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Classics in the Modern WorldA Democratic Turn?$

Lorna Hardwick and Stephen Harrison

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199673926

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199673926.001.0001

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Back to the Demos

Back to the Demos

An ‘Anti-classical’ Approach to Classics?

(p.170) (p.171) 13 Back to the Demos
Classics in the Modern World

Martina Treu

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses theatre and education in the context of present-day Italy: first, it outlines the context of national schools and universities. Secondly, it analyses some case studies—classical plays adapted and staged by school students—which are at the interface between education experiences and theatre productions. These are unconventional, and important for their particularly ‘democratic’ and non-hierarchical pedagogical methods. Then, it focuses on two adaptations by Teatro delle Albe (Ravenna). Such collective experiences and participation can affect our ways of perceiving, re-writing, and staging an ancient text. The Chorus in particular, as a symbol of a ‘democratic’ model often finds little place in those theatre companies that have a hierarchical structure, with directors and leading actors deciding almost everything. Finally, the chapter suggests that further collaborative research is needed to investigate precisely how pedagogical experiences of this kind could operate in different countries and whether, and how, they actually influence the actors, spectators, and other participants.

Keywords:   collective, non-hierarchical, participation, unconventional, education

This chapter discusses theatre and education in the context of present-day Italy. I work both as a theatre practitioner and a university teacher; my research fields are contemporary performance and ancient Greek texts, and classics and theatre in school. The case studies in which I participated are at the interface between education experiences and theatre productions. When we started our online discussions to prepare for the 2010 conference I took as a starting point Deborah Challis’ observation: ‘We should be questioning how “democratic” we are in thinking about audiences and our own practice within Classics itself.’ A similar self-analysis was suggested by Pierre Bourdieu’s Esquisse pour une autoanalyse (Sketch for a Self-Analysis, 2008 [2004]). So I tried, as a personal preparation, to reconsider my own work as classicist and theatre practitioner. This led to the framework of this chapter.

First, I shall briefly outline the context of Italian schools and universities that underlies the examples used. Secondly, I shall discuss case studies of particular theatrical experiences—classical plays adapted and staged by school students. These are important for their particularly ‘democratic’ pedagogical methods. Finally, I suggest that further collaborative research is needed to investigate precisely how these pedagogical experiences operate in different countries and whether, and how, they actually influence the actors, spectators, and other participants. I focus on a company, Teatro delle Albe, which to me seems special not only because of its democratic structure and intent but also for the ways its members work.1 I mention two adaptations, based on a classical comedy and a satyr play. This theatre company is the closest example in Italy to a community theatre in the relationship between the company (p.172) members (students and professionals) and between them and their local audience. Audiences change at each performance and can be drawn from a local neighbourhood or an entire town.2

The demos in ancient Athens in many ways reflected itself in tragedies and comedies (see Varakis in this volume). It is difficult to say whether something similar can happen today but at least the experience of Teatro delle Albe can affect our ways of perceiving, re-writing, and staging an ancient text. Their ultimate challenge—we will see if it may be called a ‘democratic turn’—is that of widening the actual participation of all members in the whole process of creating a performance. My references to some of the works of Marco Martinelli highlight the differences between a theory or method and the self-definition of the daily practice of theatre, written by the practitioners. The company’s work comes out of over twenty years of public projects that mostly take place in marginal and ‘difficult’ environments, even dangerous places. Italy may, seen from a distance, seem to be one country but on closer encounter it also emerges as a galaxy—a mixture of languages, religions, and cultures, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

1. The Background

Collaborative research can reveal unexpected ways in which ideas meet and respond to each other without advance planning. In the early stages of my thinking on this topic I did not know that I would start exactly where Mary-Kay Gamel ended. My starting point turned out to be her suggestion that theatre might provide a unique place in which democracy could be realized for a few hours (see Gamel, Chapter 14). This equates with what most theatre practitioners tell me when we talk about the relationship between democracy and classics. In Italy, most of them agree that theatre is the only space left for democracy. It is a place where audience and practitioners can really be full citizens, where they have the freedom to think and feel ‘different’, to express themselves, to discuss and disagree. In this sense, theatre itself is a form of permanent and continuous education, as it makes us grow, it improves our self-awareness, it keeps our minds responsive, critical, and alive. In Spain, similar thoughts and feelings have been expressed by Juan Mayorga and a group of playwrights on International Theatre Day 2003 (27 March) in a public performance of their Manifesto called El teatro es un arte politico (see Carnevali 2010; and the Spanish text at 〈http://www.tlaxcala-int.org/article.asp?reference=2426〉). (p.173) According to them, a state of theatre could be a wonderful place to live, if not cut or menaced by economic measures; as many discussants in the 2010 conference pointed out, democracy is also shaped and constrained by resources. Any cultural project—including the case studies in this chapter and in many others—needs adequate resources to start and develop. In Italy, unfortunately the right-wing government in recent years has been attacking and misrepresenting theatre companies, directors, and actors, who have been presented by the propaganda as ‘leftist’ or ‘communist’. The government has also been cutting resources in all areas of education, including primary and secondary schools. These are precisely the areas where, according to my thesis, democracy can best be investigated, practised, and fulfilled.

