Interview with Jonathan Vandenberg, MFA director of Oresteia

April 20-23 at the Riverside Theatre Jonathan Vandenberg directs his adaptaion of Aeschylus’s Oresteia.  In this new work created from the only extant trilogy of ancient Greece acts of vengeance befall the House of Atreus after King Agamemnon returns from the trojan war. For his MFA directing thesis project, Aeschylus’s text is held to the fire and a theatre of image, gesture, and sound emerges from the ashes.  I sat down with Mr. Vanderberg to ask him about his new production.

CU Arts
Some of the publicity for your show says that with this production of Oresteia you “return to the origins of theatre to seek a universal theatrical form.”  I was wondering, first of all, if you found it, and what you understand by that idea of form and how it applies to the piece as a whole?
Jonathan For me theatre is an art form that is capable of containing many different kinds of art.  I think I have a bit of a different sense of theater than a lot of occidental, western theatre, which tends to be driven by literary considerations.  So when I talk about a universal theatrical form I’m talking about something that can communicate to someone from any background or any age, regardless of culture or experience – even a child or an animal.  It’s something that is very simple, that has it’s own logic, but is able to be understood by everyone.The idea of going back to something from the dawn of theatre is that this theatre is a bridge between a forgotten theatre tradition that comes before the Greeks and the foundation of all theatre since.  Aeschylus is the earliest of the Greek writers – he’s the earliest playwright we have.  Prior to the Greeks there was an entire tradition of theatre as ritual that was image based and transcends language.  So Aeschylus is on this threshold between two worlds – he’s known as the father of modern drama, but he also has this very ancient, primal sense to him.  So it felt like this would be uniquely rich material to mine for a theatre of image, gesture, and sound – a theatre that contains all different kinds of art forms.  And that has absolutely been the case; it has been tremendously rich ground.
CU Arts What kind of fundamental differences are there about approaching an ancient text from a modern one and getting audiences to respond to it the way you would like them to?
Jonathan I don’t think for me I take a different approach necessarily.  For me it is always necessary to have a kind of collision with an existing work, to confront it and try to open it up rather than interpret it.  I’m always looking for something that has different readings existing within it; I’m not interested in reducing it to one singular reading, and I think that that is something that happens regardless of where the material comes from.  If there is a difference it is in trying to identify what is classical.  Because something classical is timeless – it is the voice of the dead because it is past, but it is also the voice of the unborn because it will survive long past us, so when you perform it, it is a kind of meeting point.  Even with a “modern” work I’m looking for something that is timeless.
CU Arts On that idea of timelessness, eternity… You quoted Anne Bogart on your blog and she says, “I see the object of the art experience is to put a stake of eternity through the rush of time.”  A play like Oresteia has, on the one hand, has proven its ability to speak to the eternal because of the sheer fact that it was written in the 5th century BC and is still being produced.  Despite the play existing for this much time as a written work one of the great things about theatre is that it is also sort of temporally bounded and is an artwork that goes in and out of existence when the play begins and ends.  What was your experience as a director dealing with the interplay between this “quiet slab of eternity” that Bogart suggests is the offering of art and the inherently transitory nature of the “act” of the play itself?
Jonathan I think for me she is really talking about presence in the rush of the ephemerality of time, that for a moment we can all exist in this place at this time.  What is so fascinating about handling a piece of a classical nature is that it is a kind of temporal meeting point between these generations of the past and the people that will come.  It’s almost a kind of spiritual connection that happens because theatre always happens in the moment.  You are connecting to all of these different sources and different times in a moment – because theatre, by definition, is moment to moment.
CU Arts What was the process of adapting like? Is this the first time you have adapted a work?
Jonathan No, I stumbled across this form when I did something last year based on a series of writing by Kafka which was to create a sort of collage of Kafka.  I, again, attempted to mine it for a type of universal theatrical language and found that it absolutely held up to that.  I often feel that the only way you can understand what something is, is by holding it up to the fire, in the sense that you never see the foundation of a house until it is on fire.  Something that is truly classical, that is truly indestructible stands up.  You can be astonished at what emerges – in those Kafka pieces I saw something that was definitely there, but that I hadn’t experienced in a literary piece.  And so I wanted to try something similar.I read the trilogy many, many times, found a translation that I liked by Robert Fagles, and then I put it away and into my own voice.  And I write, what I guess is a script, but it is more than a description of an event than a literary work.  We work shopped it in December and staged the whole thing to see what it was like, then I put it away for two months, came back to it and made revisions before starting rehearsals in the spring.
CU Arts What are your thoughts on the fact that there probably was another whole play, a satyr play called Proteus, that was supposed to be bundled with the extant trilogy? Did you think about it at all during your process of adaptation?
