by David S. Cohen
In January of this year, a group of us actors in San Diego, California began a series of readings of the Greek tragedies at the Sixth @ Penn Theatre. Called "Seven Weeks of Greeks" because we initially had designated that number of readings over a three-month period. The actual number has now grown to sixteen scheduled through September and is still building steam. What has been most gratifying and most instructive is that what began as a way for us as actors to satisfy our hunger for these great plays seems to have tapped in to an equal hunger in the public. From the beginning, and without extensive publicity or advertising, the 49 seats in our house have rarely had a vacant chair, and we have attracted a growing, loyal audience.
The hunger first expressed itself in a series of conversations between me and my friend and colleague Linda Castro. Bemoaning both the lack of opportunity to get to know the Greeks from inside the dramas and the way they are so largely unperformed in America, we decided to get together just to read Jason and Medea's scenes from Euripides. "Let's see if other people would be interested in joining us," said Linda, who a day or two later mentioned our idea to Dale Morris who owns the 6th@Penn. "Why not use the theater and see if anyone wants to come hear us?" he said. "Why not schedule a series of off-night readings?" Thus we leap-frogged into being, chose our initial plays (Medea, Antigone, The Trojan Women, Hippolytos, Agamemnon, and Iphigenia, both in Aulis and among the Taurians), and began, hoping that by doing so we might at least stir the pot of local theater and encourage more productions of the classics.
Our method is bare bones; we make no attempt to stage the readings as it so often seems the case that once actors are on their feet moving about with scripts, expectations of a full production get in the way of the magic that can be created with the powerfully-spoken word. Rather, we seek to invite the audience into a space akin to the moment at the beginning of every production when the actors gather round a table to bring to life for the first time as a company to the world that they will be seeking to co-create during the run of the play. In fact, we do read the play together once, if possible, before our public reading, though time is limited (as this remains at this point an entirely volunteer effort) and sometimes the need to coordinate and effectively divide up the Choruses takes up most of our rehearsal periods.
On the afternoon or evening of the performance, the Chorus gathers a few hours early to hone their parts and add some rudimentary percussion and music, this largely the contribution of our colleague Celeste Innocenti, who has been researching the available material on Ancient Instruments and practices in order to lend these sections more of the rhythmic, visceral life they need to build and sustain the inherent power of the story. When the audience members arrive, they receive a program with a few notes to fill in some of the gaps between the intimate knowledge of the original myths that the first Athenians would have had and our spotty recollections of them. I give a brief curtain talk to set the tone for the informal and spontaneous nature of the reading itself and to remind them that the drama as originally performed was not mere entertainment but both worship and community debate of the deepest sort. Then, in order to begin the reading in a way that honors that ritual aspect, I take a set of Tibetan chimes from a little altar table at the side of the stage, announce again the title of the play, and sound the bells, which also finish the play in a kind of end-parentheses when we are done.
What we've found is that this simple approach really works to allow the greatness of the plays to speak. Audience members are often moved to tears. Hippolytos, in particular, seemed to touch many with great power, reminding us again that these great stories about people torn between irreconcilable alternatives are hewn from the unchanging bedrock of our human experience. One audience member wrote about her experience like this: "These readings are very moving to me. I love theater , but maybe because there's little staging with these readings, I can really, really hear the plays. There are no distractions of lighting, elaborate costumes, directorial choices of this actor here, that actor there let alone sets. The stories themselves are marvels, and they remind me of some of the most important things about life, story, myth, theater." The simplicity of presentation, the reliance on the pictures painted by the words themselves, in fact remind us that the Greek theater, where the horrors of the plot occur offstage, is a theater of the imagination and is well-served by an approach that gives the audience a chance to exercise the imaginal. This is one of the things that has surprised us: our choice of method was pragmatic - but, we've discovered, also effective.
All performances are on a donation basis, by the way, allowing fuller access to more of the public. We've found that some who can do so gratefully contribute more than the suggested $5 to help the theater cover copying costs and get new lighting equipment. A locally-owned video store with a particularly good selection of classical, foreign, and filmed theater works has twice agreed to sponsor in exchange for program suggestions that highlight films related to our offerings, like the Pasolini Medea or Cacoyannis Iphigenia.
Another surprise that this hints at has been the particular importance of doing these plays in community. I've learned, I think, why not only Dionysos but Athena was honored by the festivals which occasioned their initial composition. In the discussions we hold after a short break when the play is finished, for which the majority of the audience usually remains, we have discovered the many ways the plays resonate for those who attend them. There is a powerful layering that happens as regular participants experience together the differing versions of the stories that our focussed scheduling makes possible, not to mention theatrical joys like getting to watch the same actress perform Cassandra in The Trojan Women one week and in the Agamemnon the next.
It has also been made explicit in these discussions with the audience how much the toughness of the tragic poets helps us all to face the toughened world in which we live. We had been talking about the plays before September 11. The decision to do them was not a direct response to that event, but almost as soon as we'd committed to the schedule, it was clear that doing them in this concentrated way would be like breathing oxygen. And so it has. Their complexity and uncompromising honesty lead our audiences to reflect together about current complexities and compromises - stories of Troy, stories of sacrificed innocents, providing a mirror for our twenty-first century concerns no less than they did for those fifth-century Athenians.
The plays, of course, provide a mirror for the soul's concerns as well, for the darker drifts of a fated world that flow into tragic soil in so many ways inimical to our wonted American sunshine, both for actors and audiences. As Linda Castro expressed it to me recently, "It's not just that we are stretching our acting muscles, but that we are reaching at, or being pulled by, something so much deeper." Something that in the rough and tumble world of box-office and auditions or Equity contracts is usually unreachable, blocked off if not denied. For me, it appears in the silence that ensues after that first reverberating chime is sounded, when the stage direction establishing the scene is read, when I am suddenly transported to the red soil of Argos or before the white-columned palace at Thebes, about to become Agamemnon or Tiresias. It is a deepening, as befits the goal we started with: to honor the plays that are at the roots of theater, even though inevitably those roots take us far down into often difficult underworld realms.
As of this writing, four scheduled plays remain: Sophocles Ajax on July 29, Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes on Aug 11, his Eumenides on September 15 (it seemed fitting to honor Furies as part of that particular anniversary), and Euripides' Bacchae near the Fall Equinox on September 23. We are also pleased to be holding a benefit for the project on Sunday, August 25 that will feature the first-time-ever public hearing of a new translation of Euripides' Andromache by J. Michael Walton and Marianne McDonald. Professor McDonald, who lives and teaches at UC San Diego, will join us for that event, especially exciting to us as we often discuss issues of translation in our forums, though never till now with the translator present!
David S. Cohen
The Sixth @ Penn Theater is located at 3704 6th Avenue, San Diego, Calfornia 92103. Phone: (619) 688-9210. Updated information can be obtained on our website at www.sdtheatrescene.com