GW, Partners Launch National Civil War Project

Collaboration between universities, professional theaters will generate original plays and new scholarship on the American Civil War.

Liz Lerman speaks at the launch of the National Civil War Project
Choreographer and GW alumna Liz Lerman speaks at the launch of the National Civil War Project.
February 28, 2013

George Washington University and seven partner organizations, including three other universities and four professional theater companies, launched a nationwide collaboration called the National Civil War Project today. The project, which will generate original theatrical productions and innovative academic programming, commemorates the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War and investigates how it still reverberates in our present-day lives.

The project was originally conceived by Liz Lerman, a choreographer, GW alumna and 2002 MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow.

“Our Civil War was 150 years ago: What does it still mean? What is the aftermath? Where is the damage? How is it absorbed? Who does the absorbing?” Ms. Lerman said. “These questions are too big for the arts alone, or for academia alone. My interest is in collaborations that will allow new understandings.”

GW’s partner artistic institution for the project is Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. The genesis for the partnership was GW President Steven Knapp’s invitation to Arena Stage Executive Director Molly Smith to form a partnership to explore how the arts could infuse scholarship with new excitement and energy. Ms. Smith enthusiastically agreed. Soon after, she learned of Ms. Lerman’s idea, and she and Dr. Knapp agreed it would make a terrific first project. Together, they began reaching out to other academic and artistic institutions, and before long, a national project was inaugurated.

The result was three more partnerships: Emory College’s Center for Creativity and Arts at Emory University will partner with the Alliance Theater in Atlanta; the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center will partner with Centerstage, of Baltimore; and Harvard University will partner with American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.

GW and Arena Stage, located in the District of Columbia, will work on three projects, including the world premier of “Healing Wars,” a dance piece by Ms. Lerman that explores the connections between wartime and physical and psychological healing, and will feature actor Bill Pullman as narrator. The university will also work on a project called “Our War,” in which 25 playwrights, including two GW students, will represent the multiplicity of voices affected by the events of the Civil War. Award-winning playwright Daniel Beaty will create a third original piece that will fuse song and poetry, personal narrative and art as a means of asking what war is really like for the people involved. These projects will include reflections on contemporary wars and their effects, as well as those of the American Civil War.

Dr. Knapp called the collaborative project unprecedented.

“This national project will not only produce ground-breaking theatrical works, but will enliven the study of history and many other fields with the vitality, immediacy and vibrancy of theater,” Dr. Knapp said. “It will engage the expertise of scholars in enriching the content of the plays themselves, and, at the same time, by involving students in the excitement of this exchange of ideas and energies, will help to build a future audience that will ensure the sustainability of theater, which is so important to the cultural health of our nation.”

President Steven Knapp joins colleagues from seven partner institutions to launch the National Civil War Project.

In December 2013, GW will host a national conference at the Mead Center about the intersections between academia and art in deepening understanding of the Civil War. New curricula inspired by the artistic partnership of the National Civil War Project will be available to GW students starting in fall semester 2014, and the university will document this multiyear curricular development process to use later as a teaching model for other institutions.

Ms. Lerman, M.A. ’82, will be artist in residence on campus while developing “Healing Wars,” and will participate in student workshops before the premiere of the piece. The university will also sponsor 10 new student productions that bring theater students and students from history and social science disciplines together in pairs to research and write plays. These plays will be presented in a special student playwriting festival in 2013 and 2014. GW students will also intern at Arena Stage.

GW Professor of Theatre Leslie Jacobson and a group of 15 faculty members, primarily from GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, have been meeting monthly since 2011 to plan for university curricula and public programs for the larger D.C. community related to the Project.

“GW is particularly excited about exploring the ways that scholars and artists can cross-pollinate and inspire the creation of performances that illuminate issues as complex and multifaceted as civil war,” Ms. Jacobson said. 

On April 1, GW will host “Acting and Reenacting: A Civil War Performance Collage and Conversation,” which will bring together artists, D.C.-area Civil War reenacters and scholars on the topic of embodying history. The event is open to the public and will focus on the opportunities that the National Civil War Project will provide.

Ms. Smith said the official launch of the project represents just one peak cleared in an ongoing journey.

“We enter with a true sense of inquiry. When we partner together as theaters and universities, how much more can we achieve?” she said. “How much more can we risk? How much more can we discover about ourselves? What kind of depth and breadth of work, both academic and artistic at once, is born from such a collaboration and communion across the country?”

Complete information about the National Civil War Project is available at