All Singing, All Dancing, All Greek

The Randolph College Greek Play photo At a Randolph-Macon Woman’s College reunion in the mid-1990s, former college president Kathleen Bowman was hanging out with a lively group of white-haired ladies celebrating their 50th class reunion. The conversation turned to the Greek Play , and without skipping a beat, each one of the women started reciting their lines, in Greek, 50 years after the original performance.

Struck by how deeply the play had resonated with these women, Bowman set about to revive the Greek Play, a proud R-MWC tradition that had lain dormant for half a century.

Classics professor Amy Cohen came to R-WMC in 1999 eager to put her doctoral research on Greek tragedy to the test. The campus already boasted a stunning outdoor amphitheatre built to the exact specifications of an ancient Greek theater. “The Dell” would become Cohen’s living laboratory for unraveling the mysteries of millennia-old production techniques.

In 2000, the Greek Play re-premiered at R-MWC with a masterful production of Sophocles' Antigone . Although the students performed the play in English, Cohen dutifully adhered to all of the conventions of ancient Greek drama, including the three-actor cast and chorus.

But this was no ordinary Greek chorus. Through her research, Cohen knew that the original Greek choruses didn’t just chant or blandly narrate, but they actually sang and danced! So Cohen commissioned original music and retranslated the chorus’ lines to lyrics. Add in a little choreography and the whole thing feels more like a modern musical than a dead-language drama.

For the most recent Greek Play, Aristophanes’ bawdy comedy The Clouds , Cohen had even more fun with the chorus. Instead of commissioning original music, they sang to the tune of existing pop songs. When the hero sets off to be trained by Socrates, the chorus pumps him up with a little “Eye of the Tiger.”

Cohen believes Randolph College and the Greek Play tradition are a perfect fit.

“The play expresses in a really thorough way the value inherent in the liberal arts,” she says. It requires academic skills, artistic talents, physical prowess and creative problem solving—“Exactly what the liberal arts trains you to do,” Cohen adds.

The play has also proven to be a powerful research tool. In Cohen’s first four Greek Plays, the actors wore half-masks that only covered their faces from the nose up. Even then, it was sometimes hard to hear the actors when they turned their backs to sections of the semi-circular audience.

But Cohen knew that the ancient actors would have worn full masks, which would seemingly make the problem worse. There are no masks left in the archeological record; only some images left on pottery.

“But a painting on a vase isn’t going to show you how the thing was made,” says Cohen.

So Cohen and three Randolph students took on the mystery of how to construct and use full masks as a Summer Research project. Over two summers, Cohen and her students successfully constructed masks using both modern and ancient materials. Incredibly, the masks turned out to amplify the actors’ voices in all directions, even behind them. Cohen is in the process of publishing their findings.

“This design solves problems we thought we had about the ancient theater,” says a proud Cohen. To further test the design, the actors in The Clouds all wore full masks.

Cohen is thrilled to be a part of this ever-evolving and expanding Randolph tradition and knows that the Greek Play experience is indeed as powerful as President Bowman believed.

“[The students] inhabit this work in and out,” says Cohen. “Even if they never do anything Greek again. Even if they never do anything dramatic again. That’s going to be something that stays with them forever.”

The 2008 Greek Play will be Sophocles’ Electra , the first Randolph Greek Play to feature gender-blind casting. Find out more about the Greek Play and visit Melpomene , the student organization that supports the production.