MYTH Today – A PER Fund Case Study (Part 2)

Paper beards: Zeus (left) and Prometheus (right)
Paper beards: Zeus (left) and Prometheus (right)

 

MYTH TODAY was a project that aimed to create, develop and produce a new play inspired by the Greek Myth of Pandora and it was informed by input from secondary schools pupils at Christopher Whitehead Language College. The project aimed to develop a form of participatory theatre where the audience lead the performance. To do this, a mix of Drama and Classical Civilisation students attended a workshop where they explored the source material and developed new and exciting themes around the myth, then we created a performance from the students’ ideas. We then returned to the College on 3rd July and performed the finished play to a wider cohort of students (those who attended the workshop, as well as some year 10 students who did not). The long term aims of this project are to develop a creative way of working that blends academic research, theatre making and educational practice. Below are reflections on the project from the researcher (Oonagh Pennington-Wilson), playwright (Matthew Gabrielli) and actor (Charis McRoberts).

 

Myth Today was an exciting opportunity to collaborate with a researcher, performer and students, to create a piece of drama that embraced theatre, academic research and educational practise. What makes theatre such an exciting medium is the opportunity to collaborate, to hear different voices and to walk in other people’s shoes, so to work with people with such a diverse range of experiences and expertise was something I was keen to explore.

 

Having completed the workshop with the students I then had the difficult task of taking the varied students responses to the story of Pandora and creating a new piece of drama that did their hard work and brilliant ideas justice. I went through the writing and artwork they made in the class, and compared with my own notes, and from this I was able to piece together a shape for a play. As I began writing I found returning to the students work for inspiration an interesting new way of producing work, every time I returned to them I found something new, a comment on the side of the page a drawing I hadn’t properly studied before. The work the students had made in a couple of hours was so open, adventurous and inventive, you really can’t underestimate the creativity of teenagers.

 

The play I wrote was told from Pandora’s point of view, trying to delve into what motivated her (something which is missing from the classical sources). I was particular interested in making Pandora as human as possible, I think one of the reasons audiences still love Greek Myth is the mixture of the epic and fantastical stories with such recognisable characters. We might not recognise the world of these characters live in but we understand them on an emotional level. I titled the play Pandora Unleashed, which is a play on the ancient Greek play Prometheus Unbound, it’s a play that makes Pandora the focus of the dramatic action, we get to see the story from her point of view, and get under the skin as to why we are still telling this story thousands of years after it was first told.

 

Having written the play and redrafted based on Oonagh’s notes we began to rehearse with Birmingham based actor Charis McRoberts. Charis was fantastic and brought new dimensions to the character; collectively we explored how to make this an engaging and exciting piece of theatre for young people. She found a way of capture the emotional weight of a woman who had damned the human race, but she balanced this with a playful sense of humour which I think made the character relatable to the students.

 

I wanted the play to have a homemade feel, partly because I really like work where you can still see the fingerprints as it were, I felt this was important because I wanted to show the students what could be done with little or no budget. Theatre is also a platform for our imaginations; sometimes work is more impactful the less it does. We created an aesthetic that was caught between the ancient and the modern, Pandora wore traditional Greek dress, but when playing Hermes she’d wear a bicycle helmet to represent him. When acting out the parts of Prometheus and Zeus, we made paper beards (inspired by students in the workshop) to represent both characters, this was one of my favourite parts of the performance as Charis switched from one to the other.

 

Pandora Unleashed was performed back at the school 2 months after the workshop. The performance was a success and the students engaged both with the play and after show discussion, if we could do it again I’d like to have a quicker turn around between the workshop and the performance, I think the students would have had a greater sense of ownership if they could have seen their ideas acted out whilst they were still fresh. I also think it could be fun to work on projects with more than one performer. This is also something that was suggested by a number of students in their feedback forms.

 

I’m really proud of Pandora Unleashed I think it’s an original and ambitious piece of theatre in education which brings classical studies to life, it’s a wonderful collaboration between theatre makers, researchers and students. I hope we have future opportunities to share this work with a wider audiences and to develop this unique form of theatre making.

 

I had an absolutely brilliant time working with MYTH TODAY on Pandora Unleased. The team (Matthew and Oonagh) were both incredibly professional throughout the process. I was welcomed with open arms and we collaborated and created a piece of theatre that I am very proud of and think the kids thoroughly enjoyed. Oonagh had a wealth of knowledge on Greek Mythology to help guide our creative process and choices as well as having a great eye for detail in terms of props and costume – she made a beautiful ancient Grecian dress that really added to the piece and helped build the world which we and the kids had created, one even mentioned the dress in the workshop session!

 

Matthew is an incredibly gifted writer who successfully merged his own ideas with the children’s imaginative approach to the myth. His direction was also clear, constructive and really supportive. His writing has a beautiful truthfulness about it, particularly surrounding the human condition. He made Pandora delightfully flawed which we as humans all are, this was very exciting to portray and also relatable for the kids.

