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Graduate Seminar Class Brings Ancient Texts to Life

March 3, 2023
Catharine Slusar teaching a theater class
Associate Director of Theater Catharine Slusar discusses the work of modern theater theorists in the graduate seminar.

“No prior acting experience is necessary: just a curiosity about bringing ancient texts to life through the medium of one’s body!” Intrigued? So were the students (three undergraduates and five graduate students) who read the course description and signed up for GSEM: Greek Tragedy & Performance, a graduate seminar taught by Associate Professor of Greek, Latin and Classical Studies Asya Sigelman and Associate Professor of Theater Catharine Slusar.

The seminar is part of Greek Drama/Black Lives, a larger creative collaboration between Bryn Mawr College and Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) that will culminate in the April staging of Media/Medea, a play adapted from Euripides’ Medea by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright James Ijames to lift up questions of race and familial conflict.

In addition to the performance of Ijames’ play, Greek Drama/Black Lives seeks to shine a light on what we can learn today from the classics through a playwriting class, a collaboration with middle schoolers at E.M. Stanton School in South Philadelphia, and this graduate seminar, which approaches Greek dramatic texts from both theoretical and experiential angles.

Students in the seminar are reading (in English translation) the tragedies of the three great playwrights of Classical Athens—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. As well as examining their treatment of myth, they are also looking at systems of metaphor and imagery, the role of the chorus, and the relevance of Greek tragedy for subsequent centuries down to the present day.

Concurrently, the class is reading texts by Constantin Stanislavski, Michael Chekhov, and other modern theater theorists. For the second half of each class, the students apply the acting techniques of these theorists to the texts, performing them in class.

“The course is an example of the collaboration that is at the core of the Medea project—cross-disciplinary investigation of classic plays,” says Slusar. “We are asking all involved (including professors) to think beyond our traditional field of knowledge to see what might be gained when we look at what we know from a different point of view. We are asking students to step inside the plays and memorize sections. I love the idea of knowing something ‘by heart’—literally holding it inside your body as a way to understand it.”

For Bethany Wisdom ’24, who also has an acting role in Media/Medea and is participating in the E.M. Stanton School project, taking a graduate seminar as an undergraduate initially felt daunting. The syllabus had enough in common with a class on Greek tragedy she had taken last spring, though, to make her feel comfortable.

“But this time, we're going through the texts in much more detail, giving attention to aspects that we didn't before, and we're reading a lot of scholarship that we just didn't have time for,” she says. “So that's really interesting and fulfilling and it’s opening my eyes a lot.”

Rey George, a graduate student in Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies, says the class has been a breath of fresh air. “I’ve been trained for years to engage with the material by staring endlessly at the text, usually hunched over a table or book, and screwing my face tight in deep ratiocination,” says George. “Getting the chance to get up and move around and project my voice and energy and embody the content of an ancient theatrical text has been really special, especially as a group. In working with the ancient texts and applying them to modern dramatic techniques, I understand them in ways that I could never have grasped through just analyzing the text alone.”

Media/Medea on Stage

James Ijames’ Media/Medea will be directed by internationally recognized director and founder of local Philadelphia company Azuka Theatre, Raelle Myrick-Hodges, and will feature Barrymore Award and Haas Award winning actor Akeem Davis working alongside student actors from Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and Community College of Philadelphia.

Performances will take place:

April 13–16: Bryn Mawr College, Hepburn Teaching Theater
April 20–22: Black Box Theatre, Community College of Philadelphia