Over the past three seasons, the American Repertory Theater has commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Civil War by developing new work that reexamines this critical moment in our nation’s history. Through a series of roundtable discussions, readings, and world premiere productions, this initiative has explored not only the Civil War itself, but also the ways in which that conflict continues to resonate in our lives today.
Since 2012, the A.R.T. has been a part of The National Civil War Project, a multi-year, multi-city collaboration among five performing arts organizations and four leading universities: A.R.T. and Harvard; Alliance Theatre and Emory College Center for Creativity & Arts at Emory University in Atlanta, GA; Arena Stage and The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.; Center Stage in Baltimore, MD; and The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, MD.
Inspired by choreographer Liz Lerman (who was in residence at Harvard in 2011 to develop her own Civil War dance project, Healing Wars), The National Civil War Project brought together a range of artistic and academic voices with the goal of commissioning new work that speaks to the themes of the Civil War and civil strife as it continues today.
As the professional theater at Harvard University, the A.R.T. is in a unique position to explore the ways in which artistic innovation and scholarly research can inform each other. Guided by Harvard President Drew Faust’s idea that the arts should play a central role in the cognitive life of the university, the A.R.T. convened a series of Civil War roundtable discussions that brought scholars from Harvard and beyond into dialogue with directors, choreographers, writers, composers, and performers, with the goal of generating public dialogues, readings, and productions at the A.R.T., and new courses in the university curriculum. The first roundtable, a conversation co-hosted by the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, explored Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Subsequent roundtables focused on “Medicine, Weaponry, War Wounds, and The Soldier’s Body,” and “Documenting the Civil War through Photography, Letters, Memoir, and Painting,” a discussion cohosted by the Harvard Art Museums.
The National Civil War Project is supported, in part, by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
World Premiere Productions:
Futurity: A Musical by The Lisps, an indie-rock, sci-fi musical about a Union soldier who collaborates with the mathematician Ada Lovelace to end war. (Mar. - Apr. 2012, OBERON)
The Boston Abolitionists Project, an ensemble-devised piece about the trial of fugitive slave Anthony Burns, featuring the A.R.T. Institute Class of 2013. (May 2013, The Ex)
Crossing, an opera written and composed by Matthew Aucoin (Harvard '12), inspired by the journal Walt Whitman kept as a nurse during the Civil War. Directed by Diane Paulus. (May - June 2015, Citi Shubert Theatre)
New Work Developed:
War Dept., a musical by Ruth and Jim Bauer (co-creators of The Blue Flower A.R.T. 2011/12 Season) set in Ford’s Theater after the assassination of President Lincoln. War Dept. was selected to be part of the 2014 National Music Theater Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.
A reading of a new play by Timothy Patrick McCarthy
Four Harriets chronicles the personal, political, and literary lives of four abolitionist women: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Wilson, Harriet Jacobs, and Harriet Tubman. Set between 1850, the year Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, and the eve of the Civil War, Four Harriets brings to life the drama of the final decade of the antebellum era. Against the backdrop of fierce debates over the abolition of slavery and women’s rights, as well as the threat of secession and impending war, the play explores the literary conflicts that emerged between the nation’s most famous white woman novelist (Stowe) and two lesser known black women writers (Wilson and Jacobs), and the political conflicts that exploded between more moderate artists like Stowe and more radical activists like Tubman, with Wilson and Jacobs caught somewhere in the middle. Inspired by rich archival sources from the period, and infused with touches of irreverent humor, Four Harriets blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction to explore the nation’s most ancient and enduring conflicts–of race, gender, class, and region–at the intersection of American history, literature, and politics. The reading of Four Harriets has been postponed to the Fall of 2015.
New Work Devised and Produced by the A.R.T. Community Connections Program:
The Proclamation Project, a collaborative creative writing/performance intensive for local high school students, who draw inspiration from the Civil War and other themes and events from American history. The inaugural July 2013 workshop was simultaneously conducted with the Alliance Theatre's Collision Project, a program for Atlanta-area teens. Each week, via Skype, both groups shared their process and exchanged ideas on the legacy of the Civil War in America. Proclamation 2 (Nov. 2014) was inspired by themes of rebellion, protest culture, and radicalism. The group of students used The Radical Reader as their source text and worked with A.R.T. artists and Harvard University Professor Timothy Patrick McCarthy to devise a new piece. Proclamation 2 premiered at OBERON and focused on an Occupy Wall Street-style protest that asked the question, "Will you join up or will you turn away?"
New Courses at Harvard University:
“History and Literature 90x: Staging the Civil War—From the Archive to the A.R.T.” This new seminar taught by Harvard University Professor Timothy Patrick McCarthy will explore how contemporary playwrights and composers are using historical and literary stories to find creative ways to stage the American Civil War on the occasion of its sesquicentennial. (Spring 2015)
“Dramatic Arts 105: Production Dramaturgy and A.R.T. Civil War Project” This seminar taught by A.R.T. Director of Artistic Programs/Dramaturg Ryan McKittrick will give students opportunities to engage dramaturgically with work in The National Civil War Project. (Spring 2015)
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, leading to new courses at Harvard University and new readings, workshops, and productions on the A.R.T. stages.
“All the Way: The Civil Rights Act from 1964 to Today,” a conversation moderated by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, during the run of Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, a play about LBJ and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Co-hosted by the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research and the A.R.T. (Sept. 23, 2013)
“All the Way?: The Unfinished Struggle for Civil Rights,” a conversation with playwright Robert Schenkkan, Harvard Law School Professor Lani Guinier, Tufts University Professor Peniel E. Joseph and Harvard University Chief Diversity Officer Lisa Coleman. (Oct. 22, 2014)* - VIDEO
“Fighting for Freedom: The Civil War and Its Legacies,” Harvard University Professor Timonthy Patrick McCarthy in conversation with Suzan-Lori Parks, playwright, Father Comes Home From the Wars; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University; and Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. (Feb. 8, 2015, following the 2:00PM matinee of Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3))* - VIDEO
"Crossing: A Lecture/Recital," A recital and discussion with Matthew Aucoin (Harvard '12) about Crossing, his new opera inspired by the journals and poetry of Walt Whitman, premiering this May at the American Repertory Theater. Aucoin will address the concept of "crossing" as both transcendence and transgression, in relationship to poetry, music, and history. He will be joined by Davone Tines (Harvard '09), one of the performers in Crossing. Presented by the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard. (Thursday, Mar. 12, 6:00PM, Paine Hall, Music Building, 1 Oxford Street).
* These conversations are part of The A.R.T. of Human Rights, a collaboration between the A.R.T. and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, directed and hosted by Harvard University Professor Timothy Patrick McCarthy, and supported by a project grant from Mass Humanities. Upcoming discussions include: “Our Bondage, Our Freedom: Abolishing Modern-Day Slavery,” and “With Malice Toward None: Wounded Warriors and the Future of Peace.”