"Theatrical production at Athens was a communal experience, deeply rooted in the social and political life of the city."
Over the past twenty-five years an important paradigm shift in studies of Athenian theater has taken place, demonstrating that theatrical production at Athens was a communal experience, deeply rooted in the social and political life of the city. Scholars have been exploring the performance space, actors and acting, the chorus, music, economic support, the audience and its reactions, and more.
Yet much classical scholarship continues to focus on aesthetics and intellectual issues, especially the brilliance of the plays—structure, language, issues—and their authors. Scripts are analyzed as literary documents rather than performance texts. Questionable assumptions about their effect in performance are made, as when Gould insists that when the chorus performs "marginal" characters (old men, women, slaves, foreigners) it cannot be considered as "the people" of Athens; instead, "It is their fictional identity, their dramatic persona within the overall fiction of the play, that must determine our response" (1996, 220). "The chorus exists wholly within the tragic fiction and its imagined world, and . . . its ‘otherness’ does not entail any ability to stand outside that fiction" (1996, 232). Such insistence on the primacy of the "fiction" overlooks the "double vision" which happens in theatrical performance. As McConachie says, "it is impossible for spectators and performers to perceive performed images as either pure bodies or pure signs; they are always both . . . performers and audience members enjoy the dynamic oscillation between corporeality and signification in the embodied images they have constructed together in the theater" (2001, 41).
An especially prevalent assumption discusses Athenian drama in terms of modern professional theater, with the vast majority of studies of the modern reception of ancient drama referring to professional productions. Winkler and Zeitlin, for example, note the strong differences between Athenian and modern professional theater: "It seems wrong to even to call [ancient Athenian performances] plays in the modern sense of the word. For us a play is something we can see on any night when tickets are available . . . usually it will be performed by people we do not know" and "the rest of the audience members are likely to be strangers too" (1990, 4). But they too overlook an important form of theater which much more closely resembles that of ancient Athens—community theater.
Community theater is a global phenomenon which takes many different forms and names in different countries. In the United States two major camps can be identified. The "Little Theatre" movement began in the early 20th century reacting against the commercialism of Broadway theater, as the artists involved aimed to increase individual expression and support social values (Chansky 2004). This movement led to the development of regional theaters across the country. Now, many of the productions at these professional theaters have as little connection to their communities as do Broadway shows. On the other hand, "community-based" is the name usually given to theaters that mix political agitation and developmental strategies, create dialogue between artists and spectators, and try to maximize the agency of local audiences (McConachie 2010, 496). In a private communication, Chansky bluntly summed up the difference between community-based theaters and community theaters: "Boal wanted to empower the poor; the Albuquerque Little Theatre wants to give people with limited talent a chance to be in their version of a Broadway show."
Historical antecedents include mystery and morality plays and pageants in medieval Europe, plays designed to expand the religious understanding of the spectators (Wiles 1997, 68–88). These forms of theater have been revived in modern times, usually for civic and theatrical purposes rather than religious ones. The York (Corpus Christi) cycle of mystery plays, for example, has been regularly staged in various forms in York since 1951, and Tony Harrison has adapted parts of different cycles into The Mysteries, which has been staged at London’s National Theatre and elsewhere.
The American Association of Community Theatre claims that in the contemporary United States there are over 7,000 community theaters, nearly 1.5 million volunteers, a combined annual budget of well over $980 million, with more than 375,000 performances per year of some 46,000 productions, entertaining a total audience of 85 million. The great majority of these theaters, however, perform familiar scripts. Many aim at "quality" productions which will please a broad audience; while relying on volunteers, they often aim at "professionalism" and are not necessarily attempting to create theater that reflects their communities. Another form of U.S. community theater is historical dramas performed outdoors in the summer. This genre, which began in the late 19th century, involves huge spectacles and large numbers of participants. These are original plays, based on historical characters and events, often written specifically for the locale where they are performed, often including music and dance (Glassberg 1990).
