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Civil War anniversary spurs artistic collaboration

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An ambitious National Civil War Project will be unveiled Thursday at Arena Stage as major universities and flagship theaters in four cities team up to create new performances and campus programming.

The partnerships represent a “radical collaboration,” says Arena artistic director Molly Smith. Arena is working with George Washington University. The announcement is scheduled to include “artistic demonstrations” of the kinds of theater, dance, music and scholarship likely to emerge from this large-scale initiative.

The idea is the brainchild of acclaimed choreographer and MacArthur “genius” grant winner Liz Lerman, who refers to each theater-university partnership as a “pod.” The other three pods exploring the Civil War’s 150th anniversary:

●The American Repertory Theatre and Harvard University in Boston, which has hosted roundtable discussions and has several creations in the works. One is a new music theater piece called “War Dept.,” which will be set at Ford’s Theatre.

●Alliance Theatre and Emory College Center for Creativity & Arts at Emory University in Atlanta, where projects include a new stage adaptation of U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer winner Natasha Trethewey’s “Native Guard.”

●Baltimore’s Centerstage and the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, a pod that has already initiated a notably big project. The Kronos Quartet has been commissioned for a piece composed by jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard; the performance will involve a 500-voice choir and spoken word by 2011 National Book Award winner Nikky Finney. The result, “At War With Ourselves,” will be performed at a historically significant site.

The Baltimore pod, capitalizing on artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s perspective as a longtime British playwright, is also commissioning work from a “leading” U.K. writer.

“It was in the air, wasn’t it?” Lerman says of the multi-city Civil War focus. Such wildly varied and high profile Hollywood output as Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s influential book “Team of Rivals”) and Quentin Tarantino’s pulpy “Django Unchained” seem to reinforce Lerman’s claim.

Lerman will premiere a dance work of her own, “Healing Wars” (which will feature actor Bill Pullman) at Arena’s 200-seat Cradle next spring. That and a new piece by Daniel Beaty (“Emergecy”) were announced this week as part of Arena’s upcoming season. Arena is also commissioning short monologues from 25 playwrights in a series titled “Hallowed Ground.”

“I’m yearning for more crossover between dance and theater,” Lerman says, noting that the 3 1 / 2 weeks for “Healing Wars” at Arena will be the longest run for any dance she has made in a 35-year career.

The networking for the National Civil War Project apparently came together fairly quickly. Lerman brought the idea to Smith, who approached GW University president Steven Knapp. Harvard came in easily; Lerman was already researching “Healing Wars” there.

The “Healing Wars” process may illustrate the kind of fruitful intellectual mashup that participants are hoping to trigger. Lerman was investigating women in the war, which led to questions about nursing, medicine and bodies. Brushing up against scholars and historians inspired new avenues, and now “Healing Wars” will pursue its themes right up through the war in Iraq, with characters moving back and forth through time.

Inspiration is flowing from artists to academics, too, as scholars discover that artists ask questions in different ways. “You get such interesting research questions from artists,” Lerman says.

Students will be involved in various projects as writers, performers,artists and faculty are developing new courses for the fall semester at GW, something that appears to be in the works at Harvard, as well. Knapp says that for many participants across the pods, the subject has already grown beyond the U.S. Civil War to contemporary civil wars. “That gives it a very broad outreach to a lot of academic fields,” he says.

There is no dollar figure for the project yet. Smith says each theater and university is raising funds.

As for what would be a good result of the National Civil War Project in three or four years, Knapp says, “I hope we’ve demonstrated what a theater company and a university can do together to the benefit of both that can become a kind of national model and that can have a revitalizing influence on theater culture.”

For a full list of programming, visit www.civilwarproject.org.

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