Arts in the Schools

UH's Center for Creative Work Presents the Annual Dionysia Festival

As sad as it is to say, war is a huge part of the universal human experience that dates back all the way to the first relatively small social groups that our ancestors created. So, what could be a more relevant title for a festival that pulls together the ancient and the modern than "The City at War -- A Possession for All Time?"

The festival, hosted by the University of Houston's Center for Creative Work, features a new interpretation of Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War" by John Harvey, director of the CCW. The center is part of the Honors College and is focused on interdisciplinary arts and aesthetics.

The Dionysia traditionally shifts the ideas of an ancient Greek philosopher into the modern era by incorporating many of today's concerns and cultural references.

"For this Dionysia, I wanted to take on the interpretation of Thucydides' organization of the war as a tragedy. There's an idea that the writer's role in a war is to witness," Harvey said.

"I began to create these smaller poems, a lot of them sonnets, in the voice of Thucydides, but he's a Thucydides who isn't bound to a particular time. So, he's reading War and Peace or using his iPhone to check on Syracuse."

Thucydides was an Athenian historian and general during the Peloponnesian War, which was between the allies of Sparta and Athens in the 5th century B.C. His history is divided into eight books and is one of the first histories to present information in chronological order.

"I was struck by how these events occur in a lot of other works of literature, like the poems of Anna Akhmatova, Walt Whitman's poems on being an orderly in the Civil War, Wilfred Owens's poems on WWI and Albert Camus's The Plague," Harvey said.

"I began to bring those works in, so it became a play in line with Thucydides' contention that as long as human nature remains the same, you can read his work to know what happens in war."

Chanelle Benz, an adjunct professor in UH's English department, directs the production. It's an unusual play because the only characters are the traditional-style chorus. Hence, there is no conventional dialogue, only storytelling and commentary.

"I've done a lot of nontraditional work before, because my background is in experimental as well as classical theater, so this is really up my alley," Benz said.

"In my mind, I imagined the home of the chorus amongst the library or in an attic space, some kind of a magical haunted place for the people who survive atrocities and repeated warfare. The chorus plays at this game of haunted, maniacal ritual."

While it isn't as grotesque as some of Harvey's other works, the play presents many exaggerations of real tales that make caricatures of war.

"There's a scene about the hubris of the Athenians, and he mirrors that to the American Civil War when the crowds decided to go down and watch the battle of Bull Run. They took picnics. It turned out that they weren't going to win, so they tried to escape as the army was trying to escape, and they both got caught on a bridge. There's some dark humor like that," Benz said.

Because the play will be performed at a variety of venues, it wouldn't be practical to use a large, physical set. Guest artist Jonathan Harvey (yes, another, unrelated Harvey) created a soundscape for the performances, which is meant to be an aural set for the play.

"Chanelle was interested in waves and different ideas of waves, because that word appears often in the play. Jon has been working on creating a sound wash to create sounds that move in and out, something that will be an undercurrent through the whole show," Harvey said.

This is the seventh annual Dionysia, and the festival has come a long way from its beginnings. The first Dionysia only had one performance and didn't bring in outside artists for directing and choreography. However, as with ancient Greek festivals, it has always placed some emphasis on leaving the university and breaking out into the wider community.

"Since 2009, we've performed at the Wortham stage at UH, Freneticore, art galleries, and every year we do a production on top of Khon's in Midtown around dusk," Harvey said.

"Each production has been unique. For the future, we'll continue with the ancients and the Greeks, maybe moving into the Romans."

This year, the Dionysia introduces panel talks that address performance, the humanities, energy, the city and more.

"The panels will focus on distinct contemporary issues that come out of Thucydides. There are a number of scholars and writers that will talk about the role of writing in times of war and what Thucydides means for Houston and the United States in the 21st century. We have an energy panel with a former CEO of Shell and people who are in or write about the industry, and we'll talk about Houston's wealth in oil and energy," Harvey said.

"We want to continue these discussions into the future so that we actively bring together the city, the university, antiquity and the contemporary world in order to get discussions going."

The emphasis for the entire festival is the idea of war correspondence and bringing the stories of war home to the people.

"When you listen to people talk about having lived through war or hunger or oppression, they've seen things they can't un-see. There are people who carry forth these events and stories, and we need those people, because they don't pass through that telling unscarred. There's a cost to being the last one left, to having lost everything," Benz said.

Performances of "The City at War -- A Possession for All Time" are at 7:30 p.m. on April 17 in the Honors College Commons and April 22 at Khon's, 2808 Milam. Performances with panel discussions are as follows: Humanities and the City panel, 7:30 p.m. on April 18 at the Honors College Commons; Medicine and the City panel, 7 p.m. on April 20 at the UH Student Center Theater; Energy and the City panel, 7 p.m. on April 28 at the Student Center Theater. A storytelling session takes place on 5:30 p.m. on April 16 in the Honors College Commons, and a reading presented by the Aletheia journal is 7 p.m. on April 19 in the Honors College Commons. For more information, visit the CCW website.

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Alexandra Doyle