Greek Play Project
I created this lesson as part of my 7th & 8th grade Theatre History cycle. I try in this course to take a "hands on" approach to the subject, and to deal more in trends and concepts than in dates and such. I am especially concerned with performance practice in each of the periods we explore, and with the way plays are structured and how their structure influences more recent periods. So, after reading some exerpts from Greek tragedies and discussing in depth such concepts as the use of the chorus, the late point of attack, the emphasis on motivations and psychology over action, the absence from the stage of scenes of violence, etc., we set about to create our own "Greek Tragedies." Throughout the project I stress that we are interested in getting at the concept and the sense of what the great Greeks were doing, but not to reproduce in a realistic way the theatre of Ancient Greece. Because we discuss the fact that the Greeks tended to select for their material stories with which the audience was already familiar, and the fact that this familiarity often allowed the great playwrights to get at an irony that would have been impossible if the audience had been approaching the material for the first time, I encourage my students to select stories that our audience will know. We talk a lot about how to find the late point of attack in the stories they select, and while we don't worry too much about the seriousness of the stories, we do examine them carefully to be sure that they will support, at any rate within the confines of our very short plays, the kind of psychological introspection of a true Greek play. Not all fairy tales--and it's fairy tales that leap to mind first--work very well. The big bad wolf isn't much of a tragic hero, but one of my groups managed to make him one by giving him pangs--not exactly of conscience, but of sensibility--that almost made him leave poor little Red alone, and his greed (hunger?) became his tragic flaw. It didn't make the most coherent play, but the fact that they were able to think it out showed me how well they understood what we were learning about. (I don't discourage humor, although I point out that it would not have been usual for the Greeks in a tragedy, unless one considers tragic irony humorous. I find that 8th-graders--oddly enough, more than the 7th-graders--grow bored if I don't allow them to take a pretty lighthearted approach to their projects. But if I were to try the exercise with older or more advanced students, I might insist on real tragedies.)
Below is the handout I give the students at the beginning of the project. Since it is often difficult to completely visualize a lesson just from such a document, I have added comments in red.
Project--Make Your Own "Greek Tragedy"
Your group will write and perform a play according to the structure below. You must choose a familiar story from history or from fiction to dramatize. Remember that Greek Tragedy uses a "late point of attack." My students tend to choose either Greek Myths--Pandora is popular, and happens to work very well--or fairy tales. It is often difficult for them to understand why choosing their favorite TV sitcom doesn't work. ("Friends" is not a story.) The "late point of attack" is a stumbling block for some, but the fact that it is necessary for a project they have already decided will be fun usually gives them the impetus to make the necessary effort to grasp the concept--even if it doesn't always translate into a coherent play.
Everyone in the group will be an actor. You may have as many characters as you want, as long as you never have more of them onstage at one time than you have members in your group. Unless the group shows themselves very able to work together, I usually discourage them from creating the sort of situation--common in later 5th-century Greek plays--in which one character is played by different actors at different times. But the idea of one actor playing more than one character is easy, and, indeed, usually indispensable.
The "audience" will serve as chorus.
You will make all necessary masks for your characters. We won't worry about masks for the chorus, but be sure the text tells us who the chorus are supposed to represent. This is an important point, and one I sometimes fail to make clear. The chorus in a Greek play is never just a bunch of random people. They are the elders of Thebes, or the neighbors of Medea, or the people of a particular city, and thus have a stake of some kind in the story. I try to encourage my students to think hard about who the chorus should be. (For example, in one "Little Mermaid" play, they were Ariel's mermaid sisters.)
You must be sure that the lines for the chorus are presented clearly so that the "audience" will be able to "perform" them without rehearsal. Stress this, and don't take their word for it without checking up on them. Middle Schoolers often think they have written clearly what to anyone else (including other Middle Schoolers) looks like gibberish. I make certain to stay on top of the written component of my students work, so that they don't get to the end and then find their project doesn't work for a trivial reason.
We will go over proper format for scripts. I show them standard Samuel French acting edition format, but any would do. The point here is to make them pay attention to the format, and learn the discipline of sticking to a single one.
