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Click to Teach/Click to Learn: Theatre History Detective- the Dramaturgy Project

In this lesson you will learn how to become a theatre history detective, otherwise known as a dramaturg, in order to research and create lobby displays and program notes that will instantly transport your audience to the world of the play.  To do this, you will need to explore dramaturgy and learn how a dramaturg researches a play and why.  Next, you'll research Greek Theatre and the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus,  then apply your learning to create a compelling virtual lobby display and program notes for a production of Act I, Scene I, in which the watchman sounds the alarm- King Agamemnon is coming home! 

Step 1: Get Inspired

What is dramaturgy?  What is a dramaturg?  Dramaturgy can be defined as applying specific research and study to support and inform the creation of theatrical work.  Mostly however, it is all about becoming a detective, tracking down clues that will bring to life the world of the play and help communicate it's meaning.  Dramaturgs serve as theatre historians and researchers supporting a production.  They contribute to the creative concept by researching everything from how this particular play has been produced in the past, to details about the correct props or costume items for the chosen historical time period, to the play's and historical and cultural connections. 

Dramaturgs need to be ready to answer questions like:

How did people serve tea in 19th century Russia?
What illness might have made Tiny Tim lame? 
How did other productions stage this play? 
What was life like for women in ancient Greece?
Was there really a King Arthur in the history of the UK?

Watch this video as Dramaturg Dassai Posner of Northwestern University talks about her work and how exciting it is to track down the puzzles she encounters when working on a production. 

Learn how a dramaturg deeply embedded in the creation of Hadestown, helped make the production a Broadway hit.  Read "Evolution of Hadestown" by Matthew Wexler, available on Dramatics.org by clicking on the image below.  A fascinating story to inspire you!    


Step 2: Understand the Play

For this lesson we are imagining that you are the dramaturg for a small theatre group and you have been asked to support a production of the first scene of the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus which will be performed as part of a series of scenes illustrating the history of theatre.  Your job will be to complete the research needed to create the lobby display and program notes that will instantly tell the audience what they will experience once the scene starts.    If you were an actual dramaturg, you would need to read the entire play, even if you were only asked to work on Act I - Scene 1.  For purposes of this introduction- you will only be asked to view a video summary of the play, but you must read the entire scene.  Be sure to take notes for your dramaturgy notebook.

Step 3: Learn about Greek Theatre

Next, you will need to know a little bit about Greek Theatre.  Watch this video from the  UK's National Theatre to get started. The director wants to stage the play using some of the techniques used in ancient Greece, so be sure to take careful notes on what you are seeing.    

What might your director, your designer or your cast need to know to stage the production as authentically as possible?   
What might your audience need to know?
Start thinking ahead to the information you will want to include in your program notes. 

Step 4: Imagining the Possibilities

As suggested in the video from Northwestern University- a good starting point for your research will be to learn about other productions of the play.  Compare and contrast these two productions - one performed in Greece in an outdoor theatre, much as it would have been in ancient times, the other a more contemporary production directed by Peter Hall.  You are required to watch only Act I - Scene 1, from the opening speech by the watchman until Queen Clytemnestra arrives.  

In the opening scene, we see a street in Agamemnon's kingdom, just outside of the castle.  All of the young men of the kingdom have sailed off to war with Troy, leaving only the women, children and men too old to fight.  The war has raged on for ten years.  With no method of communication available, Queen Clytemnestra has arranged for a series of watchtowers to be placed across the length and breadth of the kingdom.  When the ships are first spotted out to sea, the watchman far away will light a torch, which will then be seen by the next watchtower, and the next, until the signal reaches the Queen.  Just as the play opens, the watchman, who is in depair of ever seeing a signal suddenly sees a light.  The Queen is summoned and the elders of the city gather to ponder over what will happen next now that Agamemnon is returning. 

Characters in the Scene 


You may read a version of the scene in this translation by E.D.A. Morshead hosted on the MIT Classics website.  
As you watch the two different versions, think about your own experience and response.  What are your first impressions?  What do you wish you knew more about?

Version 1- Agamemnon Performed in Greek Ruins

Watch the first seventeen minutes of this video version of Agamemnon by Aeschylus, staged as it would have been in ancient times.  Be sure to watch from the opening of the video when we see the Watchman on the tower, until Queen Clytemnestra arrives.  Unless you understand Greek, it may will feel strange at first to listen to the language.  Try to simply take in the production values and understand the story by reading the body language of the actors. Even though we may not understand the language, the staging and action are clear and the video provides an excellent peek into what it may have been like for a citizen of Athens watching a production in 458 B.C.E.

