Hoi Polloi theater company to perform work-in-progress based on Plato's Republic

What does the ancient Greece of Plato’s The Republic have in common with the world today? That’s what a group of actors will try to figure out in Sheafer Theater on Saturday night.

Director Alec Duffy (T ’98) of the Hoi Polloi theater company has been working with Duke students, faculty and a few local professionals to create an onstage production that will examine the famous philosophical work that asks, but does not answer, what is justice? In what will be a modern-day adaptation, ancient Greece will transform into twenty-first century America.

Republic is part of the residency program that Duffy has been participating in for the past two weeks. Sponsored by the Theater Studies department, the residency program has brought a number of dramatists to the University in order to write new plays and work with students.

Jody McAuliffe, chair and professor of the practice of Theater Studies, noted that this residency was unique in that the department was bringing back a past student from the program.

“We saw it as an opportunity to expose students while nurturing a company we believe in and fostering the growth of an alumnus,” said McAuliffe.

The theater troupe arose from a group of actors who, according to Duffy, consider each other to be “family.” They soon became Hoi Polloi, a group organized under a more formalized passion for the arts.

“We started as a group of people interested in advanced theater and in the surrounding community,” Duffy said.

A loose confederation of several actors, designers and a director, Hoi Polloi strives to bring theater to individuals who are not your stereotypical “theatergoers,” which means that rather than only hosting shows in theaters, they also perform in a multitude of public places from gardens and parks to restaurants and houses. This desire is connected to the troupe’s name: Hoi Polloi, a phrase from ancient Greece meaning “the masses” or “the people.”

The residency program will have Duffy travel back and forth from New York, where Hoi Polloi is based, and Durham. Duffy brought two actors, a composer and a set designer to work with him for two weeks at Duke. Saturday night’s performance will be the first draft of the play, and after returning to New York, Duffy will again come to campus for another two weeks and direct a fully-developed play that will be performed later in the spring.

Rather than merely relying on the labors of past playwrights and performing (or rather re-performing) standard plays, Hoi Polloi primarily creates the plays that they act. The troupe creates work of art in a collaborative fashion: taking ideas and interests of the individual members and molding them into a play. That is exactly how their 2012 play All Hands was created. It started with a question: what goes on behind the closed doors of secret societies. A few of the company members had observed college fraternities and sororities—the Freemasons and the Elks—up close, even attending some group meetings. The troupe observed the societies from both an outsider’s perspective and an insider’s perspective, going so far as to create a secret society of their own. Some of the members in Hoi Polloi belonged (or still do) to secret societies, so the concept was not entirely foreign. After conducting the research, the troupe brought in an outside playwright who created the script.

With the opening of the JACK Cultural Center in Brooklyn, which serves as the troupe’s home base, the company will be able to hold rehearsals in the same spot as their final performances, a convenience that Duffy said is not available to most theater companies. Duffy said that he hopes Hoi Polloi will be able to reach new audiences, both with a greater scene productions and a larger travel budget—ideally to tour their performances abroad.

Hoi Polloi will present their work-in-progress Republic on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 8 p.m. in Sheafer Theater. The play is free and open to the public.


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