The Civil War is Still a Great Theatrical Subject
by Larry Murray
The war isn’t done yet, you know. Like the Big Bang, its remnants still haunt the American cosmos. And it is a great source of dramatic material. After all the Civil War was also called the Brother-against-Brother War. It tore America apart, and just look at our politics and anyone can see it really isn’t fully knitted together again.
An unusual partnership between major theaters and Universities is intended to not only mark the 150th Anniversary of America’s Civil War but to develop a dozen new plays and special events to commemorate the time there were two Americas battling with each other.
At least this is the rationale behind the National Civil War Project, a radical multi-city, multi-year collaboration between four universities and performing arts organizations to reconsider the elements that led to the Civil War. This historic collaboration was launched during a presentation in Washington, D.C.
The American Civil War is arguably one of the most significant times in American history, an era that raised issues still relevant today. Indeed the current red-blue divisions in Congress are basically north vs. south issues that still provide friction today, but have spread across the nation.
The National Civil War Project will include the commissioning of 12 original works for the stage, as well as create new arts-integrated academic programs.
Inspired by noted choreographer and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Liz Lerman, the project involves four multi-city partnerships facilitated through the launch by Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater and The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The other three partners include Alliance Theatre and Emory College Center for Creativity & Arts at Emory University in Atlanta, GA; American Repertory Theater and Harvard University in Cambridge, MA; and CenterStage in Baltimore, MD and The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, MD. These diverse localities symbolize the geographic scope of the American Civil War.
Ahead of the curve as usual is the Berkshire’s Barrington Stage Company which in 2010 hosted the East Coast Premiere of Matthew Lopez’ The Whipping Man to sold out houses and rave reviews, proving that the Civil War – and its aftermath – made for compelling theatre.
“Every anniversary is an opportunity to reflect,” Lerman notes. “Our Civil War was 150 years ago: What does it still mean? What is the aftermath? Where is the damage? How is it absorbed? Who does the absorbing? These questions are too big for the arts alone, or for academia alone; my interest is in collaborations that will allow new understandings.”
The theatrical centerpiece of The National Civil War Project is the commissioning and development of 12 new works about or inspired by the American Civil War in each region. The universities will convene leading experts for national conferences and symposia and will produce public lecture series, community programs and dramaturgy, student devised theater playwriting projects, student-generated exhibitions, artist and academic roundtables and post-show discussions. Public presentations from each partnership will be shared through an interactive Media Wall at CENTERSTAGE and connected by satellite to high-definition video display, connecting the regions simultaneously.
Highlights of The National Civil War Project Artistic Programming (as of 2/28/13):
Alliance Theatre and Emory College Center for Creativity & Arts at Emory University
- Collision Project devised theater workshop in Summer 2013 focusing on the documentation of the Civil War featuring playwright Pearl Cleage;
- A collaborative development between Emory and the Alliance Theatre of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Native Guard by Poet Laureate and head of Emory’s Creative Writing Program Natasha Trethewey, directed by Alliance Theatre Artistic Director Susan V. Booth. This will include panels, discussions and research activities hosted by the Emory Center for Ethics about the Civil War and Atlanta’s development as a city, tying research and discussion back to this specific project. The Native Guard workshop will be part of the Emory University Playwriting Center’s Brave New Works Program in the winter of 2014. The Alliance will then present the full theatrical production.
- Projects around dramatizing and researching the Civil War involving playwrights from the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition and Emory theatre department students.
American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) and Harvard University
Through support from the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching and the Mellon Foundation, the A.R.T. has hosted a series of roundtables designed to bring artists and scholars together in dialogue about a range of subjects related to the Civil War, possibly leading to new courses at Harvard University and new readings, workshops and productions on the A.R.T. stages. The topics of the three roundtables have been “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Medicine, Weaponry, War Wounds, and The Soldier’s Body,” and “Civil War Photography, Painting, Reenactment and Memoir.”
