The remaining four

With merely four full days remaining, everything has become a countdown. Four group breakfasts under the orange groves, three morning rehearsals, two taverna (traditional Greek) dinners, one day until our class presentation in the ancient theatre.

When we left Athens it didn’t feel like an end, it felt like a new beginning: new town, new performance spaces, new (extremely generous) landlords, new home. We said goodbye but it wasn’t a departure. It divided our six weeks, it was merely a continuation.

When we moved to Epidaurus it didn’t feel like the program was nearing a close, it felt like a new program entirely: new tavernas to sample, new discoveries in our monologues, new arenas to rehearse in, new understandings of the plays. Now we’re saying goodbye again, but this time it is a departure.

In four days we leave Greece. Returns will no doubt be in our future but we won’t ever return as a group or with the same purpose. Our group has become a family and we’ve grown fond of our daily ritual: each day we wake up and have a leisure breakfast together, then we rehearse for a few hours and present in the late afternoon and evening. We work on group chorus pieces, we present individual or small group scenes, and we respond to these scenes. At this point we are all working on a few pieces. Each of us has one main piece which we’ve shown in class two or three times and developed along the way. These main pieces have developed tremendously; my classmates are all very talented, but I’m constantly floored by the work they all put into their pieces to strengthen them, exceeding expectations with each new draft.  Six weeks spent studying these plays intensely and extensively has been quite a journey for us all as we make them come to life.

About eight weeks ago we were told to read a dozen plays to prepare ourselves for what was to come. To be honest I found the plays a bit intimidating and even foreign at times. It was difficult to imagine putting certain scenes on their feet, to connect to some of the language and characters, and to understand the context in which these plays were written and performed. But now we can imagine, we have connected, we do understand, and that’s special. Now we’ve read them, reread them, memorized snippets, staged them, and perhaps the most importantly, we’ve been able to contextualize them by rehearsing at the sites where they were first staged and touring the towns in which they were based.

These texts, being 2,500 years old, might not be the easiest to access right away, but through trial and error, dedication, focus, and time, we’ve each taken a monologue or scene apart and sewn it back together with our own nuanced understanding of the character, situation, and play at large. Besides my classmates general awesomeness, I think the main reason we’ve been able to sink our teeth so deeply in these texts is time.

For five weeks we didn’t have to juggle labs, finals, dance recitals, problem sets, a capella arch sings, rehearsals, college council meetings, and the reading load of three or four other classes.
For five weeks, we have focused solely on the forty or so extant Greek comedies and tragedies and the history surrounding them.
For five weeks we were instructed in and outside the classroom by two brilliant professors who master the balance of theatre’s academic and practical sides and who are ever-encouraging us to push ourselves and our understanding of the plays.
For five weeks we’ve seen our classmates become Medea, Cassandra, Dionysus, Antigone, Clytemnestra, Oedipus, and others. We’ve made Agamemnon’s watchman a slam poet, Tecmessa a Spanish slave, Menelaus a British explorer, Helen a real housewife of Argos, the furies a 90s girl band, Lysistrata characters shadow puppets among many, many, many other original interpretations. We’ve adapted the story of Helen and Menelaus twice–both in ways untried and imaginative, Aristophanes’ Frogs to provide commentary on the 2012 presidential election, Prometheus and Io’s story to make it a modern radio drama, and Aristophanes’ Knights to roast everyone in our group.
For five weeks we’ve felt Dionysus enter our classroom.
For five weeks we’ve waged agons (competitions) over matters big and small, just as the Greeks did.
For five weeks we’ve immersed ourself in Greek culture, ancient and modern, which has greatly improved our understanding of how, why, and where theatre began.
For five weeks we’ve seen roughly ten shows in three different languages and learned from them all.
For five weeks we’ve spoken to and worked with Greek actors, directors, and professors all of whom stress how theatre was a part of society in a way we can no longer fathom. How the theatre was a place for everyone — men’s attendance was mandatory — and a place where society could be criticized, where stories that moved masses could be shared, where mutual experiences were had and appreciated by all.
For five weeks we’ve wondered why this is no longer the case.

And now we have four days.

