Channeling 'Antigone' to Depict the Migrant Experience

September 6, 2019

Midway through her Ph.D., a student explores social justice through theater and film.

Ashley Marinaccio headshot

Ashley Marinaccio

For her most recent project, Graduate Center Ph.D. student Ashley Marinaccio (Theatre and Performance) is developing Antigone (en la frontera) — a production of Antigone set at the U.S. border. In Marinaccio’s play, an activist who is jailed for "harboring undocumented immigrants" channels the spirit of Antigone. 

The play is still in its early stages, but thanks to a First Stage Residency fellowship from the Drama League, Marinaccio was able to present a workshop version to an audience of 50 people in August. “This is a way of exploring the seed of an idea to see if it works,” she says. “You don’t often, as a theater maker in New York, get opportunities to work on an idea and push it forward, and to do this kind of developmental work.”
For Marinaccio, the last three years have been all about discovering opportunities that she wouldn’t have guessed existed. A performer, director, photographer, and playwright, she enrolled at The Graduate Center to explore theater practices in conflict zones and their applications to social justice movements. Yet she worried that pursuing a doctorate would mean giving up actually working in the theater. “When you’re on the outside looking in, there are all these ideas about academia — Oh, you’re never going to do theater again, you’re going to be someone who talks about it but doesn’t do it,” she says. Thanks in large part to her mentor, Professor Jean Graham-Jones (Theatre), Marinaccio “got rid of those binaries,” she says. “Doing the Ph.D. has allowed me to go deeper into the work, into why we make theater, and how the work that I’m doing is connected to work in my community and across the world, and historically.”
Her Antigone project, in fact, was inspired by one of her first classes at The Graduate Center — Contextual and Intertextual Studies in Drama, taught by Distinguished Professor Marvin Carlson (Theatre). The class read seven different variations of Antigone, including one by Jean Anouilh set in France during the Nazi occupation and the original by Sophocles, and discussed why people use the story to address conflict. “That really stayed with me,” Marinaccio says. “I was thinking a lot about what’s going on at the U.S. border, the atrocities. And I wondered how Antigone would work, if set there.”
The reading was a success. “We learned a lot of new information about the play and how the audience interpreted what we are trying to say with it,” Marinaccio says. As she continues to develop her play, she is also working on Stage Left, a web series that she created and describes as a “No Reservations”-style show about community theater. She’s already filmed five episodes, and HowlRound Theatre Commons has already agreed to host the series, which Marinaccio plans to release in January.
Film is another avenue she wouldn’t have explored before coming to The Graduate Center, says Marinaccio, who grew up in a working-class household in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and is the first in her family to get a college degree. After graduating from Pace University, she moved to New York “to become a Broadway star.” Instead, she went on to found a nonprofit theater organization, Girl Be Heard, devoted to young women in theater and social justice.
Marinaccio is also enrolled in The Interactive Technology and Pedagogy (ITP) certificate program, where her professors — who told her to “dream more, and dream bigger” — were major factors in encouraging her to develop her web series. And despite her early reservations, she has found that pursuing a Ph.D. is a good fit. “I like big, long-term projects, and I love process,” she says. “If you’re coming in, you have to know it’s not instant gratification.” She has a list of 80 books in her field that she has to finish for the second comprehensive exam.
Three years in, Marinaccio is still amazed at the resources available to her. And she’s still enjoying the process, and looking forward to where that will take her as she finishes her coursework and begins her dissertation. “Being in the Ph.D. program has been incredibly transformative for my work,” she says. “I come in every day and say, I can’t believe I get to do this.”