Be sure to take notes on what you are seeing.  Think hard about what an audience might need to know to understand the play. 
What might your director, your designers or your actors want to know?
What might be important for your audience to know to understand what they are watching?

Version 2- An English Production of Agamemnon Directed by Peter Hall

This production video of Agamemnon is one of a two part series.  In this case the play is being performed in English, in an indoor theatre. Notice the way the English director interprets the ancient greek use of music and masks.  This translation was written by Tony Harrison and directed by Peter Hall.   Once again your assignment is to watch the first scene from the beginning when the watchman gives his monologue, through the arrival of Queen Clytemnestra.  In this video you will need to watch the first twenty minutes of the play.   

Be sure to take notes on what you are seeing.  Think hard about what an audience might need to know to understand the play. 

Remember your two important questions:
What might your director, your designers or your actors want to know?
What might be important for your audience to know to understand what they are watching?

Step 5: Historical & Cultural Connections

Time to do your homework!  Here are several online sites for you to explore to deepen your understanding.  Click on each link and view the video, taking notes as you go. 
What information may be helpful for your director, your designers or your actors? 
What information will your audience need? 
What information would you like to save to go into your program notes? 
How can what you learn help you decide on images or text might be needed for your audience display? 

An Introduction to Greek Theatre - video from the National Theatre gives an overview of Greek theatre
Introduction to Greek Chorus - video from the National Theatre introduces the function of the Greek chorus
Styles for Theatre: Greek Chorus - video from the University of Michigan demonstrates Greek chorus in action - notable for movement, vocal and sound choices
Creating Chorus- video on choral work/physicality from the National Theatre, helps define the elements of choral movement (challenge your students- can they create a Greek chorus remotely using Zoom?)
Women in Greek Theatre - video from the National Theatre discusses the role of women in ancient theater
Introduction to Greek Tragedy - video from the National Theatre offers an introduction to Greek tragedy

What other things do you need to research for your lobby display?  

Step 6: Putting it All Together

Now it is time to collect all of your notes and images in one place and begin to work on your program notes and lobby display.  Use the guidelines below to create each.

Guidance for Program Notes
Your program notes should sum up all that you learned about the historical and cultural connections to the play in two brief paragraphs. Share the basic information your audience needs in an engaging way to attract their interest.  Program notes are like the labels below the objects in the museum- they should give just enough information to tell us what we are looking at and make us want to stop and study the object (or in this case stay and watch the play).  Consider including details about the author, how Greek plays were produced, when the play was first performed and a brief summary of what happens in the scene without any spoiler alerts.  Create your Program notes as a document file on your desktop or as a document in your classroom online folder.

Guidance for Lobby Display

A lobby display should help to bring the audience into the world of the play by using visuals and brief descriptions to help them understand the story and the character's lives.  Your lobby display should help the audience understand what they will see when the lights go down in the theatre.  It should help them know what to watch for and how to interpret what they are seeing.  Just like museum exhibits, lobby displays immerse the audience in the history and culture of the play.  Lobby displays are mostly visual- although titles and captions are used- they are minimal.  Create your lobby display as a PowerPoint on your desktop or a slide show in your classroom online folder.  

Measuring Learning


Classroom Connections

This research and responding task, with minor modifications, may be used for Middle Grades and all levels of High School.  Depending upon the amount of research required, it may take between 5-9 class sessions.


Middle Grades  

TH:Re8.1.8.b. Analyze how cultural perspectives influence the evaluation of a drama/theatre work.
TH:Cn11.2.8.a. Research the story elements of a staged drama/theatre work and compare them to another production of the same work. 

High School Proficient 

TH:Re8.1.I.b. Identify and compare cultural perspectives and contexts that may influence the evaluation of a drama/theatre work. TH:Cn11.1.I.a. Investigate how cultural perspectives, community ideas and personal beliefs impact a drama/theatre work.
TH:Cn11.2.I.b. Use basic theatre research methods to better understand the social and cultural background of a drama/theatre work.

High School Accomplished

TH:Re8.1.II.b. Apply concepts from a drama/theatre work for personal realization about cultural perspectives and understanding.
TH:Cn11.2.II.a. Formulate creative choices for a devised or scripted drama/theatre work based on theatre research about the selected topic.

High School Advanced 

TH:Re8.1.III.b. Use new understandings of cultures and contexts to shape personal responses to drama/theatre work.
TH:Cn11.2.III.b. Present and support an opinion about the social, cultural, and historical understandings of a drama/theatre work, based on critical research.