By Robyn Belt
In anticipation for the upcoming fall show at Yulman Theater, I interviewed the director and scenic designer of ‘Orestes’, a self-described “antic” tragedy that is a transadapted script by Anne Washburn.
Director Bill Finlay and scenic designer Charles Steckler filled me in on what excites them about the project, their process, and the appeal of designing such a unique piece of theater.
Q: Bill, when you saw this production what struck you as appealing? Did you find a beauty or “discomfort” in the play?
A: “I have directed several ‘Greeks’ both in academia and off-Broadway and had never encountered such an engaging and contemporary ‘transadaptation’ of an original work. I knew at the onset that I wanted to direct a Greek play at the college and mentioned it to Professor Wareh, a colleague in Classics. He immediately began telling me about this new and wonderful production of ‘Orestes’ that he had recently seen at The Folger Theatre in Washington, DC. I obtained a script and became so excited about the possibilities after reading it that I flew to Washington to see an archived video of the show which was being held at The Martin Luther King Library. As an interesting side note, this was possible due to the fact that each year only two outstanding professional productions in the Washington area are selected to be video-archived. To view them you have to personally visit either The Martin Luther King Library or the University of Virginia library where the videos are stored. They are not loaned out and you have to make an appointment for a visit. Even though I am usually quite critical of recordings of live theatrical events this adaptation was still remarkably fresh and exciting and something I believed would speak to our audience here at the college.”
Q: Charles, the language of Anne Washburn’s Orestes is quite contemporary yet heightened. What were the challenges of designing a set for a “modern” Greek? Did you adhere to any classical conventions of Greek theater in your design?
A: “It’s been a truism of modernism in our theater that even ‘classic’ Classics are open and available to new interpretations in design and performance. Washburn’s version—she calls it a transadaptation, not a translation—goes even further in contemporizing Euripides’ play but stops short of specifying any contemporary details or topical references. She leaves it open for us to interpret and in a sense to collaborate with her. At first we thought, okay, conceptually, it’s the great amphitheater at Epidaurus meets Wal-Mart, marble meets glass and aluminum. But that seemed gimmicky and missed the point or exaggerated the point, hitting the tack with a sledgehammer. Something more abstract, less literal, was called for. Let the audience imagine and wonder. ‘Classical conventions’ you ask? Yes, but transformed. A circular stage referring to the ancient Greek orchestra shapes the floor of our setting; the façade of our ‘palace’— the house of Agamemnon— refers in an abstract way to the skene, or scene house, of theaters of this period. The setting will look as though it was made of stone. Otherwise, it is based on modern principles of the arrangement of geometric forms. I hope it will seem to our audience as somehow a ‘transadaptation’ of both ancient and modern qualities.”
Q: Why bring a modern ‘Orestes’ to Union College? What do you think students will enjoy or connect with in this particular play?
Bill Finlay: “I asked my directing class just this question the other day and they said if the play contained sex, violence and drugs it would be an easy sell. Well, I won’t say which but this particular work, like much of classic Greek drama, has two out of three and in large doses. The other thing I hope our students find interesting is that this version of ‘Orestes’ believe it or not, is a musical. The chorus of six women and even Electra at times sing continually throughout the evening. The original music was composed by James Sugg, a Washington based musician who won a prestigious Helen Hayes award for this score. I also should mention that we are the first college ever to produce this new version of ‘Orestes.’”
Q: Charles, how many designs had you “drawn up” or toyed with before reaching a final decision?
A: “My design went through three major variations. Bill sent me the script last spring term while I was leading Union’s term abroad in Florence, Italy. With the story of the play in my mind I travelled with my students on an excursion to the famous marble quarries at Carrara. Impressed by the stark beauty and power of those sheer cliffs, caves and slabs of pristine stone I imagined a world for Electra, Orestes, Helen of Troy and Menelaus. That was my starting point.”
Q: Was the construction of the design a collaborative process or more of an individual journey?
Charles Steckler: “In August Bill and I met on the beach at Newport, R.I. to read the play together. With the sound of a gentle surf breaking against the shore, the cry of gulls overhead and salty sea breeze in our nostrils we asked and answered questions about this peculiar play and shared ideas about how to interpret it for the stage. Later that month, the design team (costume designer Brittney Belz and lighting designer Bob Bovard) met with Bill and I to discuss our individual responses to the play and began in earnest to work towards a meeting of creative minds, collaborating towards a singular approach, concept, style. Theater works on the model of collaborative engagement and over the course of several meetings a vision for our production of ‘Orestes’ emerged, balancing the elements of setting, costumes and lighting in response to the director’s guiding interpretation.”
Q: Bill, any significance to the Halloween opening? And most importantly, should the opening audience come in costume?
A: The opening date is pure coincidence and if people want to come in costume they will be more than welcomed. This is the theatre after all!
Yulman Theatre, Oct. 31-Nov. 4
Performances on Oct. 31, Nov. 1, 2, and 3 are at 7 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 4 matinee on at 2 p.m.
Seven dollars for students (can be charged to declining balance), 10 dollars general admission.
Purchase tickets through the box office or call (518)-388-6545