Faculty Projects: Rediscovering the Roots of Western Theater

Commonwealth School teachers bring an infectious intellectual energy to their classrooms, fueled, in part, by their own innate curiosity. What happens when that curiosity is unleashed? The Hughes/Wharton Fund for Teachers aims to do just that, ensuring faculty can pursue their academic passions, access fulfilling professional development opportunities, and have the latitude to create new courses and reinvigorate existing ones. 

For her most recent Hughes/Wharton project, Susan Thompson, director of Commonwealth’s theater program, spent a summer immersed in Italian theater, tracing its roots through the ages, from a high-concept production of Medea to an ethereal outdoor Ecological Theater Fest (Festa di Teatro Ecológico), from ornate opera houses to ancient amphitheaters, with some classical mask-making, too. Follow along with her travels below and learn how they’ve colored recent Commonwealth performances.

Ancient Greek of Syracusa's performance of Medea, summer of 2023

After visiting Greece in 2019, I continued my studies into the roots of Western theater this past summer, spending two weeks in southern Italy. My goals were to read ancient Roman and Italian playwrights and explore their contributions to theater, to visit ancient theaters, and to attend as many performances as possible. 

I was able to visit the city of Benevento, with its Roman Theater; Naples, with its magnificent Archeological Museum; the ancient ruins of Pompeii, with its Odeon and Ancient Theater; the ancient city of Paestum; the Ancient Theaters of Taormina and Catania; Siracusa, with its extensive archeological sites and ancient theater; the Baroque hill town of Noto; and the island of Stromboli, where I attended four days of outdoor performances during the Festa di Teatro Ecológico. I also attended a stunning performance of Medea at the Ancient Greek of Syracusa. I read Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus, Pseudolus, and Rudens; Carlo Gozzi’s The Green Bird and The King’s Stag, and Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, among other plays.

Related: 20 Questions with Susan Thompson, Theater Teacher

My trip to Italy reminded me of my training at the Lecoq School in mask, theatrical styles, choral work, and movement. I was lucky to take part in a mask workshop just before departing, too, led by the members of the Sartori family, who are Italian mask makers. (Since COVID, I have cut mask work, for obvious reasons, from the curriculum, but this fall I plan to return to it.) The visits to the ancient theaters also reminded me of our fall production, Boundless as the Sea, which incorporated a chorus with scenes from Romeo and Juliet, among other plays. Commonwealth’s winter play, A Comedy of Errors, included a comic chorus and movement inspired by commedia dell'arte and mask work, as well.

I remain grateful for the support the Hughes/Wharton Fund offers the teachers at Commonwealth. Thank you for an inspiring and insightful trip!

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