Fortunately, I’m certain that the lessons, the thoughts, the progress, the wondering, the curiosity, and the discoveries will continue far beyond these four days. We’ll make the most of these remaining four and carry what we’ve learned back to Princeton and far beyond.

Seeing the Actors!

Jul. 15th, Sunday

This morning, two actors, Alexandros Mylonas (who played Socrates) and Nikos Psarras (who played Just Discourse) from The Clouds came to Magda! I have to admit that as they slowly walked towards us through the garden, I could not believe my eyes. Last night, I could only watch them from a distance, amazed by the amount of power that’s conveyed through their characters on stage, but today, I got to talk to them face to face!

What surprised me further was that both actors had study abroad experiences in America. The actor who played Socrates, Alexandros Mylonas told us his study abroad story. During the dictatorship era in Greece, his father was imprisoned and exiled to an island by the government. In order to get an education for himself, Alexandros fought with the government to get a passport and made his way to United States and UK to pursue his childhood dream of being an actor. As an immigrant myself, I understand the amount of effort and courage it took to fight against all obstacles and to restart out from scratch in a new country. I guess that the reason he could become an actor and could still remain being an actor was that he always had faith in this profession and always fought with reality for opportunities. As both actors told us, being an actor is hard, no matter where one is. It’s not just because of the competition that’s existent, but also because it is challenging to remain truthful to this chosen profession and to always devote oneself to building worthwhile characters when external circumstances go astray. This reminds me of what Tim once told the class, acting is never about putting oneself into spotlight. It’s about creating and giving life to a new character. This process demands dedication and focus, with the endpoint not being perfection, but rather a step closer to perfection.

Hearing these words from two professional actors who devoted their lives to acting made me think a lot, not just about acting but about choosing a profession in real life. According to Nikos, the use of microphone in the performance last night was the director’s idea. He personally thought that it was too fashionable and would potentially infuriate the Greek audience who valued the tradition of performing ancient drama in original styles (with the use of natural acoustics). However, as an actor, he would only leave these doubts “in the dressing room.” I think this is not just true for being an actor. In every profession, and especially in performing arts industry, one has to balance personal needs to express and enact one’s own ideas with the group’s interest and harmony. As for acting, it is never about proving to the audience how good one is in acting; rather, it is about how one can best create a character that works best for the whole production as a whole. Also, Nikos gave us advice that if one wants to become an actor, reading and keeping oneself updated are always vital. As I learn more and more about acting from this seminar, I truly feel that in order to become a good actor, it is important to be well trained (voice, body, movements, etc.). However, acting is never just about these basics. It is a multidisciplinary subject. In order to create and bring to life a dynamic, powerful character, one first has to allow oneself the time to enrich one’s knowledge base about the world and to contemplate about the dynamics between countries, between cultures, and between people in today’s world. And these reflections are fuel for actors to generate characters that are relatable and powerful: characters in that trigger more discussions and thoughts amongst the modern audience.

This idea goes back to the discussion the class had a while back about performing ancient drama in today’s modern world. The reason that the stadium was still packed with audience for an ancient drama like Clouds is that all the humor and all the jokes generated in the production are relevant to today’s world reality. The ancient drama is powerful because they allow us to use the past as mirror to examine the present and that they trigger us to reexamine the past in creating a better future.

Alexandros and Nikos also allowed us to have a better understanding of the performance last night and the process of putting together such performance in the ancient theatre. The production intended to create a Socrates as an irritable and snobbish character and to contrast that with a narrator (a reflection of the real Socrates) who is controlled and scholarly. This contrast resonated with the contrast of the old school education and sophistry that was being presented in the show, escalating the tension of the show. As Nikos said, the purpose of the show is to have audience leave the stadium feeling “skeptical” about traditions, including the tradition ideal of Socrates. There were a few things that struck me through the discussion. One was the actors’ lack of effort in creating humor. When some of us asked the actors the mechanics of coming up with a big joke that would make everyone in the audience laugh, the actors looked at us in confusion and said, “we just come up with a few things that we know people will understand, and wait for it.” I think this is a valuable point for all of us to consider. A lot of time we think very hard to come up with a joke, but we forget about our audience. In fact, if we know our audience well and know how to relate to them, we will always have material for humor. Even if we come up with very hilarious content, but if they are not within the context for the audience to understand, there will be no effects. Also I was surprised about the amount of improvisations that were existent in the production. The actors revealed to us that a lot of the jokes that the actors came up in the production were in fact improvised on stage. This is another reason why theatre is so fantastic. The audience and the actors together create an energy. The actors rely on the audience’s response to make the energy more sustainable and more entertaining. The audience enjoys the performance but also takes part in the performance in a subtle way.

