Civil War project links scholars, artists with Arena Stage

The University will partner with one of D.C.’s flagship theaters to explore the artistic and academic meaning of the Civil War on its 150th anniversary.

The National Civil War Project will link GW with Arena Stage to create courses, seminars and a dozen Civil War productions over the next three years to examine modern and historical warfare.

Alumna Liz Lerman, a renowned choreographer who earned her Master of Arts degree in dance from GW in 1982, spearheaded the nationwide project. It will also kick off similar efforts at the University of Maryland and Harvard and Emory universities in collaboration with local theaters.

“This is a groundbreaking – what I would term – ‘radical collaboration,’ ” Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, said Thursday. “By the end of this project, we’ll have a significant body of Civil War plays and projects. These projects will be informed by the scholars we’re working with, and will be richer because of the intersection between scholars and artists.”

Student playwrights and performers will compete starting next year for a $1,000 commission to produce a Civil War-themed production at Arena Stage, the nation’s largest company focusing on American work.

Interdisciplinary classes on the Civil War in arts, history and social sciences will also take off at GW in fall 2014. Those courses could be offered as University Writing, Writing in the Disciplines or special topics courses. GW will also host a national conference on the topic at Arena Stage in December.

Lerman announced the project Thursday at Arena Stage with University President Steven Knapp.

“This project will serve as a national model for collaborations in the future at other universities and in other cities across the country besides our initial four cities,” Knapp said.

Leslie Jacobson, a professor of theater, has spent two years setting up the project with the help of professors mostly from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

She said the project could also expand to the GW School of Nursing and the Elliott School of International Affairs by tying the concept of civil wars to modern political discussion.

“We seem to be in some sort of gridlock now in this nation about how to move forward. If it isn’t an actual violent war with enemies, it’s a war of ideas seeming to be totally incompatible with each other,” Jacobson said. “We are using the arts to have a meaningful dialogue about the Civil War, and wars in our past, present and future.”

University spokeswoman Angela Olson said the project would be funded by the partner schools, donations and grants, but declined to reveal the total projected cost of the initiative.

For GW, it’s also a big opportunity to build up its emphasis on arts and humanities alongside investments in science and engineering.

The University also has ties with city art institutions such as the Phillips Collection and the Smithsonian Institution. It started up an arts initiative last year, bringing artists-in-residence to campus and trying to make GW more of a hub for arts and cultural study.

“It may sound small, but the universities and theaters that are in the same city – they don’t get to spend time in each other’s worlds enough,” Lerman said at the event. She is also producing a dance-theater piece called “Healing Wars,” which looks at the impact of war on doctors and psychologists who help heal battle wounds.

Kerric Harvey, an associate professor of media and public affairs, said she will develop a course on the topic and work with students to write a play that will be performed at Civil War sites around D.C.

She said she saw the announcement as not only a signal that the University supports the arts and social sciences, but also that it recognizes the relationship between the two fields.

“You can’t understand what people have done unless you understand how they feel,” she added.

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