Blog in the Manger: Expert Interview!

You guys! Our previews for Dog in the Manger start tonight! The show we’ve been working on for the last month is finally ready to show to the world! We’re all very excited for you to come and see it, we’re thrilled to share it with you all. Everyone but me has been working very hard all through tech week to make sure everything looked good for you all tonight, so I hope you all enjoy it. There are more than a few things that I noticed in our dress rehearsal that I am beyond thrilled to talk to you about, but I want to hold off on those ideas for a little while. At least until a few of you have gotten a chance to see the show and I won’t be spoiling too much by gushing about how clever and daring our actors, designers, directors, and crew are. But fear not! While I can’t share anything show-specific with you, I have another surprise to tide you all over until you can see the show.

You see, while everybody else was busting their humps in the theatre, slaving over a hot stage to create the play, I was having a calm and measured interview with a very exciting special guest who had some wonderful insights to share with me about his and other scholars’ views on this play, and the under-appreciated time from which it came. I am, in turn, delighted to share them with you:

 

K- Who are you? Tell me a little bit about yourself.

B- I’m Benjamin Djain (people call me Benji). I’m a doctoral candidate in the English Department at The Catholic University of America here in DC. I’m currently working on comparing the way Shakespeare and Lope de Vega used the soliloquy throughout their careers.

K- Do you have experience with creating theatre, or are you more familiar with the academic side?

B- I´m more familiar with the academic side. I’ve always been interested in the way theatre is able to affect the audience, so watching plays is always an exciting experience for me. More and more, though, I find that I need to know how theatre is created to be able to understand more about the way it can affect its audience.

K- What got you interested in de Vega? Why did you choose to specialize in him?

B- I started working with Lope de Vega during my MA at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. I have a Spanish background and wanted to use it in my research. I encountered his plays then, and was struck by how different he was to Shakespeare. The drama he creates relies on external symbols in ways that Shakespeare simply does not. When constructing my doctoral thesis, I went back to Lope de Vega because of how close to Shakespeare he is chronologically.

K- How familiar with de Vega’s, just, truly outrageous output are you? Have you read all 2000 yet? Which one is your favorite?

B- Blimey, I’d never finish my degree if I read every single one of the plays attributed to him! I’ve read all of his greatest works, and I’ve looked at a lot more while concentrating only on his soliloquies. My favourite play is El Castigo sin Venganza (Punishment Without Revenge). De Vega was at the end of his career then, and hadn’t been writing the same spectacular number of plays every year. Instead, we get a drama that is psychologically intricate and questions the honour that permeates every aspect of society in the Spanish Golden Age.

K- Have you ever seen Dog in the Manger, or any other de Vega, performed?

B- Only on film, never live. It really isn’t often that you see a Lope de Vega play being performed in the English speaking world.

K- Why do you think Spanish theatre is so under-represented in theatres and classrooms today? Last month on the blog I suggested a frankly sort of out-there Black Legend-based theory that I kinda doubt is really why.

B- Well, I think your Black Legend-based theory is on the right track, but it needs to be combined with other perceptions about Spain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Spain was always seen as “other” compared to the rest of Europe. It was an exotic land whose culture was completely foreign and exciting for English travellers (and in many ways it still is, but for sunnier reasons). Moreover, Spain was under a rather isolationist fascist regime for most of the twentieth century, which happens to be the same time period that academic literature departments were developing. As such, in the ensuing years when literature departments began expanding their focus, and adding to the canon of literary drama, Golden Age Spain was overlooked. Nonetheless, there are a growing number of Spanish dramatists that are being performed globally, and I only hope their work gets more exposure.

K- Theatre of the Spanish Golden Age is surprisingly focused on and driven by the female characters, especially compared to its contemporaries in England. Do you have any ideas why that might be?

B- I think a large part of it is practical considerations. In England, women were not allowed on stage, and so female roles were played by young boys. In Spain, however, female actors were allowed. I think I can safely say that the range of a mature female actor is far greater than that of a young boy actor. Playwrights therefore, who were aware of the practical constraints of their respective theatre companies, tended to adapt what they were writing to the resources that were at their disposal.

K- Can you talk a little about de Vega’s use of meter and poetry? Meter is something I cannot decipher at the best of times but I know that there is a lot of significance in Dog in the Manger’s use of poetry that I just cannot access.

