A screenshot of Madeleine in the virtual reading of Homer's The Odyssey.

Madeleine Cahn ’21

As soon as Madeleine Cahn ’21 heard the idea, she couldn't get it out of her head.

It was 2019 and she was taking a course on women, gender and sexuality in Greek and Roman art with classics professor Ann Koloski-Ostrow, who mentioned that some colleges had performed marathon readings of Homeric epics in the past.

"From then on, I started wondering, what would it take to actually do that on campus here at Brandeis?" Cahn asked herself. "Then one night last February, I couldn't sleep and I just started planning it."

The next day she met with Koloski-Ostrow, who encouraged her to apply for a Eunice M. Lebowitz Cohen Fellowship, which funds undergraduate research and creative projects in the field of classical studies.

Cahn — a double major in classical studies and mathematics — landed the fellowship. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sending students home from campus. Her plans were foiled. But not for long.

During the pandemic, professor of classical studies Joel Christensen began working with the Center of Hellenic Studies and the Out of Chaos Theater to hold readings and discussions of Greek plays online. That grew into a discussion last summer about mounting a 24-hour, worldwide virtual reading of Homer's "The Odyssey."

Christensen knew of Cahn's previous plans, and when the academic year began last fall he invited her to attend the meetings.

"We started brainstorming, and Madeleine piped up and said, 'Can I make a spreadsheet?' and I knew we were going to be OK," Christensen recalled.

Working with administrators at the Center of Hellenic Studies, Cahn helped coordinate plans around the world, organizing and assigning the readings to the participating colleges, universities and institutions. She also planned Brandeis' segment, finding 22 students, faculty, staff and alumni to participate. It was broadcast on YouTube in December.

"I was really impressed that the Brandeis community was able to produce so many people who wanted to do this within three weeks, in the middle of an incredibly difficult semester," Cahn said. "Even with the pandemic and the challenges it brings, this showed we can still engage with each other, and with the world, in positive ways."

Each participating organization provided its own creative spin — some used costumes and backdrops, while others read different lines of dialogue in different languages.

"This is about trying to restore our community when we've lost it," Christensen said. "We lose something when we read ancient Greek epic alone. Every time I hear it read aloud with people, that process transforms it for me."

When the production was finished, Cahn was already thinking about what she might do next.

"I would like to keep this going," she said. "I've had in my head that it would be really cool if next year we could find an epic from a different tradition."

The project will have a lasting impact beyond campus, Christensen said.

"People will use it in the classroom. They'll use it as a model in a year or two, maybe they will try to do it again, and do it a little better," Christensen said. "It's an exploration of what we can do when we cross boundaries and make connections."