Monthly Archives: February 2011

Brandon Gryde on OEDIPUS, Los Angeles, and the Importance of Storytelling

Upon seeing Oedipus el Rey, I was excited by the fact that it was based in Los Angeles, my hometown. While my life was far removed from the world of those in prison, the dialogue, the references, and even the rhythm of the language reminded me of my community. Hearing Jocasta speak about her sister in Forest Lawn, a cemetery whose shining cross on the hill can be seen from the hill my parents live on, or hearing Oedipus call Creon “King Taco”, a local restaurant chain whose food I ate WAY too much of in high school, made me smile.

 And yet, while the location and even the streets were so specific, there was universality to the story. The fact that a contemporary setting and characters are woven seamlessly into the narrative and structure of classical theatre is pretty amazing. I recognized the chorus but on stage but also recognized the guys hanging out on the street corner. I was also struck with the important role tattoos played. Even having read the script several times, it wasn’t until I saw the play that I made connections with aboriginal cultures that mark their bodies and even the stories in Amy Tan’s Woman Warrior that depicts the body as a canvas for storytelling. And yet Oedipus didn’t know his story – he wasn’t marked until the end…and then he learned the truth.

 Seeing the play on stage, even more than reading it, I saw an emphasis on the importance of storytelling, whether they’re found in religion, family, or the library. We pattern our lives after them and we use them as references for decision making.

 ~ Brandon Gryde, Claque Member and Oedipus el Rey Working Group Member

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It Takes a Village…

It Takes a Village is the title of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s 1996 bestseller about the impact individuals and groups have, for better or worse, on a child’s growth. In Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey, a child is abandoned by his father and raised within the community. His fate leaves us with a troubling question: what happens to the child if the village is sick?

This was one of many provocative topics discussed during the “Mammoth Forum” this past Saturday. The spirited post-performance discussion, moderated by Woolly’s Connectivity Director Rachel Grossman, featured audience members and three guest speakers: Madye Henson, President and CEO, Greater DC Cares; Rebecca Renard, Teens of Distinction Program Coordinator, DC Public Library; and Bill Chandler, Jail Case Management, Visitors’ Services Center (VSC).

These speakers made clear that Washington, DC, as a village, offers many services to help raise individuals. For disaffected youth like Oedipus, the DC Public Library is an example of a “safe space” which provides staff and computers to help individuals learn and find jobs. For people like Oedipus who are in or newly released from jail, the VSC offers counseling and resources to help them transition back into society. And for individuals who have the ability to help others, Greater DC Cares connects volunteers with community service groups.

Yet the forum’s speakers and audience also made clear that Washington, DC, like any village, does not provide all of the answers. Why are we not devoting more resources to nonprofits like the VSC, when roughly two-thirds of people released from jail are returning to crime (like Oedipus), going back to jail, and costing us even more? Why do millionaires in our community accept thousands of dollars in tax breaks, but simply watch as funding is eliminated for mentoring programs that serve prisoners and children of prisoners (like Oedipus)? Does jail reform and improving prisoners’ lives give them the freedom to change course? What does?

Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey is a call to action about the power of a community to shape an individual and build a better society. But again – what happens if that community is misinformed? What happens if you are raised without the love of a mother? What happens if the strongest community you know is your fellow inmates? What happens if you have free will, but you don’t know it? Are you to blame for your actions? Are you blameless?

Join Woolly for a performance of Oedipus (now through March 5th, with Mammoth Forums like this after every Saturday matinee), and strip your subconscious thoughts about right and wrong. Think about Oedipus’ life journey, and think about the responsibilities of his parents, his community, and Oedipus himself. Think about whether Oedipus truly was fated, or whether the cycles that controlled his life could have been broken. Because este hombre, Oedipus, might be a man whom you can help.

~Eric Colchamiro, Claque Member and Oedipus el Rey Connectivity Working Group Member

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A Look Behind the Authenticity of Playwriting

What business does a white dude from Boston who’s never set foot in California have dramaturging a Chicano re-imagining of Sophocles’ Oedipus that’s set in a South Central LA barrio?