In England, the term "community theater" denotes a movement of professional theater companies that developed in the 1970s and 1980s; these theaters offered plays for specific communities on local or regional issues, representing the lived experiences and concerns of these communities, performed in local community centers (Jellicoe 1987; Kershaw 1992, 185–205). In the United States, the Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater is similar: from 1986 to 1992 the company chose various locales (mostly small towns) around the country and took up residence there. Together with members of the community, they identified significant issues, developed scripts for production (often based on classic scripts), and staged them together with local actors and technicians. In 1992, the company decided to focus on the diverse communities of Los Angeles and nearby states, but their mission remains the same: "Cornerstone Theater Company makes new plays with and about communities. . . . We strive to include people who have not been on stage or even seen theater. We’ve taken up residence in small towns and urban neighborhoods, collaborating with locals from start to finish to tell their unique stories through theater."
Some practitioners of community theater have claimed a connection with Athens. "We reach back to the old beginnings of civilized man—to the dramatic religion of early Greece, to the dance, the chanted speech, the choral song, the organized pageantry of cooperating neighbors, expressing the God in themselves" (MacKaye 1917, 12). "Throughout the great period of Greek classical drama the method and atmosphere of stage production were more nearly allied to those of community drama as we know it than to the modern professional theatre" (Gard and Burley 1959, 6). Maurice Browne of the Chicago Little Theatre and George Cram Cook of the Provincetown Players actively sought to recreate features of Athenian drama (Wiley 1999; Sarlós 1982, 34-58; Chansky 2004, 41–42). In 2002–3, well-known director Peter Sellars sought to create a communal theater in different locations around the world (Germany, Italy, France, and the United States) using a production of Euripides’ Children of Herakles to focus attention on the plight of international refugees; in each instance local refugee children served as the chorus, and the performance was framed by interviews and discussions of the issue. Erika Fischer-Lichte argues that the "performative turn" in the arts generally over the past forty years has involved the dissolution of boundaries, one of which was the separation between creators and observers, listeners, and spectators. The result "is no longer the work of art, detached from and independent of its creator and recipient," but instead "an event, set in motion and terminated by the actions of all the subjects involved—artists and spectators" (2008, 22). She points out that prominent modern theater-makers working to develop new forms of theater as event referred to Greek tragedy (55–59); she focuses on Einar Schleef, but others include Grotowski, The Living Theatre, Schechner’s Performance Group, and Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil. For these groups, living and working together created a genuine community. Fischer-Lichte specifies, however, that in Athens theater arose out of the existing political community and reaffirmed and renewed it rather than serving as the community’s "replacement, anti-thesis, or aesthetic-utopian version" (56).
In her survey of U.S. community theater, Cohen-Cruz calls it "a field in which artists, collaborating with people whose lives directly inform the subject matter, express collective meaning" (2005, 1). She proposes four useful principles: community theater "emerges from a communal context" in which power is "shared among the various artists and community partners" (92); it involves reciprocity in which the desired relationship between community-based artists and participants is "mutually nourishing (albeit often challenging)" (93); it is hyphenated, consisting of both "multiple disciplines—aesthetics and something else, such as education, community building, or therapy—and multiple functions, including both efficacy and entertainment" (97); it is active culture which recognizes that "everyone has artistic potential" and that people "get more out of making art than seeing the fruits of other people’s labors" (99). She also outlines important principles for criticism of community-based performance, about which more is said at the conclusion of this essay.
Two Examples of Community Theater
Teatro Povero di Monticchiello arose in a small town in Val d’Orcia (southern Tuscany) in response to a major economic and social upheaval. This crisis was the end of the traditional sharecropping system of farming (mezzadria) in the early 1960s, which caused a great exodus from the area and uncertainties about the future. Starting in 1967, the townspeople began to stage annual performances which gradually became more explicitly political. In the process, many townspeople became involved in the yearlong process of the production—discussing and choosing the topic in fall, writing the script in winter, commenting on the script and making suggestions for changes in spring, building the set, rehearsing, and performing in the show in summer. This tradition has continued uninterrupted to the present, with all decisions discussed by the collective, always including at least one scene in which many townspeople of all ages are onstage. The topics of the plays have ranged from the past (including a massacre of villagers threatened by the retreating German army in 1944), to current problems, to thoughts about the future.
"Ancient Athenian productions were ‘more tied to the local community than most community-based productions today.’"
