Not everyone shares a lecture with a man in a chicken suit, but that's just John Harvey. As a veteran Human Situation teacher, Prof. Harvey knows that to get across to a freshman audience, one has to shake them up a little. "Well, it's a play with giant birds in it. At the time, I didn't realize there actually weren't giant chickens in ancient Greece." All the same, it was quite relevant to the class. He was lecturing on Aristophanes' outlandish comedy, The Birds, which, long before Hitchcock, looked at the human fascination and horror with our winged friends. "It was important not just to tell the students, 'This is funny.' I really wanted to elicit a laugh from them so that we could begin a real critical exploration within the humor."
His penchant for the theatrical is not just a part of his teaching; he is very much a man of the theater. As resident playwright and co-founder of the Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company, he has one foot firmly in Houston's theater scene. As Artist-in-Residence at the Honors College and Director of the new Center for Creative Work, he strives to keep creativity at the heart of liberal education. "What's great about writing plays, as I do, about families butchering each other, fathers being roped and hooded, and puppets bursting out of furniture is that all the ideas for this sort of thing come from the classic texts we teach in Honors."
Concerning his personal history, Harvey says, "What may or may not be relevant to my work is that I was born and raised in Michigan and then escaped to the swamps of Houston. Along the way I had great teachers inspire me to pillage libraries and write with constant devotion to the sacred and profane." More specifically, he is a graduate of Wayne State University in Detroit and the graduate Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, where he earned his Ph.D.
One of the many new initiatives led by Prof. Harvey is the City Dionysia, an annual festival inspired by the Dionysian festivals of ancient Athens. Each year, he chooses a different Greek play to produce, and together with Prof. Richard Armstrong, creates a new translation for use in an original production on the UH campus, using a mixture of students and professional actors. This production becomes the center of a weekend of events that ties the faculty, students, and Honors community together with the larger Houston arts community. "The goal is to bring students into the work, not leave them on the outside looking in. In doing this, the students who participate find that they live in a text turned landscape and what's learned and created becomes more real and compelling."
Harvey's other initiatives include an Artists and Their Regions course, which combines travel with study and creative work. He has organized regional retreats in Texas as a part of this program, and has expanded the idea for study abroad. A trip to Dublin is in the works for this Spring. "As with the Dionysia, the key is to enter a text, a fictional world made real by breathing and thinking inside it. With Artists and Their Regions and the planned Dublin trip, we actually stand in the olive fields that Lorca writes about, we walk the same streets and eat in the same restaurants as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus. The way all education should occur: it should happen to us."
Prof. Harvey took part in the Spring 2010 Convivencia Tour to Spain, where he communed quixotically with windmills, tramped through the Alhambra, and feasted his eyes in the Prado Museum. "The most amazing part of Spain for me was to discover the rich history of Muslim and Hebraic writing from the tenth to fifteenth centuries in Spain, and then to visit those cities—stare into the night sky above Cordoba and Granada and recite the poems I first learned in Houston. And to share this with friends and students. Amazing."