B- Much like its English counterpart, Spanish Golden Age Drama uses verse to great effect. What is impressive about Lope de Vega’s use of verse is that he uses different verse forms to enter different registers for different contexts. English Renaissance drama is associated in our heads with one type of verse: blank verse and the iambic pentameter. Instead of transitioning to a different type of verse, English Renaissance dramatists tended to swap to prose instead when wanting to create a divide between upper and lower class characters. Lope de Vega primarily uses different forms of octosyllabic meter (eight syllable lines) in the original Spanish. The number of verses in this meter and the rhyme scheme varies: The redondilla, consisting of four lines with an abba rhyme scheme, is recommended by Lope de Vega for love scenes, while the décima, consisting of ten lines, is for more formal occasions. Lope de Vega can seamlessly move between verse styles, demonstrating his poetical and theatrical talent – you’ll even find him composing Petrarchan sonnets in his plays regularly.

K- Is there anything else you find particularly interesting about Dog in the Manger, either compared to de Vega’s other works or to contemporary English plays?

B- Some of the most enduring plays from the early modern period are plays that entertain and make the audience feel uncomfortable at the same time. The Dog in the Manger isn’t afraid to use its comedy to make significant points about the class system and the role of females in Golden Age Spain. Compared to some of Lope’s other plays, The Dog in the Manger is notable because its principal characters stand out, even in some of the more complex moments of its comic plot. Compared to the Shakespearean drama we know so well, the play is happy to subvert the usual mechanisms for creating a comic ending.

K- Are you excited to get a chance to actually see a de Vega show staged?

B- I am super excited. I can legitimately say that it isn’t often that one of his plays is staged and I’m really looking forward to seeing how you stage a text with so many avenues for interpretation.

 

If you’re also curious and excited to see a de Vega play performed, please come and join us! Previews start tonight and the show runs until the 2nd of November, and tickets for every day are available online. And if you’re interested specifically in the things that Benji said, he will be joining me for a talkback after the matinee performance on Saturday, November 18th. I hope to see you there!

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Iphigenia: Director Chat!

Hello again, readers.  It’s me, blog slave Keith Hock, here with some more ranting and raving on the subject of our upcoming reading of Iphigenia.  We’re gonna mix it up today, however, and the majority of the ranting will come not from myself, but from the director of the reading and my maybe-boss, Bridget Grace Sheaff (the managerial hierarchy of We Happy Few is Byzantine, to say the least, and the only thing I can say with any degree of confidence is that I am NOT in charge).  Readers from the last time I had Bridget drop by will recall that she is much better at saying nice things than I am, so those of you still with functioning hearts should be very excited to have her back.  She has graciously consented to an interview which we certainly conducted face-to-face over tea, and not in any way over the internet and hours apart while we were both snowed into our respective apartments this previous weekend.


Keith: Tell us about yourself.  How did you come to be entangled in the WHF network?  Are you secretly gunning for my job?

Bridget: Wow. So suspicious. Why would I be after your job? Seriously. Drink your tea.
No, go ahead, drink it. It’s perfectly safe…

The short answer: I fell in love. It’s as easy as that.

The long answer: I think one of the answers I hear the most from theatre artists when they are asked how they get jobs is “It’s who you know.” Which, after you hear it over and over again, becomes quite annoying. But it’s truth doesn’t disappear. (These are my exact feelings about Taylor Swift songs- always annoying, always true to life.)  So, yes, I got involved with We Happy Few because I went to school with Bob Pike (the sound designer of Duchess of Malfi, CUA Class of 2014) who got involved because he talked to Kiernan McGowan (trusted Brain Trust member who also graduated from CUA (represent, amiright)) who is now engaged to Raven Bonniwell (co-founding Artistic Director).

Right? It’s who you know. But it’s also about finding your tribe, about finding people whose work speaks to you. So when I was looking for projects to get involved in, I took a look at the work WHF had done in the past, of which I heard nothing but high praise. And, I’ll tell you what, I don’t believe in fate. But I got pretty close to believing when it hit me that the goals of WHF and my goals were synchronous if not identical.

And so it’s less about me than it is about mission and goals and finding people who want to change the world in the same way you do. (Look at me, I’m gettin’ all misty over here.I am a fool/ To weep at what I am glad of.”) That should tell you everything you need to know about me. And I really mean that.