The productions always involve local issues. The 2007 show, for example, had a typically complex title: A(h)ia, involving an exclamation of pain (ahi) and aia, the word for "threshing floor/public space." This title refers to a controversy that raged during 2006–7 when the building of some new holiday homes on what was the aia below the walled town became a national environmental issue, provoking differences of opinion among the inhabitants, exacerbated by media intrusion. The production managed to acknowledge the issue in a non-confrontational fashion, avoided taking sides, and even healed a few wounds. The scenarios of Teatro Povero productions make use of a wide range of allusions—Tuscan folktales, Chekhov, traditional stories such as Pinocchio—thereby avoiding didacticism and agitprop. Music is an important element of every show. This community theater is as much or more about problems and questioning as it is about solidarity and self-celebration.
Over several summers starting in 2000 I attended both rehearsals and performances and spoke to many townspeople who played different roles in getting the Teatro Povero shows up. Every person I talked to expressed involvement and pride in the Teatro and a desire to see it continue and develop. Richard Andrews, the major scholar on Teatro Povero writing in English, quotes the following speech from the 1980 production: "The theatre is there not only in the summer, when we perform in this square, not only at Christmas when we perform in the tavern. The theatre is there all the time, at all seasons of the year, when we meet, when we talk, when we swap speeches that don’t come out of a script" (Andrews 2004, 46).
My second example is theatrical productions on college and university campuses. A campus community has strong continuity grounded in particular sites and spaces. Audiences can observe student and faculty performers and designers as they mature and improve their craft during their years on campus, and also see student and faculty actors in different roles—not only onstage but as students, as faculty, and as actors, designers, and directors. Some campus productions focus on local topics and/or use local settings and characters. Lectures, conferences, and post-show talkbacks with actors and audiences can further increase all participants’ awareness of the communal meaning and effect of the theatrical event.
Each of these performance events fits Cohen-Cruz’s principles of community theater: in each case, power is shared between the performers and the community; performers and community nourish each other; while Teatro Povero combines aesthetics and community building, campus theater provides aesthetics, community building, and education. Not least, each demonstrates that everyone involved has creative potential of different kinds, and all participate actively in creating the event and enriching the community.
Neither of these examples of community theater precisely replicates theatrical performance at Athens. But each has, I would argue, at least one aspect in common. In the case of Teatro Povero—the closest parallel—the similarities are multiple: the continuous history of the company in the town for many years; the generation of an original script by citizen authors which makes use of traditional materials; the involvement of community members in every aspect of the production including performing; music; use of a particular site in the town for performance; the performance as a major presence in village life throughout the year; an audience which includes both community members and outsiders; and the insistence on criticism as well as celebration. On the other hand, there is a huge difference in scale, since Monticchiello has 300 inhabitants and Athens had a hundred times as many (free adult male) citizens.
Athens as Community Theater
Cohen-Cruz’s principles also suit Athenian theater well. The context was certainly communal, with power shared between the partners, including the government officials, the playwrights, the khoregoi (financiers), the performers, and the audience. The reciprocity between artists, performers, and audience was strong: in the parabasis (out-of-character choral address to the audience) to Acharnians, for example, the chorus say that Aristophanes provides challenge along with nourishment: "The poet says he is worthy of many rewards, since he has put an end to your being deceived by foreigners’ rhetoric . . . they called you ‘violet-crowned’ and you sat up on the tips of your little rumps. And if someone flattered you by saying ‘glistening Athens’ everything got handed over" (633–40). Many disciplines were involved—creating words, music, and choreography; acting, singing, and dancing—and many goals, including education, offering ideological affirmation, and allusively posing questions important to the polis, thus providing both efficacy and entertainment (Schechner 1988, 120–4). Not least, the equality of the non-professional performers suggested that all citizens had artistic potential, thereby "performing democracy."
[T[he equality of the non-professional performers suggested that all citizens had artistic potential, thereby "performing democracy."
