Helping students make real world connections to the works they read is an important part of teaching literature. When students comprehend the contemporary and historical links to literature, they have a much greater understanding of what they read. This year my sophomore class and I were fortunate enough to be part of a collaboration between the American Repertory Theater and Amnesty International in the Prometheus Project, a partnership designed to put the theater arts to the service of human rights advocacy.
Last spring, I was contacted by Ryan McKittrick, dramaturg at the American Repertory Theater. Ryan told me that in March of 2011, the A.R.T. would be staging the world premiere of Prometheus Bound, a new rock musical adaptation of Aeschylus' ancient tragedy with book and lyrics by Steven Sater, a Tony Award-winning writer, and music by Serj Tankian, the lead singer of the band System of a Down. Diane Paulus would be directing the show, which would be performed in A.R.T.'s new club theater, Oberon. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to be part of the A.R.T.'s outreach program to local high schools.
In the fall, I received a Prometheus Bound toolkit, which included a translation of the play, selected scenes from Sater and Tankian's new musical, information about the Festival of Dionysus in Athens, and the context in which Aeschylus' tragedy was first performed, as well as information about Amnesty International and contemporary prisoners of conscience. Since Prometheus is considered by many to be the first prisoner of conscience, and Prometheus Bound is one of the most burning indictments of tyranny ever written, I knew this experience would be powerful and life-changing for many of my students.
Steven Sater states that "in a very real way Prometheus' cry is the cry of conscience. The cry of a prisoner who will not yield. At heart, this is a play about resistance. About the power of a tortured individual to stand alone against evil." Because I felt strongly that this was indeed something that I wanted my students to learn about and understand, I purchased copies of the play for my students, and we began reading the book in class.
Although we had a very good translation of the play, the book was still difficult for my students to comprehend, so it was great that Brendan Shea, the Interim Development Director at the A.R.T., brought a group to RHS to do two in-school workshops to engage students by helping them create their own literary and artistic responses to the play and the Prometheus myth. In the workshop, my students created a cover for the Prometheus playbill, wrote their own choral odes, and performed dramatic interpretations of the play. The workshops truly helped my students understand and interpret the play, and the workshop leaders happily answered my students' questions and facilitated their learning. In one activity, the students were responsible for creating a composition (a performance of some kind). The composition had to:
At the end, the class fully understood that Prometheus was being punished not only for bringing human beings the gifts of fire and art, but also for defying an oppressor and taking action in the service of humankind.
The highlight of this experience was, of course, witnessing the play. My students were not sure what to expect, as I had explained to them that there was no seating and that they would sit on a dance floor while viewing the performance. Their anticipation and excitement that night when we arrived in Harvard Square was palatable. For me, watching my students' faces as they took in the show was almost as exciting as watching the presentation. And it was loud Ã¢ÂÂ earplugs were given out at the door Ã¢ÂÂ with a full rock band onstage to provide the music.
I don't think my students quite expected to be part of the performance, but because Prometheus ends up chained to a movable platform in the middle of the dance floor, they were. The lyrics were angry and heated, and they were sung with a passion that was both beautiful and frightening. In fact, one of my students whispered to me at the beginning of the show, "Ms. Barile, I'm scared." The parallels between the story of Prometheus and the political tyranny that exists in the world today were made vividly apparent through the play's imagery. While Gavin Creel was a brilliantly tortured Prometheus, it was Uzo Aduba as Io who truly fascinated my students. Her vocal ability was outstanding, and she conveyed the frustration, desperation, and anger of her character fiercely and intensely.
My students' reactions to Prometheus Bound were quite enthusiastic:
Xuyen Mai, a senior, said: "Prometheus Bound was the most exciting performance I have seen thus far. One of my life goals was accomplished: I met Hermes. And Hermes was so cool. He was fantastically villainous. He was musically talented. His wickedness was so charismatic. I fell in love."
"The actors brought something unique because of how they completely reinvented the characters," Lillian McKinley said. "The way the action moved around and through the audience made us feel like participants, not spectators. I turned around, and the Force, with green hair and piercings, was right over my shoulder.
Lindsay Chorlian remarked, "Prometheus Bound was a spectacular performance that displayed the creativity and beauty of true art. This art was not only in the music and acting, but in the message of standing up against political tyranny and defending what is right."
Perhaps the greatest thing about the Prometheus Bound production was that it was part of the Prometheus Project. The story of Prometheus highlights the many injustices taking place in the world today, specifically those people being silenced or endangered by modern day oppressors. The A.R.T.'s performance of Prometheus Bound was dedicated to eight Amnesty Appeals calling to free prisoners of conscience and aid individuals at risk throughout the world. Our show, for example, was dedicated to Dhondup Wangchen of China, a documentary filmmaker serving six years in prison for making a film about Tibetan attitudes towards the Beijing Olympics and the Dalai Lama. Dhondup's trial was secret, and there was no information about the verdict, trial, or sentence. There is evidence that Dhondup has been tortured, and he is suffering from hepatitis B, for which he has not been treated.
My students and I were able to become activists that evening by signing postcards to be sent to the Chinese government calling for freedom for Dhondup Wangchen. We were also provided with the tools to engage with Amnesty International and human rights advocates. As the Prometheus Project hoped, the text, music, and movement of the production fused to create a work that aspires to social activism and inspires it through artistic collaboration.
All in all, this was an amazing evening for my students. Making connections with local theaters and theater groups is a great way to help students truly understand literature and the arts. In this case, the students also learned how to become activists and found out more about how they can make a true and meaningful difference in the world.
Students love mythology. Favorite Greek Myths is a great resource for bringing the gods and goddesses into your classroom, as is Greek Mythology Activities: Activities to Help Students Build Background Knowledge About Ancient Greece, Explore the Genre of Myths, and Learn Important Vocabulary. These books can lay the groundwork for understanding and connecting to Greek mythology.