Hewitt News

Redefining What it Means to Study Classical Literature with Rattlestick Playwrights’ Theater 
Alexia White, English Teacher

Imagine walking into an English class in which students, having just completed their reading and analysis of Antigone, are buzzing with creativity around a single goal: to adapt Sophocles’ original work into a play that is relatable to them. Alongside their English teacher is a professional playwright, the true North Star in this room, guiding students with the kinds of questions one might hear inside a playwright’s mind: Where and when does this play take place? Who is our Creon? Who is our Antigone? How will we set up the problem? Hands shoot up as conversation quickly percolates among the students and the energy becomes tangible. Before your eyes, this eighth grade English classroom at The Hewitt School transforms into a professional writers’ room, with teachers and students pitching ideas, sharing notes, and feverishly recording the outcome of their artistic collaboration. These Hewitt students are making something truly and uniquely their own, redefining what it means to study classical literature through a special partnership with the brilliant teaching artists of Rattlestick Playwrights’ Theater. 

Hewitt’s partnership with Rattlestick began in 2017 when Daniella Topol, the theater’s artistic director, and Maureen Burgess, Hewitt’s head of middle school, began discussing the powerful learning experience that would come from a collaboration between middle school students and professional playwrights. Ms. Topol noted, “We quickly discovered how aligned we were in our common interest in how theater can support learning and creativity in innovative ways. Hewitt has been a terrific partner because the students are curious, ambitious, and creative thinkers.” 

Each year, Hewitt’s seventh and eighth graders collaborate on scene-writing with Rattlestick playwrights, then experience what it means to bring a script to life as professional actors perform their work. Designed to encourage students to think deeply about their own sense of purpose, these annual playwriting projects give middle schoolers the chance to immerse themselves in themes and ideas of personal, social, and global relevance. Whether writing monologues and scenes inspired by beloved fairy tales or adapting classical plays to modern times, the culmination of each collaboration with Rattlestick Playwrights’ Theater is a celebration of our students’ diverse voices, stories, and styles. 

A highlight of this year’s work with Rattlestick has been the eighth grade’s collaboration with playwright Melisa Annis, in which each section of eighth grade English adapted Antigone, written in 440 B.C.E, to a different time and setting, creating modern versions that still closely followed the original play’s narrative arc. To begin this work, the students and Ms. Annis bonded over shared interests and experiences. Out of their conversations about dancing, sketching, reading, and tennis, new settings for their versions of Antigone emerged. With their plays taking place in school gyms and family homes, Sophocles’ tyrant, King Creon, quickly morphed into a taskmaster coach, narcissistic principal, or stern father. As each class engaged in discussions about their collaborative ideas, they became the architects of a new plot that mirrored Antigone while differing in the given circumstances. Once they had decided on their storyline, students worked in small groups to draft their dialogue, getting out of their seats to improvise scenes and carefully transcribing their creative choices. 

While guiding them toward their adaptations, Ms. Annis noted that the eighth graders were committed to broadening their own perspectives in order to understand Sophocles’ characters with compassion. “The students had to dive into the humanity of each character, discuss why they made sometimes fatal decisions, and ultimately empathize with each situation. This is why theater inspires me. Playwriting forces us to understand the complexities of personality, experiences, and given circumstances, and to do so without judgement.” In addition to approaching their characters with empathy, the process of adapting Antigone also required students to approach one another with open minds and an eye toward compromise. As Ms. Annis observed, each class “worked as one mind, collaborating on plot points, creating new worlds, and working as a team to rewrite, edit, and execute their plays. They listened to each other, inspired each other, and ultimately felt a collective pride in what they had achieved.”  

In addition to our ongoing seventh and eighth grade playwriting projects, Hewitt’s relationship with Rattlestick Playwrights’ Theater has recently expanded to include internships for our upper school students as well as the opportunity for students to see performances and participate in talkbacks with cast members at the theater. By working in partnership with this professional theater company, Hewitt students get the chance to engage in the kind of authentic learning experiences they crave. As they see how ideas take shape and come to life through performance, and as they observe the impact of a writer or actor’s words on an audience, students are reminded of the value of their own contributions and the influence of their own voices. Hewitt’s collaboration with Rattlestick Playwrights’ Theater is a valuable immersion in real-world learning for students who are preparing for their futures as lifelong designers, makers, collaborators, and problem solvers.