A few nights ago, I moderated a post-performance dialogue with Oedipus el Rey Scenic and Costume Designer Misha Kachman and Lighting Designer Collin Bills. After I asked the designers to reflect on how director Michael John Garcés’ interest in authenticity impacted their designs, an astute audience member asked if it’s possible for white designers living in DC to create an authentic portrayal of a South Central LA barrio? This got me thinking about what business I have serving as dramaturg on this production.

I came to work at Woolly several months ago from the world of new play development, where I had the opportunity to work with lots of exciting emerging, established, and mid-career playwrights, each with their own distinct stories to tell. For instance, this past summer at PlayPenn, I dramaturged Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, which centers on a 600-pound gay man from Northern Idaho reuniting with his estranged daughter. Weeks earlier, at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, I dramaturged Jen Silverman’s Gilgamesh’s Game, which centers on a cult-like, high-stakes, life-or-death “game” involving mankind’s deepest, darkest, sickest fears (think: leeches, sharks, suffocation, electrocution, etc.).

I’m not from Northern Idaho. I’m not morbidly obese. I don’t have an estranged daughter. I’ve never swum with sharks, covered my body in leeches, or been suffocated or electrocuted. But I still think I had something meaningful to contribute to these scripts by helping to sharpen the authenticity of the storytelling.

This is also true for Oedipus el Rey. I’m not Chicano. I’ve never set foot in California let alone South Central LA. But as a dramaturg—particularly as a new play dramaturg—I’m not just the person responsible for providing the rehearsal room with sociopolitical and cultural context, especially since LA-based, Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro was so heavily involved in Woolly’s production. So, within the Oedipus el Rey rehearsal room, I focused on providing structural rather than cultural perspective for Playwright Luis Alfaro and Director Michael John Garcés.

The version of the script that Woolly is currently producing is significantly different—especially in terms of its structure—than the versions of the script that the Magic Theatre and Boston Court produced as part of the National New Play Network’s rolling World Premiere. Sure, all of the different versions of the script end the same way. It’s Oedipus, after all. But it’s how the characters and you, the audience, get to the end of the play that’s different.

For the Woolly production, Luis reordered, cut, added, combined, and reconceived scenes and whole chunks of the play, as a result of conversations that Luis, Michael, Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, and I had about structure. Essentially, Luis’ rewrites investigated and reconsidered the authenticity of the storytelling to make sure it builds and unravels in a way that resonates with you, our DC audience.

~ John M. Baker, Literary Manager

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The Oedipus Connection

Why, young man, why do you want to be un Rey?

At the start of Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro’s contemporary retelling of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is a young man who has spent nearly his entire life in prison. He’s released to the outside with nothing to his name but an ’85 Honda Civic and a single, driving belief: that he can be a king.

Of course, he is humbled almost immediately, first by an embittered king on the side of the road who spots Oedipus for what he is, “a little boy” playing the part of a man; then by an old friend from the Youth Authority who forces Oedipus to get down on his knees and beg for a place to sleep.

In the context of a world that has no place for him, that sees him as merely a face Scotch-taped to a past, Oedipus’ desire to take control of his own destiny would seem to be not only justified, but admirable. He tries to write himself a new story. Very few in his position get that chance.

As playwright Luis Alfaro mentioned on this blog a couple of weeks ago, more than half of all Americans who are released from prison end up going back. California, where Alfaro lives and where Oedipus el Rey is set, has the highest recidivism rates in the country. In a country historically obsessed with the ideal of the “self-made man,” why is it so difficult for so many of our citizens to break out of this cycle of violence and incarceration and make themselves anew?

The website of the Visitors’ Services Center, an organization that has been working with ex-offenders in the Washington, DC area for over forty years, explains:

At VSC, we know that helping people charged with breaking the law is an unpopular cause in a community that is, at times, overwhelmed with crime. We offer no excuse for criminal behavior, but we recognize that virtually all prisoners return to the community. Many inmates, prior to arrest, have dropped out of the support systems that were hopefully available to them–family, healthcare, education, employment. To re-enter the community, they need help. It is in everybody’s interest to give it to them.