You will not be required to memorize your lines. If I am working with older or more advanced students, I sometimes make them memorize, but since the point of the exercise is to learn and think about classical Greek theatre, rather than to train actors, I usually feel that the time spent memorizing could be better spent learning. In any case, I stress that although they will be allowed to carry their scripts, they must still act. They must be familiar enough with their lines not to spend the whole play with their noses in the scripts.
You are not required to use props or scenery, but if you want to do so, you will need to make or find what is necessary. I do this only because I have a lot to cover in my course, and we do a lot of work with design during my unit on the Italian Renaissance. There is no reason you couldn't make costumes and sets a part of the project.
At the completion of the project you will hand in your script, and your grade will be based both on the script and the performance.
Note: Although of course real Tragedy always ends unhappily, it is not so easy to find familiar stories in this day and age that don't have happy endings, so you are not required to give your play a "tragic" ending. However, you may do so if you like, even if it means changing the ending of an existing story. As I mention above, I might drop this provision with more advanced students.
You must provide copies of all of the chorus's words to hand out to the "audience." You may make these copies yourself, or you may have me make them. However, if you want me to do it, you MUST get them to me by the end of school on the day before the performance. Obviously this requirement is just for my own convenience. With older students I'd probably just require them to make the copies themselves.
Your play will have the following structure:
Characters speak, perhaps directly to the audience. Tell us what the play is going to be about, and what you think we will learn from it. I have to coach carefully to remind them that they must not just "come right out and say it," but that the necessary information must be revealed through natural-seeming comments by the characters. But I am more or less insistent on this point depending on the group's ability to grasp it.
Chorus, in unison, tells us what has happened before the beginning of the action of the play. They should also tell us who they are. If you want, you can have the chorus speak in verse. (In a real Greek play, the chorus would "enter" here, but since the "audience" is serving as chorus, we'll just assume that part. But if you want, you can have them say something about "entering.") It is often unnatural at first for the students to write in verse but once pushed, they usually become wonderfully creative. Here again, I encourage them to "show" rather than tell. (Although, when it comes to playwriting of any kind, I hate that expression, because of course virtually all of playwriting is in one sense "telling," since it is dialogue.)
Characters, in masks, of course, act out the beginning of the action of the play. If you want, you can have the chorus interrupt the action to ask questions or make comments. (If you are going to do this, make sure you have copies of the whole play, rather than just the chorus parts, to hand out to the "audience.") Remember that characters in Greek Tragedy tend to talk a lot about decision making and moral choices--what should I do? Am I doing the right thing? Etc. Remember that anything violent should take place offstage, with a character or "messenger" entering to tell us what happened.
Choral Ode 1
Chorus speaks about something connected with the theme of the story, but not necessarily about the story itself. Or, if you prefer, you may use a popular song or poem here, that you think expresses the mood or theme at this point in the play. If you use a poem, the "audience" will read it in unison. If you use a popular song, you may simply play it on the stereo at this point. (In a real Greek Tragedy the chorus would probably also "dance" at this point. You can't expect the audience to do this, since they won't have rehearsed, but if you want, you can have the members of your group perform the movements of the chorus while the "audience" reads or the song plays. This is NOT, however, required.) Surprisingly, my students make less use of the freedom provided here than I expected the first time I did the project. I was afraid they'd seize on the permission to use a popular song as a way of avoiding writing so much, but although nearly every group uses one or two, more is rare. This part of the assignment is pretty vague, but that's intentional. It is necessary for me to stay on top of what the groups are doing, and to coach them when (and only when) necessary.
Characters act out the next part of the story, again with choral comment if you want.
Choral Ode 2
(See Choral Ode 1)
(If necessary, you may add more Episodes and Odes here.)
Characters act out the end of the story.
As or after the characters leave, the chorus tells us what we have learned from the story. Once again, and more so, I must coach them not to be too explicit. "We hope you have learned. . ." doesn't cut it. But that's all to the good, in a way, because I have always been a firm believer in the educational value of rewriting.
Should you wish to do this project, and to use my handout, you can download the handout as a PDF (without my comments).