Jonathan Its actually very fascinating to consider the role of catharsis in comedy.  Walter Benjamin has a theory that the catharsis in Greek Drama actually only comes in the satyr play, the fourth play, the comedy.  There is only one satyr play from Greek Drama so maybe they weren’t so good! But we talk about catharsis a lot, both in the audience’s experience and the performer’s.  I don’t think it narratively suggested anything.  Proteus is mentioned in Agamemnon briefly, but the trilogy is the only extant trilogy we have so we are fortunate to have what we do.  I feel in a sense that what came down to us is what couldn’t be lost.  In that sense, it has almost evolved and lost Proteus like an appendage it didn’t need.
CU Arts Your website calls the play “a mythic narrative of the savage and divine within human nature” – in a play with so much violence I can see how it might be easy to get sucked into the “savage” elements of the Oresteia.  What were the divine elements in this play while directing for you?
Jonathan We have talked about the state of nature in the play as a kind of triangle that moves between points of God, animal, and human.  As the plays move along you can almost feel a movement from one direction to the next.  At one moment it becomes more savage more animalistic, at this moment Apollo or Athena really takes over; it is almost as if it is searching for what human nature is, how human nature can reconcile all these different states.  I think it actually moves towards humanity; it starts in a very human place and the second play, Libation Bearers, is dominated by the presence of Apollo the God.  However, there is a very graceful magnanimous end to it in the presence of Athena.  It seems to contain this entire spectrum from two extremes: from the darkest point and the lightest point.
CU Arts One of the most interesting things about Oresteia is the fact that its violence is directed inwards, viz. it is not the fighting between one and the Other, but its murderous acts are committed by like killing like.  What does this incestuous type of violence provide for the play and how do you wrangle it as a director?
Jonathan The violence in Greek drama is fascinating because in that culture violence was inextricably tied to the sacred.  The killing of a goat is where the word trogos comes from, which is the word tragedy, so it is as if the killing of an animal contains the tragedy within it.  The killings in the piece are not simply secular they have a ritualistic and even mythic quality to them.  They hope to create a type of purification – everyone of them is aimed to purify a house.  I think theatre at its nature is a very violent form; from the dawn of theatre the first theatre ever created was recreations of tribal hunts before language existed so that tribes could understand what happened and one of the persons would wear the pelt of the killed animal.  So it is almost as if from its very birth theatre has had tragedy in its DNA.
CU Arts The image of the snake in Clytemnestra’s dream is a very powerful one and I think one of the most memorable in Greek literature.  I noticed you chose the image of the snake as the focal point for the poster.  I was wondering if you could elaborate on the centrality and significance of this image.
Jonathan I wanted a snake, but they wouldn’t allow me to have a real one!  We have a stand in that does a noble job.  In our piece there is a brief staging of this dream.  At the beginning of the second play Apollo takes over the play and he stages this scene in which Clytemnestra nurses a serpent.  For me it is so indicative of the piece because there is this sense that as the violence takes over and as these people become infected by the disease of this violence it is almost as if barriers between human and animal break down.  Aeschylus tries to identify humans with animals; when Agamemnon is killed he is identified with a goat that was killed, Orestes is identified with a serpent that bites Clytemnestra.  In our piece this is reflected in the second play we have Agamemnon actually rise from his tomb wearing the head of a goat as if he has transformed in nature.  This is a very potent image and for me that is a lot of the course of this project is to bring this imagery onto the stage.
CU Arts When Orestes avenges the death of his father, he is faced with an impossible decision – whether to kill his mother?  What were some impossible decisions that you had to make as a director over the course of directing this production?
Jonathan Actually in our production Orestes has very little choice!  Apollo completely dominates him.  I think if there are impossible decisions, the whole project is impossible.  That is one of the fascinations for me, that it is much larger than me, than any of us.  It is an entire cosmology.  For such a project it becomes a problem of representation, how do you represent these iconic figures on stage?  How can you put Orestes on stage?  What form does Apollo take?  Who do you cast as Apollo?
CU Arts You wrote on your blog on Aug. 25 of last year that this process would be a journey from darkness to light.  In what ways has this been true for you as a director over the course of working on this production?
Jonathan I think that makes me think of the word catharsis again – there is a kind of release that happens through the performance of this.  When I wrote that statement you referred to I was really interpreting the piece in the context of Aeschylus’s involvement with the mysteries, these ancient mystery rites which someone would undergo  for a few days, a right of passage to gain entry into a cult – which didn’t have the negative connotation that we have for it today.  You would learn how your soul can transcend life when you die, how your soul can move onto the next life.  Light and darkness are the two images that occur in the play textually more than any other, but as I began working with it I found it to be much more ambiguous than simply moving towards enlightenment.  There is an ambiguity, and I think the end of our production is the most radical departure from Aeschylus, which ends in a place of salvation for the polis, for the people.  In our age we are much more ambiguous with our relationship to theology and the divine and so I think our ending is not necessarily a straight shot from darkness to light.

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Zachary Lindberg
Columbia College ’13
Arts Initiative Student Associate

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