I really appreciate that Tim, Michael, Mariel and others work so hard to contact so many wonderful, talented actors, directors and professors to come and talk to us. They inspired me so much not just about theatre but also about life after college. In fact, more and more I feel that this seminar is not just about theatre, it’s about refining and broadening our own perspective as a young adult. Through theatre, we find a common energy, despite the differences in our race, our background and our values. Together, we raise questions about ourselves and about the world around us. Together, we face the obstacles present and reflect on our responsibilities as a world citizen.

Wow I wrote a lot. Sorry for not updating our blog often. The internet here is hibernating most of the time. Thanks to those who always followed our blog. Our hearts are with you guys…

Until next time,

Lily

Small peaks of the performance The Clouds

The Clouds by Aristophanes performed by the National Theatre of Greece

The stadium was almost fully packed.

Small peaks of the performance, The Clouds by Aristophanes in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus

The father and Socrate’s students

The Chorus

The chorus–the clouds

The agon between the Just Discourse and the Unjust Discourse

Curtain call

The curtain call

 

Shhh.. Don’t follow my example! No photography allowed in the ancient theatre. Well, for our blog followers, anything is worth it!

 

Ciao,
Lily

So far at Epidaurus!

 

 

Good day everyone!

Time goes quickly; we are one week away from finishing the seminar! :(

Since coming to Epidaurus, we’ve spent a significant amount of time rehearsing for our performance. Our hotel, Hotel Magda is 40mins away from the neariest town. There is nothing nearby but a beach, the Aegean sea and a beautiful garden. As Tim aptly put it, we are on a “retreat”. We have plenty of space here for brainstorming and reflection.

Indeed, Epidaurus has definitely proved to be conducive for theatre work. We have had many great theatre performances presented this week. This morning we saw really good second drafts: Julia’s speech as Cassandra, Juliete’s speech as Madea, Catherine and Mary Lou’s adapted scene from Frogs, Savannah speech as Clytarnestra, Catherine and Kanoa’s slang poem on Promebius Bound.

Later in the evening, we saw an adapted version of Clouds by the National Greek Theatre. Michael gave us an brief talk on the performance and comedy before we went there. A few highlights of the points he made:

-Unlike tragedy, ancient Greek comedy always needs to be adapted to be understood.

-Clouds ridiculed Socrates and the play was thought to be one of the reasons that led to the trial of Socrates

-Comedy was deemed less respectable to tragedy. This is in some sense still true today; Oscar best comedian award is always given last.

-Comedy and tragedy theatre were thought to be really different in ancient Greece. Young males had to take part in the chorus of a tragedy to become a man in the society.

-However, nowadays the Aristophanic spirit often creeps in, i.e. people have the inclination to turn a tragic play to a comedic one. Rachel has written a play on the household of Menelaus and Helen in an urban setting after their voyage from Troy. Annika has written a play on Menelaus after Helen left Sparta for Paris.

-A few quotes that Michael mentioned: “Comedy is tragedy in the long shot”, “This world is a tragedy for those who feel, comedy for those that think.”

The Clouds performance was magnificent. The costume and set were definitely more extravagant than what we saw in Oedipus the Rex. The clouds wore white dresses and tall hat, everyone’s faces were powdered in white,  Phidippides had a punky hair wig, Socrates also had wig of long blond hair tied up etc. Although we did not get most of the jokes that the actors made -since it was in Greek, we could tell from all the laughters from the audience that the plot was very entertaining. Something that surprised some of us was the use microphones. The Epidaurus theatre had the best acoustics amongst other outdoor theaters, yet there were two microphones on stage that actors consistently used.

Tomorrow, the actors from Clouds will be coming over to our hotel to talk to us. So we will get to learn more about what we saw tonight!

