RUNC: Al Duncan

Al Duncan unpacks the nuances of ancient Greek and Roman theater.

Al Duncanphoto by Alyssa LaFaro
January 3rd, 2024

Al Duncan is an assistant professor in the Department of Classics within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences. He studies the production, reception, and audience experience of ancient Greek and Roman theater and how these performances remain relevant today.

Q: How did you discover your specific field of study?

A: I first fell in love with theater in high school. From constructing and hauling set pieces, to lighting and managing a stage, to acting and directing, I learned to see theater from various perspectives but always as a fundamentally distributed and collaborative practice. It became a hub where my academic and personal interests intersected and reinforced one another. Once I started taking Latin and Greek as an undergraduate, I became obsessed with bringing plays written in these “dead” languages to life before modern audiences. That was 20 years ago, and I’ve never looked back.

Q: Academics are problem-solvers. Describe a research challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it.

A: Ancient dramas were not composed to be read, but rather to be seen and heard, often in large outdoor theaters at religious festivals that might draw tens of thousands of attendees. How can one analyze these performances and their effects not only through, but also beyond, the preserved text?

To study the aesthetics of fifth-century Greek drama — the focus of my first book — demanded a novel, multi-pronged approach. I looked at written texts alongside archaeological evidence, artistic traditions, and other cultural conventions. These methods helped illuminate dynamic interactions between words spoken on stage and scenes imagined in the mind’s eye. Seeing a tragedy alongside others affects our perceptual attention and emotional response to the work.

Q: Describe your research in five words.

A: Ancient theater is always alive.

Q: Who or what inspires you? Why?

A: My students. Fewer than 70 plays from the ancient Greek and Roman world survive in full, and I end up rereading many of the same works over and over again in class. This could become repetitive were it not for my students who, in discussion and through their creative dramatic enactments, prevent me from becoming set in my interpretations and see the text as a springboard for discovery. Every time I discuss Aeschylus’ “Oresteia,” a student inevitably focuses on some facet of the trilogy that turns the discussion in a novel direction. I learn as much from my students each year as they learn from me.

Q: If you could pursue any other career, what would it be and why?

A: Teaching at UNC, I have the enviable opportunity to pursue my interests and share my passion with others, but I do wish I had more time for creative work. If I weren’t at the university, I suspect I’d be working in some theater or film studio as a writer or producer. The world needs new stories as much as it needs to reconnect with old ones.

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