 

I loved the mix of myth and modern day in the piece and it was also very fun and quirky using the paper beards to play other characters. We decided to keep the other characters in Pandora’s own voice and accent only changing pitch and quality to show that this is her version of events, her story that she might get carried away with, stretching the truth of what they actually said.

 

It was also interesting to come and join the team after they had completed the first workshop at the school. It left me wondering as I first read the play, which parts the kids had influenced and which ideas were Matthew’s. I felt the kids were really engaged throughout the performance. I didn’t quite get the audience interaction I had hoped for but they were a very polite, respectful and nice group. They fed back at the end that they really enjoyed the performance, which was lovely to hear after all our hard work.

 

This was my first one woman show, which was thrilling and yet quite nerve wrecking. There was a lot of text to learn and quite a bit of homework, research and learning that had to be done outside the rehearsal time, which was challenging but I do love a challenge and would do it again in a heartbeat! I would jump at the opportunity to work again with Myth Today as not only could I really see the effect and influence it had on the kids but I also really enjoyed working with such a great team and superb script.

 

I took on a number of roles while working on the MYTH TODAY project, including project coordinator and prop/costume designer. Yet my primary responsibility was as its researcher. Using elements of my current PhD research in performance trickery (in particular between audiences and performers: in Greek myth, classical old comedy, Roman satire and contemporary British stand-up), I was able to collaborate with the students, to explore the myth of Pandora from a new angle and with a contemporary twist. I was able to do this as the workshop facilitator.

 

Working on MYTH TODAY was a fantastic opportunity. Not only in gaining valuable public engagement experience (something I am keen to develop for my long term career goals), but it also allowed me to present themes of my research to a receptive audience and collaborate with creative individuals like Charis McRoberts and Matthew Gabrielli. Charis and Matthew were a pleasure to work with and I think we complemented each other’s resourcefulness in a variety of different ways (like props, costume, direction and content). I am also very grateful to University of Birmingham for giving us the rehearsal space every time we needed it and to the PER Funders for seeing the potential in this project and helping us make it a reality. Finally, I would like to thank Simon Beasley and the students at Christopher Whitehead School, for working with us on this ambitious project.

 

Simon Beasley gave us some very positive feedback, stating that he was happy with how the workshop offered familiar and challenging material, how it offered different perspectives of the Pandora myth and the relaxed way we mix academic study with creative practice. Simon gave us 9/10 for the workshop and wrote in his feedback ‘I thought it was really good. A 4hr workshop is not easy to put together and this held their focus the whole time’. Simon also gave us 10/10 for the performance, for which he wrote that ‘I think the story has legs and so I would like to see the concept developed further’. We were very happy with these results, especially as this was the first time we have delivered it to a school. Simon gave us a lot of support throughout and his feedback will be instrumental to the future of this project.

 

The students were wonderful (both at the workshop and at the performance) and we are very grateful for their participation throughout. At the workshop (out of 29 evaluation forms) the students found the following most interesting:

 

Learning about the classical world: 72%

Learning about women in Greek myth: 51%

Creative writing: 51%

Learning about Greek Drama: 44%

Being able to explore my own ideas: 75%

Learning about storytelling: 58%

Knowing my ideas will contribute to a new piece of drama: 55%

 

We also had students state that they enjoyed making costumes, exploring the story circle technique (made popular by screenwriter, Dan Harmon1) and drawing their own interpretations. Not only that, but we also received very positive feedback with quotes like: ‘It was amazing and very educational’, ‘The activities were really fun and I learnt a lot’, ‘It was interesting to learn about the things that were different to what I thought’ and ‘It was fun because I enjoyed learning about Greek mythology’. We also had some invaluable feedback that suggested that we could make the workshop shorter, more active, offer more verity in myths and use drama activities. We will consider these for future workshops.

 

At the performance, we collected 39 evaluation forms that stated they found the following  most interesting:

 

Seeing a professional actor: 58%

Seeing my ideas brought to life: 25%

Learning about Pandora: 79%

Using myth to explore modern ideas: 58%

 

Students also offered additional example such as: bringing Pandora to life with link to other myths and her backstory, the way ideas were portrayed, the way Pandora’s personality was performed, the explanation of Pandora’s Jar (not box) and the use of the beards. The mixture of students who attended the workshop and students who were engaging with the project for the first time, meant that we were able to get a much wider perspective of how students could engage with MYTH TODAY. We were very pleased with the overall response from students, which included the following quote:

‘I would [not] change anything, the fact that it was one person and one set of props made it very interesting and smooth to watch’

 

Some students suggested that we use a second actor in the future, as well as make it more interactive and be more subtle with themes. Again, these suggestions will come in very helpful as we develop MYTH TODAY. Going forward we hope that we can develop the style of project and we would like to roll it out to more schools. We would also like to use the formula to explore other myths from classical civilisations. In the future we hope to obtain more funding so we can work with a broader selection of creatives.

 

Myth Today was a fantastic project which helped bring my research to members of the public; it was entertaining, engaging and educational. The long term implications of this type of work are a new creative way of working which blends theatre, academic research and educational practice.

 

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Harmon

MYTH TODAY was 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.