What difference does it make to consider Athens a community theater? I suggest that it may affect the kinds of questions we ask and the possible answers to them. One has to do with the importance of the theatrical festivals in the life of the city, which invested a huge amount of money, time, and energy in them. Performers in the chorus were exempt from military service while rehearsing because they were serving the state. During the festival, all ordinary business was suspended; there were no meetings of the assembly, no trials, and prisoners were released on bail; at some point a fund was established so that even the poorest citizens could attend. Cartledge (1997) points out that a performance at the Great Dionysia might attract an audience consisting of nearly fifty percent of the citizenry (17). Performing was limited to citizens: foreigners were excluded because the festival "was firmly centered on questions of Athenian identity" (Wilson 2000, 80). The khoregia and the organization of the events suggests the importance of involving citizens of different ages and status—rich and poor, young and old: boys’ participation in the dithyrambic choruses "was construed as a vital early act of political or pre-political participation, of asserting and establishing one’s status as a citizen" (Wilson 2000, 76). Wilson also argues that training of this sort created solidarity among members of the same phulai (artificially created "tribes"). Another sign of the importance of the festival is that on the day after it ended the citizens gathered in the Theater of Dionysos to consider how it had gone and to deal with any complaints. And long afterward "the consumers of Athenian drama, citizens and others, also encountered, in their everyday lives outside the theatre, reverberations of performance after the music and dancing stopped. This ambient ‘noise’ of drama also demands imaginative reconstruction: the interactive echoes have to be heard." Some of these echoes, such as the choral songs that spectators remembered and could re-perform, were "in the air," some "in the ground," monuments commemorating victories by victorious khoregoi. "This hum of voices . . . amplified the ‘buzz’ about performance that must have permeated ancient Athens as it does large swathes of modern Los Angeles" (Martin 2007b, 36–37).
The Great Dionysia required rehearsal spaces for three groups of twelve (rehearsing the tragedies/satyr plays), five groups of twenty-four (rehearsing the comedies), and ten groups of fifty boys and ten groups of fifty men (rehearsing the dithyrambs). That makes 1,156 performers—and that figure includes only the choral performers, not the actors or musicians or poet/directors or other personnel. All of this activity was going on at the same time, for a long time—perhaps as long as eight months, since the Eponymous Arkhon was selected in mid-summer and very soon thereafter selected the khoregoi for the Great Dionysia the following spring. Where were all those rehearsals held over all those months? There is evidence (Antiphon 6.11) that one khoregos turned part of his own house into a didaskaleion ("school"); others may have rented gymnasia ("exercise spaces") or palaistrai ("wrestling schools"). Rehearsals would have been held during the winter months, so rehearsal spaces would have had to offer protection from the elements, and Rehm (1992, 26) assumes that at least the final rehearsals were held in the theater itself.
One especially fascinating place in fifth-century Athens, a significant part of the Theater of Dionysos complex, was the Odeion ("concert hall"). This structure was built by Pericles (c. 444 BC) in order to support the Panathenaia festival, held in August, which involved athletic, equestrian, and musical competitions. A gigantic building in the shape of a royal Persian tent which could accommodate 6,000 people, one of the corners intruded into the audience seating of the theater. Wiles thinks that the reason for building this well-protected, spacious building so close to the theater "must have been to create an architectural and functional relationship" (2000, 102) and Wilson 2000 suggests that it could have been put to use for rehearsals for the Great Dionysia (73). That must remain speculative; what is certain is that most rehearsals were occurring in various places in Athens for months in preparation for the festival. Ancient Athens was not large; the walled city extended two kilometers from east to west, slightly less north to south. Every resident had to have had some awareness that the festival was looming, and many might have known what was being rehearsed and how rehearsals were going. This awareness, though unattested and unavailable to us, was surely an essential part of the Athenian experience of drama and hence of its meaning.
Another question has to do with the implications of the number of Athenians required to stage the performances. Wiles frames the performer/spectator connection at the individual level: "In the frame of the festival there are different levels of participation: to eat the sacrificial beef, to dance in the procession, to dance in the dithyramb, to parade in armour, to dance in the tragic chorus, to sit enthroned as a priest, to display oneself as a member of the Council, to fund a chorus or sit as a judge. There is no clear cut-off point at which one passes from the subject-position of spectator to the object-position of performer" (1997, 209). Martin sees a huge audience "full of performance connoisseurs" (2007a, 44). I would add that since there were more than 1,200 citizens involved every year, surely a lot of the audience would have recognized some of the performers. They certainly could recognize the men and boys who performed the dithyramb (a hymn to Dionysos performed with song and dance), since they were not masked. Falkner thinks audiences would have been keenly attentive to those behind the tragic masks (2002, 360–1) and Rehm (1992) that it is "likely that the theatre public would recognize the leading actors even in masks" (28). There was a procedure whereby citizens could challenge—in the theater itself, right before the performance— someone about to participate in a chorus whom they suspected was not a citizen (Demosthenes 21. 56–57). This suggests that the spectators scrutinized all the performers carefully throughout the performance. They certainly knew that their responses would influence how the competing performances would be judged. "What most strikes the modern observer is the degree of public participation and public scrutiny that went into the process of judging the dramatic and dithyrambic contests at Athens, making them more akin to our national elections than to the secret deliberations of Nobel Prizes and Academy Awards" (Csapo and Slater 1995, 157–8).
