Dr. Stephe Harrop (Senior Lecturer in Drama at Liverpool Hope University) reports on a developing project, supported by the ICS, which takes a new approach to ancient drama for school students.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the experience of acting Greek tragedy. In our new book Greek Tragedy and the Contemporary Actor, Zachary Dunbar and I set out to bridge the gap between the kinds of ‘knowing’ associated with classical scholarship – an analytic understanding of text; a critical awareness of historical contexts – and the equally essential forms of insight which are activated through the actor’s imaginative work and embodied presence. But I’ve simultaneously come to realise that this kind of combined ‘knowing’ is often absent from the experience of school and college students in non-arts subjects, a particularly striking absence in the case of young people reading Greek tragedy on the page.
Acting the Ancient World is a project designed to infuse some creatively-informed ‘knowing’ into a largely desk-based field of study, giving students of AS/A level Classical Civilisation the opportunity to explore ancient texts and creative practices through body, breath, sound, movement, and shared imagining. The idea is simple: to create a series of short films making accessible drama exercises relating to key topics available for use in the classroom. By exploring ancient plays and practices as actors, students can enrich their theoretical and literary understanding with sensory and imaginative experiences, gaining a fuller sense of how ancient texts work as catalysts for live performance – both then and now.
Each film is designed to speak to a specific element of the AS/A Level Classical Civilisation curriculum. The first, ‘The Messenger Speaks’, supports students and teachers to explore the structures and imagery of tragedy’s messenger speeches (OCR H408/21, Greek Theatre). Using a vivid, visceral passage from Euripides’ Bacchae, students are prompted to identify the key words and images that spark a listening audience’s imaginative co-creation, and then to experiment with becoming ‘theatrical storytellers’, cultivating a rich visualisation of the scene described, and working to convey this to a partner through performance.
‘The Messenger Speaks’ concludes with a performance of the full speech from professional actor Catherine Devine, inviting students to reflect on how the kinds of experiential ‘knowing’ they’ve shared can inform performances today. This project is based in the north-west of England, and I’m proud to be collaborating with young actors from the region whose urgent, eloquent voices also challenge the ingrained view that classical texts are best spoken in elite, southern accents.
‘The Messenger Speaks’ is a free classroom resource, available on YouTube. I’m hoping to start producing the next batch of films early next year, so if you’re a student or teacher and have feedback or suggestions for future topics then I’d love to hear from you. (You can contact me via my institutional email here.) And, of course, I’m hugely grateful to the Institute of Classical Studies for the chance to kick-start this process with the support of a public engagement grant. With their help, the Classical Civilisation classroom just became a more active, embodied, and creative space!
by Stephe Harrop