Surely there is nothing more challenging for the modern stage actor than the Greek tragedies. By contrast even Shakespeare seems contemporary. A Greek play was originally a one-time event staged in an outdoor amphitheatre for thousands—the townspeople en masse. Tradesmen participated as the generic chorus. Actors wore masks to distance their own personalities from their mythical roles. Cothurni—thick-soled shoes—elevated them. Audiences were transported into a frenzy by the cataclysmic events starkly enacted upon the bare stage. It was a cathartic, spiritual experience for all concerned.
But the purpose of modern theatre is to entertain. How then does a contemporary actor play these larger-than-life roles, including those of gods, centuries later in an alien context?
Uta Hagen, for one, suggests that the inexperienced actor is unequipped for the task. "Until we have shaken off the influence of today's theatre," she writes in A Challenge for the Actor, "I don't believe our feet are big enough to fit into the titan shoes designed by the Greeks." She notes that "traditional histrionics" and "the contemporary tendency to naturalistic detail" won't do.
Some of the West Coast's best actors are currently appearing in Aeschylus' 2,500-year-old trilogy, The Oresteia, in rep at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, directed by Tony Taccone and Stephen Wadsworth. The four I talked to agree the job is darned hard. The actors did intensive preparation, including reading Homer's The Iliad and working with a vocal coach to achieve the breath and stamina required for their longer speeches.
"You have to invest enormous energy, not only in the creation but also in the performance," said Michelle Morain, who plays several roles, including the goddess Athena in the third part, The Eumenides. She also starred in Medea at California Shakespeare Festival a few seasons ago. "In Shakespeare, the language is deep and rich and full by our modern standards of conversation," she said. "And so are the people. Greek theatre is like that but more so. It's almost like you touch an ancient pipeline of power and mythology. You can't get in its way. You have to give it shape, but you have to respect its energy and power."
Robynn Rodriguez agrees. "I can't recall being in a process where I had to get out of my own way most of the time," she said. By that she means that the actor's bag of tricks is unwanted here. "I serve the play," she said. "It's bigger than me." Ashland-based Rodriguez plays Clytemnestra, the queen who murders her husband, Agamemnon, in revenge for killing their daughter.
You need energy and simplicity, according to Los Angeles director Lisa Wolpe, who helmed Cal Shakes' Medea and has herself appeared in a production of Medea at the Edinburgh Festival. "The figures themselves are heroic, so your level of commitment has to be 100 percent. The thought shifts are not as complex as Shakespeare might require, so the revelation of self at a high-energy level is really all you have."
Rodriguez said the vocal requirements alone were intimidating; she needed to be believable while "basically doing an aria for the next five minutes." She worked with the company's vocal coach to learn where to place her voice and how to have her emotional foundation supported by her voice. Also, as a confirmed inside-out actor, Rodriguez found she had to immediately start working on the physical aspects of her regal, vengeful character. Co-director Wadsworth taught her how to walk, to have faith in the character's physical size, to use her arms in a specific way that was big and emotionally full. "I started putting pictures of Judi Dench everywhere," said Rodriguez. "She's 5'1" and has played a plethora of queens. I was trying to instill confidence."
With concerns like this, it can be hard to remember that these characters, while they need to be big, still need to be human—even if they are in fact gods. And that's a fine line to walk. Fiona Shaw, starring in the London production of Medea, was recently quoted in The New York Times as saying, "We're trying to understand things in human terms because we are not gods…. Our job is to make the audience identify with us as humans."
Indeed. Page Leong, who played Medea in an Actors' Gang/Cornerstone Theater collaboration in Los Angeles a few years ago, sees no contradiction in that. "Even in our contemporary life, we're faced with bigger-than-life presentations—in the media, in politics," she observed. "It's wonderful to be given permission to be that big." She imagines that she's speaking for the gods, or including them in the audience. You're essentially projecting, not just to the back row but also to the cosmos.
Leong couples that largeness with the same kind of connection to her character that she would strive for in any contemporary play. "In the end it's storytelling about the human condition," she explained. "To put it on a whole other plane is not my goal."
Yet somehow, for actors, the awareness exists that it is on a whole other plane, and you have to accept that and not lose your sense of personalization. Wolpe said Stanislavski and the Method probably won't help you much here, or at least not beyond the fact that any and all acting techniques will inevitably inform your performance.
Kings Are People Too
Of course the actor's job is always to identify with the character. In developing Clytemnestra, Rodriguez discovered that the queen is misunderstood by all around her. "I find that incredibly sympathetic," she said. She related the queen to her own imperious grandmother, and the queen's circumstances to certain dysfunctions within her own and friends' families.
Morain and Jonathan Haugen had another challenge: to play gods.
Haugen, playing Apollo in The Eumenides (as well as Aegisthus, a mortal, in Agamemnon), discovered in rehearsal that while Greek gods have human emotions and foibles, there are no consequences for their acts. Apollo, in one of his monologues, explains that men are higher than women. In rehearsal, Haugen found himself trying to put a PC spin on the text. "Then I came to the realization," he said, "that I'm a god! I can say whatever I want!" With that mindset it was easier to proceed. "The gods are just like humans but with greater power and mobility."
Morain, in early rehearsals as Athena, found herself planting her feet and delivering her lines didactically, which she knew was wrong. Through Wadsworth's help, she ended up as a goddess with a sense of humor. "I had to get over being cowed by playing a divinity," she said. She sought to understand what Athena was doing in the play, just as she would with any character. She identified the humanity of Athena, then added dollops of, for example, the arrogance of Greek gods. "I had to go to a different place to do an observational, rather than an emotional, interaction with people," she said. At times she felt like an outsider at rehearsal.
"You can't fake your way through this," cautioned Peter Callender, who plays the herald in Agamemnon and who also appeared in American Conservatory Theater's Hecuba. "When you're talking to Zeus, you have to believe Zeus is listening." Almost unconsciously, he called upon his innate superstitions to serve him. In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra induces her husband (played by Derrick Lee Weeden) to walk upon a red carpet. The king resists—red carpets are only for the gods—but eventually concedes, and thus walks to his own death. Throughout rehearsals, the red carpet became so taboo for cast members that Callender's neighbor noticed he was walking around, instead of across, her red rug.
"Images have to be clear in your mind," added Callender, who delivers a long descriptive monologue about the Trojan War. To do so effectively, he envisions a black-and-white film in front of his eyes and can actually see the images (he went to a lot of war movies, like Saving Private Ryan, in preparation). But like the others, he knew it was important to get out of his own way, not to relive the experiences but merely to relate them, to tell the story. "I have to keep reminding myself," he said, "you don't have to shout it; don't comment on it, just present it."
"Versatility and storytelling are the key," asserted Wolpe. As training that might be useful for Greek theatre, she suggested Alexander, Feldenkreis, Linklater, Roy Hart—"anything that opens you up and lets the force of the story flow through you unimpeded." Greek acting, she pointed out, should not be complicated by your actor's personality, tricks, tics, and charisma.
Yet in the end, as Wadsworth counseled the cast, humans don't seem to change in terms of needs, emotions, relationships. Morain put it this way: "We still have jealousy, anger, hatred, melancholy, joy. The cultures change, but being human doesn't."
If it all sounds a bit contradictory and confusing, perhaps it is. But, said Rodriguez, "Any actor who wants to experience the great challenges should run, don't walk, to your opportunity to do a Greek play." BSW
Jean Schiffman can be reached at email@example.com.