Ancient Theater at the Getty

Kenneth Hamma
Associate Curator, Antiquities
J Paul Getty Museum

This autumn the J. Paul Getty Museum with the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television will present two ancient comedies: Menander's, The Woman from Samos and Plautus' Casina. Both will be presented in English translation at 7:30 pm on October 14-16, 20-23 and 27-30. The performance on October 20 will be signed for the hearing impaired. Tickets are $35 and will be available beginning 10:00 a.m. on September 13 exclusively through the Ticketmaster Arts Line in Los Angeles (213) 365-3500; TDD line for the hearing--impaired (310) 394-7448. Tickets will not be available at the Museum.

The plays, which will be cast late in August, are being directed by Michael Hackett. The production is being managed by Daniel Ionazzi at the UCLA Department of Theater. J. Michael Walton and Richard Beacham, who have provided the translations of the comedies will also serve as dramaturges for this production. Walton's translation of The Woman from Samos was published this year in Aristophanes and Menander, New Comedy by Methuen Drama. Music for the choral interludes, indicated in the stage directions of the plays, is being composed by Nathan Birnbaum.

During the months of October, November and December of this year the museum will host a loan exhibition of ancient art co- sponsored by the Cleveland Museum of Art entitled A Passion for Antiquities. The exhibition will include about 200 objects from the collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. Because of their interest in theater, their collection contains a good number of objects based on or evocative of ancient theater: vase paintings of phlyax plays, and actors and masks in stone, bronze and terracotta. The early planning for this exhibition happened to coincide with a visit by Richard Beacham to the museum whose interests in Roman comedy and in Roman stage construction initially suggested the presentation of comedies with the exhibition.

The Museum's commitment to the presentation and interpretation of Greek and Roman art for a diverse and broad contemporary audience is particularly well served through theatrical presentations of ancient drama. The poetry and the material remains of those civilizations are two of our primary means of access to understanding them, and though the conjunction of text and object may seem an obvious one it is not often found outside the scholarly community today. We were surprised two years ago by the strong demand for a long dramatic reading of sections of Homer's Odyssey. The Wanderings of Odysseus, Oliver Taplin's translation of about a quarter of Homer's text, sold out all performances in less than half an a hour of tickets going on sale. The success of the production was measured finally against the museum's fundamental purposes. On the one hand, the larger program supported by the museum's collections and education department extended the theater experience by providing focused access to related objects in the collection. On the other, the emotional and intellectual content of the theatrical experience provided new impetus for exploring the collections to museum regulars and to thousands of new visitors.

But good ideas do not always come to fruition. Only with the strong support of the administration and with the inexhaustible cooperation of numerous museum departments, in particular Public Information, Engineering and Security, are we able to present these comedies. For although the museum, modeled on the Villa dei Papyri, provides an ideally evocative setting from the moment one enters the lower gate, it is only with a great effort converted to a functional setting for performers and audience. Two years ago Wanderings of Odysseus proved the worth of the effort, and some moments in particular, as when the Pacific fog rolled in over the roof of the peristyle one evening while Athena cloaked Odysseus in an obscuring cloud for his stroll with Nausicaa. The museum, however, was neither designed nor built with theater in mind and nearly every functional aspect provided its own difficulties: finding sufficient electricity to power the lighting designer's instruments, redesigning space for green rooms, removing and replacing plants and outdoor sculpture to make room for sets and sight-lines. And the museum's public schedule severely constricted the time available for load-in of the set and construction, for teching light and sound, and most importantly for the actors' rehearsal in the space. With an unexpected wealth of good will and forbearance from all quarters no difficultly proved insuperable. One lesson, however, became very clear: with slight modifications public buildings such as museums and libraries, where one might expect to present readings or plays, could be much more accommodating to that end.

The museum's objectives in this activity fall into two general categories. One, already mentioned, is directed toward the general public, both to provide more of the Greek and Roman context for those interested in our collections, and to provide new access for those who may not have had any previous interest in or contact with the museum. For this and for other reasons one goal is to deliver good theater with suggestions for how that experience can be expanded into an exploration of other surviving parts of the ancient world. Whatever that means in a specific instance, it generally means trying to balance the conventions of contemporary theater and an audience's expectations with the demands and purposes of ancient comedy and tragedy. It also means a solid effort at education with related programs in the galleries and outside the museum for local schools and other interested groups.

The other array of objectives is directed toward the professional theater and academic communities. The museum hopes to provide one venue, among the many others, where scholars, actors, students, professional directors and producers, and others can participate in presenting Greek and Roman theater and discuss its virtues and compromises. In this the museum's most productive role is that of facilitator, devising a situation in which these productions can happen but allowing as much autonomy as possible for directors, actors, dramaturges, designers, and production managers to formulate their rules for translating texts and theatrical values and in that process to recreate antiquity for modern senses.

Anyone who has done this knows the odds of success and the insights along the way that make the risk worth taking. For the production of Wanderings of Odysseus two years ago, Oliver Taplin of Magdalen College translated the text and participated as dramaturge, Rush Rehm of Stanford University directed and the Mark Taper Forum / Center Theater Group of Los Angeles provided casting services and production management. From the outset there were a number of grave concerns from all corners, but none more palpable than the actors' apprehension at having an Oxford don watch over their first efforts with Homer's text. When one actor advanced the impossibility of delivering a line as Taplin had translated it and suggested an alternative, we all had a renewed sense of the importance of recitation and memory and perhaps a false sense of kinship with the Bronze Age as Taplin, after consulting the Greek text, accepted the emendation as capturing the sense and intent even better.

The current production of comedies has Michael Hackett as director, and the translators again as dramaturges. Production, however, is being managed by Daniel Ionazzi of the Department of Theater at UCLA and being built in their shop. Since Hackett is also at UCLA this production will involve students working with professionals in many aspects, from chorus members to designers and production assistants. And there will likely be many additional opportunities for cooperation between the production and educational activities at UCLA and the Getty. The set for the comedies, unlike the simple platforms used for Wanderings, will be a significant aspect of the production. The stage and scenery are based directly on what we know of the ancient Roman set as discerned in Roman wall paintings. Although most paintings thought to contain theatrical elements are difficult to interpret, some recently discovered are easier and more suggestive for reconstructions such as paintings in the House of Augustus in Rome and in the Villa of Oplontis near Pompeii. And where possible, objects in the Fleischman collection will be used as sources for aspects of design.

In 1997 the Getty Center, currently under construction in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, is scheduled to open. From now until then the museum will be in a certain state of transformation and preoccupied with the deinstallation, movement and reinstallation of collections. Although the collection of Greek and Roman art will remain in the current museum building in Malibu, it too will have to be reinstalled to occupy all of the galleries after a period of construction with changes being made to the building and grounds. Because of this the museum will severely curtail its public activities for the duration, and we do not expect to offer any theatrical productions after the Menander and Plautus until 1998 at the soonest.

Kenneth Hamma