Greek Tragedy for Little Tykes

Once upon a time, I was called upon to put together a module of activities for a summer theatre camp. Through some breakdown in communication, I had an inaccurate notion of the ages that were at this camp.

This is that story.

Man Plans

The scene was Barboursville, Virginia. I had just completed my first year of master’s study at University of Virginia. A family friend, someone Alli had met in a production at Charlottesville’s Live Arts, was putting together a theatre-for-youth camp, and had sent the call around for counselors. They had someone doing a unit on dance, someone doing a unit on singing, someone doing stage make-up… lots of fun stuff. It would be a week-long day camp, and it would culminate in a showcase for the parents: scenes, skits, improv games, and dances to let Mom and Dad see what their children had been doing all week.

Standard stuff.

Alli’s schedule precluded her direct involvement, but she encouraged me to put my hat in. At this time, I was still closing out a semester and putting a lot of work into a research project on Greek Tragedy. Alli said I should pitch a class about Classical Theatre, using some of my research and my performance and design background to “do Greek tragedies” with the kids.

To this day, I cannot remember where I got this information–was it from Alli, from our friend, from one of the other counselors, or did I make it up myself?–but somewhere, I received the firm impression that the target demographic for this camp was around high-school age. Now, if you are already shaking your head that they don’t do theatre day-camps at that age, know that I had participated in a wonderful theatre camp between my junior and senior years. No, it wasn’t a day camp, but it was a theatre camp pitched at high school.

I probably should have reflected that my experiences are strange and should not be assumed as the standard. However, I’ve gone nearly forty years without taking this lesson.

In any event, I reasoned that these students were going to be the same students who would soon be reading Oedipus or The Oresteia in high school, and so it was absolutely appropriate to spend a week working on Greek Tragedy.

So I pitched this class.

And, Reader, it was accepted.

So I started planning things out. I got excited. This was a nice transitional project for me–using my graduate study to build something for entertainment.

The Gods Laugh

And then we had our first production meeting, where I received my roster. It is here that I learned what you already know, and likely would have intuited even without the lede-lines.

I had been misinformed (if even by myself) of the ages of the students. I would have four classes that I would meet with every day. None of them were in high school.

I had a group of twelve-year-olds, with one fourteen-year-old.

I had a group of ten-year-olds.

I had a group of eight-year-olds.

And, Reader, I had a group of six-year-olds.

I had immediate regrets, and I voiced these to the production team: I’m not, by nature, a Bowdlerizer. When I teach Slaughterhouse-Five, I have an entire class session where I focus on Vonnegut’s use of the word “motherfucker.” But I knew this small, community theatre that was staging this camp was doing so on a shoestring budget held together by the good will of its community. And I was hesitant that this community would be too happy about watching Tiny Agamemnon ritually sacrifice Little Iffy.

Perhaps it was an overabundance of caution that assumed too little of the community. But at that time I saw disaster and ruination lurking behind every corner.

I was a grad student.

The production team offered to let me change to something else. But first of all, I didn’t know what that something else would be. Second, were were (admittedly) in something of a bind because we’d already sent out promotional materials telling kids and parents that there was going to be a class on Greek Tragedy.

I told them I would take some time to figure it out, to see if it I could make it work.

I made it work.

I whittled down some of the major Greek dramas into forms that could be performed in five minutes for parents. This was already something that would have had to happen, even if I hadn’t miscalculated the ages.

And instead of reading the plays entirely (which probably wouldn’t have happened–they came to this camp to do things, not to have homework), I made myself Homer in this class, and narrated them the stories. We did activities. They illustrated the stories as I told them. We looked at pictures of classical Greek dress. We learned about Greek staging methods–how amphitheatres worked, and how the masks were combination character makeup and microphone. We made masks for our characters, which they got a lot out of, at every level.

And of course, we prepared our scenes for the showcase.

And I will say now that everybody thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Yes, some edges were softened, and some guardrails were put up, but the sort of kids who come to a theatre camp tend towards the precocious, and so I imagine there was a bit of joy with being “trusted” with something so serious. Their other skits and offerings for the showcase would let them romp and joke around, and there were distinct joys there that I do not mean to discount. But though I don’t think these kids would have put it this way, I think they enjoyed getting to show off their range.

Anyway, what did I do? Well, I started with the Big Three dramatists: Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, and divvied them up among the four groups.

Euripides for Junior Highers

With the twelve-year-olds (with one fourteener), we did a scene from The Trojan Women. That is probably my favorite Greek tragedy, having directed a production of it in college. (Perhaps I’ll write about that experience some day.) It is a talky play, which is why I preferred that the oldest group do it. We did the scene where Talthybius tells Hecuba, Andromache, and their Trojan retainers that Astyanax had to be put to death so Hector’s line would die out.

Heavy stuff? Sure. But this was the age group that was tilting steadily into having Serious Feelings That No One Else Has Ever Had Before (Not Even You, Mom)(tm) so getting to tap their latent emo, or even goth selves was a real treat.

