During the second week of rehearsal, we were afforded the opportunity to dig deeper into the why of our project. Why Antigone? Why perform it in schools, prisons, public spaces, rather than theatres? Why take it to Kenya and South Africa?
The highlight of our week was a visit from Kennedy Odede, a remarkable man who grew up in Kibera and founded Shining Hope For Communities, or Shofco, an organization comprising schools, community centers, and a wide variety of programs designed to combat gender inequality and extreme poverty. Shofco will be one of our hosts on the road, and we are so lucky to have their invitation.
In our brief meeting, Kennedy spoke to the company about the work he has done, which started with very little – in fact the first soccer ball he purchased is a part of Shofco lore – but has managed to have a tremendous impact in Kibera. He described his experience performing short plays to educate members of the community about safe sex and other issues of special local importance. Here, in grassroots, educational performance, is the clearest evidence that live theatre actually does make a difference.
Kennedy was kind enough to stay a moment and prepare us for our visit to his home. Recalling last week’s discussion of how our tour might be perceived, the danger of barging in like a clueless cultural-colonizing force, Kennedy advised us to behave not as tourists but as guests. This is a subject of personal importance to Mr. Odede, who has witnessed the indignity of wealthy, white travelers poking into his Kibra in order to take pictures of the poverty. Several years ago he penned an op-ed for the New York Times on what he called “Slumdog Tourism” (which we, as a company, read and will try to take to heart).
Pivoting from the political questions involved in our project, this week saw Mosher slowly parceling out more thoughts on the artistic rationale behind this Antigone. On Friday he spoke about watching a children’s production of King Lear produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and how quickly it exposed the various mechanisms (mostly actors) involved in live storytelling. By the third time a particular actor — who was not truly talking to his cast-mates and not truly talking to the audience – entered, “the kids weren’t buying it. They were done with him.” From there Mosher segued to Peter Brook, “you know that’s why he did this. Not Antigone, but other things […] He was at the height of his game. He was the best director in the world, by a mile. By a mile. And he gave it all up. He went around to villages, in a jeep. They made it up every time. He had to throw it all away to see how theatre worked.”
A month ago, before rehearsals had started, a small group involved in the project met at Mosher’s apartment to read what then existed of the script. He pointed to a small framed photograph behind one of the actor’s heads. Peter Brook in rehearsal for The Mahabharata: “he’s the reason we’re doing this.”
After rehearsal afternoon, Mosher noted that for him a re-investigation of the fundamentals of theatre is by no means academic. We have to find out how this works. Or it’s going to die. It’s no coincidence he teaches a course at Columbia that students jokingly call “How To Save Theatre.” It’s clear this really matters to him. And it’s equally clear that after many years of consideration he feels the answer lies outside of contemporary realism and outside of the physical theatres themselves, at least as currently constituted. “I really think this is the way forward,” he told me. “Going back to myths.”
The enthusiasm of the actors suggests he’s onto something. We’ve yet to put a single scene on its feet, in the normal sense, and yet the actors every rehearsal come in focused on the meaning of the text, visibly thrilling to the richness of language and idea. This play that is less than an hour long in Mosher’s version has given us cause to discuss (in only the last five days of rehearsal) the place of the City in the ancient imagination, the role of a leader in crisis, the craft of salesmen, memories of 9/11, the nature of post-war carnage, Greek mythology and mourning rites, Heidegger, Hegel, and Kierkegaard, the importance of burial, the films of Andrzej Wajda, Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, 20th century existentialist debates over man’s essence, Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, shame, the human’s place in a world designed either for gods or animals, a stoning in Kabul, Robert Kennedy’s speech in Indiana after the assassination of Martin Luther King, various views of fate, love and theft, and many other topics.
Something in the telescoping of plot and character into their most apprehensible form while simultaneously expanding the bounds of language to comprise greater fields of thought allows actor and ultimately (we hope) audience to travel much farther on that narrow road to the interior. The play that appears from a distance to be all compact narrative spine turns out to have nerves spidering deep in the matters of life on earth two thousand years after its writing. That’s a pretty neat trick.
Header Image features Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner, as well as students and faculty, photographed by Audrey Hall.