- Work in Development
o The Boston Abolitionist Project will be an ensemble-devised piece directed by Steven Bogart (director, A.R.T. 2011/12 Cabaret) about the abolitionist movement in Boston and the trial of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns. This will be performed in May 2013 with the graduating students of the A.R.T. Institute for Advance Theater Training.
o War Dept. will be a new music theater piece by Jim and Ruth Bauer (co-creators of The Blue Flower A.R.T. 2011/12 Season) set in Ford’s Theater that explores the lives of friends and family who search for answers among the records of the Civil War dead and wounded.
o Memoranda During The War, Walt Whitman’s account of being a medic during the Civil War, is the inspiration for a new opera being composed by Matt Aucoin, 2012 graduate of Harvard University, graduate composition student at Juilliard School of Music and assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera.
The A.R.T. will produce the Proclamation Project, a youth writing immersion program modeled after the Alliance Theatre’s successful Collision Project. The Proclamation Project will empower an ensemble of creative teenagers to deconstruct, remix and perform a primary source drawn from Civil War documents. Simultaneously, all other theaters participating in The National Civil War Project will facilitate the same process with local teens in their respective areas. During the devising process, all four ensembles will stay directly connected with one another through Skype, Facebook and other online social platforms.
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater and the George Washington University
- National conference in December 2013 investigating the Civil War in Washington, DC and how scholarship and artistry can inspire each other towards a deeper level of understanding;
- World premiere of Healing Wars (June 6–29, 2014), by Liz Lerman–a theatrical dance piece that explores the experiences of the healers tasked with treating the physical and psychic wounds of battle. Joined by narrator Bill Pullman (Independence Day, 1600 Penn), an ensemble of dancers represent medics and soldiers from the American Civil War to today. The work will be informed by interviews with students at GW’s School of Nursing;
- National commissioning of 25 playwrights titled Our War, which is a multiplicity of voices about the American Civil War, reconstruction and its aftermath and the reverberations in our lives as Americans today;
- World premiere of an original piece by award-winning playwright and performer Daniel Beaty, portraying the depth and breadth of humanity involved in the American Civil War—from slaves to generals and abolitionists to slave owners, to those who went to war and those who were left behind. A stirring exploration of experiences during the war, this piece will fuse song and poetry, personal narrative and art as a means of asking what it was really like and how each person survived through their art.
- Arena Stage’s internationally renowned Voices of Now program will create an ensemble of young emerging artists to devise an original one act play in response to source material from the Civil War and contemporary issues in the nation’s capital, which will be part of a partnership-wide devised theater project;
- Collaborations between theater and university on faculty innovations integrating artistic and academic approaches with new curricula for fall 2014;
- Multiple panel series held at and hosted by George Washington University.
CENTERSTAGE and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland
- Interactive Media Wall at CENTERSTAGE;
- National conference on Civil Rights and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland. September 6, 2013;
- Commissioning and Production of New Works:
o A world premiere production, as yet untitled, of an original commission at CENTERSTAGE by a leading British playwright. The piece will explore the British (and international) perspective on the Civil War from diplomatic and economic to literary and personal angles; inspired by historical realities like those chronicled in such recent works as Amanda Foreman’s World on Fire;
o At War With Ourselves, a world premiere of a newly commissioned piece by Kronos Quartet that will also feature a legendary American composer, a 500-voice choir and spoken word by a leading voice in American poetry. The work will debut at a historic site of monumental significance to the history of the Civil War;
- Creative Dialogues series, moderated by Kojo Nnamdi;
- Student-focused projects:
o A student-generated exhibit at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
o Encounter (CENTERSTAGE’s high school outreach/community program) student exploration and engagement with themes and topics emerging from conversations around the Civil War from the local context in Baltimore & Maryland to lingering legacies today
- CENTERSTAGE will announce on March 11, along with the rest of its 2013-14 Season, the regional premiere of a Civil War-themed work around which significant artistic and community engagement programming will take place;
- Additional artists, projects, performances, events with thematic ties to civil war and civil rights throughout the Clarice Smith Center’s 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons