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Greece: an essay tour

I’m stepping away from my usual diet of plays and films for this post, as it just so happens I’m in Greece, and I’m the kind of nerd who must see a few special theatres when I find myself here.

As I write, I’m hearing the voice and remembering the style of one of my very favourite university lecturers, Emeritus Professor Michael Greenhalgh. I met him in my postgraduate years and he introduced me to something I never thought I’d bother with: Ancient Greek Art and Architecture. Though it’s been almost 15 years, I can hear him clearly and every stone or vase I look at here has me seeing him point excitedly and explain why it matters.

I shall try not to bore you, my dear reader, with the minutiae, but give you a bit of an overview of why I’m so excited to be here, and why I’m writing about my travel adventures on my theatre blog. The thing is, back in 2003, wanting a more personally engaging topic for the essay Professor Greenhalgh had tasked us with, I approached him and suggested I study the way theatres developed as an architectural form. He agreed, and the result became for me one of the most memorable pieces of academic work I ever undertook.

So when I found that the cheapest way to get home from Europe now is to depart from Athens, I set out my itinerary to take me to three of the most significant archaeological sites in the development of the world’s first architectural form devoted to an art form.

This post will be updated as I visit the three sites, with the story of my visit.

For the enthusiastic amongst you, you may also like to read the essay that inspired my itinerary, here. It’s not my best writing (I suspect my flair took some time to develop), but I still think it an interesting read, if you like that kind of thing.

 

Thorikos

Thorikos is the oldest surviving theatre in the world. Many theatres have been theatres for longer, but not in their original form, leaving Thorikos with the honour of being the oldest that still shows the rectilinear form developed in the Archaic period, before they started getting all fancy and round. Older sites saw further development into the classical and Hellenistic periods, and don’t retain this elongated shape.

I set out from Daskalio to find the ancient theatre of Thorikos, which I knew to be a relatively undeveloped site. Google Maps took me directly there, and the theatron jumped out at me as I drove my wee rental up the rough drive to find there wasn’t even so much as a defined parking area. I could easily have driven the wee beasty up onto the orchestra itself had I not known the significance of the place and recognised its unusual form.

Indeed, though there is one interpretive board on site, even it doesn’t mention how significant this site is. Knowing it, my heart skipped a beat. I battled palpitations as I stepped, carefully, from the orchestra (of which nothing remains but the space), into the 2,500 year old theatron and sat myself down on a stone bench.

I looked out over the port of Lavrios, and imagined a performance here. I walked the length of the cavea at its pinnacle, and again from the orchestra, then took a place at the centre and, not recalling anything more appropriate, I recited the prologue of Henry V for the stones.

I stood in the footprint of the Temple of Dionysius, of which all that remains are six or seven stones, and I thanked the gods for theatre.

Cavea in the hillside and the acropolis beyond.

Auditorium seating

Looking over cavea and orchestra to Lavrio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The built end of the cavea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Epidauros

Arriving at Epidauros was a little more involved than arriving at Thorikos. For a start, Epidauros is one of the most famous historic sites in Greece, and it attracts hundreds of visitors a day, unlike Thorikos, which may possibly attract a visitor or two a week.

I simply looked into the opening time, and arrived ten minutes early, hoping to avoid a crowd. Arriving at 07:50, I found myself the third entrant (but the first Australian) of the day, and judging by the way things went, it was just as well.

I paid my 12€ and followed the Americans up the path. Just like at Thorikos, my heart skipped a beat when I glanced up and recognised the familiar cavea right in front of me.

For those unfamiliar with Epidauros, the theatre now here is important because it was built in the classical period, and was not significantly updated or rebuilt by the Romans. It is also one of the best preserved theatres of antiquity, providing us with probably the best indication of the way theatres were constructed in the classical period.

A group of puppies had followed the Americans and me up to the theatre and they gambolled as we explored.

