How do you breathe life into one of the world’s oldest dramas when the titular protagonist is chained to a mountaintop ranting against the gods for the show’s entirety?
If you’re Travis Preston, dean of the CalArts School of Theater and artistic director of the CalArts Center for New Performance, and tasked with staging Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound for the J. Paul Getty Museum’s annual outdoor production, opening tonight at the Getty Villa, the answer is simple. Fabricate a 23-foot tall steel wheel.
“It was certainly in my mind to do something that would be singular,” admits Preston while standing in front of the impressive metal structure during an early August media day at the Villa. “The first challenge was Prometheus is meant to be chained to a mountaintop rock. My first idea was to put the audience here [pointing to the ground in front of the wheel] and to work on the stairs where the audience would normally be seated. For a variety of reasons, that was impossible.”
The wheel concept was actually Preston’s second idea brought to fruition via collaboration with scenic designer Efren Delgadillo, Jr. CalArts MFA candidate Bill Honigstein oversaw its construction while LA ProPoint, whose work can be seen at performing arts venues such as Hollywood Bowl, Walt Disney Concert Hall, REDCAT, Dolby Theatre (Cirque du Soleil) and the upcoming Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, provided engineering and manufacturing.
The five-ton wheel features a smaller one on its face, where classical actor Ron Cephas Jones is strapped in as the mythic titan. “The [larger wheel’s] actual height is 24 foot 3 inches and the smaller Prometheus wheel is nine feet,” Delgadillo explains. “The larger wheel is constructed out of steel while the smaller one is aluminum. It’s all counterbalanced, counterweighted and mechanically driven — no motors. It’s chain-driven down to an actual ship’s wheel that controls Prometheus.”
“A bit frightening,” admits Jones, when asked about his first experience working on the metal contraption. His recent classical roles include Richard III for the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, Caliban in The Bridge Project’s The Tempest, Othello at London’s Almeida Theatre and Ajax at American Repertory Theater.
“A little offsetting — boundaries and balance and perspective. But also it’s beautiful and challenging to be able to be that far up in the air and feel the elements. The play is so much about the elements, you know — earth, wind, fire, sun, moon — so being that much closer to the heavens if you will, certainly emotionally and spiritually puts me in a nice place for this particular role.”
In Aeschylus’ retelling of the Prometheus myth, the titan is punished by Zeus for giving humankind the gift of fire, a harsh fate give the vital role he once played aiding Zeus’ victory during the War of the Titans. Prometheus also prevents the destruction of humankind while giving them the arts of civilization — writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science.
While chained to the mountaintop, he receives a number of visitors including Io, a human maiden pursued by Zeus, played by Mirjana Jokovic, director of performance at CalArts School of Theater and an internationally noted Serbian actress whose US theatrical credits include Broadway (Electra), American Repertory Theatre, American Conservatory Theater (ACT) and the McCarter Theatre. The ensemble also includes Michael Blackman (Hermes), Adam Haas Hunter, (Kratos), Joseph Kamal (Okeanos), and Tony Sancho (Hephaistos). The 12-member Greek chorus features recent CalArts graduates.
Vegas-based Flying by Foy designed special harnesses for the actors who climb the wheel and taught them how to do it, which Preston said “requires a lot of stamina. It required that we have a very agile group of women. Ultimately, it’s not so taxing in the performance. We have a really extraordinary group of young actors who are really incredible in their ability to gauge this. They have no fear of heights.”
Given that a majority of the show’s early press coverage has focused primarily on the wheel itself, how concerned is Preston that it will overshadow the ancient story being told?
“The paradoxical impact of the wheel is that it brings the actors closer to us,” Preston offers. “It actually makes for a more intimate engagement. So even though the object is itself spectacular, it make a lot of things much more accessible and easier.”
“You sort of forget that it’s a wheel, it becomes just a vertical plane,” adds Delgadillo. “It’s not even really a gimmick…it just becomes an object. You write in your own imagery. You really do see a rock, a precipice; you see all those things. It’s kind of great how it’s just a blank canvas even though it’s a big steel structure.”
“The challenge is to tell the story as if you are sitting around the campfire telling a story to a group of friends,” Jones concludes. “Once you see the wheel and then you see the outside, it becomes about sitting and listening to a beautiful story with beautiful words. So the challenge is to bring the audience right into the wheel. That’s my challenge — to use the words to bring the audience right into this little small intimate circle and experience this particular titan god.”