In theory, school is the ideal place where classics can be practised or at least texts studied by a wider audience, so bringing them back to dialogue with the demos. Among Italian schools there is a type called liceo classico, where ancient Greek and Latin are main courses. Yet, classics appears to be taken by fewer and fewer students and is frequently associated with rules, discipline, and hierarchy, rather than with performance and physical expression of emotions. That kind of school seems to encourage people to develop what I call an ‘anti-classical’ approach. They nurture regression towards the most conservative and hierarchical aspects of academic culture. For that reason, perhaps, I have myself been an ‘anti-classical’ student in a ‘classical’ school and this has stimulated me to study the relationships between young people and classics (Treu 2005). And yet, I still believe that under certain conditions university and high school can be a ‘gateway’ to classics and specifically to classical theatre for a larger audience. That is why I always ask my students from the very beginning how often they go to the theatre and what they see. I take them to the theatre; I show them filmed productions; I encourage them to go to see performances, to write about them, to create their own versions of ancient texts, to meet playwrights, directors, and actors. We try to develop together a more open and ‘democratic’ approach to classical theatre (Treu 2007b). Could this be one small contribution to a turn to more democratic attitudes?

2. Classics for Young People: Theatre and School

In Italy, theatre is by far the most important medium through which most people, especially the young, can come into contact with classics. Students may read texts and see them on stage, and some fortunate ones even see a performance in an ancient theatre. In Syracuse, the ancient Greek theatre (p.174) has since 1914 hosted the major festival of classical theatre in Italy and in recent years has attracted an increasing number of spectators, especially students. For example, in 2010 the producer and organizer the INDA Foundation broke records with its performances from 8 May to 26 June, many of which were ‘sold out’. There were a total of 140,000 spectators and an income of 3,000,000 euros. In July of that year the productions went on tour to Agrigento, Athens, and Tusculum (near Rome). In some respects, the success of the festival allows us to think that a ‘democratic turn’ has happened in Italy through theatre, making classical plays available to younger, less privileged, and less educated audiences. However, this on its own is not sufficient. We also need to ask ourselves if this could involve, in addition to the audiences, the members of the theatre company. In ancient Athens, the citizens formed the Chorus, which was in some respects the core of the production. So this provokes an additional question: who takes part in theatre productions today?

All over Italy, theatre workshops are held by teachers in many high schools and universities, often with the aid of professional actors and directors. Classical dramas are adapted and performed by students, most frequently in a liceo classico where Greek and Latin are learnt, but also in schools of other kinds in which ancient texts are either not read in the original languages or are not studied at all. They are chosen, adapted, and staged for other reasons, such as their content, their themes, or because they have a Chorus, which gives many students a role. Italy has many festivals of student performances, where a selection of shows is staged and can be seen by other groups and their teachers, for instance at Aquileia or Lovere in the north and Palazzolo Acreide in Sicily (near Syracuse). These festivals are not only important for their artistic aspects but also for their pedagogical implications and because they attract students from all over Italy, thus providing a geographical crossroads and an opportunity for cultural exchanges. For example, the sixteenth session of the International Festival of Classical Theatre for Youth (Festival del Teatro Classico dei Giovani), held in May 2010 in the ancient Greek city of Akrai (now Palazzolo Acreide), included over three thousand students and had audiences totalling 7,000.

One outstanding teacher, Onelia Bardelli, has been adapting and staging classical dramas with her students for many years. In the last seven years, she has also organized a festival of ‘Classics in School’ in her home town Lovere. Each spring the local theatre hosts shows from all over Italy, bringing together students and professionals. The local museum and academy of fine arts contribute arts events, with works inspired by classical themes and connected to the performances, while the schools and the municipality organize conferences and seminars. The festival has been increasingly successful, attracting an audience that runs into the thousands. Thus, for students, theatre is not only a good way of learning classics but a full educational experience. This can provide a basis for the development of democracy in that it fosters self-expression and promotes collaborative relationships with others.