As at Thorikos, I delivered Henry V’s prologue, though this time the theatron was not quite empty. The Americans seemed to appreciate my monologue more than the puppies, though. They had tried testing the theatre’s acoustics, but didn’t seem to recognise that they needed to project. Guidebooks seem to give tourists they impression that the cavea and the stone does all the work, but it’s obvious to any actor that you need to work with the space. I launched into my usual teacher voice, but found I needed to curtail my volume to reduce the echo. Truly amazing to hear your voice fill the space, and to hear it working two and a half thousand years after it was built. I do wonder what the presence of 12,000 audients might do to the acoustics, though.

I also managed to take a few shots of the place before the sun began to cast a shadow, and decided I would remain at the theatre until it was bathed in sunlight.

After looking through the museum (which is less than impressive due to the most significant artefacts being on display in Athens) and also the Askeplion, I returned to the theatre to sit in the shade and wait for the sun to cover the site. As soon as I sat in the auditorium, a group of young Germans passed, and a few minutes later they assembled on the orchestra, and sang three songs beautifully. The assembled tourists demanded an encore, and they gracefully obliged. I was halfway up the theatron, and my camera’s dodgy microphone actually caught the sound beautifully.

I returned to the theatre late in the day, as the sun was about to set  unfortunately they close the site before sunset, so a real sunset photo is not possible for a mere commoner like me. And at any rate, I had a date with a moussaka I didn’t want to miss.

As I sat, I watched as several individuals got up and tested the acoustics. I enjoyed opera, people mindlessly yelling stupid things to their friends, a Frenchman who needed a lot of coaxing from an American he’d never met before he would stand and sing a little ditty, and a bit of hip hop, but the last was my favourite. Many of these tourists-come-performers took a little time to get comfortable but none so much as the last one of the day.

About twenty minutes before closing, I was left alone in the theatre. I enjoyed the silence, and started thinking about moussaka, as you do. As I made my way down towards the orchestra, a chap returned, who I had seen sitting alone and enjoying the performances just like me. He made a few tentative sounds by clicking his tongue, or clapping. As I passed the orchestra and moved towards the exit, I got the feeling he was waiting to have the theatre to himself. So of course, I let him think I’d left. I stood in a low position on the other side of the proskenion, where I was out of sight, and I took a few more snaps of the theatre.

As I did, he began to sing. He was nervous, even with the theatre empty, and he didn’t project especially well, but he warmed up. His wasn’t a voice you’d boast about, but he could hold a tune about as well as I could. And he gradually built in volume and had the theatron ringing.

I would hope that, in our own way, each of us would get a theatre ringing like that. That each of us would find a spot where we’re just pushing the boundaries of what’s comfortable. How many more smiles would we see if everyone just felt they could stand up and sing, however our voice sounds?

The approach to the theatre

One of the pups

Front row seats

Theatron, orchestra and proskenion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next stop… the Theatre of Dionysius in Athens!

 

Athens

Okay, so by the time I arrive at the Theatre of Dionysius us in Athens, I’m feeling a little old-rock fatigue. Yes, even I get tired of seeing more and more ruins of ancient monuments. So I’m glad I allowed myself plenty of time here.

My first glimpse of the Theatre of Dionysius was from the Acropolis itself, looking down into the cavea and orchestra, and what remains of the Roman period skene, with the magnificently modern Acropolis Museum beyond. It’s a beautiful scene, but not heart-stopping like the previous two.

I think just knowing the alterations that have occurred to this site over the ancient period dampens my enthusiasm somewhat, as does the fact that the second and third teirs of the auditorium have been pillaged at some point. The theatre really doesn’t give a good account of itself, though this may be in part me now comparing it to other sites. It could also have something to do with the hubbub from the tourists here.

The Roman skene, thankfully, doesn’t just honour the emperor (Nero at the time), but also (and even predominantly) features Dionysius himself. The reliefs from the stage left end are beautifully preserved and evoke pathos across the years even without their colours.

