Adapting the Odyssey with Double Edge Theater
It’s one of the first nice days in April, and I find myself in a familiar place: walking with Stacy Klein through the grounds of a former dairy farm in Ashfield, lingering by a stream or pointing out features of the landscape – picturing to ourselves herds of golden cows swarming over a hillside, men banqueting on a rooftop, girls singing in a stream, or a maze of 20-foot-tall sails gliding silently in the distance. Stacy is the founder and Artistic Director of Double Edge Theatre, and this lovely nature walk is a preliminary stage in the creation of The Odyssey, the theatre’s 10th annual traveling Summer Spectacle. For anyone who’s never been to one, the audience at a Summer Spectacle is mobile, traveling through the Farm, going inside and outside and following a story usually from folklore or myth. There are always exciting acrobatics, vocal and instrumental music swirling together in the air, and moments of intense drama heightened by the natural magic and stillness of the surrounding landscape.
For The Odyssey, I’m working in the areas of dramaturgy and music. I always have difficulty defining “dramaturgy” or the job of a dramaturg, but, at least as I see it, it comes down to a responsibility for the structure and text of a performance, as well as secondary research and preparation to aid the director and actors. When a performance is created from scratch, as it were – and all of Double Edge’s performances are devised, not made from pre-existing scripts – the role of the dramaturg begins to approach that of a playwright or adaptor. As you may be guessing, this won’t be your average adaptation of the Odyssey. In preparation for this work, I’ve been inspired by many original adaptations and responses: Derek Walcott’s 1993 stage version (which I quote in this post’s title), Nikos Kazantzakis’s poem The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and “The Lotos-Eaters,” James Joyce’s Ulysses (a book I’ve tried to traverse since turning 18), and ancient authors like Euripides, Apollodorus, and Vergil, whose Aeneid was really the first great attempt to convert Homer’s epic themes of wandering and discovery to a “modern” time and place. Not to be too highbrow about it, some mention should be made of the enduring influence of the original Clash of the Titans on my own ideas about Greek myth.
Full disclosure: I was a Classics major in college, so this research elicits a certain gleeful geekiness in me. In rehearsals and meetings I constantly find myself about to plunge down long tangents on language or mythology (“… you know, that word nostos is really the theme of the whole poem – “homecoming” – whence “nostalgia,” where –algia comes from algos, ‘pain,’ which Homer elsewhere uses for …”). I’m usually able to restrain myself.
The unique nature of a Summer Spectacle makes specific demands on the task of adaptation. Foremost is the landscape itself. Each year, a new path through the Farm is discovered for the performance. Although we choose the path with an eye to the particular story to be told, the physical reality of the walkabout has a natural narrative. An example I’ve already alluded to from this year: there’s a broad vista on one edge of the Farm, with a meandering creek and overhanging trees. This place offers itself for the scene where shipwrecked Odysseus washes ashore to be discovered by Nausicaa and her playmates while they wash clothes. Now, this creek is right between an ornamental garden, which Stacy immediately saw as Calypso’s isolated island, and an old chicken coop, which is practically crying out for rowdy sailors to feast upon its rooftop, as in the scene at Circe’s house. Thus we have the placement already for three scenes, which are nowhere near each other in Homer’s poem, but whose order in our performance has been determined in dialogue with the landscape. The job of the dramaturgy team, then, is to tell the story in such a way, shuttling between narrators and frames of reference, to make this sequence flow.
All of these “decisions,” I should add, are subject to change during the rehearsal process – the river could become the shore of the Cyclops’s island, the garden could be the Lotus Eaters’ abode. Many playwrights, I suspect, would be frustrated by this flux and uncertainly, especially when it persists late in the process, but this is an essential feature of Double Edge’s creative method, conceived not so much as uncertainty, but as a dynamic search, which doesn’t settle easily on a solution until it arises organically.
I love playing with words, characters and narrative structures, but I’ve always been aware that Double Edge is not a playwright’s theatre – by which I mean the performances don’t come about as the interpretation of a writer’s ideas. Rather, the actors of the ensemble, working in constant dialogue with their director, are the primary creators of the work, responsible for the imagery and relationships that will define the overall world of the performance. Individual research is a central part of this, as each actor explores specific characters while always asking questions through their physical training and improvisation. The group as a whole is in the midst of a cycle inspired by the work of Marc Chagall, so a series of prints Chagall made to accompany the Odyssey is an important source that they shared with me early on. As a dramaturg, my role is to support this research. So I spoke with the ensemble early on, giving some context to the Homeric poem in Greek history and literature, and pointing to certain themes that could ask for dramatic development – the relationship between gods and mankind, the role of different women in Odysseus’ journey, the tension between scenes of humble peasant life and scenes of abundance and luxury. The actors, in turn, meet with me to discuss questions about the text, and for suggestions on further reading (these websites proved useful when answering questions about Greek myth). I’m always amazed by the actors’ ability to convert these stories into physical reality – finding actions, costumes, vocal explorations, vaudeville-like routines, which bridge the gap between their personal questions as artists and these distant figures of mythology.
Since February, there have been weekly sessions with Double Edge actors, along with long-time collaborators Jennifer Johnson and John Peitso of the Charlestown Working Theater, whose own adaptation of the Odyssey premiered in Boston last year, and is a beautiful, intimate distillation of Homer’s story. They’ll be performing in the piece this summer. Later on in the process, more collaborators, especially local visual artists, will assist in creating the visual world of the Odyssey. (The Firebird last year had amazing contributions from local visual artists). In the Odyssey sessions so far, the actors have trained together, improvised with moments from the story, developed individual “etudes,” and worked on music.
I was Double Edge’s music director for nearly five years, until last January, so developing the music for this piece is very exciting to me as well. My own research has included some modern Greek folk songs from the Aegean islands (like this one from Ikariotika), as well as the beautiful polyphony from Greece’s neighbor, Albania (here are some examples on YouTube). Monteverdi’s opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria has some lovely music. I’ve also been interested, with my Classics background, in discovering some of the natural rhythms and sounds of Homer’s Greek text. So I’ve taught the first few lines of The Odyssey to the actors, and worked with the rhythm of the ancient Greek verse and some of the tonal music of the language. (There are some great websites on Homeric poetry and Homeric singing, including this one with a former professor of mine reciting some of the Iliad with reconstructed pronunciation).
The Summer Spectacles always offer an opportunity to find music from a variety of sources, bridging centuries and cultures, giving the melodies and texts a chance to interact with each other and blend unexpectedly into one work. It’s a process of alchemy that runs through the whole undertaking of performing the Odyssey – inhabiting ancient archetypes, finding your own voice in the music of a long-dead poet, and letting an old story speak to you with the immediacy of a warm summer night spent under the stars.
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Brian Fairley is a musician and theatre director, who was the Dramaturg and Music Director at Double Edge Theatre from 2007-2010, adapting texts and writing/arranging music for three ensemble performances and five (soon to be six) Summer Spectacles. The Odyssey will run from July 20-August 21; tickets are available at the Double Edge website or by phone at (866) 811-4111.