Summer Schools

Practical Performance Courses in Classical Greek Theatre - Project Calliope

By Gary Cleaver
Project Director, Project Calliope

Although performances of modern and classical adaptations of Ancient Greek texts are widely performed by professional companies, the Ancient texts are less often performed by non-professional groups. Academic study of the texts is now becoming more readily available in Theatre Studies courses, and although this has encouraged amateur productions, a solely practical approach to the texts in education is rarely available. As the texts were written for performance and competitions, it is surprisingly that the classical playwrights have not achieved the practical application they deserve.

As specialist performance courses, Project Calliope drama courses are designed to give our students an experience of live theatre performance, in an original setting. The aim of each course is to provide a modern context in which the student can explore the ancient text. Our location has been chosen to emphasise the mix of ancient and modern. Based in Ancient Epidavros, the small village which is the port of entry for the Sanctuary of Asklipios and Ancient Theatre of Epidavros, our students have the opportunity to experience modern Greek culture and visit one of the finest examples of an ancient theatre.

Our methods are firmly rooted in the practical performance of the text, providing an introduction to Greek classical performance utilising modern language and adaptations to make the ancient texts accessible to modern audiences, students and performers. The ancient texts were written to reflect the stories, attitudes and culture of their time, but in modern adaptation have much to say to our twenty-first-century world. The themes of relationships, power, fate and consequence of war provide stories that retain their meaning today. By examining the texts in a physical sense, our students are encouraged to find a resonance with modern society, and to place this in context by use of costume and simple settings.

The key stages of the course (the introductory workshops; exploration of the text and its language; casting and rehearsal; visit to the Ancient Theatre and Museum; further rehearsal and preparation of set and costume; the final production itself) are all carefully structured towards the student gaining a sense of achievement and teamwork. The measure of each student's success is not in the critique of his or her final performance, it is the distance travelled throughout the course. The classical texts have resonance today, but are also distant enough from our modern theatrical genres to allow for an informed ability to be encouraged in performance. The application of the chorus can provide an inexperienced performer with the security of a group whilst building on their individual talent. As students achieve greater confidence, the form of the text can be adapted to allow for encouragement of the individual by allowing them to step out of the chorus for brief moments, whilst retaining the support of the ensemble. The flexibility of the use of the chorus is one of the greatest strengths in using classical texts as a practical performance medium for a mixed ability group.

It is important to remember that our modern theatrical styles bear little relationship to the manner in which these original texts were performed. Our use of set and costume are innovations in this genre, whose original productions would have employed a very different style. The performances of our modern genres often utilise more complex sets and costumes than would have been on display in ancient times. To introduce this concept of simplicity we return, not to the ancient theatre, but to the original setting for the performance, a circle of sand ringed with stones, some twenty paces across. By returning to this original space, we allow our students to bring the text to the fore as their exploration of its performance emphasises the strong themes and story lines.

Each student is encouraged to find his or her own understanding of the text, by use of exploratory workshops throughout the course. Workshops are not formally scheduled into the rehearsals, but are used as an organic tool to aid in the formulation of the final performance. In the early stages of the course, workshops are used to build trust and generate team formation. As the participants of each course can vary in age from sixteen to sixty four, and their performance abilities range from the totally inexperienced to the dedicated thespian, creating an ensemble is the key to its success. To ensure this important factor is achieved, our courses begin with informal games, structured to introduce the course members to each other using simple activities such as catching and throwing a ball, whilst announcing your name. Such games return our students to a childlike state of play, encouraging relaxation and enjoyment of free association, removing the inhibitions of a more formal learning environment. This is further enhanced by our outdoor rehearsal space, removing physical barriers of studio or classroom. As our groups become familiar with one another, movement is introduced, to allow our course leaders to watch the physicality of our performers, enabling the best casting of the roles of the text. Social activity is encouraged outside of rehearsals, and our participants are able to strength group bonds by sharing the exploration of the small village of Ancient Epidavros and its amenities.

As the time spent in rehearsals is limited, approximately fifty hours to prepare a text for production, the course quickly moves onto the casting of the piece, allowing the main roles to be allocated according to the observed talents that have been displayed in the early workshops. Consideration is given in all cases to allow for relaxation and enjoyment of leisure time during the two weeks, and the adaptations are carefully arranged to spread the weight of the text as widely as possible amongst the available cast. Inevitably there will be some major parts in each production, but here the use of the course assistant for one-to-one coaching is a valuable tool. Either the course leader (a professional artistic director) or the assistant will work with the main cast, whilst any required specialist coaching is provided for the leading performers. Each student is encouraged to display their own individual talents in the performance, where possible, and in some productions we have been able to incorporate the use of "poi" and circus skills. We also strongly promote the use of music, and use this to evoke atmosphere and sense of place. Students are encouraged to explore this use of sound to enhance their understanding of the text, by initiating simple choreography to emphasise key elements of a story. Often observation of local folk dancing during the evening has inspired students to incorporate modern folk steps into their performance, further linking ancient and modern in the production. Our Project's connections in the village mean that we are able to utilise local folk dancers to assist with choreography, giving an additional depth to our association with the local cultural activities.

Although the courses do not seek to teach the texts used in academic style, each course gives its chosen text a sense of place, and we ensure that our students gain an understanding of the history surrounding the stories used. This is emphasised with the visit to the Sanctuary of Asklipios and Ancient Theatre of Epidavros, including the Theatre Museum. The displays of costume and explanations of productions held at the Ancient Theatre is a high point of the course. Students are given the opportunity to attend a professional performance at the Ancient Theatre midway through the course before visiting the archaeological site. In this way we aim to emphasise the functional aspect of the space, and to provide a context for the astonishing structure as a living medium. Students are encouraged to take part in the design and construction of the production space, with use of simple materials. Costume is kept simple and again students are encouraged to apply imagination to their costume, demonstrating their understanding and ownership of characterisation. All students are supported in their investigation of their own unique talents as the production develops, and many of our students have surprised themselves at their own ability.

The introduction of the students to the modern Greek culture is achieved by socialising in the village. The community is based on traditional farming and fishing, and although tourism is important, Ancient Epidavros is not a true resort. As long-term supporters of the village, Project Calliope and its students are welcomed by the inhabitants. The rehearsal schedule does not encourage travel outside the village, and so the students find themselves immersed in village life, mixing with the locals and tourists throughout their two weeks. This culminates in the support of the students' production by a local audience, comprising friends made in the village during their stay.

The practical approach of the Project Calliope courses is an ideal compliment to the academic study of the dramatic texts in the classroom. By returning to one of the original forms of theatre, the classical text, and immersing the students in its performance, students are encouraged to apply their academic understanding to a concentrated practical exercise. The students gain not only tuition in theatre techniques, but are also supported in building confidence in their own abilities. In relating the classical text to the modern and ancient locations, it is possible to provide each student with the opportunity to explore the themes presented in the texts in an immediate and challenging way. This exploration encourages interest not only in the theatrical techniques but also in the ancient history, which provides such an important legacy for our own age, It is to be hoped that, with the increased and renewed interest in the classical texts, more students and educational practitioners will investigate the practical approach to Ancient Theatre, and incorporate these activities into a rounded delivery of academic study.

By Gary Cleaver
Project Director, Project Calliope
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