The American Repertory Theater and Harvard University are among four universities and five performing arts organizations — all of them in former Union or Confederate territory — teaming up for an ambitious project inspired by the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
The National Civil War Project, a collaboration spurred by choreographer Liz Lerman, features newly commissioned works for the stage as well as discussions between academics and artists. The sesquicentennial of the war’s beginning in 1861 has already passed, but the project, being announced Thursday in Washington, D.C., is intended to last through 2015, 150 years after the war’s end.
The ART is developing three Civil War-related pieces. Jim and Ruth Bauer, creators of “The Blue Flower,” which opened at the ART in 2010, are working on “War Dept.,” a new music theater piece likely to run there in the 2014-15 season. Director Steven Bogart, who helmed the Amanda Palmer “Cabaret” at the ART’s Oberon in 2010, is developing “The Boston Abolitionists,” an ensemble piece that centers on the trial of fugitive Anthony Burns. Matt Aucoin, a 2012 Harvard University graduate and an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, is composing an opera focused on Walt Whitman’s role as a medic during the war. (Matt Aucoin is the son of Globe drama critic Don Aucoin, who does not cover the ART.)
The project also includes Arena Stage and George Washington University in Washington, D.C.; Center Stage in Baltimore and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park; and, in Atlanta, Alliance Theatre and the Emory College Center for Creativity & Arts at Emory University.
Lerman’s recent residency at Harvard led to her recruiting the ART to take part.
“The more we talked with her, it seemed like a tremendously exciting opportunity,” said Diane Borger, the ART’s producer and interim managing director. “Theaters don’t always work cross-theater and cross-community. When we moved the conversations to artists and professors, everybody became incredibly taken with the idea.”
Though the announcement came Thursday, the ART began holding roundtables with scholars last May. These included discussions on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” war wounds, and, just last week, Civil War painting and reenactments. The idea in holding the roundtables, which are not open to the public, has been to create relationships between artists and academics who otherwise might not cross paths.
For example, John Stauffer, a Harvard professor of English with a specialty in the Civil War, met the Bauers at one of the talks. They’ve since gone out to dinner and also traded notes. Stauffer has sent the Bauers reference material to help in their research for “War Dept.,” which is set in Ford’s Theatre. In turn, Jim Bauer sent Stauffer a pair of songs he wrote for the work in progress. During a recent class, Stauffer played one of those songs for the students.
“I love the way in which the ART has reached out to multiple groups and multiple people to create these dialogues and conversations,” said Stauffer. “That kind of forum is unfortunately very rare. I think scholars have a lot to learn from artists and artists have a lot to learn from scholars.”
The ART isn’t sure when the works will be staged — they’re still being developed — though the 2014-15 season is a likely spot, according to Ryan McKittrick, the theater’s dramaturg and director of artistic programs.
“You never know for sure what you’ve got until you start making it, but we’re interested in changing the way art is conceived and commissioned,” said McKittrick. “We’re hoping by putting artists with professors, with experts, with wide ranges of people, it might generate a new way of generating work.”
The Civil War Project is, for now, being paid for by each participating institution. The ART does plan to apply for grants for the works it’s producing, Borger said.
Lerman, the legendary choreographer who founded the Dance Exchange and was a recipient of a 2002 MacArthur Fellowship, known as a “genius” grant, did not make big promises when discussing her hopes for the project in a phone interview this week.
She said she doesn’t know how significant the works emerging will be, though she’s eager to see what the companies and institutions come up with. Her hope is that, through the work produced, the public will be reminded of the relevance of a 150-year-old event.
“I’ve been thinking more and more of the civil wars that are raging and I was thinking, as an American, that they’re so far away,” said Lerman. “We have a chance to renew our awareness and the fact that these wounds, though we try to heal them ourselves, they come back. I just thought maybe we’d have a chance to have more compassion and understanding of what’s happening around us. What we do with that, I don’t know.”