Aeschylus for Middle-Schoolers

With the ten-year-olds, I did a scene from The Oresteia. Specifically, the scene where the Furies drive Orestes mad for his act of vengeance. We presented it as the Big Dramatic Scene at the climax of an action movie, like the countless superhero films they’d watched. They dug it. The Furies especially dug getting to be all shouty without getting in trouble for making noise.

Grade-School Sophocles

With the eight-year-olds, we had the elephant in the room. Sophocles. Specifically Oedipus the King.

Look ye, countrymen and Nana, this is Kermitus the great,
He who knew Gonzo’s riddle and was mightiest in our state.

I had locked myself into this arbitrary system of each of the three playwrights. Yes, I could have deviated from that plan, and nobody would care. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had to do this.

Part of it is, although I’ve been telling you about these groups in descending age order, when it came to the showcase, this was the first of our scenes that parents would see. For many Oedipus is the first Greek drama that comes to mind. I remember when I read it in high school, none of us had read it before, but also none of us were surprised at anything we found in it. You see, Oedipus had reached all of us through the whisper network of the lockered halls, and we all knew it as The Play Where a Man Marries His Mother. We may not have known about the Sphinx, Tiresias, or hamartia, but we knew that. As with The Sixth Sense, this was the big twist that defined the entire work, and eclipsed everything else there was to that work.

And I think I knew that a lot of these parents would hear “Greek drama” and immediately think “Greek –> Oedipus –> mother-marriage –> dear God, my child!” So, I figured to rip that bandage off quickly. We would start with Oedipus, and with Ol’ Oeddy out of the way, and his spectre well behind us, the parents would be able to actually see what the kids were doing in all the later scenes.

We didn’t actually read Sophocles, though. Even as I write this, I have a variety of absolutists that argue within me as to what I should have done.* One tiny voice says I was wrong to censor the play in any way. Another argues that I shouldn’t have gone anywhere near the Greeks. Another endlessly hums the theme song to Night Court. That has nothing to do with the present conversation, but it hasn’t stopped in more that twenty years.

*(I think of Jonathan Nolan’s “Memento Mori,” the short story that was the basis for his brother’s Memento. There’s a passage in there that describes us all as collections of individuals that have completely different priorities of how the whole should conduct itself. We make lists and set rules for ourselves to manage this inherent chaos. I’m probably misremembering it terribly, which is fitting in its own way, but that’s an image that has never left me, even if it’s been Xeroxed beyond all recognition.)

As I said above, I told them the story of Oedipus. And here’s how I told it to them:

Oedipus the King is basically a detective story in which a king (Oedipus) has to find out who killed the previous king in order to lift a curse from his land. He questions everybody, and at the very end realizes that he was the killer he’s been looking for this entire time.

The eight-year-olds goggled and marveled at this twist. They approved of it as a surprise ending. They strutted and preened that they, and not the twelve-year-olds, got to be trusted with something so cool and grown-up as a big reveal.

I am proud of the version of the story that I told them, because it is perfectly accurate, even if it is imprecise. I did not change anything; Oedipus was not related as a story about a kingdom of bunnies where the King Bunny has to find out who stole a cookie. I just left some things out. Sure, I went into more detail than the above–I told them about some of the other characters (who they would be playing) and how they fit into that plot arc. I told them about choruses and how they commented on the action. But that was, more or less, the synopsis on which everything hung.

That was also the synopsis which I related to the audience of parents on the day of the showcase, and I have to tell you, I have never been more aware of audience mood. As soon as I said, “Our first scene comes from a play called Oedipus the King,” I heard the immediate silence as everyone stopped breathing. And when I gave my little micro-synopsis, there was a moment’s pause while the parents waited for the other shoe to drop.

Artist’s rendering

And when they saw that that shoe was firmly tied in place, the slow ease of tension was palpable.*

*(There had been a similar exchange a few years before, with my then-future father-in-law. Alli and I had only been dating a few months. This was pretty much the first time I hung out with The Family. And I said to him, “Mr. Partin, I have a question to ask you, and the way you answer this question will tell me a lot about you: If a bear and a shark were to get into a fight, who do you think would win? Keep in mind, you can design the encounter with whatever parameters you think are most fair.” There was good minute of tense silence before he realized, No. That’s it. There is no other question coming. This grown man is literally asking me about bears and sharks. Then he breathed again, as did the table, and the hypothetical was duly considered for the better part of an hour.)

I often think about those kids. This was many years ago. If they haven’t graduated from high-school yet, they’re in their senior years, and likely to be reading Oedipus soon. It amuses me to think of them reading the play, and then saying to one another

Man, Mr. Jeff really left a lot out of this play when we did this at summer camp.

or

LOL: Mr. Jeff didn’t know about the mother stuff! Had he even read this play?

Assuming, of course, they think about me at all. Which would really be a waste of time.

 

Sidebar: Tiresias Asks His Question

Before I move on to talk about the six-year-olds, just a quick sidebar I’d like to address. I remember the child who played Tiresias asking me a question about the mask for that character: “Mr. Jeff–can I put a black stripe across his eyes so it looks like a blindfold? That way the audience will know he’s blind.”

