Student Stories

Something old, something new

Students borrow from classical theater traditions to stage lively, experimental shows

By day, undergraduate performers at UChicago pursue courses in a variety of fields of study. From philosophy to literature to history to biology, their academic interests in the College span far and wide. By night, they join together to create innovative theater.

Oftentimes these performers build upon traditions that have centuries of history, which can be challenging to replicate in the modern world. That’s where students from the on-campus theater troupes Classical Entertainment Society (CES) and UChicago Commedia come in. Uniting traditions from classical theater with modern-day situations and even their own academic interests, CES and Commedia know how to create an act that speaks to today’s world. Here’s how they do it: 

Classical Entertainment Society

The troupe dedicated to “all things Classical” was founded by members of UChicago's Department of Classics in 2004. After a variety of events over the years ranging from readings of epic poems to chariot races, the group has since focused on producing performances inspired by classical theater, according to fourth-year Taz Urnov, the group’s artistic director.

One of the main goals of the Classical Entertainment Society (CES) is right in its name—they strive to bring the entertainment to works of antiquity that many audiences might otherwise find inaccessible or dull.

“So many people think of the classics as being really boring, as being exclusively associated with bearded old philosophers wearing togas,” said Urnov. “But we bring the classics to life in a fun, diverse way.”

CES members share many different responsibilities to bring their visions to life. That’s why their creative process is so lively and collaborative. One feature of their recent productions has been unconventional staging. Performances have taken place in Hutch Commons, Hutch Courtyard, and the Cloister Club in Ida Noyes.

Past productions have included the 17th century English play The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Euripides’ The Bacchae, and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Each emphasized creative staging and casting as well as a certain UChicago style.

“Because UChicago has a big emphasis on classics and core texts that everyone knows, there’s often a kind of base knowledge that I might not be able to assume in another context,” said fourth-year and Macbeth director Abi Hunter, referring to the works that students read throughout their HUM, SOSC, and CIV sequences.

Under Hunter’s direction, last quarter’s Macbeth offered a contemporary take on the classic tragedy. Set in a tech company, the production offered an aesthetic Hunter described as “more reminiscent of The Social Network than Braveheart.” The choice of setting highlighted parallels between the original text and social tensions of today.

“[The tech industry,] for example, is a setting where women are still extremely marginalized. In the play, Lady Macbeth feels as though her only recourse to power is by acting through her husband, which I think is a narrative still very unfortunately present….[Macbeth] also has themes of tyrannical and illegitimate power that I think are very relevant in a contemporary setting.”

Both Hunter and Urnov expressed their love of the spontaneity of theater as an art form. Their performances take new shapes with each night and audience, and UChicago students are always bringing new insights and emotions to their roles.

“When I direct, I try to get actors to emphasize what’s been going on in their lives and how they feel when they step onstage….Every time you watch a film, the performance is the same even if your experience of it is different. Every time you watch a theater production, in fact, every time my actors perform a scene, it’s different. It’s an electrifying experience,” Hunter said.

“Theater is so immediate, so raw, and so real, and it’s all close enough to reach out and touch,” said Urnov. “It’s ephemeral, but it stays with you for a long time.”

UChicago Commedia

After its founding by Renaissance scholar Zev Hurwich (AB’14) seven years ago, UChicago Commedia has been re-envisioning the improvisational tradition of Commedia dell’Arte. Originating in 16th century Italy, this theatrical tradition features masked actors who embody lively stock personas—archetypal characters such as “the Captain,” “the Doctor,” and “the Harlequin,” to name a few—in various improvisational sketches.

“Commedia’s very unique: it relies on stock characters that have gone on to become staples in everything from Shakespeare to sitcoms, so our goal is to share that tradition with audiences while training ourselves in it,” said second-year Riley Spieler, who portrays Flavio the Lover. “It’s built up around a scenario, a sort of outline for a plot, and since we’re an improv comedy troupe, we improvise our way through it to fill in the gaps.”

Spieler described the academic interests of the troupe’s members as a strong influence on their performances.

“A lot of us bring our academic passions straight to the stage, and they become a huge source of our riffs. One character, Il Dottore [“the Doctor”], thinks he’s a lot brighter than he is, and our Dottore, [fourth-year] Aviya Skowron, brings a lot of philosophy and history of science to the role. My character, Flavio, thinks he’s a poet, and so I’m always searching for new ways to mangle the [literary] canon.” 

In addition to Italian culture, Commedia dell’Arte draws upon different artistic traditions. Honoring this blend of performance techniques, UChicago Commedia takes inspiration from American improv, sketch comedy, clowns, the masked art of Japanese Noh, and Brazilian Theater of the Oppressed, which encourages performers to interact with audience members. 

Artistic Director Leonardo Ferreira Guilhoto, who plays the role of the Arlecchio the Servant said this blend of techniques and the group’s focus on physical comedy leads to amusing results. 

“We mix and match different philosophies and techniques to create what we think will be exciting and funny for both the public and ourselves,” the third-year explained.

UChicago Commedia’s most recent production, Dungeons and Dunderheads, combined the hilarity of the Commedia archetypes with the improvisation required in tabletop roleplaying games. Much like the game Dungeons and Dragons, a favorite pastime in many residence hall lounges, certain outcomes in the troupe’s act were determined by dice rolls. Every night, the story was recharted on stage before the audience’s eyes.

“One night we time traveled to Reformation Spain, another we unmasked worker-hostile conditions in the recycling industry, and every night we exaggerated the dynamics between our character’s boisterous personalities,” said Spieler.

In winter quarter, UChicago Commedia will perform its show Useless Powers, a parody that will bring members' character archetypes to the superhero genre. Written and directed by third-year Cyrus Pacht, the scenario will be improvised by the Commedia ensemble, who will play upon the trope of hidden identities with a farcical flair.

“We’re taking this old, influential tradition and keeping it alive,” said Spieler. “We want audiences to partake in the joy of the physical comedy and theater tropes that Commedia originated in a way that doesn’t leave it tied to the past.” 

Theatrical experiments like these bring together traditions old and new, finding their place in the hearts of UChicago students.