MYTH Today – a PER Fund Case Study (Part 1)

Dress rehearsal with Charis
Dress rehearsal with Charis

MYTH TODAY is funded by the University of Birmingham PER (Public Engagement with Research) team and is a collaboration between the award-winning playwright and director, Matthew Gabrielli and PhD candidate, Oonagh Pennington-Wilson. Oonagh is based at the University of Birmingham, where her research explores performance trickery within ancient Greek mythology, classical theatre and Roman satire and then compares these ancient sources to contemporary stand-up comedy. She is also a workshop facilitator, providing creative and engaging outreach projects both through the University of Birmingham and other heritage sites. In 2013 Oonagh won The Eric Morten Award, presented by The Blackden Trust for her contribution to the Trust’s future and in 2017 she was nominated for a teaching award from the University of Birmingham.

MYTH TODAY is a project that aims to create, develop and produce a new play inspired by the Greek Myth of Pandora and is informed by seed input from secondary school pupils. The concept flips the traditional Theatre in Education (T.I.E) model on its head (normally with T.I.E. the work is developed with professional artists, toured to schools, followed by a workshop with students). In Myth Today, Oonagh’s workshop with students is the starting point for the creative process. Matthew will then write and direct a play with a professional actor using the young people’s ideas, before returning to deliver the co-created piece for the students to see and respond to.

The performance will be participant-led, with the student audience deciding the direction of the piece. Audience interaction is major theme within Oonagh’s research and we hope that this method will also be a more creative way of exploring the ideas in the myth, as well as giving the students a greater sense of ownership of the work. We pitched the idea of MYTH TODAY to Simon Beasley a teacher at Christopher Whitehead Language School, who felt it would be the perfect project to do with his year 9 students. This is an exciting project that aims to open up classical studies to the creative blend of academic research, theatre-making and educational practice.

 

THE MYTH

We chose the myth of Pandora because we felt it was filled with many potent themes that are relevant to young people, such as: the role of women in society (then and now), as well as exploring themes of curiosity and creativity. We also noticed that the ancient texts on Pandora were limited in how they represented the mythic figure, unlike other classical figures, who stories were repeatedly retold in poetry, plays and art. Importantly, none of the Pandora retellings (that we are aware of) are from her point of view. This is despite the fact that the myth remains very popular with and familiar to contemporary audiences. Oonagh is also interested in how the myth has evolved over time, and was keen to give the students ancient sources to explore what was different between the story they know and the original source material. The myth is also a set text for GCSE Classical Civilisation so we hoped by picking this story we would be laying the ground work for students who felt inspired to take this as one of their GCSE choices.

 

THE WORKSHOP

On 16th May 2019, we visited a class of year 9 students at Christopher Whitehead School in Worcester, which was made up of classical civilisation and drama students. We looked at the myth of Pandora and explored how ancient writers had chosen to tell the tale (such as: Hesiod, Pseudo-Apollodorus and Pausanias), as well display examples of possible ancient images of the myth. Then through a series of interactive activities the students (in groups) created their own versions of Pandora. We also got students to come up with their own questions for Pandora and asked them to swap with another group, so that they could answer each other’s questions in their respective versions of Pandora. This was a great moment of dialogue and collaboration between groups.

We also explored ideas of storytelling and compared ancient myths to contemporary cinema. A big part of Oonagh’s research is comparison and it was an eye opening workshop for everyone finding the similarities between Greek myth and films such as The Avengers, Shrek and The Hunger Games. We also got the young people to write and draw what they imagine the evils from Pandora’s Jar may look like and we saw some very entertaining responses: from WWE wrestlers to politicians, as well as big issues like social media, addiction, disease and war.

We also asked students to give their opinions throughout and at the beginning and end of the workshop we asked them to vote on the question ‘Is Pandora responsible for releasing evil into the world?’

The workshop was a long morning (4 hours) and in hindsight this was probably a bit too much for the students. If we were to do this project again, we would probably try a 2 hour workshop, but the work created by the students was incredible. There were some very imaginative takes on Pandora and the myth, which will feed into Matthew’s writing process. We are now in the process of rehearsing for the final performance, written by Matthew and performed by Charis McRoberts. We look forward to showing the finished piece to the students and Simon Beasley at Christopher Whitehead Language School.