NEW YORK — Ismene rushes in late after commuting by bus from her job at a hotel in New Jersey. Clytemnestra's baby often arrives with her and sleeps through rehearsals. Tiresias must leave early to jump in a taxi and hurry to his job as a night doorman on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
But nothing dampens the spirits of the members of the LaGuardia Community College Theatre Ensemble as they prepare to offer their fellow students a double-header evening of Greek tragedy: "Antigone" and "Electra," presented together at only $3 a seat.
Greek tragedy may seem an odd choice for a college like LaGuardia. Located under the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge in a solidly blue-collar neighborhood of Queens, the school caters largely to older students who work and must shoehorn academics in around their need to earn a living. More than half of the 11,000 students were not born in the United States, and 92 percent of those who entered the school in the fall of 1998 required some remedial course work.
Such statistics raise the question: Might not something a little more basic, a bit more contemporary, and considerably more urban, work better?
Certainly not, says Philip Lerman, associate professor of humanities at LaGuardia and founder of the Theatre Ensemble. "Modern plays tend to be more topical, built more around a particular event. These are larger plays that teach larger lessons," Professor Lerman says. "Students understand things from the canon because the ethical problems they treat remain true to life."
The Western canon, newly multicultural
Lerman's decided five years ago to form a theater company that would offer students hands-on exposure to serious works of drama. So far the group has produced four plays by Shakespeare, and it is now embarking on Greek tragedy, joining a larger movement at various schools across the US. After a couple of decades of academic soul-searching in which many schools backed away from too much focus on the works of "dead white European males," some educators say there is now a resurgence of interest in core courses focusing on the more challenging thinkers and writers of the Western canon.
For some of Lerman's students, contact with the Greco-Roman world is a detour they never expected to make, but now say they are deeply grateful not to have missed. Alcide Salce, a personal trainer who came to LaGuardia to pick up a few courses in nutrition, is enthusiastically playing the role of Orestes in "Electra." Mr. Salce expresses amazement at the notion that students like himself might prefer a contemporary play to one by Euripides. "The fact that it's written 2,500 years ago makes it more interesting, not less," he insists.
He is also impatient at the notion that Hispanic literature might hold greater appeal to him. "Look, that's like saying that all I want to learn is 2 + 2," he says. "I want to learn everything."
Lerman says when he first told his colleagues at LaGuardia that he was forming a theater group and expected its first production to be Shakespeare's "Macbeth," "I got a lot of raised eyebrows and people saying things like, 'Good luck.' "
A passion for the message
But Lerman's idea flourished. The plays he presents are extracurricular activities and students receive no credit for participating, but that doesn't seem to lessen their commitment. Many of those who first signed up knew little or nothing about Shakespeare or Sophocles, but for some their works have become a passion.
"I had read Shakespeare before, but until I acted in the plays I didn't really understand him," says Heidi Arauz, a former nursing student who played Lady MacBeth in Lerman's first production and is now taking the role of Ismene in 'Antigone.' "The language can be complicated at first, but when you get into it, you realize the message is simple, something everybody can relate to, about things that happen to everybody." Ms. Arauz's son began working with the group as well when he was only 10 years old, taking the roles of extras in different productions, and she says today Shakespeare is a love they share. They have both gone back and read some of the original plays, and have enjoyed watching some of the film versions together.
Like several of the students in this year's production, Arauz graduated from the college a couple of years ago but continues to participate in the plays. Actors and crew members this year include past and present students, college faculty and staff, and a number of people who live in the neighborhood but have no official connection to the school.
Lerman says he's delighted by the mix of participants. "What's more apt than a community theater in a community college?" he asks.
All the plays the group has performed have relied on heavily adapted versions by Lerman. Some of the actors say they'd prefer to work with more of the original language, but others insist that the adapted versions have made their involvement possible.
Salce says the simplified, modern versions written by Lerman helped ease him into the unfamiliar world of Greek tragedy. Since then, however, he's become so intrigued that he's gone back and read translations of Sophocles and Euripides that are closer to the original.
"These works wouldn't have come into my life otherwise," he says. "But they teach such great lessons."
If other students don't relate to them, maybe that's the fault of their teachers, he suggests. "Teachers should take more initiative. If they feel it's not relevant, make it relevant," he says. "Look at what Phil Lerman has done."
Lerman says he doesn't worry about his adaptations harming the material, but neither does he take credit for the pleasure his students have found in the works. In both cases, he says, the material speaks for itself.
"I edit the productions much as they do in the movies," he admits. "But it doesn't destroy Shakespeare because you can't destroy Shakespeare."
And as for the magic the material has worked for the students, Lerman says, "A lot of education is discovery. What the students are experiencing here is simply the joy of discovery."
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