K: Drop some knowledge about the difference between directing a staged reading and directing a performance.  What about it is easier?  What is harder?

B: Directing a staged reading is actually quite difficult. You would think it would be easy. “Oh hey, all your actors will have scripts and they are just expected to stand and talk and sound pretty and make the right faces at the right time and you don’t have to worry that they don’t have it memorized or that they forget a costume piece or whatever, you’re going to be fine.”

That’s a surface level analysis of a staged reading.

In a staged reading, the text is the star. The play is the only ego in the room you need to be concerned about. It rules. It dominates. It stares you in the face and does that annoying nose-flick thing every nine seconds. It demands that you pay attention to it and acknowledge the wound that it opens. It says, “I am flawed and complicated and leagues deep with knowledge. I am older than you and I have something to teach you. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO SAY.”

Of course you have to do this with a full production. But in a full production, you get to use the text to do things on stage. In a staged reading, the text uses you to do things to an audience.

It’s vulnerable important work. It’s no less valuable than work on a full production. It just involves less props.

K: Why?  Why Iphigenia?  Why, specifically, THIS Iphigenia?

B: If I’m being totally honest (which I wish was a bigger failing of mine), I knew NOTHING about this play or even it’s original legend four months ago. As most things go in the Brain Trust [Editor: point of clarification; the Brain Trust is how we refer to the organizational core of We Happy Few.  My pitches to call it the War Council, the Synod, and the High Circle were rejected], one person suggests one thing, which leads to one person suggesting another things, which leads to Bridget volunteering to help in whatever way possible. In this case, it happened in such a way where Bridget volunteered to help cut and organize the script in a some sort of WHF fashion of changing the play and ended with a stellar cast of actors that make Bridget’s heart flutter. I didn’t choose Iphigenia as much as I stumbled over it one day, turned around to see what had made me lose my footing, and found this beautiful story that I can’t stop thinking about. This particular Iphigenia happened because of my absolute devotion to Racine and all things French. (I’ll get into that later). I will tell you that if I had to answer “Why this play, why now?” I would give you some long flowery answer that essentially boils down to this: what does it mean to sacrifice? When all instincts to love and protect and serve the ones we love fall short of what is asked, what is the precipitate of the reaction?

K: There’s a pretty enormous parallel between the Iphigenia story and the Abraham/Isaac story in Genesis, which I unaccountably managed to completely ignore in my previous blog post.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

B: I’m very Catholic, I have thoughts on everything. It actually is one of the things I continually come back to when I think about this piece. Of course, in the Abraham story, God was testing him to see if his faith was strong enough to trust something as precious as his son to the Lord (and, you know, is foreshadowing for the whole Jesus thing, but let’s not get into that because we could be here all day). In this story, it’s pretty clear that Iphigenia is going to die. She has to die. These gods work in a different way than the Judeo-Christian God, even the one in the Old Testament. I could get pretty theologically philosophical with you, but I only have minors in Theology and Philosophy. However, I have a major in Drama, so I instead am going to talk about how this is MAJOR DRAMA.  It’s a classic story, sacrificing your children. And both Abraham and Agamemnon are reasons that it is classic. It’s something we all identify with, even those of us without children. It’s access to our empathetic pathways is immediate. It sits on our skin and instantaneously seeps into our bloodstream. It hearkens back to landmarks in our mythic and spiritual culture that we all identify. And that’s why we can keep telling it today.

K: As a dame [Editor: I narrowly dodged a slap here], how do you feel about my assertion that the primary drama in this story is about how Agamemnon is forced into an unwinnable situation?  Do you think that is true, or am I blinded by my own undeniable masculinity about the true nature of the piece?  Does it change from version to version?

B: Yes. Thank you for asking this question. Let’s talk about this: Yes. I am a female director. Yes. There is some inherent male/female dichotomy in this play. Yes. I think that it is a really interesting aspect to talk about.

HOWEVER. For me, this is a play primarily about human beings, not just men and women. This is a play about family. This is a play about duty and sacrifice and loyalty and war and love and heartbreak and ruin and triumph and fate and God and country and children and, ultimately, fault. That’s the primary drama of the story. What goes wrong.

