I remember the first time I ever saw Elektra.
In Cincinnati, where I went to college, all the acting students had to usher a couple main stage shows a year to keep our scholarships (and let’s be honest, we needed them). But the better reward was to get a seat in a usually sold-out house for what was almost always a great show. On this night I ushered at Elektra (the Sophocles version), I didn’t fare as lucky as my fellow ticket-tearing peers. While they all slinked away to their chairs like seat fillers at the Oscars, I couldn’t find a single open seat for the life of me. The house lights dimmed, and I anxiously plopped down on the stairs as close to the stage as I could get. When the stage lights came up on a lone actress ““ I was transfixed. That production of Elektra moved me in astonishing ways.
They say imitation is the best form of flattery, and in the new production of the play that I’m directing, there is much homage to that production from years ago that only its director, Nicholas Mangano, would notice. The actor who played Elektra, Allison Sell, had a unique stage presence that could not be matched by anyone. But why would I want to try to find someone to match it? The play sings off the page when you find the right actor to play it, and there is no absolute woman out there to play the definitive Elektra. She is in all women, and by stoking the proper fires in the actress playing her, she emerges victorious.
Every time I read a director’s note about Elektra, or talk with anyone who worked on it, they always say the same thing — cast the perfect actress in the role, or on opening night you will have a headache. Cast the perfect actress?! Who is she? Have I met her? Did she show up to audition? Do you have her number?! They say casting is 90% of directing (and I truly believe it), but I found that casting the best person to work with will always trump casting the “perfect” actor. I have the honor of being in the room with some great actors, who are not great because of their talent (which is of the highest caliber in my opinion) –Â but because I can talk to them. And I can say that if they weren’t my friends when we started the show, then they are now. Cast the actor who excites you. Cast the actor you’d have a beer with after the show. I feel that if you cast an actor solely for skill and perfection, the “perfect” actor will usually disappoint.
As the director and writer of the piece, I spent a lot of sleepless nights coming up with theÂ script for the show, but what really ended up being a lot of fun was coming up with the music.Â I’m not trained in any sort of music theory, but I know what I like. I play very little guitar (theÂ instrument young men buy in college to impress girls and that now holds up their bookcase ““Â true story). But I knew I wanted to make something special in this piece.
I am a huge Kanye West fan, and even more of a Jay Z lover ““ and hiphop and rap always fit the show to me. Getting rap into the Elektra wasn’t the hard part though ““ it was how to make music with just two women in the chorus, who had as little musical training as I had. That’s when I found the instrument we lovingly refer to as “The Boss.” It allows for playing in the moment and looping live effects on the fly to produce music out of thin air, or so it seems. And when I saw it work for the first time, I knew it was magic. The Boss RC-20 Loop station allows you to create live harmonies with only a single actor, voice distortion, Auto-Tune and much more. We found that this device, operated by the two women playing the Chorus, made the keening, chanting, and other more traditional Greek practices more accessible to a modern audience. I needed it in the show, and I think it works marvelously within the vision.
Another present-day touch is that the programs are in the form of graphic novels, reflecting the heightened versions of reality in the script. There is an indefinable swagger that comes from Greek plays when you see them done right. Perfection is always just out of reach, but we may have brought ourselves closer to what these productions made people feel like thousands of years ago sitting in Greek theaters.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t just trace what came before, you have to paint a brand new picture with bold colors. At the end of the day, you don’t need buckets of blood, men playing women, women playing men, or an homage to Kanye West to make the story relevant. The play speaks for itself. But Auto-Tuning its voice sure doesn’t hurt.
Elektra, presented by Stokastik Theatre Ensemble, at the Loft Ensemble, 929 E. 2nd Street, LA. Sat.-Sun., 8 pm, and select Thurs. and Fri. performances at 8 pm. Through December 11. Tickets: $10-$20 ($20 at door). www.brownpapertickets.com/event/208844 or lastagetimes.com/elektra.
***All Elektra production photos by Laura NuÃ±ez
The Stokastik Theatre Ensemble is made up of LA alumni of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) and focuses on the production of new, lost and experimental works. The company aims to bring theater to new audiences through new and non-traditional methods and to use a combination of public performance, found space, traditional theater, video, written and other platforms.
Joel RaffeeÂ is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. He attended the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), where he earned a BFA in dramatic performance. He currently is a core company member in the Stokastik Theatre Ensemble and played Theo in Stokastik’s last production of Artifacts of Consequence. He is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, as well as an avid writer and director.