community trying to make sense of the past and present together.

The creation of a larger and interactive human community seems more important now than ever, with so many of us bound to our homes, cut off from familiar daily interactions, and with much-anticipated projects indefinitely postponed. Ovid’s poetry and Greek drama prove their ever-lasting value as they become tools for community-building and gain new meaning in our novel reality. Perhaps if we, too, can tune in to new, vibrant theatrical interpretations of the deeply isolated Philoctetes; of Electra’s grief, and her inability to move forward; of Antigone’s resistance and commitment to family, we can find new avenues forward and discover new connections with the past and with each other. Perhaps the Detroit Ovid’s perseverance, his stance against authority and the effects of his poetry, can provide comfort and inspiration in these troubled times.

Header Image: Mosaic with tragic theatre mask, found in Nîmes rue de Bernie in 1852, Nîmes Archaeology Museum, France (Caption and Image by Carole Raddato via Flickr).

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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