(This will be a long one. I was hoping to write this more piecemeal but didn’t get to it, so this is about three or four entries in one.)

The Genesis

I’d entertained last year the idea of producing a play as a culminating project of my Classical Literature class. But the group wasn’t right from both a size (12) and a chemistry standpoint. I’d not thought much about it this year until our superintendent showed us a movie on High Tech High in San Diego. One of the featured projects of the movie was a staged Classical Play: Euripides’ Trojan Women, produced both in an ancient version played by all males (as it would have been in the ancient world) and in a modern / updated version, focusing on the Middle East, played by all females. I brought the idea to the class and they liked it (more on that below), so we decided to go for it.

Convincing the Class

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The genesis of the project was a bit of two steps forward, one step back. When I informed the class that the play that we produce would not only be performed for fellow students but would also encompass an evening performance for parents / the public, they balked (understatement) and were ready to scrap the project. I talked them down (a bit) and eventually left the room so that, as I told them, they could have the conversation they really wanted to have without me there to (passively) censor them. The t-chart above is what they came up with. And it was the first lesson that I learned about this process: the potentially hard truth is that a lot of buy-in to the project will involve an elaborate calculus about whether it (the project) or more traditional work will introduce more work for them to do. More on this below, but the work they are doing now is far more than they would have done in a traditional setting, but it is perceived as less work.

Choosing a Play

So we agreed that we would produce the play. The next step was deciding which play to produce. We had read a few as part of the curriculum, and they had recently completed an outside read project in which they chose a play (that we didn’t read in class) and did a project on. On the day on which the project was due, I allowed students to ‘nominate’ the play that they read for consideration as the play we would produce and we took an anonymous survey to vote.

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We then took a second, more focused survey.

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On the one hand, this produced a clear(er) winner. On the other hand, this muddied the issue in that the first two choices (Wasps and Birds) are comedies while the Medea is a tragedy. Much of the debate then settled on comedy vs. tragedy rather than a specific play, since exactly half chose a comedy and half chose a tragedy.

Once again, I left the room to allow them to have the conversation they wanted to have without me. This absence was much more prolonged (20 – 30 mins) and I was shooed back to my hiding place at least twice when I appeared at the door to check on them. And, again, another T-chart was produced.

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My own thinking was comedy; I wasn’t sure not so much if students would have the emotional depth for a tragedy / for the Medea but more if they would be willing to access it for this project. Performing a tragedy half-heartedly is pretty painful (and can border on the comic). On the other hand, comedy is difficult in its own right because of the nuance often involved, especially in the satires of Aristophanes that they were considering. There is an element of the ridiculous in both plays, which I suspect is what attracted them to the plays, but it isn’t, and can’t be, all ridiculous.

So at the risk of producing a dramatic eye-roll in everyone, I did the unthinkable. I introduced a not-previously-considered play, suggested to me (unintentionally but still insightfully) by a colleage; thanks, PG: Plautus’ Menaechmi. A comedy, but a more archetype-driven comedy that has its satirical points but is more plot driven and less heady in its subject matter. They read the play, enjoyed it, and we decided on it (I know, I know; after all that.)

Assigning Jobs (Roles)

One of the sticking points to embracing the project was the potential public nature of the project. I assured students that they would not be forced to act if they did not want to, though they may have to appear in the chorus, depending on which play we chose. (The Menaechmi does not have a chorus, and the chorus in an ancient play is not the singing chorus the term conjures today. Rather it is more of a group actor, a single ‘voice’, usually of a concerned party to the plot, represented by multiple actual voices. There is, however, often a lead chorus member who speaks individually and it is not uncommon for individual chorus members to have individual reactions to the narrative.) I did remind them, though, that they would be expected to participate fully in the process, whatever their job was, and that really the only way to fail the project was to detach themselves from the process.

As you might expect, I had them take a survey about which job, or at least what kind of job, they wanted. I used a Likert scale (with a humorous (?) twist) and introduced the various jobs for the project in no particular order.

