Greek is chic: Theatre company links past and present

The cast and crew of Aeneid Theatre Company, posing for a group portrait.
Aeneid Theatre Company, a student-run group at USC, produces three ancient or classical plays for modern audiences each school year. (Photo courtesy of Aeneid Theatre Company)

The Roman poet Virgil wrote “The Aeneid,” a Latin poem on the Trojan Aeneas, who founded what would later become Rome. Little did the poet know that, years later, a different type of Trojan would come forward to also find something exciting and remarkable right on USC’s campus.  

The Aeneid Theatre Company, named after Virgil’s work, is one of USC’s few student-run theatre groups that chooses to strictly produce plays, many of which have historical significance. Directors come to ATC with ideas, not the other way around.

ATC’s approach to choosing plays they produce is straightforward, with a set number of three a year. Each show must fall into one of three categories: classic, contemporary or experimental. 

“The latter, which is defined loosely, is typically movement-based and is heavily designed. However, ATC is open to whatever the director’s vision may be,” said Naveen Bhatia, the company’s artistic director. 

To mitigate the gap between producing Shakespearean works or Greek tragedies that include heightened language and which may prove indigestible to an audience of primarily young USC adults, ATC spearheads the discussion on selecting content with the question: Why this play now? 

ATC President Ian Melamed, a senior majoring in theatre, credits this way of “getting us to really think about why we’re doing the shows that we’re doing” to Bhatia, a senior studying economics and mathematics. This way of thinking helps the executive board find applications of the older content to today’s world, allowing an ATC production to become more inviting to a larger audience. 

Although the company’s primary focus is producing plays, Bhatia said ATC also prioritizes fostering diversity, equity and inclusion and recognizes the importance of promoting this amongt the cast and crew alike. 

“DEI for theatre is tough because theatre has sort of always been viewed as the white person’s game, and trying to bring new people into the fold is really a lot of what we do, and that’s the outreach half,” Bhatia said. 

ATC also has systems in place to tangibly represent the DEI intentions of the theatre company beyond the stage. 

With “Take Initiative,” an approach applicable to numerous ATC events such as shows or playreads, the company aims to “host conversations that are lost in translation in the SDA community and within the [independent student productions] sometimes as well,” said Angela Braun, the production manager for ATC. 

“It’s a fluid opportunity for ATC to discuss these things that are pushed to the side,” said Braun, a senior majoring in cinema and media studies.

With officers on the executive board to helm the work around ensuring DEI, the company’s approach is also beneficial to breaking the barrier around the older literature that encompass many of ATC’s plays. 

“Theatre is really powerful when audiences, actors, designers and everyone involved really can see themselves in the process,” Melamed said. “[With classic works], there is a bit of a historical gap that maybe is a barrier to engagement. But I think what’s really important to address that is having a director with a vision, who can connect [the material] to something that is very salient with everyone involved.” 

From selecting the play to produce to hosting open casting calls, many of the individual steps in the production process can also become an opportunity to reflect DEI goals. 

“For me, the number one priority is the show we pick because that goes along with if people feel comfortable even working on the show or auditioning for the show. If we pick a show that does not cater to a diverse cast, we’re not going to have a diverse cast audition. That’s just the bottom line,” Braun said. 

ATC has also changed the guidelines of its productions to reflect the emphasis on DEI. Previously, the “classic” category for potential productions meant that the play must have been written before the 1800s. Now, ATC has redefined this to be any show before 1950 to include rewrites and other texts.

ATC’s newest venture, “Describe The Night” by Rajiv Joseph, opens at the Massman Theatre in the Drama Center on campus on Thursday, Feb. 10. This piece, a narrative filled with myth and conspiracy theories, spans 90 years of Russian and Polish history starting from 1920 and going to 2010, Melamed said.  

“It’s really more important than ever to critically examine the truths that we take for granted and the lies that we tell ourselves, and be courageous to tell ourselves that we’re not being truthful,” said Melamed in regards to the relevance of “Describe The Night” to today’s audience.