The worlds a Stage: Whitman Professor Documents Ancient Theaters

by Katie Combs

WALLA WALLA, Wash., Jan. 3, 2008 – Last year, Associate Professor of Theatre Thomas Hines received a gratifying and fairly astonishing e-mail from an excited Argentine businessman whod decided to restore an old mas, a traditional house in Provence. He wanted Hines to know that the Whitman College professors online archive of ancient theaters had inspired him to build a Roman theater in the backyard of the property.

The man had found Hines trove of information on Whitmans Web site. Since 2001, Hines has visited 43 Greek and Roman theaters in three countries, taken tens of thousands of photographs and compiled The Ancient Theatre Archive: A Virtual Reality Tour of Ancient Greek and Roman Theatre Architecture.

Hines Web site receives more than a thousand hits a day from visitors across the globe. “There are people visiting the site to write papers or to travel,” he said. “People pick from it what they want, and everyone is taking something different and doing something new.”

One recent shopper was an official from the Direcção Geral das Artes, the ministry of arts in Portugal. He wanted to use several of Hines photographs, particularly the Hellenistic theater in Epidaurus, in a national campaign to promote the arts. Hines was happy to oblige. “I was struck by the idea that this could inspire some grade school kid in Portugal to do something with theater,” he said.

Thomas Hines (right)

Hines ongoing Web project grew out of his desire to provide his own students with a more complete picture of ancient theaters. The success of his initial study – the Roman theater in Ostia Antica, Italy – inspired him to pursue others. As the projects accrued, Hines international audience grew.

When I conceived of the project, I used a model in my mind of an exhibit in a museum,” he said. “An intuitive, self-guided tour. I used my skills as a teacher as well as my knowledge of theater.”

Hines site features thorough surveys, including basic fact sheets, detailed studies, travel guides, directions, a glossary of Greek and Roman theater terminology, and Hines own hand-drawn maps and panoramic images. Viewers can take virtual tours of the theaters, zooming in to study them in as much detail as they wish.

Hines, whose set designs have complemented several Harper Joy Theatre productions at Whitman, has even included his own travel accounts in the virtual tour mix. “Today I followed in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, but unlike him, I managed to conquer the city of Termessos,” reads one entry from June 2003. “I was luckier than Alex – I had a Fiat, a paved road, and the cranky Termessians were all dead.”

The Web site, Hines allows, is no substitute for the real thing. “Whats lacking is the travel experience: meeting people, seeing the setting, the food, the way people treat you, the views, the smells. All of that is beyond anything a book or camera could capture.”

Nonetheless, Hines site links viewers with some immediacy to a distant past. Theater is an ephemeral art form,” he said. “We have no way of attending an ancient Greek or Roman play, but we still have this one, very large, tangible artifact. This will let people know these places are out there, and that its OK to go.”

In his travels, Hines typically visits two theaters a day, photographing and documenting their structure. He returns with thousands of images. “I concentrate on soaking up the region to best describe it and dont the detailed research until later,” he said.

Whitman has generously supported his efforts. Last year, the college gave Hines a $3,500 Aid to Faculty Scholarship and Instructional Development to fund more research and cataloguing. He has received two Abshire Awards and one Perry Grant for faculty-student collaborations from the college, as well as a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Hines studies are valuable to scholars in many disciplines because the ancient theaters also served as sites for judicial forums and other civic activities. “The theater was a place of civic gathering, the heart of verbal communication as well as entertainment,” he said.

His own hub of activity is a modest study in his home. Under the watchful eye of his cat, Hines gathers materials from his trips and compiles information for the archive. A large poster of Termessos looms above him.

Imagine a lost city, high in the Colorado Mountains, with cool breezes, the smell of pine forests, and spectacular views of the valley below,” Hines wrote of the place. “And if you search long enough, you will find the most spectacularly positioned and well preserved theater I have come across in all my travels.”

Those travels are far from over. Hines will be on sabbatical again in 2008-09, during which time he plans to visit more ancient sites in Greece, France, Spain and Tunisia. With some 200 sites still in existence, his theater archive is a lifelong project.

Hines insists its all in a days work – and a scholars pleasure. “The work is just incredibly fun to do,” he said.

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