Bill Chandler, a VSC veteran, will be a featured guest this weekend at the first of three Mammoth Forums scheduled to follow each Saturday matinee performance of Oedipus el Rey. Over the next three weeks, he will be joined by a diverse array of other individuals who have devoted their lives to working for positive change in the DC community. How does Oedipus’ story resonate with Bill? How does Bill’s story resonate with yours? Find out this Saturday at 4:45pm. We’re all a part of this conversation, whether we know it or not.

~Max Freedman, Connectivity Assistant

 

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Tell Us How You Really Feel.

How will a modern adaptation of arguably the most classic of Greek plays, re-contextualized in the Chicano culture and set in the greater-Los Angeles area resonate with our community? That’s the $64,000 question we’ve been wrestling with until last week when performances of Oedipus el Rey began.  Over the course of the first week of the run, we collected a number of audience responses. So before the reviews hit – here’s what audience members have been saying:

“I liked the way that the playwright took a story from Greek mythology and added a modern day LA spin.  I loved the fusion and can think about modern twists on many age-old stories/classics from my childhood days. I don’t know that I identify with [Oedipus] vis-à-vis my own life but I can see the unhealthy traits/actions/choices in many youth around me. The fatalism/nihilism is very present in younger generations especially in low-income, urban settings.”  – Ferzana H.

“I was a bit skeptical going into it, and was surprised by how powerful it was to see [the story of Oedipus] in a modern setting…. Jocasta’s brother [Creon] resonated with me in relationship to work. It really struck me how he had been a part of the family, had been working to gain responsibility, expected to have a certain role, and just wasn’t getting credit. Then he had someone else come in and take over. It’s hard: feeling that you’re working hard in a position and not really advancing because maybe it’s not your fate; and finding that position where you are fated to be is easier said than done. The punching of the line “why not me?” resonated with me as well—both in the looking-up sense (“Why don’t I win the lottery?”) and looking-down sense (“Why was I lucky enough to be born in this country and not, say, Haiti?”) –Piper H.

“I tend to think of myself, like Tiresias, as someone who has done some bad or inappropriate things in my life. Like Tiresias, I have sinned and lied to others. But I also think that, in some ways, he’s a hero of this place—his decision to raise an unwanted child, to shield him from the harsh realities of life, and to give him love—shows a moral compass that I connected with and strive to have daily.” – Eric C.

“What’s the lesson or call to action I take away from Oedipus el Rey? It doesn’t have to be this way. What are you doing to flip the script.” – Margaux D

What’s your response to Oedipus el Rey? Comment below.  Or drop an email to discussion@woollymammoth.net, and be included in next week’s posting.

(By the way: back in January, Connectivity Assistant Max Freedman asked a number of audience members at A Girl’s Guide to Washington Politics to share what they remember of Sophocles’ original play or the infamous complex named after it. Check out what they said in this Radio Woolly podcast entitled “Not Your Memory’s Oedipus”.  What do you remember?

~ Connectivity Director Rachel Grossman

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Luis Alfaro and Washington, DC: “A Great Love Affair”

Some people make their discoveries through a map, directions, or even a little GPS. Playwrights do it through the body. Sometimes it is the literal body and sometimes the body of an idea, building, or even a city.

Today I am thinking a lot about how much I love actors. The way they move in space, but also in showing the expression of your thoughts and the interpretation of your story—all of it done through their amazing bodies. How extraordinary to think that those limbs are a tool and the rich tones of their voices make your words sound like poetry. If I was born in an earlier time, I am sure that I would have been a company writer for a repertory.

I fall in love with actors all the time. Not literally, because, hey, they are “actors” after all, and post your play, they have to move on, whether you like it or not. But for the moment, they are in my heart in such a deep and profound way. I listen to the rhythm of their voices, the cadences that are uniquely their own. Mostly I am looking for the authenticity of their character (not the one they are playing) and trying to write towards that tremendous strength.