(p.175) 3. Ravenna: A Polis for Theatre

From the point of view of professional directors, the advantages of this formula are great. Students provide a resource, including for major productions, and many companies work with students. I have worked with some directors who also like to teach in schools and often give pupils a role in their productions. For instance, I have worked on an adaptation of Euripides’ Trojan Women directed by Serena Sinigaglia and produced by Atir teatro.3 The director and I chose and inserted in Euripides’ text some ‘flashback’ scenes taken from the Iliad in which the dead warriors and the surviving women were played respectively by a Chorus of boys and one of girls. They were all theatre students and after considerable training they formed a really extraordinary group. According to many directors, students often form a good Chorus because they are willing to learn and work together, while senior actors do not necessarily accept the idea of working with equal input and status so well. This, too, is an aspect of democracy in theatre practice. The Chorus as a symbol of a ‘democratic’ model often finds little place in those theatre companies that have a hierarchical structure, with directors and leading actors deciding almost everything. Theatre, like society, can be an oligarchy or a tyranny. Such hierarchical models are not necessary and can be subverted and changed.

In this respect, an Italian company of a very different kind, called Teatro delle Albe, is important. Here, I found democracy at the highest levels: all members, of any age, can express themselves and make a contribution. The directors and professional actors started their first student workshop in one school in Ravenna twenty-two years ago. First they worked with a class, then with a school, then many schools, an entire neighbourhood, and eventually a town, a whole experience of community theatre in which teachers, students, and their families participate. The company itself has grown year by year, their young students share in their ideas and some of them become ‘mentors’ or tutors of younger children, others are still audience members. They were initially centred on one town and its outskirts in the Ravenna region but now they work elsewhere in Italy and abroad (Chicago in the USA, Senegal, Belgium, and France). Their work in Italy has mainly focused on public projects, not just in Ravenna itself but in poor fringe areas—what I call the ‘suburbs of the world’—always on site and with local people. They have been accomplishing this mission, not as teachers but as ‘guides’ or ‘routers’ leading thousands of high school students in their theatre workshops where there is an ‘anarchic order’. Their unconventional and non-hierarchic method is called ‘Non-School’ and is the opposite of the approach in conventional theatre (p.176) academies (see Martinelli and Montanari 2000 and 2008). Their work includes the re-writing and staging of ancient plays and their main pedagogical targets are ‘difficult’ subjects, youngsters, immigrants, and gipsies in poor and marginal areas (such as Chicago ghettos). Usually it is not just teachers and students but also their families, friends, and neighbours who are involved.

If we simplify their theory, they claim to be working towards a more democratic theatre. Their ‘method’ includes the re-writing and staging of ancient plays such as Aristophanes’ Peace and Wealth. They chose Aristophanes as ‘ancestor and totem’, recalling that he started writing comedies when he was a teenager and that in his world all rules and hierarchies can be subverted (Treu 2007a). From the beginning their approach to working with classical texts was to ‘massacre’ the tradition, but with love. They also mix different texts together. The directors Martinelli and Montanari aim not at ‘putting on stage’ but at ‘putting into life’ ancient plays, resuscitating Aristophanes, not acting him.4 These two practitioners have also worked on Aristophanes’ Peace as the first step in a three-year project in Scampia, a very poor and dangerous banlieu (suburb) of Naples. It is perhaps one of their most difficult projects. There they have moved students from town centres to suburbs, from ‘official’ theatre to non-theatrical places and back again (Braucci and Carlotto 2009). With the help of the municipality, they managed to re-open the Auditorium of Scampia, which was built years previously but never used. They staged their shows there and in Naples, with great success. A member of their company for twenty years was Mandiaye N’Diaye, an immigrant from Senegal to Italy, who subsequently returned to his home town Diol Kadd in Senegal where he founded the Takkuligey Project, a development funded by private and public institutions and including a community theatre, a school, water projects, and agricultural improvements. They have already adapted and staged Aristophanes’ Wealth (see Treu 2009) and Jarry’s Ubu Roi (Martinelli and Montanari 2008).

The Non-School has also frequently adapted and staged Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Of these the most relevant to the discussion here was staged on 21 April 2009 in the Auditorium of Ravenna by a group of students of the local university (guided by Alessandro Argnani). The adaptation was clearly based on the points of view of students—mostly female—who were opposed to the power of political leaders and university professors (in Italy mostly male). There were many references to the students’ political activities and to their everyday life: from the Prologue, when a student introduced the show as a political activist, to the parodos, with a Chorus of ‘angry young women’. The entrance of Lysistrata was powerful and impressive. She frightened not only men but even her friends and the audience. She shouted in anger towards (p.177) them and pointed out their weaknesses, and as a real leader she guided the women to the peace and the final feast. One week after the performance, women in Kenya started a sex strike to stop a civil war; a young actress wrote a post about this in the ‘Non-School blog’ well before (and better than) any Italian journalist.

