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During the summer of 2012, Sharon L. James co-directed the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Roman Comedy in Performance with Timothy Moore, PhD ’86. With the help of visiting faculty consultants, Profs. James and Moore lead 25 participants through the rough and tumble world of Roman Comedy. Together they created multiple performance versions of scenes from Plautus and Terence by experimenting with staging, actors, translation, choreography, and more. By doing so, they crafted an excellent series of videos that relates the ancient plays to our modern society.

When reading Plautine jokes with her undergraduates Sharon James always grappled to explain why Romans would have laughed at the same dark lines about slave torture, forced prostitution, and rape that made her students grimace. She also wondered just how Romans would have received such the comedic writings of Plautus and Terence. Did Romans really find this stuff funny when watching it performed?

“These plays are rarely staged” today, James explained, “largely because those elements are so disturbing.”

Seeking to understand how the elements of gender, sexuality, race, and class could affect the performance and reception of the playwrights’ works, James decided the best solution would be to organize a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute in order to experiment with and stage scenes from select plays. She asked Timothy Moore, PhD ’86, how he liked the idea, and Moore quickly agreed to co-direct the institute.

“I wanted to get a chance to see in practice how performance might affect how we interpret the plays of Plautus and Terence, especially the difficult scenes,” Moore shared. “I was also eager to test some of my own theories about music in Roman comedy, and to work with Sharon.”

Moore and James would spend the next couple of years plotting their Roman Comedy in Performance institute, submitting it to the NEH in March 2011. Their goal was to bring together a small group of scholars to study and collaborate on varied performances of Plautus and Terence, which would be videotaped and distributed for educational purposes.

“Rather to our surprise, it was approved, so we were in business six months later, and I found myself arranging for costumes, masks, and more,” James exclaimed.

Moore and James selected 22 professors and three graduate students to participate in the institute, held through the hot and humid months of June and July 2012. These scholars from Classical Studies, History, Religious Studies, and theatre selected various scenes from the works of Plautus and Terence.

Watch all of the institute's videos online here.
Watch all of the institute’s videos online here.

Participants and co-directors work-shopped and studied the genre in the morning and scripted and rehearsed their scenes in the afternoon. Sander M. Goldberg, C.W. Marshall, Amy Richlin, Niall Slater, Mary-Kay Gamal, Anne H. Groton, John H. Starks, Jr., and George Fredric Franko served as faculty members for the institute, providing expertise on the subject playwrights and Roman comedy and performance in general, helping groups perfect their performances. Ted H. M. Gellar-Goad, PhD ’12, also composed music for local musicians to accompany the performances.

“The visiting faculty experts were enthusiastic and inspiring,” James reflected. “Our participants were dedicated, creative, energetic. They hurled themselves into performance, often literally hurling themselves around the stage.”

For all, the hard work paid off. James reported that the YouTube videos have been seen almost 5,500 times in 73 countries outside the United States. Plus, the directors and many of the participants now use the videos to supplement their teaching, and have continued to study their findings, presenting workshops at the joint annual meeting of the American Philological Association and Archaeological Institute of America, the Classical Association of the Middle West and South’s annual meeting, and other programs.

“This experience also gave me a sense that a scene does not have to just play one way,” said participant Christopher Bungard, assistant professor of Classical Studies at Butler University. “In Classics, we might be drawn to the ‘right’ reading, but the practice of theater suggests that there is a fundamental problem with that kind of approach. Plautus is differing things to different audiences, and that makes more sense as a result of my experience with this program.”

“Our practice-based research allowed for experimentation with different possibilities for integrating music, masks, and other aspects of Roman theatre in order to translate these plays for audiences today,” said Dan Smith, explaining how the institute benefited his undergraduate and graduate theatre courses at Michigan State University. “The intensive course of study provided by the Institute has given me much more confidence in my ability to teach Roman comedy.”

“Overall, the NEH Summer Institute was an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience–like the geekiest summer camp and most fun summer school I could imagine, all rolled into one,” concluded participant Erin Moodie, assistant professor of Classical Studies at Depauw University.

You may read more from other participants on the institute’s blog.