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MIT playwright reads from Civil War comedy

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Laura Harrington, a lecturer in music and theater arts, read excerpts from her new comedy-in-progress, Pickett's Charge, much to the delight and amusement of listeners at this year's first Arts Colloquium on September 24. The reading -- attended by MIT faculty, staff and members of the Council for the Arts and the Council Scholars in the Arts -- was hosted by Associate Provost for the Arts Alan Brody.

Ms. Harrington, who teaches play-writing, described Pickett's Charge as a modern comedy about Civil War re-enactors as well as an exploration of the mind-boggling intensity and vice-like coherence of life inside some subcultures.

Ms. Harrington did more than bring to life the characters she created for Pickett's Charge. As she read -- and her "reading" involved not just speech but facial expressions, hand and arm gestures, vast changes in tone and expression -- the odd hobby of battlefield re-enactment became, well, oddly compelling.

"Re-enactors are like time travellers," she said. "What's most meaningful to them is to have the experience -- really have the experience -- of being on that battlefield."

In her research on Pickett's Charge, the Civil War and reenactors in general, Ms. Harrington unearthed facts that have kept her curiosity and sense of humor engaged. "How else would I know about bloaters?" she asked, both pleased and mock-puzzled. ("Bloaters" are people whose ability to bloat up in the manner of dead bodies make them valuable players in re-enacted battles like Pickett's Charge.)

Ms. Harrington's many previous works took on serious topics. Her recent credits include Resurrection, based on the 1899 novel by Leo Tolstoy, with a score by Tod Machover, commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera; Joan of Arc, with music by Mel Marvin; and Martin Guerre, with music by Roger Ames. Martin Guerre, co-commissioned by the Boston Lyric Opera and Paulette Haupt, was nominated for three Connecticut Critics Circle Awards in 1988.

But Pickett's Charge has inspired her to try another comedy, she confessed.

"Living with Joan of Arc was so draining. Comedy is so exhilarating. Its silliness appeals to me. It's very theatrical, very delicious -- grown men put on costumes to feel what those soldiers felt. What a great act of collective imagination," she said.

Ms. Harrington will give another reading of her play at 7pm in the Wellesley Theater, Alumni Hall on Sunday, Nov. 14. Professor of Music Evan Ziporyn will give a talk about his recent work at the next Arts Colloquium on Friday, Oct. 22. For more information, contact Laura Moses at x3-9821 or

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 20, 1999.

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