And of course, just a few hundred metres away is the Roman Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which demonstrates that next stage of development in the architectural form, with much of its Roman stage intact. Unfortunately, the weather was not my friend and the performance I was hoping to see here was cancelled.

Theatre of Dionysius, from the Acropolis

The fancy seats added in the Hellenistic period

Reliefs from the Roman era stage

Throne of the Dionysian Priest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so ends my pilgrimage. It’s been quite an adventure, and I would recommend it to other theatre nerds!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 20 September 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Wordplay

From the moment you walk in, Jess and Nick insist that you feel at home. Straddling the line between theatre and cabaret, this clever and well-written little piece explores the way we use words and how they can shape us and our interactions, so that welcome is highly strategic.

They insist it’s a play, but with a static set, audience engagement beginning before they kick off, and interjections on the way through, cabaret seems a more appropriate descriptor. The truth is it defies labels, but draws the audience into a conversation between two co-workers, chews up their sense of semantic signification, and spits it back at them unceremoniously.

Whether the use of audience involvement (yes they dragged me up the front) really works or not, I am unsure. On one hand, it stilts the third character: but at the same time, the irony of using someone unfamiliar with the material to deliver the most articulate assessment of the theme in a manner that is highly verbose and completely impenetrable, is a delicious irony. And I’m a big fan of irony.

If you happen to be fringeside, check them out.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 16 August 2017 in Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Theatre, Uncategorized

 

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Play Something

I love the concept behind Play Something. There’s a DJ on stage, and when the characters need musical accompaniment, they tell her to play something, sometimes something specific, sometimes something general.

There are also only two characters, but they’re played by four actors, younger and older manifestations of the same person. And when they’re not on, they stand at a microphone, like a chorus.

these simple concepts are a refreshing way to tell a story.

And that story is relatively simple, but beautiful in its simplicity. Two guys meet in a club, one looking for Mr Right, the other for Mr Right Now. The one seeking Mr Right gives the other a blow job, then bugs him until more develops. What could possibly go wrong?

And there are some deeply moving performances, too. Jacko Pook, whose aggressive, monosyllabic character was only looking for Mr Right Now, develops lovely moments of humility, and as the older character who had been seeking Mr Right, Shane Whitworth is likewise compelling in grief.

But ultimately, despite some clever storytelling and truly golden moments, the story falls flat. There are moments when the stage feels crowded from all the non-characters on it, and others where the dialogue really doesn’t carry the emotion. I wanted the DJ to be up in the bio box, or for the chorus to be at the side.

Thankfully, there was enough in the performance for me to develop an empathy for the characters, and I was moved by the ending. I just wanted the piece to feel a little less jaunty and a little more wavy, if you know what I mean. Then I could have gone along for the ride.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 16 August 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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13 Reasons Why

I’ve held off writing about 13 Reasons Why for some time. Why? Well, you might be pleased to know there aren’t 13 reasons.

I was impressed with it immediately. My partner and I watched several episodes each time we turned it on, and we got so caught up in the characters and their story that we knocked over the whole series in a matter of a few bleary-eyed days.

At the end, when I was ready to sing the series’ praises from the rooftops, a friend posted an article criticising it for the way it portrayed its prime protagonist. That protagonist (there are two) is dead as the series begins, having committed suicide and left thirteen cassettes for her schoolmates, who she collectively blames for her decision to take her own life. My friend’s post was quickly joined by a cacophony of condemnation for this series that had seemed to me remarkable in terms of its quality of dialogue, characterisation and cinematography. These criticisms, all of which were centred on its sociological context rather than its dramatic qualities, seemed well formed to me at the time, and left me feeling disappointed—maybe even guilty—that I enjoyed the series so much. Some felt that Hannah (the deceased character) should have demonstrated an average of journeys to suicide, rather than presenting just one experience. Others felt that her portrayal of the act of slitting her wrists, and the very explicit nature of her suicide, was a bridge too far, and that the act of killing herself should have been omitted. And some were deeply concerned with the fact that Clay (the other protagonist) accepts her laying the blame on her schoolmates.

