Getty Villa Day 6 May, 2013

Ellen Lauren's picture

Day 6,

An early morning after reading the Persians last night. The fog and clouds giving way to a pure light that etches everything with such clarity. The beauty is almost too much, overwhelming to the senses and the soul. A morning drive up into the canyon and down to the Pacific, which is now a color we haven’t seen before. 

After the formality, archaic structure and rigor of Aeschylus’ language, we give over today to the wild, unnerving energy of Euripides’ The Bacchae. One  has been read at night, sombre and strange. The other will be read midday, while this light outside shines on the white marble, glitters the fountains and herbs, spins the birds into the air. 

But we were tired.

And so in the morning it seemed somehow not possible that we would be able, sitting behind tables in the chill of the black box theater, to provide any kind of hook up into this brutal text for the audience, something that might take them back into its history while letting it roar into their immediate lives.

We read it thru before the performance, after training. Mary Hart, our curator and scholar for this play, listened, provided more context. With Anne reading stage directions, we sat in a line of 7 across 3 tables, pushed closer to the audience than for the Persians.

This is hard to write about. This experience. It is not for lack of feeling, but rather because feeling is refusing to be captured in words. Today we read The Bacchae, and I read the role of Agave, mother of Pentheus- who rips her son’s body to shreds in her state of possession by Dionysus.  Tricked to thinking its a lion, she rushed from Mt Kithaeron into the city of Thebes, only to be talked down by her father (Bondo)to look at what she has really done. The ultimate scapegoat-blinded by the god. Responsible? Free will? Victim?  where are the lines drawn? 

For over 20 years, under the direction of Tadashi Suzuki, I struggled with this role, toured the world, grew up inside it, in just about every way.

If a person has a child, they have some way to mark the passage of time. Their eye can see the growth marks, lovingly inked on the door jam, they can flip thru albums of birthdays, report cards. Their arm that used to cradle,  soon pulls a little body in, then drapes an arm over taller shoulders. My life has been marked by playing this role. 

And because this is, as it happens and the wide world works, its my day for the diary, so this is my subject. Agave then- Agave today. I thought my heart would break, my head would split, but neither happened. What I could do was pull together 2 countries of my life. I didn’t know this was what the day would give. 

In 1992, Suzuki cast me in the role of Agave in his production of Dionysus, his majestic interpretation of The Bacchae. Akiko, Kelly, Bondo have all been in it, before the advent of SITI. We each had our growth inside it.  Then, it was performed alongside Chuck Mee’s Orestes, in that inaugural season of SITI. The earliest members of something called the Saratoga Institute included Tom, and too,  those who have long since gone down other paths, were in this piece. It has deep resonance in our culture.

At the time I was placed in the role I didn’t know shit. I was loud and tall. Unlike others, I remained in the piece, toured the world and experienced almost 2 decades of the most essential, challenging lessons that an actor can face. I stood on the great Herod Atticus stage, the Teatro Olympica in Vicenza, the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, the ancient stadium of Delphi,  the Moscow Art, the RSC, the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, the sleek Hong Kong Arts Center…its a heady list and goes on. For 16 of those years I was the only Western actor in the piece. It was bilingual and my Japanese remained only at a level that allowed for dressing room camaraderie, airport necessities and heartbroken late night confessions- but never more than that. I lived on this 20 minute experience.

When I finished in 2008 I think I knew less in some ways, but the geography covered had shaped my life, taught me what I lean on each and every day and in turn try to share. The experience scalded me clean, and has become not something that I did, but something that I am. I do not know how to describe this.

So today, we gathered once again to tell this story in the basement of the Getty Villa. Another time, other parameters. In the middle suddenly I was rushed in by memories. The most distinct memory of my first day of rehearsal so many years ago in Mito, Japan. We had trained, and then I was sent off with the prop of Pentheus’ head, a wig mannequin, to ‘rehearse’. I was sent to a small sound proof room. When the door clicked shut, I had no idea what to do. What did it mean to ‘rehearse’ without the others, the director, even the text. I thought I would go mad, took a breath, and then the following years became about that discovery. 

We read so well today. I realized that my legs were burning from pressing into the floor under the table, as they were used to in reference to these words. I realized that I had kicked off my shoes to feel the floor. I felt Bondo next to me vital and skilled, he pressed my hand, and then something transpired between us, an acknowledgment of the past in our present. Our history. Something quickened and deepened in the room.  There at the end of the table,  Kelly tore into the Chorus sans music and locale and created a whole world. GM seduced with spectacular charm as Dionysus, JEd had the audience rapt with Pentheus’ transformation from angry Prince to the best drag act in the history of Western Theater. This transcript of the most wild unsettling behavior ever set down, woke and worked. On us all. We all heard it. And somehow it wasn’t even the translation-it was something else, unspoken, invisible that transpired. 

After, we were a bit stunned backstage. A talkback, and then a meeting to select the scholarship candidates for the Conservatory-in the sunshine, at the Getty Villa, after ‘reading’ The Bacchae. Which I realize now, read us. 

Tonight, we gathered because we needed to see each other, by the pool, with drinks and J.Ed made food. I still don’t know how to write this.  

But that was day 6. 

xellen

Dionysus, Teatro Olympico Italy