"Success in performance was not limited to a small group, but was a living example of democracy in action."
Add to this the proagôn ("introduction" to the plays) held at the Odeion, when the playwright and performers displayed themselves without masks or costumes, which "looks like a means of advertising the civic identities of the performers and poets" (Wilson 2000, 96). The fact that the same actors and chorus performed in three tragedies plus the satyr play would have given plenty of time for the audience to recognize actors and chorus as they performed different roles in the four different plays on a single day. If so, what would have been the effect of recognizing the performer behind the mask? There are at least two possible answers: some might denigrate the performance of personal enemies, others would recognize skill and talent. And all might agree that the ability of non-professionals to perform under such demanding conditions was a testament to Athenians’ excellence and of the democracy that allowed them to display that excellence. Given the earlier identification of musical performance and dance as an aristocratic practice, the ability of average citizens to perform under very demanding circumstances demonstrated that success in performance was not limited to a small group, but was a living example of democracy in action.
Classicists and theater scholars are beginning to recognize this dimension of Athenian theater. Hall (2010) says "Greek tragedy seems less daunting if we remember that it was community theatre, and a significant proportion of the men involved in the productions were what we would call amateurs" (14). In his 2008 book using cognitive studies to illuminate theatrical performance, McConachie explicitly connects places of performance with audience understanding: "theatre buildings can never be empty spaces. All theatres come to spectators freighted with a history and culture that will partly control how spectators look at performers" (134). He then discusses the Theater of Dionysos as an example of community-based theater. Indeed, he argues that ancient Athenian productions were "more tied to the local community than most community-based productions today," because he is trying to "broaden our understanding of the ubiquity of community-based theatre in world theatre history" (236).
The paradigm of community theater can be applied not only to studying Athenian drama in its original context, but in performing that drama now. In my thirty years of staging ancient drama at my university, I have worked to involve the community as much as possible. A production of Ajax in 1986, only eleven years after the end of the Vietnam War, was dedicated to the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which had been expelled for criticizing the Iran-Contra affair, and a number of veterans attended. Iphigenia at Aulis was staged in 1991, only weeks after the first invasion of Iraq. Prometheus in 1998 commented directly on the "dot-com boom" which was being celebrated by UCSC administrators (and is again now). In 2005, Iran Man, Amy Richlin’s translation of Plautus’ Persa, featured characters in mid-Eastern dress, and the talkbacks were very lively. In 2006, The Buzzzz!!!!, my version of Aristophanes’ Wasps, was set at UCSC; Bdelukleon became a professor of History of Consciousness (a real department at UCSC), while Philokleon was his redneck mother who has come to live with her son after losing her raisin farm in California’s Central Valley. The production, staged at the actual Provost’s house with the audience seated on the lawn, included many local and national political allusions.
"Considering the power of community theater to transform individuals and communities might lead us to stop regarding Athens as exceptionalist, a unique pinnacle of achievement which can never be equaled."
Most recently, just last month a production of Aristophanes’ Ekklesiazousai combined insights from classical studies, performance studies, and women’s studies. Classical scholars have long debated whether this play supports or rejects the idea of women’s involvement in politics: "Like Lysistrata and the women of 411 BC, the women of the Ecclesiazusae can assure the continuity of the community" (Rothwell 1990, 103); "a play which represents a comic stereotype of women in order to reaffirm the male power base of Athenian society" (Taaffe 1993, 133). This debate is not only irresolvable, it is irrelevant to a discussion of this play in performance. There is no obvious right or wrong answer; many questions are raised, many positions and points of view represented, and the Athenian audience’s responses were surely just as varied. I am not arguing that "subsequent performances" (the director Jonathan Miller’s term) must try to replicate the form or effect of the original productions as a kind of "authenticity." Aristophanic comedies are full of details unfamiliar to later audiences, and adaptation is often more appropriate (as well as funnier!) than straight translations (Gamel 2010).
