Amateur theater has a very strange life cycle. The show has a long gestation period, then is born, lives, and dies over the course of a single weekend. Unwilling to let it all melt away quietly into the darkness without trace, I have started documenting, after the fact, my part of the collective process by which the show was created. I make these documents available here for those who might retain some curiosity about what these ‘director’ people do and why we do it.
Paul was the first to suggest Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. He had produced it many years ago in a place and time far, far away and was convinced that the intervening years had only made it more powerful. I hadn’t read Antigone since I first encountered it in a high school English class more than twenty years ago. But I remembered the play pretty clearly. My high school English teacher had been disturbed by the fact that my paper on Antigone was pro-Creon. I hope it would cheer him up to know that at the age of 42 I am pro-Antigone. Eight years of living in a country run by George W. Bush taught me the value of saying no—even when you don’t expect it to make a damn bit of difference.
In college I took a lot of courses on French drama. I never thought I would have any practical use for them. Oddly enough, the professor who taught them all never assigned Antigone. He had lived through the 1940s in Paris and I remember how, during one lecture, he wandered into reminiscing about his youth in occupied Paris. He was telling a story about carrying a stack of resistance leaflets into a building hidden under his jacket, palpitating with terror all the time, and then scattering them in an empty stairwell. I remember his melancholy self-accusation: “I cannot say that I suffered.” Maybe he was not a big Creon fan either.
At any rate, I read the Galantiere translation, disliked it, then went and got the Anouilh original and liked it much better. For a time Paul and I toyed with the idea of doing our own translation, but this would have involved a legal nightmare that we had neither the time nor the money to sort out. Instead we looked for alternatives, and were pleased to find Samuel French offering one which seemed closer to the original text and less dated in its diction.
We had no way of knowing that the news of February 2011 would be dominated by stories about tyrants falling. But the fact is that no matter when you produce this play, something is bound to happen that makes it seem ripped from the headlines. We live in a world full of Creons. We are not as rich in Antigones; but people do still find ways of saying no.
The first decision we made was to stage it in the round. It made sense both artistically and practically. The Great Room at Experimental Station is not a theater per se; it is a large empty space. So you don’t just build the set; you build the stage, the wings, and the curtain. Staging in the round means you don’t have to construct a frame around your stage, which means no building walls or wings, which makes those last couple weeks before the show that much easier.
We thought it would work particularly well for Antigone. The Chorus’s opening speech calls the spectators out for being spectators—for the fact that they are “quite content” to watch Antigone die because they know they won’t have to. In the round, because the spectators are visible to each other, they are always aware that they’re watching and being watched; it underlines the complicity that the Chorus insinuates in that opening speech.
It was Paul who drew up the plan for the “rhombus,” as he called it, with multiple levels connected by a raised walkway to an offstage area blocked off by a curtain. The whole play was kind of a big game of King of the Mountain, with everyone trying to control the highest level. The offstage area was Death; the curtain entrance functioned like that freaky doorway in the Ministry of Magic. The only time anyone entered through the curtain was when s/he had come back from Polynices’s body (as the First Guard did in his first scene). Otherwise, once a character exited through the curtain, well, you wouldn’t see HIM no more.
We originally thought of the set as abstract; later on Paul came up with a design based on the idea of a neoclassical palace that had survived bomb and bullet damage from a civil war.
For nearly everyone in the cast it was their first time acting in the round; it was certainly our first time directing that way. We had to be specific and consistent about where the actors were at any given moment. Indeed, the only reason this production worked at all was that Rachel, our stage manager, kept such good notes about the blocking, and Wynn, our assistant stage manager, sat in the areas where we weren’t checking to see what was visible. In the round, there’s never a moment at which everyone can see everything; so you have to keep turning the actors around. I think this actually helped with that gigantic dialogue between Antigone and Creon; the movement made it more dynamic. Another thing that really helped was that Michele and Scott made their reactions as expressive as their actions, so that it was as interesting to watch the face of the person who was listening as it was to watch the face of the person who was talking.
A SORT OF TEAM SPIRIT
It’s easy for this play to become a vehicle for the two actors playing Creon and Antigone. Many of the other parts are, when measured in number of lines, extremely small. Eurydice knits—Elena actually made that blood-red scarf, mostly during rehearsals—but never speaks. The Page speaks only in her final scene and has three lines. Guards #2 and #3 speak only in one scene. The Messenger’s sole and only job is to show up about five minutes before the play is over and deliver one speech. But it is a community theater; and we wanted it to be an ensemble piece in which everyone worked together and every part counted.