Now, this is a perfectly elegant solution for presenting the audience with a simple visual that communicates a core facet of the character, and doing so in such a way that this trait is grasped quickly *and* can be observed all the way from the back of the house. I was proud of this kid for putting that together themselves.

But I will forever remember that the child asked if they were *allowed* to do it. You see, once the kids had their character assignments, I gave them their blank masks and their art supplies and let them go to town. I did not give them instructions on how each mask was to be designed, though I was available if they needed help. They had freedom.

And this child asked permission.

I think about this because this is a conversation I continue to have with my students. “Dr. V, can I write about \_\_ in my essay?” Now many times, this question could be more accurately rendered as “Does this idea seem substantial enough for an essay on this scale?” But sometimes, it’s exactly what Tiresias was asking for: permission. For many of my students, writing is entirely a formulaic exercise that has to be twisted and pounded until it fits into the mold offered by their standardized tests: Each essay must have exactly five paragraphs. Each paragraph should have exactly five sentences. You will write about this, and you will do exactly this in the first paragraph, this in the second, this in the third… And so on.

Whereas the prompts in my class are much more open and, I believe, more reflective of what academic writing actually looks like. Maybe they’re working on an essay in which they summarize and critique an commercial. There are thousands of commercials they could choose from, countless arguments they could make about those commercials, and, beyond a few helpful structural norms, dozens of ways they could go about making that argument.

They have freedom, and they ask permission.

I suppose my pedagogy depends more on this chance exchange with Tiresias that I was aware of, because this is a huge part of my work, particularly in the first-year classroom: getting students to see writing as an act of unique communication, as opposed to a pro-forma imitation of someone else’s modes and ideas.

The Satyr Play(ground)

I named three playwrights, but said I had four groups. This was not an oversight.

I had an idea.

You see, in the original productions, Greek plays would not have been watched singly, but as part of an all-day festival. And at the end of that festival, you would have a satyr play. In these plays, mischievous satyrs would mock the cycle of plays you had just watched. They’d argue with each other. They’d throw shit at one another.

This is the origin of satire.

And though no satyr, I had an impish idea. I didn’t want to make the six-year-olds memorize a bunch of lines and feel anxious about delivering them all just right. I just wanted them to have a fun time and associate that fun with classical theatre.

Plus, I have a persistent cantankerous bent, going at least as far back as my years at Colonial Williamsburg, of dispelling the myth that everything was always so heightened and serious Back Then (for any value of “Back Then.”) So it wasn’t just about not wanting to bring out a fourth playwright, not wanting to overburden these kids. I had a philosophical obligation to make sure the parents walked away with a more nuanced understanding of the Classics–that they weren’t all proper and erudite, and that the modern low-brow is not evidence of the corruption of a less enlightened age.

So we staged a satyr play with the six-year-olds. Instead of satyrs, we were all “mischievous woodland creatures,” as this would allow the kids to exercise a little more variety and creativity in constructing their paper-plate masks.

This came just after our little scene from The Trojan Women, Jr., the most serious of our offerings. So that was the scene our woodland creatures mocked. The satyr play from this cycle does not survive to us, so I hope you will not judge me too harshly, Reader, for spinning one up out of whole cloth. It was mainly narrated by Yours Truly from the wings. Again, this group didn’t want to memorize and recite lines.

Our forest creatures argued about what Hecuba should have done instead of letting Talthybius take Astyanax. And when this disagreement reached its apex…

Look, I wasn’t going to get them to throw shit at each other. That was never the plan. Even though I’m sure I could have found some cows and horses in a field nearby for free art supplies.

I had them throw pies.

Pictured: Directorial Goals

The pie fight was carefully choreographed and rehearsed. There were rules and safeguards in place. After all, stage combat has to be carefully managed even in ideal circumstances, and ideal circumstances do not involve six-year-olds.

  • We all wore tunics made from white, kitchen garbage bags.
  • We had a tarp down on the stage. (Oh, the mystique! The buzz of curiosity as the counselors unrolled this tarp before the last scene of the showcase!)
  • The pies were not to go into other people’s faces, but only onto their shoulders
  • The pies were not to be thrown, but pushed into place
  • People who didn’t want to get bespattered would not get bespattered.

Now, if you’re looking at these guidelines and thinking that these drained the joy and chaos from the experience–that I had reconstructed OSHA out of aluminum pie-plates and Redi-Whip–then you have never worked with six-year-olds. However rigorous your systems, the chaos will find its way in. So, as choreographed as our scene was, it looked like a frenetic free-for-all.

And it was adorable as all Hell.

I’ve not been very active in theatre since then. I was Callaghan in a community theatre production of Legally Blonde: The Musical. Since coming to Houston, I’ve participated in new-works readings on several occasions, most notably with Grackle & Grackle’s various playwrighting workshops. But even if acting were still my profession, and even if I were fortunate enough to Work Constantly, I do not think I could ever be a part of something more crowd-leasing or artistically fulfilling than having a bevvy of kindergartners throw pies at each other.

Perhaps a higher art is not possible.

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