I think that you are structurally correct that Agamemnon’s struggle is the catalyst of the piece. That is what the through line of the story is saying to us. If we are going to look further at the piece, I think we need to talk about what changes from beginning to end. Elinor Fuchs tells us that we can find the heart of the story by setting the play in the middle distance and looking at the play through squinted eyes all the way through. And when we look at Iphigenia this way, we have at both ends parent’s fretting about the fate of their child. Even though Clytemnestra only comes in (like a wrecking ball) halfway through, she is the parent remaining onstage at the end while Ulysses describes the scene at the temple. This directly bookends Agamemnon talking to Ulysses at the initial incident of the play. And so my argument is that the true nature of the piece is not about men or women, but about how our labels and roles define how we react under pressure.

K: Who do you think is the most interesting/exciting character in this show?

B: I love Racine’s added character of Eriphile. There is something so April Ludgate about her. She speaks to a part of us that we all like to deny. We would all love to be the tragic hero. We would love to be the victim. We would love to be the martyr. Because those people are revered and respected and sacrificed for. And what’s great about Eriphile is that she LOUDLY wants all of those things. She is frustrated and annoyed that Iphigenia gets that kind of attention. What an amazing and very human desire to explore in this age of digitalization, of internet stardom and reality TV fame. And what a fascinating take on self-centered sacrifice. Where is the virtue in that thought process? I mean that question very seriously. I’m really excited to look at this character further.

K: Is there anybody you’re especially excited to work with on your cast for the reading?  Anyone you’re dreading?

B: I couldn’t be more thrilled with the cast! I’m excited to work with everyone. One of the big highlights of this for me is that I get to watch Melissa Flaim act. I have deeply and fervently admired Melissa since my time at CUA. The first time I ever saw her, I got to watch her fearlessly and with amazing grace tell a boy in my Drama 101 class that if he was going to be proud of doing half-hearted work then there was no reason for her to be in the room because he could do that without her. She taught me so much about how to be in command and watching her as Clytemnestra may be the highlight of my 2016.

I’m dreading working with Tori Boutin because she is my best friend and really talented and funny and clearly I hate her with my whole soul. (Is she reading this? I hope so. She’s gonna be so mad.)

K: This translation is, in the nature of French plays, structured as rhyming couplets.  How long does it take you reading it to not hear it all sing-songy and actually take it serious?

B: I think that verse text is my soulmate. It understands me in a way I don’t understand myself. I come back to it at the end of the day, safe and secure in the truth it provides me. I don’t know what it is, but I love French plays. Cyrano de Bergerac is my favorite piece of theatre of all time, Racine’s Phedre is my current dream project, and who doesn’t love Moliere? The rhyming couplets doesn’t bother me at all. I gave up the idea that something that rhymes sounds like songs a long time ago. (I mean, look at Sondheim. Rhyming or not, there is nothing “sing-songy” about that man’s work.)

To me, something is too “sing-songy” when it is just rhyming for the sake of rhyming. If it has purpose and drive, then rhyme merely helps bounce the actor from line to line. Really, if the text is about human beings, real and full-blooded people with real and earnest problems, then it’s not “too” anything for me.

The translation makes all the difference in my mind. My friend Bob once compared translating to carving wood. Pieces of the original block have to go, but if you are careful, you are going to get something equally as beautiful as the end result as you did with the original. When translating from French, especially translating Racine, you have to balance keeping the verse intact, the rhyme intact, the meaning intact, and the story intact. It takes a lot of skill and what is great about using the Cairncross translation is that so much of the original beauty of the text is preserved with great care and tact. It’s really exciting.


And there you have it, folks.  Hopefully this will have piqued your curiosity to see what exactly we’ve been talking about these last two blog posts.  Perhaps you are curious how Racine (and then Cairncross, and then Ms. Sheaff) were able to take this ancient story and update it, drag it from the Festivals of Dionysus in Attica some three thousand years in the past, through the court of the Sun King, and share it and make it relevant to you today.  It could be you want to know how exactly Bridget exists with all this passion clearly boiling out of her at all times, and you want to see how that manifests in her directing.  Maybe you’re mad at me for some reason and you want to attend this solely to yell at me for some error or slight I have made (It’s probably that last one, isn’t it.)  Whatever the reason, you should be able to satisfy your burning desires at our fundraising event, tonight at 7:30PM at CHAW in Eastern Market.  Free Reading!  Fabulous Prizes!  Cash Bar!  Cool People!  Donation Opportunities!  Truly the social event of the season.  I look forward to seeing you all there.