2017 Regional Theatre Tony Award®
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Dear friends,

I am thrilled that you will be joining us to experience Dallas Theater Center’s production of Electra at Strauss Square. Some people have asked me, “Why are you producing Electra? And why are you performing it outside, with the audience wearing headphones?” If you’re wondering that, read on. (Or if you want to be fully surprised – then stop reading this, and just come experience the show to avoid any spoilers.)

Sophocles wrote his version of the Electra myth in the 5th century BCE in Athens, Greece. Since then, for more than 2,500 years, his play has been studied, performed and analyzed throughout the world.

One reason for this is its enduring exploration of family strife, justice and grief. Sophocles wrote compelling characters with complicated psychologies (though the concept of psychology wasn’t yet known; nonetheless, Sophocles’ characters pulsate with life due to the internal contradictions of their desires, their moments of doubt, and their ability to think through a choice in real time). As in his other great plays, Antigone and Oedipus Rex, in Electra he also created powerful dialogue between characters who express opposite points of view about morality and politics, with each side making a persuasive case at different moments in the scene. When I watch a dialogue scene in a play by Sophocles I constantly find myself siding with one character and then switching to the other’s point of view just a few minutes later. It’s the verbal equivalent of watching a boxing match between two well-matched fighters at the height of their powers – first one seems to be winning, and then, in an instant, the other rises up and catches the crowd’s support.

Much of Electra is centered on the price of justice. When an unjust act has been committed (in this case, the killing of King Agamemnon by his wife, Queen Clytemnestra, ten years earlier) is there a time when political protest and personal grief should turn to resignation and acceptance? Is it right to perpetrate an immoral act (killing your mother) to right an equally evil act that has been done (your mother killed your father)? When and how can decades old cycles of hatred and violence be ended? These are questions that have no easy answers: they were as complicated in Ancient Greece as they are in our modern world, and Sophocles doesn’t attempt to definitively answer them, though he does seem to believe that Orestes’ killing of his mother is both necessary and just, ending his play with a relatively triumphant ending.

Bringing this ancient story to life on stage for a modern audience requires some challenging choices for the artists involved. Greek tragedies were originally performed outdoors, with the actors wearing masks, resulting in a performance style that was far removed from today’s expectation of “realism.” The audience was deeply invested in the events portrayed by the actors, with moments of pity and awe causing an emotional catharsis for the theatergoers, but there were also elements that created emotional distance from the story. For instance, at various points throughout the performance the action slowed or stopped and a chorus sang and chanted commentary about the plot, characters and theme, allowing the audience to contemplate the play’s ideas and appreciate the poet’s artistry.

Faced with these challenges of creating a compelling acting style and a theatrical design that would allow the audience to experience both emotional engagement with the characters while also experiencing moments of “distance” from the play, the cast, designers and I have made two fundamental choices.

First, we have decided to locate our production outside. Not only does this allow us to connect back to the Ancient Greek tradition of performing under the sky, but it also allows for a more expansive acting style (the actors often have to speak very loudly to be heard and, at times, have to cover large distances with their bodies, leading to larger gestures and a more robust approach to the acting than would be sensible indoors, in a smaller space). It also locates the performance as a public event – you are hyper-aware of your surroundings, the other people experiencing the play alongside you, and your own relationship to the actors. This combination of a simultaneously public/private event and the interplay of intimate/grand emotions is central to the experience of these ancient plays.

Secondly, we have decided to give the audience headphones to wear throughout the production. This allows us to replace the traditional Greek Chorus of chanting young women intoning poetry with the disembodied voice of the ghost of the dead king, Agamemnon, crying out from the underworld for revenge against his wife, who killed him ten years earlier. This allows us to communicate much of the text found in Sophocles’ choral sections, while also keeping the experience personal and direct.

But why is the audience wearing headphones, rather than simply using the more conventional choice of amplifying the dialogue through speakers – the way most outdoor theater functions?

There are two answers to that. My initial impulse was that it would be powerful to hear such emotionally alive acting through the intimacy of headphones – almost like listening to a friend share a highly emotional story through your mobile phone while wearing earbuds. This idea intersected with a very practical reality: there are severe restrictions on the amount of amplification allowed in Strauss Square when the Dallas Symphony is in residence (to avoid the noise bleeding into the Myerson). Luckily, with the audience wearing headphones this practical problem is solved, since we are playing all of the sound – both live and prerecorded – directly into the audiences’ ears.

This has resulted in a fascinating experiment.  You will be watching a very real and immediate live event, literally sharing space with the actors as they perform and following them to various locations; while, at the same time, you will be hearing their voices in your ears without acoustic access to the sounds of the natural environment around you. Thus, the actors’ voices are “disconnected” from the visual images you’re seeing, though they are obviously occurring simultaneously and with natural cause and effect. In some ways this is similar to the experience of the audience in Ancient Greece, who heard the actors’ voices but never saw their faces, since those actors were wearing large, immoveable masks with one frozen facial expression carved into them for the entire play – a unique mixture of both “natural” and “artificial” at the same time.

One of the great joys of being an artist is having the opportunity to encounter masterworks of the past, explore how they were originally performed and received, and then create a new, living work of art for today. Personally, I love the great literature of the ancient world and have grown immensely by spending the past year deeply immersed in the language, characters and themes in Sophocles’ play. As you experience Electra, in this unique production, I fervently hope that you will be as intrigued and engaged by our very contemporary approach to theatricalizing this ancient play as we have been in its creation.

I look forward to seeing you in the lobby (or, in this case, in the grass outside)!

 

Kevin Moriarty
DTC Artisitic Director
Director, Electra

 

 

September 2017
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