JoAnne Akalaitis

JoAnne Akalaitis, BAD NEWS! i was there... The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2019.

An Obie-award-winner many times over, director JoAnne Akalaitis is one of the most vital forces in American theater, her productions and performances fueled by her intellectual and political ferocity, as well as her boundless curiosity. A cofounder of the trailblazing company Mabou Mines—which she formed in 1970 with Lee Breuer, Philip Glass, Ruth Maleczech, Fred Neumann, and David Warrilow—she has previously dismissed the label “avant-garde” as it has been lobbed at her work, conceiving of herself instead as a cultural worker in the classical sense. That said, her daring visions once spurred Samuel Beckett himself to try and halt her 1984 staging of Endgame. (He didn’t succeed.) In Akalaitis’s Bad News! i was there…, which runs at the NYU Skirball Center, September 6–9, she excavates the strange and singular figure at the heart, but never the center, of Greek tragedy—the Messenger—and prods audiences to consider how, and through whom, our stories come to us. 

I NEVER HAVE A SHARP VISION. I truly am just a worker in the field. I actually think the notion of “vision” is quite patriarchal in some way, conjuring a male European director standing in front of a group of people saying this is my vision! And the group of people staring back at him and saying, we are here to embody your vision! For me, I just stand there and think, gee whiz. I always start with a picture in my head, or a dream. And research. I love research. The more you know, the more you bring into the room—even if you don’t say it aloud, or tell the actors—the richer the piece.

I am an amateur when it comes to the Greeks. I really am. And I’ll never catch up. No matter how many times I’ve done the tragedies, I’ve never read anything that has adequately analyzed or explained the brilliant dramatic device of the Messenger. The Greeks invented this role, and it hasn’t really been used since, except by Shakespeare. The Messenger’s purpose is fairly straightforward: Something terrible happens offstage, and the person who witnessed what happened now has a duty to share it, usually with the immediate family. It’s also a great role because it gives an actor a chance to really shine. They have to describe a scene of violence in a way that makes the listeners—not just those onstage, but also the audience—envision the horror for themselves. It’s high drama approaching luridness, and it’s also poetry. Like how the Messenger reports that Medea sent a gift to Jason’s new wife, and everything seemed really cool, but when the princess put on the gown and crown, she started to burn, her flesh oozing. Or describing how Oedipus took the brooches from his wife’s garment, and plunged them into his eyes, or when Atreus butchered his brother’s little boys. All those juicy words like “dripping” and “blood.” You can’t get better than that.

A group of us worked together to create the script for this show. There is a prologue that, at this point, I don’t know who wrote, because it’s been fooled around with so many times. I’m using primary texts by a translator or a poet, like Ezra Pound’s Elektra, which is written in what Pound thought was American movie gangster dialect. I wanted to include Oedipus, so I called up Helene Foley, who is a great feminist and classicist at Bard, and asked, “What are some interesting translations of Oedipus?” and she said, “Yeats!” So I’m using his alongside Ted Hughes’s really brilliant version of Seneca’s Oedipus. And then there’s Paul Schmidt’s translation of Racine’s Phèdre, spoken and sung in English and French.

This piece is site-specific, and performed all around the Skirball, with the actors and the audience walking from site to site. (We only had one week of rehearsal.) In the lobby, there will be a wall of two hundred images from all eras: from classical to contemporary heroes, to genealogical charts, maps, movie stills, and newspaper clippings—a visual response to the vastness of the Classical world—plus videos and a soundscape. Even when you sit down on the toilet or stand at the urinal, you face quotes on the wall from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

I’m more interested in projects that are political and can be done very, very cheaply, that don’t take a long time or require a lot of production meetings. My next project is an environmental reading of María Irene Fornés’s Mud, and a new “pocket opera” of Irene’s short play Drowning, which I’m doing with Philip Glass. Fornés is in the pantheon with Samuel Beckett, but she's not acknowledged because she’s a woman who came of age in the 1960s when theater was really a boy’s club. She was a great formalist, a visual artist who studied painting with Hans Hoffman and was very influenced by his “push and pull” theory. As the story goes, she went to see Waiting for Godot and said, “I’m going to become a playwright.” And she did. And she wrote fifty plays. I did a reading of Mud with some friends, including Joan Jonas, at the Inverness Art Center in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, this past summer. People there certainly had never heard of Irene, nor had they ever been to a play reading. It was all new to them—the entire thing—and they loved it.

A Tribute to María Irene Fornés: Mud & Drowning will be presented October 11–13 as part of the Days and Nights Festival at the Philip Glass Center in Carmel, California.