An Ancient Choral Tradition
Though Aeschylus is considered the first dramatist, there is some intellectual debate about whether he penned Prometheus Bound and whether it or another of his works, The Persians, is the oldest surviving Greek play. To Dr. Mary Louise Hart, associate curator of antiquities at the J. Getty Museum and founder of the theater program in 1997, the answer is clear.
“The Persians [which the Getty has scheduled as its 2014 production to be performed by SITI Company] is the most ancient play,” she states. “They are of about the same time and nobody knows the exact dates. But there is scholarly controversy as to whether this [Prometheus Bound] was by Aeschylus at all. There are many scholars, many classicists who firmly believed that it was not by Aeschylus but by another ancient tragedian. The important thing, and I think it’s something Travis has clued into from the beginning, is that this play comes from the most ancient choral dances that we have. It’s often looked to as a source for ideas of what those may have been like because it’s so choral.”
Hart explains that the first plays emerged from a choral dancing tradition that had minimal acting. “There was none at first and then a little bit. You’ve all heard of Thespis [the first person to appear on stage as an actor playing a character]. So then they [the plays] build and build until you have something like Euripides, which is almost all actors, and you can do a minimal chorus because it’s not as important. In this play, it is — and that’s part of the very early nature of it.”
“The point that Mary was making I think is really extraordinary,” Preston says during a post-event interview. “This play sits at the origins of western drama and really gives you a window into what the first ritual impulse that led to the theater might have been. That’s what I’m excited about.”
The Getty production is not his first experience with Prometheus Bound. Preston directed the ancient drama as his first professional production after graduation from Yale School of Drama. He was invited in 1980 by a theater in pre-Solidarity Poland to helm a show because of his past relationships with Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor. While the censors turned down his idea to do Sam Shepard’s Suicide in B Flat, calling it “dark and ambiguous,” they did allow him to “do a piece about a revolutionary tied to a rock by a tyrant.”
“I did not anticipate ever encountering that piece again,” laughs Preston. “I think I might have the distinction of, after this production, becoming the only person to have directed it twice. In my conversation with the curatorial staff at the Getty, there had been a considerable amount of productions related to Euripides while this was really a dense poetic drama that engaged a vital choral component. The chorus is one of the most exciting and interesting aspects of this work to me.”
The Getty production features 12 members of the chorus as opposed to the single representative Preston used in his first Polish production. He explained that at the time, that choice conformed to his view then of “what was a contemporary address to the piece.”
“I’ve subsequently recognized that the chorus — and this was important to the interest of CalArts and the Center for New Performance — that the chorus asks you to address issues that really push and redefine concepts of acting. Our common assumptions about what we should be looking at on stage and what an actor should be doing since, let’s say, the post-World War II period. After which the emphasis on psychology…and individual characterization becomes preeminent with the discourse led by the United States.”
Preston says the partnership and resources shared between the Getty and CalArts offered him a rare opportunity to develop the piece via two lengthy workshops and then a full production period. It allowed the two institutions to keep a company together for several months of work, which he considered necessary to achieve the high standards required of a Greek chorus.
“What is interesting about encountering the chorus is its challenge to call you to engage in what communal identity might be. I have to say that it returned me to some of the things that I encountered as a very, very young artist when I was engaging in the theater for the first time.”
The production marks the premiere of a translation by Joel Agee, who has won several prestigious prizes for his translations of Heinrich von Kleist’s verse play Penthesilea, Hans Erich Nossack’s The End: Hamburg 1943 and Selected Writings of Friedrich Dürrenmatt. He is the author of two memoirs: Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany and In the House of My Fear. He is the son of writer/film critic James Agee. His new translation of Prometheus Bound is to be published by the New York Review of Books.
The ancient play “is almost more of a dramatic poem than a poetic drama,” says Preston, who had scrutinized nearly 30 translations of Prometheus Bound. “It actually gained popularity throughout history because it was perceived as a proto-Christian piece and because of that it was translated very often. But in reviewing those, I couldn’t find one that I felt had incantatory poetic power. I thought it was important for us to commission a new translation and happily the Getty agreed. Joel is one of the finest writers and poets that I know.”
Preston has wanted to direct Agee’s Penthesilea translation, but he finds that its cast of approximately 50 Amazon women is even more daunting than Prometheus Bound.