Earlier this week, the chorus director of the National Greek Theatre, Tsalahouris Philipos, also came over and gave us a workshop on the use of chorus in Greek tragedy. He talked to us a bit about how directoappeased to think of chorus and told us that it initially seemed like a big problem to directors because it is present on stage throughout the entire performance. However, Tsalahouris said that there are actually ways a chorus can help bring out the elements in the play. By establishing the role of chorus, we can further define a character through his relationship with the chorus. The chorus can produce simple rhythmic sounds in the background to set up the tension or the atmosphere of the scene. Since the chorus represent a more or less  uniform entity, their movements need to be unified.  Tsalahouris taught us how birds were enacted in Aristophanes’ play Bird, as well as farmers and old warriors in other plays. We learnt a lot in the workshop and many of us have applied the techniques to the scenes we have been rehearsing.

Although we are nearing the end of the seminar, our energy and enthusiasm have only increased! Our understanding of theatre has deepened so much this week from rehearsals, feedbacks we get in acting class, theatre performance we saw and meeting with people in the field. I look forward to next week and our meeting with the actors tomorrow!

Have a great weekend (Καλό σαββατοκύριακο),

Po

General update!

Yasas! Hello there!

This blog has been less than active the past week, but that hardly reflects our level of activity. In fact, they operate quite inversely. The past seven days have likely been the busiest we’ve had yet and our blog, unfortunately, suffered slightly.

The biggest news of late is our location change. We spent the first four weeks of our program in Athens with day trips to towns and islands in the area. On Friday we said goodbye to Athens and ventured to Mycenae, an archaeological site southwest of Athens. Mycenae was fascinating but it wasn’t our final destination.

From there we moved to Nafplion, a gorgeous seaside town, where we explored castles and fortresses, dined at gelaterias and tavernas, and shopped for komboloi (worry beads).

The main square in Nafplion.

On Sunday we moved to Epidaurus, famed for its ancient theatre. We moved just in time for the start of the Epidaurus festival. Epidaurus is divided into an old and new town and we’ll actually be spending most of our time at our apartment complex about 20 minutes by bus from Ancient Epidaurus.  These photos show why there’s not a complaint to be had about our new home:

 

Upon arriving at the beach

We’re pretty content with our new residence

Monday’s sunrise around 6:45am. How breathtaking is that?!

Though it’s difficult to believe that we’re approaching single digits with only ten days left in the program, we’re all thrilled to be spending them in Epidaurus and we’re sure to make the most of them.

Athens highlights in photos 2

These are some random but memorable moments from our four weeks in Athens.

National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Our wise and wonderful tour guide, Sofia, toured us through this museum for nearly three hours.  We’ve seen many statues that resemble this one, which are called kouros (if male) and kore (if female).

This sculpture depicts Aphrodite raising her sandal to ward off Pan, with her child Eros hovering between them. If you look close enough, you can make out three holes on the bottom of her sandal which hold her straps in place.

The old Parliament building turned into the National Historical Museum.

Academy of Athens with statues of Athena and Apollo.

The informative and persuasive rug merchant who told us the history of rug making then proceeded to convince nearly all of us to buy her rugs.

Outside of Athens highlights in photos

Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio.

These two are from our day trip to Delphi, most known for the Delphic Oracle. It’s also a major site of worship for Apollo, the god of the sun and prophecy. An interesting aspect of the cult at Delphi is that Apollo shared the site with Dionysus. Every year at the onset of winter, Apollo abandoned Delphi and left it to Dionysus.

Our class from afar in the ancient theatre at Delphi.

From our day excursion to Agistri, a small island in the Saronic Gulf. Only about 1,000 people live there and it’s not an especially common stop for tourists so we enjoyed the quiet and easygoing pace of the island. We had a blast biking along the road which connects the two settlements on opposite sides of the island.

Thorikos, the ancient city we visited written about here. These were taken at the site of the second oldest theatre in the world, dating from the 6th century BC, where we sang Old Nassau!

Athens highlights in photos

Changing of guards is definitely not something we’re accustomed to in the States, but in Greece (and many European countries) it happens every morning with a more elaborate procession on Sundays. The guards, called Evzones, change their posts in front of Parliament in Syntagma Square. Syntagma, meaning constitution, is the square where most of the riots have taken place the last few months.