I chose Ekklesiazousai because the current gridlock in the U.S. Congress, which has earned that body the lowest approval ratings in history, offers a parallel to the discontented Athenian women’s desire to vote in the Assembly. I set the play in contemporary Washington, DC. Nancy (Praxagora) has convinced President Obama to use executive action to replace certain male Republican senators and congressmen with women in drag, arguing that as males they will have more power. Once in the Senate and House, as in Aristophanes’ script, these disguised representatives vote to give all power to the women and quickly make new laws involving sharing of property, food, and sex.
The Congressladies involved a number of collaborative features. First, we wanted to include song and dance—a crucial feature of Athenian drama, but all too rarely included in contemporary productions. Our director brought Benjamin Schatz, who writes and performs song "parodies" (well-known tunes with new lyrics), to give workshops to the student cast on how to write parodies. Songs poured out, and the show included twenty (!) reflecting different points of view—many more, and more varied than anything I could have come up with. The students also made many suggestions about the characters, action, and issues—about immigration, minimum wage, restrictions on abortion, slut-shaming, bisexuality, drone strikes, and more. In the "hag scene," for example (877–1111 in Aristophanes’ script), three ugly old women demand that a young man obey the new law and have sex with them before he can make love to his young girlfriend. In the Greek script they drag him inside, screaming; our Epigenes found being courted by older ladies (who in this case included Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan) not at all unappealing and sang his song based on "California Girls": "I wish they all could be over-forty girls!" Another song featured a critique of University of California policies, including ever-increasing tuition. I added a final scene that seemed appropriate in the Ferguson era: since a president replacing elected senators and members of the House of Representatives is a violation of the constitutional separation of powers, armed FBI agents appeared to arrest the perpetrators. Audience response to the show was very positive: they laughed at the jokes and the vulgar language, sang along with the songs, and participated enthusiastically in the post-show talkbacks. Overall, I believe, this was a fine example of community theater.
Two suggestions. First, scholars of Athenian theater might attempt to follow Cohen-Cruz’s (2005) recommendations for criticism of community theater: emphasis on collective rather than individual achievement (111); multi-disciplinary assessment of the performance which reflects a democratic rather than hierarchical approach to knowledge (115); and an engaged model of criticism in which the critic attempts to understand the social goals of the performers (119). Second, along with the "performative turn" in studies of the arts needs to come a "democratic turn." Considering the power of community theater to transform individuals and communities might lead us to stop regarding Athens as exceptionalist, a unique pinnacle of achievement which can never be equaled. Instead, we might watch for something good coming soon to a community performance space near us—and perhaps even help make it come.
- For American and British perspectives, see Billingham (2005); Chansky (2004); Cohen-Cruz (2005); Gard and Burley (1959); Jellicoe (1987); Kuppers (2007); MacKaye (1917); Nicholson (2005); Prentki and Selman (2000); Thompson (2003); and Young (1957). International perspectives are provided by Andrews (1998, 2004); Boal (1979); Boon and Plastow (2004); Haedicke and Nellhaus (2001); Hauptfleisch et al. (2007); Kershaw (1992); McConachie (2001, 2010); Prentki and Preston (2009); Thompson (2003); and van Erven (2001).
- http://www.aact.org/aact/index.html, consulted March 2015.
- http://cornerstonetheater.org/about/ consulted March 2015; see further Kuftinec (2003).
- See reviews at http://www.didaskalia.net/reviews/2003/2003_01_04_01.html, http://www.greekworks.com/content/index.php/weblog/extended/the_children_of_heracles_2003_ce/, and http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2003/feb/13/the-bad-boy-of-athens/.
- I am most grateful to Richard Andrews for his invaluable help, including sending me his deft summaries of the productions after 2006.
- The company website http://www.teatropovero.it/ has the company history, a list of the productions, and photos; see also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6KeFC3qmcY for shots of the village and performances, both consulted March 2015.
- See Wilson (2000, Fig. 9, 210); Beacham (2007, 207–10); excellent three-dimensional images at http://www.maquettes-historiques.net/P169.html, consulted March 2015.
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