On the actor level, Washington, DC has been a great love affair for me. Some of these artists I had known through seeing or hearing about their work. The director Lisa Peterson had told me that J.J. (Creon) was a special actor indeed. Natural and free on stage—she is right. Mando (Coro) is a talented playwright in his own right, whose production at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York I had heard good things about. David (Laius) is one of those celebrated New York LAByrinth Theatre actors with a body of work that I am in awe of. Gerard (Tiresias) is the local that is new to me, but he is lovely, funny, and a great conversationalist. I saw Andres (Oedipus) in a play by the great Naomi Iizuka where he played Orestes, and I was blown away by his tremendous talent. Jaime is new to me and yet we have had a series of conversations about art and journey that have given me so much hope. I love these guys. They feel like a band of older and younger brothers to me. As for the only female in the company, Romi Diaz, I am in total artistic crush with. Romi and I have already had a journey with Jocasta because she essayed the role in San Francisco. She not only makes me want to write—I am impassioned to think of all the roles I want to create for her.

The director, Michael Garcés is an actor, too. We have known each other for a long time. He is a great colleague, friend, and a fellow Angeleno who runs one of the most important community-based theatre companies in the US—Cornerstone Theater Company. But he’s also more than that. On a play, he is my confidant, my hand-holder, the interpreter of my vulnerability. And what’s really special about him is that he a great director. He brings himself into the work. If you read the script and then see the play, you know what he brings to the experience. When I look over during previews and he is going spastic watching something on stage, he is sharing it with me in a way that is profound, but also weirdly personal and shared at the same time.

So, how is the journey of this play different from the Getty Villa in Malibu, the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, or the Boston Court Theatre in Los Angeles? Well, this is a version of the play that has benefitted from watching things move in space and reaped the benefit of some wonderful actors who have handed over to me a bundle of emotions and ideas that I had not quite considered in this piece before.

It helps that the Artistic Director, “The Shalwitz”, (as he will be called), and dramaturgs that include John Baker and a fun focused staff make it all seem like a place you want to live in.

So, what about Washington itself? I love this city. We’ve just started dating, so it’s complicated. I’ve been doing these residencies across the country, some a year long, some shorter, and each city blooms beautiful colors and unwittingly reveals other shades as well. This is a racially complex city. It’s a rich and poor city as well. It’s obviously very politicized. I can feel it on the long walk from my rented apartment up in the U Street/Cardoza neighborhood all the way down to Woolly at 6th & D Streets. I’ve loved taking the Metro to work every day, because the beautiful faces of the city are as extraordinary as the history and the buildings themselves. I’ve been humbled to visit the universities here and I can see that it is also a city for the young and the old. Maybe, from the outsider’s perspective, a city that is wrestling with change (gentrification) and tradition, is what I am very conscious of.

The monuments are great, but one late Monday night, Michael Garcés and I were looking for a place to have a beer and nothing was open. We gave up and got on the Metro. Getting off in our neighborhood, we came across this Central American/Mexican place called El Paraiso. Michael leans his head in and asks what time they close. He says 2 am. Yay! We sit down for a Modelo and some pupusas, and suddenly we are in every city in America. We are at home.

~Luis Alfaro, Playwright

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Connectivity Director Rachel Grossman on Recidivism, Conversation, and the Power of Live Theatre

One of our Woolly Board Members recently reminded me of a great Don Draper quote from Mad Men (I paraphrase): If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation. But here’s the question: how do you change constant radio silence?

I am going to admit something that only a few people at Woolly know: less than 5 months ago I didn’t know what the word recidivism meant. For the entire month of November I couldn’t even say it correctly. Certainly I am aware of the monumental, knotted social, economic, and political cycles that divide our city and controls (even “curses”) peoples fates – but what do I really know of their complexity? What do I know of their ramifications and reverberations? What do I know of the people working to untie the knots, break cycles, and empower?

Honestly: What do you know of it?

Working on Oedipus el Rey taught me the word recidivism, and then some. Woolly Mammoth’s drive to change and connect (change the conversation and connect our theatre and work with the city and its citizens) allowed me to collaborate with a wide swath of amazing individuals and organizations working tirelessly to combat recidivism. Check ‘em out on the “Programming” tab.   We’re thrilled to be able to highlight them and their work throughout the run both in live events and through new media outlets.

Join us in changing the conversation: look up the word recidivism and then buy your ticket to Oedipus el Rey for a Saturday matinee and stay for the Mammoth Forum. Connect and change with us. ‘Cause that’s the power of live theatre. Word.

~ Rachel Grossman, Connectivity Director

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