“The Greeks had seen an omen… Do you remember it?”
On the night before I closed what would be my final show as an actor at this school, I realized why we perform classical works.
Don’t laugh. Y’all know I’ve always been skeptical of Shakespeare, of “reimagined” classics, of really any heightened language or period piece that doesn’t feel immediately, if at all, accessible to our time or to my experience waking this earth. I’m a new play gal! This is why my last process in Of Blood & Dirt, an adaptation of Homer’s The Iliad, has been such a gift.
Oh, and so is this article I stumbled across this evening.
Hearing our community’s response to the piece has been beautifully enlightening for me. People love it!!! My ego feels good about that, but more importantly a piece of me is shocked that it has had such a rousing effect. It’s text from a clunky Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad, I want to say. It’s literally ancient! And yet, people seem to dig it.
Not only dig it, but find it relevant and stirring within a contemporary context.
These responses, along with the article I shared above, illuminate something I have learned working on this piece that feels important to share and to consider as we move forward to create bold work under serious threat of a potentially (probably? definitely?) Fascist administration.
Ancient stories allow for us to take a step back and think critically at their purpose in today’s theatre, and today’s world. They offer a natural remove – dare I say it, a Brechtian distance – that allows for empathy and observation in equal measure. Some things are too hot to touch. In the past year or so, I have seen a wave of 45-inspired theatre. I deeply understand that impulse. As artists, we respond to the world around us, and making art that critiques, challenges, or mocks our Cheeto-in-Chief feels like we’re really making a stand. And who’s to say – I don’t have a judgement one way or another, or really any opinion on the merit of that choice. Art is activism, for sure.
But! I do wonder at the power art has to cleverly obscure, and how that power often gets slept on. In Of Blood and Dirt, there was a powerful moment pulled directly from the Robert Fagles translation when Achilles critiques Agamemnon, speaking truth to power:
“Safer by far, you find, to foray all through camp,
Commandeering the prize of any man who speaks against you.
King who devours his people.”
We made a conscious choice not to deliver the line with a *wink wink nudge nudge*. It is crystal clear, within its own context, that Achilles’ contempt for Agamemnon may parallel our own rage towards 45. Allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions about each moment made it a more active and participatory audience experience.
Which leads me to another takeaway I had from this piece: we need to trust our audiences more. This was not a “typical BU show.” It was a challenging piece of theatre for both the performers and the audience, and from the beginning we needed to trust that the audience would be with us through and through. I think that our trust created the conditions under which it came true. Of course, we have the luxury of assuming an active audience in this school, but I believe the same principle holds true in the outside theatre community. If you set your audience up to be involved watchers, as say Company One does through their use of post-show surveys and engaging dramaturgical resources, you will cultivate an audience interested in bringing their whole selves to the table.
Ultimately, I learned that the classics aren’t as far away as I thought. Or… Maybe they are. But that’s okay. It’s often necessary to look at things from a distance, to better understand how we got where we are now. Ancient theatre might just be our best tool in combatting what will most likely be a historically tragic reversal of human rights, freedoms, and safety in this country and around the world.
But, fuck, if the Greeks survived arrogant leaders and rampant warfare and still created theatre that stood the test of time, maybe we should take a page outta their book.