Drama brings philosophy to life in Humanities Lab summer research projects

L.A. Cicero Corby Kelly and James Henderson Collins combine ancient pedagogy with technological innovation

James Henderson Collins, left, and Corby Kelly combine ancient pedagogy with technological innovation in a research project that uses dramatic arts to teach philosophy to high school students and undergraduates.

To the ancients, the art of living was, at heart, a public performance.

That conviction is central to Philosophical Stages, an interdisciplinary research project experimenting with using dramatic arts to teach philosophy to Bay Area high school students and Stanford undergraduates. The project, one of more than 20 sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Lab, is directed by James Henderson Collins and Corby Kelly, both advanced doctoral students in the Classics Department.

Over the past two summers the project has brought dozens of students to campus to take part in a three-week-long workshop that combined instruction in aspects of theater arts by professional actors with the study of classical texts. The workshop culminated in a July 29 performance in Wallenberg Hall, where students combined adaptations of classic Greek plays with staged reflections on their own real-life dilemmas against a backdrop of projected slides.

Sophocles and Aeschylus would most likely find that high-tech setting more familiar than a typical philosophy classroom, where their texts are presented more as carved-in-stone compilations of ideas and logical propositions than as dynamic models for living a good life, Collins and Kelly contend.

To the Greeks and the Romans, they argue, philosophy was as much about action as it was about thought. A truly classical approach to philosophy "turns arguments about how one should live life into a life lived," Collins said. Theater and performance were not supplemental pedagogy in Athens and Rome but the primary means for exploring and shaping character, he said.

Young Greek and Roman men learned to be citizens through declamation and attending Greek tragedies, said Kelly, who also is an actor. His credits include the role of Caligula in the 2004 campus production Caligula Dismembered. "Philosophy was the public performance of wisdom," Kelly said.

A classical liberal education included experimenting with the way one speaks, walks, dances, dialogues and deports oneself, Collins said. "The ancients called it the 'art of living‚' and they tirelessly worked at this art. It is the key to determining and becoming the person you want to be. If you work on that, it spills over into everything."

The approach also expands students' understanding of literary and historical characters, Kelly said.

Students use acting techniques to draw more vivid portraits of historical and literary characters and to then embody the characters themselves. Imagining themselves as Agamemnon or Clytemnestra helps students bridge the distance between themselves and ancient kings and queens facing dilemmas of epic proportions. "As actors, when we prepare for a role, we have to find something in ourselves in the character in order to make it credible," Kelly said. "We put our beliefs in dialogue with the character."

Putting oneself in someone else's shoes as a means toward growth can provide tools to students who are pushing against boundaries, Collins said. It's challenging, he said. The first time he and undergraduate students presented themselves as Socrates, "we could hardly look each other in the eye. This stuff takes time."

In an era of declining enrollments in the humanities, the project is focused on making classics and philosophy "relevant, accessible and functional," Collins said. "Young people need to know that classics is not just learning declensions—although that too can be very exciting.

"When we introduce high school students and undergraduates to this art, they get fired up about classics, about ancient tragedy and ethics, about Plato and Epicurus, and some of them even get excited about learning Latin," he added. "Suddenly, people want to try their hand at being 'classical.'"

The student workshops and an undergraduate class, Acting Socratic, taught by Collins and Kelly, also make use of a wiki, a collaboratively authored online website. The wiki makes it possible for learning to continue outside the walls of the classroom by expanding the physical space, Kelly said.

He and Collins are convinced that people are hungry for spaces and strategies that foster effective personal communication, particularly in the digital age, which promotes anonymity, Kelly said. The wiki, which keeps students engaged with one another while they are apart, ultimately aims at a dramatic project for which students must be intellectually and physically present, Collins said.

Despite the technological differences, contemporary culture has much in common with ancient ones, Collins noted.

"The world of the Greeks and Romans was imperfect, and those imperfections are much like our own. People were disenfranchised. Communities struggled with tyrannical elements, failed at dialogue, struggled with war and its aftermath. But in the midst of this strife, tragic poets could put the fall of virtue on stage, comic poets could parody the failures of the citizenry, lovers of wisdom could take a public stand against corruption and propose a new kind of education," he said. "Theater and public performance is one way for citizens to produce and witness just acts, to remind themselves of what justice is."

Philosophy is taking the time and finding the courage and patience to examine and organize our most basic assumptions and ways of thinking," Collins said. "This philosophy is something we all can do and naturally want to do."

A description of the project and examples of student work can be found at http://philosophicalstages.org/.