Having thought about it for quite a few weeks, I now believe these criticisms almost entirely unfounded. I regret being swayed by them. This is truly a masterpiece of modern television, one that deserves every accolade. Indeed, I think the criticisms themselves a testament to the quality of writing, directing and performance on display (there would be no criticism if the show didn’t make an impact).

I think one of the reasons I may disagree with the show’s detractors is that I am principally concerned with the dramatic art form, whereas they seem more concerned with the sociological effects of the work. While that is a noble concern, and one I share, a critique of an artwork must remain couched in the terms of the art form. We don’t assess psychologists’ performance based on the dramatic tension in the room as they work, or their ability to convince us that they care, so why would we assess a dramatists’ work based on the psychological health of the audience? The fact is, dramaticised stories don’t deal in generalities. Hannah could never portray the full gamut of life experiences that may lead a person to take their own life. Likewise, Clay could never portray the full gamut of responses to suicide. These are two specific characters, living in a specific context, and they tell a specific story. Generalities are tolerable in literature or the visual arts, but they have no place in the dramatic arts.

In the course of telling their story, they should prompt more general discussion, but it is not the role of a dramatic work to lock down our response to suicide (or any other social concern); rather, it is our role to open it up. And on this front, 13 Reasons Why performs brilliantly. The characters present a broad range of positions and opinions. Their reactions and responses are diverse. Some of them are positive and helpful, others are less so, and some are downright dangerous. And in presenting this range in an engaging and forthright manner, 13 Reasons Why has opened conversations, allowed us to make judgements and form opinions that we might not otherwise address.

Clay, the protagonist we follow throughout the series, is a brilliant composition. He responds from the gut, sometimes with emotional intelligence, other times without, but he is genuine and relatable throughout. This is a remarkable achievement. We can be frustrated by the foolishness of his response, or by the slowness of his response, but we can’t criticise him for being an automaton or a mouthpiece for a psychologist. He’s an adolescent character that rings true with our emotions and reflects our values.

Perhaps it is because Clay is the narrative voice throughout the series that some of the series’ detractors feel that he must be an omniscient presence. As if he not only knows everything that happened, but also knows how to resolve it in the best way possible. Clay, though, is an adolescent dealing with a deeply troubling event. His narration must be read as his thoughts, and nothing more.

And because Hannah also bears the hallmarks of narrator, through her tapes, she, too, can be mistaken for an omniscient presence. This is an equally errant reading: Hannah is even more compromised in her ability to assess the actions of others. her narration, too, is just her reading of the situation.

Perhaps what annoys me most about the criticisms of this series is that too many people seem to be caught up on the notion that what the protagonists say is the whole truth. A protagonist can only ever speak their own truth. And most of the time, the truth is actually in between the lines; in the subtext. And the truth in this case is deeply complex, opening up challenges and dilemmas, and expecting the viewer to resolve them. Just like all good dramatic works do.

Ultimately, that is why I am so impressed by 13 Reasons Why. There is no apology. There is no hiding from the complexity. They don’t even hide from the blood. And as the player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says when he sums up the essential truth of all dramatic works:

“We’re more of the blood, love and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, or we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three, concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory — they’re all blood, you see.”

 
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Posted by on Tuesday, 13 June 2017 in Netflix, Television, Uncategorized

 

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La Soiree

la soireeGobsmacked.

Many of you know I’m not big on variety shows, acrobatics or sight gags. Circus is all well and good, but I’d rather see a film usually. Well this is not much more than a circus, but it is so much more than a circus! La Soiree line up consummate professionals to impress and engage.

