An Interview with Orestia Director Jonathan Vandenberg
- What attracts you to the Greeks and specifically THE ORESTEIA?
In my work, I am always seeking a future theatre. For me, this is a universal theatre, capable of reaching anyone, regardless of culture, age, or language. In this research, it became necessary to return to the Ancient Greek poets because their drama founded the Western tradition. Athenian tragedy is a point of origin from which we depart, charting our own evolving tradition, indifferent to literary conventions. Salvator Settis has written, “Rebirths feed off fragments of the past.” For a radical new theatre, we excavate its classical origins.
Ancient Greek drama also facilitates an exploration of tragedy, which is the most powerful art form I have encountered. Of course, today we cannot experience Athenian tragedy as it was conceived. The situation is quite different without the socio-political context, architecture, festival, etc. Our relationship to tragedy is also different. In our media-saturated age, this term has become Quotidian. But the potency and universality of the concept remains. So the starting point for this theatre project is, “What is a future tragic form?”
The Oresteia is an inexorable exploration of human nature and also a theological drama. It is the only surviving trilogy of Ancient Greece, though its satyr play is lost. There is an opportunity to ask, “What is indestructible here? What in this material has endured through time?”
- In your work there are images and soundscapes but very little dialogue. Why are you interested in eschewing speech in your work?
My work is not a comment on or interpretation of a pre-existing text. Instead, it aims to give body to a drama. A theatrical body: the production. It is a non-hierarchical theatre, wherein no single element dominates. This opens up theatre as an art capable of incorporating many different arts. So when we do utilize speech, its aural qualities may be as important as any literal meaning. Nevertheless, when a project’s source of inspiration is a text, such as with Oresteia, there is still a deep relationship to the original text. Its catalytic elements are used in the evolution of a new theatrical language.
Theatre can venture beyond speech. An example is the prologue of our Oresteia, the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Due to her innocence, our Iphigenia is a child. Aeschylus’ chorus stops narrating when they reach Iphigenia’s death. They are at a loss for words. This is a good place for research to begin, “How can we represent what is unspeakable?” When working on this scene, we discovered that theatrical language could acknowledge its own limitations, and thus, transcend them. Agamemnon first pours a bottle of stage blood over the child’s head. It is only afterwards that he makes the killing gesture. This sacrifice is staged as simply as possible, accepting that we cannot do this scene literally. There is only the act. No more is necessary because there are no words for such a scene.
- How do you build a piece? Do you begin with a script or do you create the piece in rehearsal?
As much as possible is planned before rehearsal. This includes a script and design. There is often a developmental workshop to experiment in different directions. Rehearsal is a combustible process: the collision of abstract ideas with reality. The piece metamorphosizes and expands due to the work of the performers. It evolves again later, when the spectators are present.
- You gravitate toward using non-actors. Can you talk about casting – what are you looking for in an ensemble member?
It’s true that there are modern acting and casting traditions that I deviate from. Performers must find a certain presence and also, stillness. There is no facade to hide behind, no illustration. So, I am skeptical of technique. I work with all kinds of performers, trained and untrained, experienced and inexperienced. All bodies deserve to be seen on stage. Performers may be cast because of their shape, gait, energy, the sound of their voice, etc. There is always a dramaturgical reason. More generally, a diverse group of bodies and backgrounds populates the world of the piece. This is a Greek idea, that there is a community on stage.
Sometimes there is a particular need for a certain figure. In The Oresteia, Agamemnon is conquered rhetorically by Clytemnestra, who convinces him to walk on the tapestries. Our Agamemnon is a deaf actor. For him, speech is already problematized. He does not need to act an inability to speak. He was born deaf, so he has a completely organic relationship to gesture and his body because they are his native tools of communication. His movement is majestic.
- Can you talk about your rehearsal process?
At the very beginning, there are a few ensemble exercises. The performers make short, wordless pieces. This introduces working simply and austerely using one’s entire instrument. It also permits me to better understand the physicalities of the ensemble, how each instinctively moves, what kind of gestures they make, their preferred tempo, and so forth. This is the beginning of a shared vocabulary that makes the rehearsal process possible. Sometimes, this brief, early research has an osmosis-like impact on the piece, directly or indirectly.
I plan basic movements, but it’s not choreographed in the manner of say, Robert Wilson. The movement is a skeletal foundation. Working with the performers, we always search for the simplest way possible. There are discoveries made. In truth, the performers’ work is a mystery to me.
Introducing the soundscape is very delicate. The sound is developed concurrent to rehearsals. It must emerge from the world, rather than be grafted upon it like a soundtrack. Sound is usually introduced late. Otherwise, it subjugates the performers.
- What do you hope the audience walks away with after seeing this piece?
Inevitably, this raises the question of catharsis, which is a very mysterious concept. What did it mean for an Ancient Greek audience? Is it possible today? In a larger sense, The Oresteia connects to the immensity of human experience, our power and our frailty. The events of the House of Atreus reverberate throughout its universe, such that we sense the end of an age and the birth pangs of a new, uncertain one. Each spectator will have his or her own understanding. The senses are impacted during the performance. The mental experience may occur then, or afterwards, in reflection.