Agee’s translation of Kleist’s play “was just an incredible poetic reading experience,” Preston explains. “Joel is dedicated to a very, very faithful and yet densely poetic work. I think he’s achieved that in this piece and he’s given us the platform. I think he had a poetic construct moving forward and then a good deal of it is an iambic pentameter, which happens to be working extraordinarily well for us in this project.”
LA audiences may recall Preston’s staging of an all-female King Lear in the Brewery in 2002. Like Prometheus, it also enlisted complicated machinery in the service of innovative scenic design. More recently, his staging of Gertrude Stein’s Brewsie and Willie in a downtown loft was part of the first Radar L.A. festival in 2011 — just as the final performances of Prometheus will be part of the second Radar L.A. festival later this month.
Could Prometheus Bound be considered opera material? “This is absolutely operatic, even the extent to which it has a chorus,” he replies. “You know the chorus becomes a convention of the opera but its origins are in the Greek drama.”
Preston previously directed Dillane in a one-man tour de force of Macbeth, which debuted at REDCAT in 2004 before touring to London and Australia. That show is responsible for bringing two key members of the current Getty production onboard — jazz artist Vinny Golia, who led a trio for Macbeth and who is performing original compositions composed by himself and Ellen Reid, accompanied by Chris Lopes each night — and Mirjana Jokovic.
“That [Macbeth] was a special project,” Preston admits. “Steven and I worked on that for three years. That’s how I met Mirjana. Steven and I were working on that at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab when Mirjana was there working on some other piece. I saw her work and I said, ‘Do you come to Los Angeles?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, I was actually thinking about it.’ Then we met again in LA and I hired her to teach acting. This is our first time working together.”
“It’s one of the things we are trying to infuse in our students,” says Jokovic, when asked about how to engage audiences who may view the Villa’s annual production as an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional experience. “It’s always challenging to seduce young generations and to bring them into the basics of where drama started in the first place. I think we live in a really wonderful time where we have the opportunity to challenge all boundaries that exist in the theater and to really engage the work in an intimate way. When this opportunity came through, it was really a dream come true. We could really practice what we preach by bringing this story and this passion about the storytelling into proximity of this intimate space.”
“At CalArts, we are not interested in historical recreation,’” adds Preston. “We are interested in advancing the form. But sometimes that happens more readily when you engage something really ancient from another time. Something that’s alien. What it does is it exposes the assumptions of your own time and actually challenges them.”
Jokovic believes the Getty’s outdoor amphitheater itself and its natural setting help bring audiences into the mythic aspect of what drama was like in Aeschylus’ time. “It was a spiritual experience to really watch something at that range. I think for us, it is really to explore the truth of these stories within the context of the time that we live in and to bring the emotional aspect closer to the people who can then accept the story in a more organic way.”
“It absolutely has a flavor of being in Greece in the summertime at night watching a play,” concurs curator Hart. “As a museum it gives us an opportunity to display another great art form from antiquity — the art of performance. Building the theater was a long-standing dream of many people here at the Getty. Every time we have a play out there it sort of brings the whole place to life.”
“I feel like this is an extraordinary opportunity to engage a great poetic work,” says Preston. “I would like the audience to be able to experience some of the majesty of that dramatic impulse and try to initiate them into some fraction of what the ritual experience might have been. I also feel that it is an opportunity for investigating and expanding a contemporary dialogue. For me this is really contemporary drama.”
“The goal of any play in theater is to connect with the emotional part of it,” offers Jones. “So people can say, ‘I left the theater and not only was I intellectually stimulated but I was moved. I felt like I related to what Prometheus was saying and the chorus was saying.’ If I can make that connection then that’s the ultimate — to connect with an audience and bring them into the story no matter where they are.”
“So many times we are looking for the psychology of the story,” says Jokovic. “Looking for a kind of different angle from which we can bring something new when actually the most difficult thing is to be simple. To really bring the depth of a very simple but deep truth into the light through more than just one performer but to translate that into the experience of all of us in the moment.”
As for what he hopes audiences will take away, Preston offers, “It’s a very moving piece. I feel that it’s a gateway to compassion, and that’s what I would like them to see.”
Prometheus Bound, Getty Villa’s Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, 17985 E. Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades 90272. Opens tonight. Thu-Sat. 8 pm. Through September 28. Tickets: $42. www.getty.edu or 310-440-7300.
**All Prometheus Bound production photos by Craig Schwartz.