Take Captain Frodo, for instance. He’s billed as the son of a famous Norse magician, and brilliantly portrays a super nerdy and uber skinny buffoon. He doesn’t rest on his ability to pass through a tennis racket and a slightly smaller tennis racket, oh no! He plays the buffoon with the utmost professionalism, getting himself tangled up in a microphone cord, tripping over a stool and falling off the stage. It is this aspect of his routine, of course, that endears him so well to the audience, bringing a great round of applause when he returns in the second half. It is also why I was so taken with this show.

It’s just not about the amazing feats of acrobatics or the spectacle, no matter how impressive they are: it’s about the way they engage.

The English Gents perform some brilliant acrobatic work, but there would be nothing terribly interesting beyond the skill involved if they weren’t puffing a pipe or reading a newspaper while doing so.

And for those of you who usually like the circus, well you’re easily impressed, so there’s no need to bother with La Soiree, but if you do decide to come, be prepared to have the bar raised!

 
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Posted by on Thursday, 26 November 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Cortez

cortezCortez is an engaging little story by Milkwood Theater told in a very physical manner, playing as part of the New York Fringe.

The story centres on Mike (played by an engaging David Riley), a marine biologist studying the tomatian, a species he claims is actively pursuing its own extinction. Riley portrays Mike with an endearing bumbling manner that deteriorates into unconscious undermining of his relationship.

With Mike on his expedition into the Sea of Cortez is his girlfriend Heather, an enthusiastic humanist who gradually wearies of his pessimism, leading to the breakdown of their relationship. The air of timidity Heather (played by Heather Holmes) begins with is supplanted by a more relatable frustration over the course of events, and the relationship demonstrates some recognisable features.

Two crew members function something like a chorus to the pair, and their physicality punctuates the tension developing between the couple. The story is told quite cleverly as the action moves between the US, the Gulf of California, and La Paz, and allows for a particularly energetic story about the complexity of romantic relationships in a working context.

In all, this is an interesting play that doesn’t quite manage to get across the line of engagement. The relationship between Mike and Heather needs further development to become fully engaging, and the physicality is often too abstract to be of any value. But the bones of an interesting piece are here.

 

 
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Posted by on Thursday, 21 August 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Short+Sweet Canberra 2013 (Week 2)

20130812 Short+Sweet 074asOkay, so it’s been a while since it ended, but I’m finally writing about Short+Sweet Week 2. Partly, this was because since the end of the festival I have been rather overwhelmed with family duties, but I also needed some time to lick my wounds.

So though neither of my plays got much attention, they were in some great company. Nothing really stood a chance of outstripping Last Drinks; Greg Gould’s catchy and trim script coupled with Margaret Allen’s taut direction and the impeccable timing of Caroline O’Brien and Jett Black were a force to be reckoned with.

Another very amusing piece was Good Cop Mad Cop, which I also enjoyed thoroughly. Paulene Turner’s clever script was performed energetically by Helen Way, Jonathan Garland, Paul Hutchison and Elizabeth Lamb.

Ruth Pieloor wrote and performed Vanity Insanity, with the support of Catherine Hagarty as director. Though very funny, this piece dealt beautifully with notions of self esteem and ageing, and I enjoyed it every time.

I never tired of seeing Paul Hutchison’s Bendigo Banjo Sails the Day, either. This piece could not be entered into the competition since a director had been unavailable and Kate Gaul, the Festival Director, salvaged it to ensure it was performed. We were all glad she did, as it was a great way to begin a great night of performances.

But the piece that truly moved me most was Written in Stone, written and directed by Evan Croker. This was one of the Wildcards that got through to the final, so not really a Week 2 play, but I found myself intrigued by it. The performances were great, the script is brilliant, and the play really deserved more recognition in the final than it got.

So that’s it for another year… though the Merimbula festival is less than a month away, and Melbourne follows soon after that and before you know it Sydney will be happening! And while all of that goes on, Crash Test Drama will surely keep us entertained! Many thanks to everyone for a great festival, and well done to all the winners!

 

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