Experimental play makes an impression

After four performances at Pireos 260, the Athens Festival presentation of a postmodern version of Racine’s «Phaedra,» titled «To You, The Birdie,» with the Wooster Group became one of the most hotly discussed items of cultural news this summer. The innovative New York-based troupe does it all: theater, performance art, pop opera and stage games. Kathimerini met up with the heart of the troupe, director Elizabeth LeCompte, just a few hours before she flew off to Myconos for a few days rest before leaving for Edinburgh. «Phaedra» was a physical performance based on the functions and trials of the human body. I made a physical metaphor that was largely based on movement, on anything that could have a liveliness on stage. Like the game of badminton. The element of disease was devised… We wanted to address the issue of how women react to intense shame. We drew a connection with anemia, which was a very common illness in Racine’s times (17th century), and which had a lot of consequences, often leading women to suicide. Poison was given to patients to help deliver them from the hardships of the disease. Also, when I was a little girl, I remember daydreaming about Marie Antionette and the French kings. They used to wander around palaces without bathrooms. They would defecate anywhere. These images made up a very strange world to me. Beautifully dressed, impressive in their demeanor, and defecating under the stairs! So, some of the ideas for the performance were based on life in the courts and on the more common diseases of the time. How did you work around the difficulties of the text? The play was translated and adapted to modern language by Paul Schmidt (a close associate of the group who passed away and to whom the production was dedicated) especially for us. Paul drew up a kind of map for me to follow. I haven’t read the original play and I have never seen it staged. Paul’s language was very modern and he spoke about things that were so tragic we had to find a physical way to express them. The sentiments were those of a long time ago and belonged to a different genre, to tragedy. But we wanted to stage a melodrama, a pop opera, so we had to find a way so that the actors do not appear natural, that they appear larger than life and react in a way that is clearly theatrical. That was extremely difficult. I asked a top narrator to coach the actors and I borrowed gestures from Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, in combination with gags like those of the Marx Brothers. So, on the one hand we had the expressionist symbolism of Graham, and on the other, a silent comedy, coming together to make sure the play is not a natural, everyday drama. Was the badminton your idea? Yes, in a manner. There are periods when I don’t know what I want to do exactly and this is very tiring for the actors. So, we come up with games or activities to keep them physically busy. I watch them and think. The badminton idea began from a game of ping-pong, but its movements were too tiring, and then we came up with badminton; everyone liked the idea. We brought in a coach and taught the actors the movements. Is your work a collective effort? Absolutely. I work very closely with my actors. The concept is mine, but the staging is the product of a very close collaboration with my actors. Some I have known for years, like Kate Valk (Phaedra) and others for just days. In an age where we have seen almost everything there is to see, how would you define the term «experimental theater»? I am not sure that I can. I think our performances are experimental because people still ask me why I do one thing or the other. I can’t answer them. I think that that’s what experimentation is: not knowing exactly why you do something. I don’t follow a particular formula. I don’t even know that what I’m doing will be watchable… My performances are not mental exercises, but something I enjoy doing.