Michael Kahn’s take on the Theban Cycle, in primitive times

Sophocles’ Theban trilogy, titled «The Oedipus Plays,» will be presented for the first time in Europe by the Shakespeare Theater of Washington, DC tomorrow and Thursday at the Herod Atticus Theater. Part of this year’s Athens Festival, the event was co-organized by the American Community Schools in Athens (ACS) and the American-Hellenic Arts Center of Halandri, with honorary chairman US Ambassador to Greece Thomas Miller. Proceeds from both performances will benefit the construction of ACS’s cultural and athletic center in Halandri. Based on a translation by Nicholas Rudall and directed by Michael Kahn, the production features an African-American cast led by Avery Brooks in the role of Oedipus. Artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater for the last 16 years, Kahn is also the director of the drama division of the Julliard School, while some of his former students include William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Kevin Kline and Robin Williams. He recently spoke to Kathimerini. There are those who believe that ancient drama has been extensively interpreted, that there’s nearly nothing to add. This might be the case in Greece but certainly not in the United States. Our company specializes in Shakespeare, who, to Anglo-Saxon audiences, is what tragedy is to you Greeks. It is a huge responsibility to work on these plays, to approach them in a novel way. You have to visualize them not just in terms of their playwright, but mainly in relation to their era. A director’s real job is to interpret the classics and that is my definition of what a classic play really is about: a work that can be interpreted in a number of different ways, a work that transcends the period it was written. You link Sophocles’ Theban Cycle to Africa and the Egyptian dynasties. What led you there? Many things. Mostly the fact that this enables the audience to stay away from the play’s prejudices. There is also something else: Working on Euripides with students at the Julliard School a few years ago, I discovered that by placing an ancient drama play in a more «primitive» environment – before the classical period – you allow the play to be better known, empowering the myth and the message; everything becomes clearer. What are your views on contemporary American theater today? What’s really exciting about American theater now is that there is a significant number of great theater troupes in dozens of cities around the country – away from New York or Washington. And though our company comes from a great urban center, I feel that in Athens, we represent all of these American troupes. Broadway, of course, is part of the puzzle, representing theater’s more commercial side, but I can assure you that in the United States there are many companies who are not into commercial theater and are made up of 100 percent professionals, all dedicated to good theater. How do they survive financially? As in all other places, I think that our theaters are facing financial difficulties. There are more than 60 theaters in Washington today, the majority of which are full every night. Just think, there’s television, there’s cinema, yet most of the theaters are packed every day. My only explanation is that people are hungry for good theater. And most actors realize that their best chance for them to be in significant productions is outside New York. Do the goverment and the different states offer any kind of financial aid? To a very limited extent. Theaters survive thanks to sponsors, private funding and box office sales. Your second performance in Athens is on September 11. As a New Yorker, how do you see the city two years later? September 11 found the company performing «The Oedipus Plays» in Washington – one of the cities hit by the attacks. Naturally, there was no performance on that day nor the day after, but we opened again on September 13. It was a full house. It was an extraordinary experience: staging a play that is about a tragedy that has hit society or about a woman who can’t bury her brother, while all these things were happening in the United States. The public, acting as a community, was able to share the shock with us, so you can imagine the sentimental bond which developed with these great plays. It will be very moving in Athens as well and at the same time a great honor (given the invitation) and a great joy. It will also be a kind of celebration for all of us involved in the production. Because it caught us at such a particularly difficult moment, «The Oedipus Plays» brought us closer, made us grow. During those days, the actors on stage were as terrified as their audience… The interview was translated from the Greek text.

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