Finally, I mention the adaptation of Sophocles’ satyr play Trackers (I Cercatori di Tracce, by Marco Martinelli and Alessandro Renda, 29 May to 7 June 2010: see my review online at 〈http://dionysusexmachina.it/?cmd=news&id=18〉 and Figures 13.1, 13.2, and 13.3). The director Martinelli and one of his younger ‘routers’, Alessandro Renda, are working on a three-year publicly commissioned project for the Ravenna Festival (Trittico Ravenna-Mazara). Since the autumn of 2009 they have been working in Mazara del Vallo, a ‘border zone’ in the southern part of Sicily. It is a very poor and deprived area and yet also a ‘promised land’ for thousands of immigrants from the southern and eastern Mediterranean who land there when their boats do not sink (the shipwrecks are the subject of the second part of the Trittico Project, a new play, Rumore di Acque, written by Martinelli and played by Renda, first staged on 10 July 2010 in Ravenna (see the online reviews at 〈http://www.stratagemmi.it/?p=1579 . At the time of writing, the third part, a film by Renda on the Mazara experience, is still in preparation). In the first performance held in

                      Back to the Demos                   An ‘Anti-classical’ Approach to Classics?

Figure 13.1 The Chorus of Satyrs, in the show I Cercatori di Tracce, based on Sophocles’ satyr play Trackers, directed by Marco Martinelli and Alessandro Renda, produced by Ravenna Teatro: Mazara del Vallo, 29 May 2010

Source: Photo by Maurizio Montanari.

                      Back to the Demos                   An ‘Anti-classical’ Approach to Classics?

Figure 13.2 The Chorus of Nymphs, in the show I Cercatori di Tracce, based on Sophocles’ satyr play Trackers, directed by Marco Martinelli and Alessandro Renda, produced by Ravenna Teatro: Mazara del Vallo, 29 May 2010

Source: Photo by Maurizio Montanari.

                      Back to the Demos                   An ‘Anti-classical’ Approach to Classics?

Figure 13.3 The Chorus, in the show I Cercatori di Tracce, based on Sophocles’ satyr play Trackers, directed by Marco Martinelli and Alessandro Renda, produced by Ravenna Teatro: Mazara del Vallo, 29 May 2010

Source: Photo by Maurizio Montanari.

Mazara, the directors adapted and staged Sophocles’ play, working with seventy youngsters, boys and girls, all non-Italian children of immigrants. They live in the Casbah of Mazara where people of Catholic and Islamic faiths have lived together since the 1950s. The workshop is an open space, like any Non-School; youngsters bring to the ancient texts ‘slices of life’, ‘pieces’ of (p.179) their own experience, their memories, and thoughts. In the show they speak many languages including Arabic and Sicilian dialects, while two Choruses of boys and girls (respectively satyrs and nymphs) dance and play traditional music.

These are just some examples of the pedagogical and social implications of writing and staging classical plays with students. In Section 1, I mentioned theatre and school as a possible gateway to classics for a larger audience and it is worth comparing the experience of Non-School with those taking place in small communities with a large participation in theatre, like the Takkuligey Project at Diol Kadd, Senegal. The next step in collaborative research could be to investigate such experiences in other collective contexts and communities and consider how such activities affect perceptions of classics and even perhaps change its core and its impact on the wider community. In ancient Athens, the theorikon guaranteed citizens’ access to theatre. We see now that national and local administrators and sponsors allow theatres to offer reduced or free tickets to some spectators, in order to reach people of different places, ages, and socio-economic background. Could more be done in the modern world to bring theatre ‘back to the demos’? Could a school become a community theatre and aim at a ‘democratic’ model of working? Could this ‘turn’ involve all members of the local theatre community and what might be their contribution? If the demos of ancient Athens was embedded in tragedies and comedies what would be the equivalent today?

If we work together on these matters and if a ‘democratic turn’ in classics inside and outside schools is about to happen, then perhaps classical culture itself can survive and prosper for a new generation; perhaps school and theatre working together could make this happen?


(1) There is a comparable project in Greece, En Kukloi (In a Circle), directed at the University of Athens by Mairi Yossi.

(2) I thank all the 2010 conference participants for their papers and Lorna Hardwick, Carol Gillespie, and the Open University for hosting an international research collaboration. For a review of the conference, see Treu 2010.

(3) 〈http://www.atirteatro.it〉. The same company has also staged an adaptation of Aristophanes’ Assembly of Women, 2007.

(4) Martinelli and Montanari 2000, quoted from the English website 〈http://www.teatrodellealbe.com/eng〉.