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Here are the results of the survey. (And remember that 1 is doesn’t want to do it while 7 is wants to do it.)

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I counted the top two and bottom two choices together (1 & 2; 6 & 7) and, to some extent included the 3 and 5 in those groups as well when determining groups. In the end, though, we really only used the survey to identify the actors, which, to some extent, are the unique roles, both in terms of what they will do and in terms of the preparation and decision-to-do-it required.

(I realize that this is twice now that I’ve essentially introduced a process and then described how we completely discounted the results of that process. Part of the interest for me, doing this for the first time, is seeing how the process works in terms of what works and what doesn’t, and so these missteps are as important to document as the successes.)

We determined then that we would move forward with two broad groups: the actors and writers, essentially those that would be directly involved with the narrative; and the tech crew, essentially those that would be directly involved with facilitating the production of the narrative. The class broke down roughly on the lines of 2/3s actors and writers and 1/3 tech crew, with the caveat that I told the ones that weren’t sure to go with the writers because, at some point, that process will end and they can transition over to the tech crew.

The First Days

Back from April break, we started the real work of the project in earnest yesterday. We spent the first half of class in our two big groups starting the work of organizing how those groups would function; the writing group especially was big, and needed to tackle how best to utilize that size to its advantage.

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For the second half of class, our school’s drama teacher came and gave an overview of and some insights into the writing and production process. Today, we continued that work and, after the initial foundations yesterday, got a good start.

The writing group divided the play into scenes to rewrite and assigned ‘modern’ names to the characters. The character Cylindrus became Squircle, a portmanteau of square and circle, one I particularly enjoyed. And I believe there was a Google search for ‘trashy names’ or something similar / more lascivious when trying to update the name of the courtesan Erotium.

The tech group started sketching out backdrops and scenery, albeit in a general sense as they wait for a better idea of where and when the script will be set (modern times but they will need a bit more detail than that) and scouted out the size of the lecture hall where the play will be performed. They brought a tape measure, took some measurements, and sketched out a rough sense of the size and basic appearance of their backdrop (which, by the way, follows the basic approach of Roman sets, which had three doors facing the audience, one each for a relevant location, usually a house, and one on one side leading to the harbor with another on the other side leading to the forum; for a good illustration, see the University of Virginia’s amphitheater below the sketch).

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First Impressions

I’m pleased. I’d say that more cautiously if it were after day 1, but they seemed to maintain their momentum well into day 2. Of course, we’ll see how day 3 and, more important, day 15 goes.

As for the work they’re doing, they are in many ways working harder now than they would be in a more traditional class, i.e. in a more traditional class there are more and easier ways to check out: I talk too much, they zone; we do group work, they wander on their computer. Little to none of that happened today or yesterday; there was a much higher rate of engagement, as far as I could tell.

After one of the making-decisions day, I think the one where we decided the play, when I was out of the room for 2o or 30 mins, I was talking to one of my students about it and he joked that we didn’t do anything in class that day. And in a very literal sense he was right: we didn’t cover any material, didn’t learn any new information. But in a bigger picture sense he was very wrong. Students were arguing passionately without anger or rancor; they were disagreeing in a respectful and purposeful way. Students were forced to make a decision as a group of 22, each (or most) presenting their rationale and opinions on why their decision was the right or better one. And students were working towards something very tangible that they could not avoid; they had to make this choice.

And this inevitability is what I have found most valuable about this project. June 6th we’re on. It’s on our calendar, I’ve told the Superintendent about it; it’s happening. And the students get that too. From my standpoint, the compact is that I will not overburden them with this. It will be a lot of work. But it will not be an insurmountable amount of work. It is what we are doing. There isn’t work other than this. With that pressure of fitting it into other work (at least for this class) lifted, they are more able and willing to focus on the work they need to do (and want to do?).

So I’m not only pleased but excited to move forward. I’m excited of course to see the product. But I’m more excited to see my students’ involvement and investment in the process, which has been impressive thus far.