CU Boulder associate professor Tamara Meneghini, a contributor for new textbook on acting, explains why you might give Greek tragedies a second look
Can a play written more than 2,400 years ago about a despairing mother seeking revenge for the deaths of her children teach modern performers anything new about not only their art, but also about conveying broader themes of power and justice?
For Tamara Meneghini, an associate professor in the University of Colorado Boulder Department of Theatre and Dance, Euripides’ play “Hecuba,” written around 424 BCE about a grief-stricken queen of the fallen city Troy, has much to teach performers about the interaction between power and powerlessness in times of extreme conflict. Conveying those themes, however, requires specific physicality and preparation from actors.
Meneghini elaborates on these themes in a chapter written for the new textbook “Building Embodiment: Integrating Acting, Voice, and Movement to Illuminate Poetic Text.” The chapter, titled “Grace, Gravitas and Grounding–Approaching Greek Tragedy through a New Translation of Hecuba,” focuses on helping actors “get close” to the original Greek performance style, Meneghini says.
“I also wanted to add some newness–to make the performance style and the text [of ‘Hecuba’] more accessible to actors with a newer translation, so that actors can integrate breath and movement into the poetic text,” she says. “It’s also about giving readers lessons and tools they can use in the rehearsal process.”
Meneghini was chosen to contribute to the textbook by Karen Kopryanski, associate professor and head of voice and speech at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the book’s editors. She’s known Meneghini since 2005 and says she chose Meneghini to write the chapter because she was inspired by Meneghini's work on the new translation of “Hecuba” that she features in the anthology. She says she felt that others would benefit greatly from her expertise and artistic process.
Meneghini says she spent the better part of a year writing the chapter.
“I’d write some and send it to Karen, and she’d help me sharpen it and improve it. We went back and forth like that for many months,” Meneghini says. “I had been playing with the ideas that ended up in the chapter in my classes for some time, and I felt that when the ideas worked for the students, then I was capturing something that might work for all actors.”
She adds that writing was “a new thing” for her. “I’m an actor and director, but writing was a great exercise for me—it was a lesson in specificity and a lesson in the value of ‘less is more’.”
Meneghini says she was seeing evidence that the chapter was proving helpful to audiences months before it was published. In March, she taught a workshop in San Deigo using contents from the chapter.
“I actually gave them a copy of the chapter, and we used it during the workshop, and it was well received,” she says. “These were graduate, professional actors, so I believe it will be helpful beyond students who are studying theater in college.”
She had the same result after teaching with information from the chapter at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. “It proved to be useful to the students there, too.”
Meneghini is intimately familiar with Greek tragedy and with “Hecuba.” In 2018, she directed the play at CU Boulder, where nearly 1,000 people saw the performance.
She says she believes there’s much to be gained from watching or reading tragedies, particularly today.
“Our world today is not so unlike the tragedies in literature,” she says. “I think tragedies are also very freeing for actors because they require actors to go to that place of tremendous size—to go to that public domain and to be creative with it and to connect with the themes behind the poetry. I know with ‘Hecuba,’ some people told me they felt transported to a different time and different place.”
She adds that in “Hecuba,” the lead character of the same name faces many misfortunes, including losing her children.
“All these things are done to her, so she has to change her destiny,” she says. “It’s a very relatable story. Her fate was in the hands of the men around her, and the audience has to decide if she’s a good or a bad person. The audience members have to ask themselves if they would kill if someone killed their family.”
Up next for Meneghini is a sabbatical to create a documentary film about Loyd Williamson, the creator and author of The Williamson Technique, a system of training for the body and its role in the communication process; and Deborah Robinson, a renowned theatre movement and period style specialist, choreographer, actor, director and writer.