The Chorus’s opening speech gave me the idea of having the characters sit around the stage and watch instead of exiting. During that opening monologue the characters are all on stage even though they shouldn’t technically exist because their play hasn’t started yet. I found that kind of in-between existence fascinating back in high school, so I thought it would be neat to prolong it by giving the characters a kind of ‘gray area’ to be in while they weren’t acting. But more important, from my point of view, it involved every member of the cast in every moment of the performance. At the end of the day, it was everyone’s play, and that’s one of the things I am most proud of.
One of the innovative things about Anouilh’s Antigone was its contemporary setting. There has always been a strong neoclassical strain in French drama; and after the first world war, there was a boom in neoclassical French tragedies. By 1944, French reinterpretations of classical Greek drama and mythology were a dime a dozen. Anouilh’s beloved Jean Giraudoux used the Trojan War to comment on the buildup toward World War II in La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (1935). Giraudoux and Jean-Paul Sartre both mined the story of Orestes (Giraudoux in 1937 with Electre and Sartre in 1942 with Les Mouches). Other French playwrights had already done Antigone, including Jean Cocteau in 1922. But these adaptations were set in ancient Greece. Anouilh—without bothering to explain or justify it—transported the characters to a world that looks very much like the Paris of his day, making the connection to his own present moment immediate and unavoidable.
But what was contemporary for Anouilh is now history. To preserve that link to the present moment, we moved the setting to our time period. This meant including modern technology. Reading the play again I was struck by how anachronistic the letter-writing scene felt. When was the last time you wrote someone a letter? The guard’s dialogue even seems to be calling attention to the anachronism, though of course Anouilh can’t have intended that. So we left the letter-writing scene as it was, and then built around her a world in which everyone else had gone paperless. So the guards played games on their smartphones instead of playing cards; the page took notes for Creon on a laptop; the messenger was a PR flack with a bluetooth headset.
In Antigone there are many references to the mob, but it remains offstage. We decided on a real live mob partly because we wanted to include people who auditioned but didn’t get cast. As it turned out none of those people signed up for this particular journey; but we did get a dedicated and enthusiastic mob in the end. Though we couldn’t have known it in advance, the mob made the contemporary parallels even more explicit, seeing as the show went up the same weekend Mubarak went down.
PROPS, COSTUMES AND MUSIC
The people who really made the contemporary setting effective were Mary McCarthy (costumes), Laura MacGregor (props), and Jenne Lennon, who composed the music. When we explained our concept to Mary, she suggested a steampunk look for Antigone. Steampunk, as she explained, pillages Romantic-era fashions and technologies and transforms them into twenty-first century style. We thought this was a great idea, because it would mark Antigone as different, point up the contrast between computer-age and industrial-age technology, and capture something about Antigone’s unfortunately un-modern idealism. She and Ismene stood out for different reasons, and Mary created both costumes. Mary came up with a purple-gray-black scheme for the rest of the characters, most of whom were wearing clothes Mary found and then altered to fit our actors (Creon’s suit was loaned to us by Mary’s husband, for which we are eternally grateful). As with many other institutions, we spent most of our budget on the military; the boots and the gear had to be bought new. But for us, it was worth it.
Laura figured out how to make a rusty toy shovel in a world where metal has just about disappeared from children’s toys; how to make nightsticks that looked mean but wouldn’t brain anyone by accident; how to make a plate of toast and coffee that we could use three nights in a row; how to mock up two smartphones using phone cases and the cardboard models; how Antigone could wear her journal; and most of all, how to keep track of everything backstage. Indeed, the only prop that gave us trouble was the one Laura had nothing to do with: the dirt we used to make Antigone look like she’s been digging. The week after a blizzard, dirt is harder to find than usual. We used a mix of potting soil and gravel; and for whatever reason, no matter how wet we got it, it just didn’t stay dirty enough.
The style of Jenne’s music, with its combination of contemporary and folk elements, perfectly complemented the look Mary and Laura achieved. In her second monologue, the Chorus talks about tragedy as a machine—a spring that you wind up, and that just goes chugging along on its own once you set it off. Jenne wrote an “overture” in which a minimalist piano theme associated with Antigone is developed through four different sections. We figured out that we could break it up and use it as a score for the show as a whole, with each section serving as another turn of the screw. We loved all the music Jenne wrote for the show—it was beautiful, haunting, edgy, and poignant—and used it to heighten some of the play’s most emotional moments. Her triumphant revision of the overture, a track she called “To the Second Power,” became the music for the curtain call. I loved that, because as weird as it may be, when I see theater, the curtain call is often my favorite part. I love the in-betweenness of it, how the actors are not entirely in character but not entirely out of it. I also just like seeing them finally rewarded for all the work they’ve done. And our actors deserved it. They were all wonderful, in all three performances. Never has the ephemerality of the theatrical event made me as sad as I was on Sunday, February 13, when we put the last pieces of the set into Paul’s basement and I drove home knowing that show would never take place again.
But then there’s always the next one.