English Students Overachieve in the Underworld

Remember in school, when you used to read a book and write an essay? The end.

Seaverns, Room 102. Ms. Hojnicki’s junior English class. The project scope: Fairly straightforward. Sarah Ruhl is this year’s Baird English Symposium author. In anticipation of her visit, the class read her play, Eurydice, with the goal to engage with it in ways they found personally meaningful.

The outcome: A rap. A board game. A song. A Netflix pitch.

“They really got into it,” said Hojnicki. “The level of detail on the projects was incredible.”

Eurydice is a 2003 play by Sarah Ruhl which retells the myth of Orpheus from the perspective of his wife Eurydice. It focuses on her choice to return to earth with Orpheus or to stay in the underworld with her father (a character created by Ruhl). Ruhl made several changes to the original myth's story-line which make it more accessible to be performed on stage.

“For this project, I wanted them to authentically engage with the play in a way that somehow transformed them, in at least some small way so that they see the play a little bit differently,” Hojnicki said.

Students needed to accomplish five different components for the scope of the project including reading carefully and actively for nuance, understanding the use of the dramatic form, analyzing her choices as a playwright, engaging with the play in a way that they independently found helpful and clearly communicated all of these things. Outside of those parameters, students selected how they wanted their projects to play out, and the sky was the limit.

The breadth of the projects and how deeply the students shared their understanding of the play was nothing short of exceptional. One of the biggest challenges for the students was illustrating both an understanding of the dramatic form while also showing an understanding of Ruhl's choices Hojnicki shared.

Cici Chagnon ’21 used the concept of string, a powerful element throughout the play and developed a visual storyboard to illustrate her cogent understanding of the work. She (literally) tied in all of the components, depicting the characters on stage, costume and choices based on the description of the stage direction and elements of their character.

Ian Givens ‘21 wrote a rap called Eurydice Vibes that focused on the presence of rain throughout the play and identified the myriad of different things it meant, feelings it evoked and places it stood for.

Melissa Hasbrouck ‘21 designed a mixed media piece depicting a string house, which highlighted the major symbols and themes in the play. The focal points include water, string, music, love, and a comparison of life and death.

Snehaa Ram ’21 wrote a song to represent how music and sound are among the most significant motifs, and how they provide insight into Ruhl’s choices as a playwright.

Founded in 1983 by Warren Baird (then chair of the English department), the Baird English Symposium has welcomed some of the nation’s greatest writers, poets, and playwrights. Each spring, the selected author visits campus for a reading and various student-centered events. To prepare, students in all grade levels read at least one work by the visiting writer. Students in a Senior Seminar class study the author’s work exclusively. Prior to the Symposium, they visit all other English classes and teach students about the author’s life and work.
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