 

Though their costumes are traditional and beautiful, it seemed unbearable to be wearing so many layers in 90˚F.

 

Though we haven’t run into many other critters, dogs roamed everywhere in Athens. Once in a while they would even roam with us. Here there are a couple walking to the metro with us:

We climbed Mount Lycabettus at sunset one evening and though the hill was steep, the view was worth it.  It’s about 275 meters above sea level; the highest point in Athens.

 

Underground wonders

The Athens metro is the most beautiful metro we’ve ever seen.  It is clean and it runs smoothly which makes it easy to like, but the true gems are built into the metro as mini-museums that take you back thousands of years.

The metro has one line which dates back to the late 1800s. Two other lines were added when the metro went through major renovations in the 1990s and, if I’m not mistaken, this renovation was partially inspired to bolster their 1996 Summer Olympics bid.  Though the attempt proved futile, the metro is absolutely striking.  The renovation ended around 2000 and was quite the expenditure which some Greeks say contributed to their current economic state.

Work on the metro was slow because of all the antiquities discovered along the way. The main problem construction workers faced was not having to dig through rock but having to sift through history.  Every time they dug a new hole they would find an ancient grave or a wall or road so they would put down their picks and shovels and call in the archaeologists who would do their digging with toothbrushes.  This time was well worth it, however, because this metro is no typical transportation network, it is a series of mini exhibitions.

Walking down marble steps into the station, you find yourself in a modern universe with ticket machines and escalators.  But as you descend to a track, you pass all sorts of artifacts from different periods of Athenian civilization.  Encased in glass is stratified excavation where you see ancient pots, oil lamps, mosaic floors, columns, portions of walls and roads, cisterns, burial remains, clay drainage pipes, and more.  These artifacts range from the 6th century BC through Byzantine times.  There are also plaster casts of figures from the Parthenon.

On top of being cultural and educational, the metro is untarnished which is a feat for any public transportation unit.  The cars themselves are clean and operate smoothly. The stations are spacious and well-lit with hardly a mark of graffito or piece of garbage to be seen.  Most platforms even have a monitor which indicates when the next metro is arriving.The only unfortunate aspect of all this free and especially available history is the fact that it is overlooked due to the inevitable quick pace demanded by its milieu.  People generally treat public transport as a means to an end and therefore wouldn’t stop to look at a vase.

However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who do stop and think about artifacts.  Quite a few people do gaze at the 2,500 year-old ceramic vase, more properly called amphora, which was once given to the winner of the Panathenaic games.  Many appreciate the fact this vase was once filled with first-class olive oil—a precious and expensive delicacy.  And that this olive oil was a prize for one of four sports festivals held in ancient Greece collectively called the Panhellenic games.  And that one of the other three sports festivals held every four years in Olympia is still celebrated.  Very soon in fact, in London.  All of this history is contained in one vase, in one mini-museum of one metro station. Fortunately for us, we pass through these stations daily and take it in as we scurry through.

In Athens, history truly is everywhere to be found.  Even underground.

the flea market and the stoa

Sunday is flea market day in Monastiraki–every side street is crowded with buying and selling, the goods ranging from antiques to plumbing supplies, to, as Suzannah memorably noted, oil paintings of Adolf Hitler.  Athenians and tourists jostle side by side, poking through the wares, haggling with the vendors, drinking coffee, people watching, doing what people do in markets.  A few steps away is the historical site of ancient Agora, the commercial and administrative center of Golden-Age Athens, which slumbered under layers of sediment and subsequent housing for a couple thousand years until being excavated in the 20th century.  Most of the place is rubble, except for the temple of Hephaestus, which is the only Greek temple that still has its interior walls and part of the ceiling.  Then there is the Stoa of Attalos, pictured above, which has been reconstructed and is a welcome refuge from the midday sun, as my son Sam demonstrates.  In the ancient period, this place would’ve looked quite a bit like the Monastiraki flea market–full of Athenians and foreigners buying and selling and arguing and eating and taking advantage of a bit of shade.  Going from one place to the other, as we happened to do this Sunday, a straight line is formed, 25 centuries long, and all these marble monuments come to life.  This is not, of course, news to anyone who lives here, but I am constantly amazed to see direct connections between life in the time of Pericles and our own, perhaps less Golden, age.