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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater

John H. Starks, Jr.
Department of Classics
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

New Directions for Plautus: A Stage Movement Workshop and Proposal for an Ancient Drama Institute

N.B. Matthew Panciera, who is a co-developer of this project, has taken a position with the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome and will not be able to attend the conference. Mr. Starks will be presenting the results of their collaboration.

How many times have we lovers of Plautine comedy heard from students reading the Menaechmi (whether in translation or Latin), "Was this ever funny?" For generations we have applied ample literary analysis to Plautus, but often failed to examine his works as scripts intended for live audiences familiar with oral/aural Latin. We have too frequently ignored his plays as performance comedy, which is exactly what recommended them for preservation over so many centuries of revival, adaptation, and imitation.

Having worked closely producing, directing, and performing live Latin productions of Plautus' Curculio and Poenulus, I propose a workshop on the basic performance techniques that, despite the Latin dialogue, made our plays entertaining and instructive for high school students and full professors alike. Widespread lack of knowledge of the live stage experience and of the conventions of dramatic presentation have been the greatest obstacles to classicists' transference of their understanding of comedy as text to the stage. So while I may be "preaching to the choir," this conference of classicists, sold on the value of text performance, will be an excellent audience for my workshop.

A workshop format will allow time to make this an audience participation project. The session will work in two parts. First, I will offer three videotaped scenes from our production of the Poenulus. These will include some complex presentation questions in Plautus: blocking of silent characters — especially the small choruses; portrayal of stock characters; timing of line delivery and gesture; how, when, and whether to use anachronisms. I will also provide the edited text and director's notes from our video's instructional book, Latin Laughs: A Production of Plautus' Poenulus, soon to be published by Bolchazy-Carducci. I will explicate the scenes movement by movement and discuss our ideas on blocking, gestures, vocal expression, costumes, set, props, etc. to show how we arrived at the final product. I will also relate what we would now do differently with the scenes and ask for both supporting and opposing opinions from the audience.

With the Poenulus clips as examples of our methods, I will turn to a problematic scene in another comedy, especially one with a silent group and significant potential for physical comedy (e.g., the first confusion scene in the Menaechmi). The audience will divide into groups to analyze the scene, or parts of the scene, for 20 minutes by brainstorming on blocking, gesture, etc. I will put one person who has directed an ancient comedy in each group to utilize the experience of these classicists who will be present and will have gathered significant insights through their productions. I will pool the group suggestions with my own and my colleague's and deliver an impromptu performance of the composite scene. In this exercise I will show how much dramatic potential is hidden in a page of Plautine text and hash out ideas for how to bring that blank page to life in a relatively short period of time, even with the most amateur actors.

In conclusion I will offer a proposal for an intensive, five-week, summer Ancient Drama Institute concentrating on two plays of Plautus: 1) our version of the Poenulus as a warm-up to Plautine language and ideas for presentation (as in the workshop session); 2) intensive reading of one complete Plautine text (in the future Terence, Aristophanes, Seneca, Euripides, even oratory, epic, lyric, etc.) with student performance of the play as the final project. Daily readings of about 100 lines would be thoroughly examined: 1 hour of translation with close attention to archaisms and Plautine grammar, 1 hour of discussion on meaning, interpretation, and equivalent modern comic conventions (comparative literature, film, etc.), 1 1/2 hours of recitation, blocking, and rehearsal. Afternoon sessions would involve student participation in set construction, costuming, and individual actor rehearsals. We propose this institute as an exciting vehicle for getting students to use oral Latin (later, Greek) and to perform an entire ancient text. We thus offer classics majors a unique opportunity in their academic careers, one which many of them might otherwise never experience. We ultimately hope that by getting quality videotapes of these performances we will create a significant video library of ancient plays performed in their original languages for wider use in spreading enthusiasm for live Latin and Greek.

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