Taking a classic to contemporary: The Rep takes on "An Iliad"
It is a story that almost everybody knows – Homer's saga of the Trojan War and essentially the prequel to the one of the most legendary tales ever told, "The Odyssey" – but "An Iliad" seeks to tell it like few have seen before.
Opening Friday night in the Rep's Quadracci Powerhouse, "An Iliad" takes the epic story and turns it into a solo show, a tale told by one man (James DeVita in this case) on a bombed out stage with a musician pushing him along his story's path.
It's a bold show, originally co-written and performed by Denis O'Hare of "True Blood" fame, one that requires a great actor, a great musician and – in the case of The Rep – a whole new musical score. So essentially a whole new character.
OnMilwaukee got a chance to talk to the two people behind that whole new character, sound designer Josh Schmidt and cellist Alicia Storin, about creating the score and why a story like "An Iliad" has endured for millennia.
OnMilwaukee.com: When did you guys hear about the show and start putting it together? What were those kind of early thought processes?
Josh Schmidt: We plan the show a year in advance. I've worked with both Jim DeVita and (director) John Langs before. The opportunity came up that they needed a sound designer for this particular project. I have tracked and seen productions in New York and Chicago, and sometimes they don't have a musician, but the writers – the production that kind of codified this play in at New York Theatre Workshop – used a double bass. John requested that he wanted a score built for a cello.
The score represents, at least for the authors of the play, the muse counterpart to the poet. My understanding is that Mark Bennett, the original composer and sound designer of the production in New York, co-conceived this idea as it was the female to the poet's male. So it sort of balances forces in a play where you have one actor who has 54 pages of dialogue telling this story and playing multiple characters. It gives him something to push off of, to motivate, to underscore, to accompany, to argue with.
When everything was set in place and I was hired to design the show, the first thing we did was do a search. We were very lucky to find Alicia to play the role of the muse.
OMC: How is that, being kind of the co-star and the wall that he pushes against?
Alicia Storin: It's been very fun. This is a totally new experience for me. I haven't worked with theater at all, so I'm learning a lot. I'm finally figuring out what I'm saying with every single note that I'm playing. Here, I'm supporting what Jimmy is saying. There, I'm telling him to shut up and get back on track. Here, I'm reminding him of what he's talking about. Other times, I'm trying to calm him down. It's been a lot less terrifying than I originally thought it would be.
OMC: Are you on stage during the show as well?
AS: Sort of? I'm very far upstage, 10 feet high behind a scrim. Sometimes you see me, and sometimes you don't.
OMC: Is there any added pressure knowing that you're going to be on stage, almost as a performer?
AS: There was initially when I first found out about it, and when I first found out that there was only one musician and one actor. That's, you know, the stakes are high. But again, just being thrown into and taking it day by day. Yesterday was our first tech where we were doing things in costume. At the beginning of the day, I was very nervous and sweating and I didn't know what was going on. By the end of the day, I was like, "(relaxed sigh) Alright. I see what this is all about."
JS: We took steps to integrate music very early in this process. Jim and John rehearsed for a week without any of us up in Spring Green, and then they came here starting their second week of rehearsal. From day one, we integrated Alicia into the process. We spent that whole week here drafting through the entire play and idea.
I had written about a 40-page score of music. The best way I can describe how it was built is that I knew I had written it, and we had recorded a bunch of things. I would pan-and-scan across those 40 pages to find measures or pieces of material that would work for a particular place. We drafted it through. We have a wonderful stage management team here that helped organize it, taking notes from Alicia to create a performance score with all of the music incorporated in. And then I went away for a week, leaving Jimmy and Alicia to work together with John to develop a language so it felt organic.
OMC: You went away, and it kind of changed or morphed?
JS: Yeah. In order to do this, you have to sort of throw caution to the wind and make an idea. And I need to walk out of the room because then my ideas – and I'm just a small percentage of the ideas that go into this – without that space between, I'll constantly be solving or inputting on issues that have then less input from the two people performing it.
In addition to that, it gives John the director some leeway to direct Alicia, to direct the muse as a character outside of just the technical faculties of the music. Everybody needs that space, in my opinion, to learn and iron out how to communicate. As a designer and composer, sometimes a big part of your job is just solving problems. Sometimes problems solve themselves when you extricate yourself from the room and allow people to invest themselves into a role.
OMC: How did you, Alicia, try to make this conversation with an actor and with a cello?
AS: A lot of listening. That's all I've really been doing for most of the time. John will be working with Jimmy a lot, and I'll be trying to figure out what John wants Jimmy to be saying in a certain scene, and if I'm playing behind that, then I need to decide what role I'm playing. And obviously John will have an opinion about that as well.
OMC: How do you bring across elements of this really big story with sound?
JS: I would say that the majority of that responsibility is covered in the script, and in the way that Jim and John have staged it. Part of their process is figuring out, at any given time, who is speaking, which voice is speaking. The reality is that this is a piece about a guy in a room, telling a story. But part of storytelling is being able to assume the voices of characters that inhabit the story.
He actively cries out for a muse, because it's a very difficult story to tell. It's a story about how war ravaged a city, and it's a very small chunk of that story. What we do, me as the composer and Alicia even more so as a performer, is provide context, atmosphere, hints at emotional subtext without robbing the ability of the actor to hint on this or without getting in the way of the audience having a personal interaction with the story. At the end, it's just a guy telling you a story.
We have very, very, very delicately tried to weave in all of the things that music and sound and this design can do, as well as with lights. It's however much is necessary to activate, but not overpower, the imaginations of the people watching the show.
OMC: It's very stripped down too, so you have to balance that line of, "We're taking this part, but we don't want to overshadow this actor."
JS: Or couch it in something so literal. In the end, the story is cathartic for the poet, but it's also there for the audience.
OMC: So it's almost like therapy for the main character on a level?
JS: He has a very strong impulse not to tell a story that brings up a lot of collateral damage within his psyche. But he tells it anyways. But he needs (gestures over to Alicia) help.
OMC: Why do you think "An Iliad" is a story that has lived on for some incredibly long?
AS: It's still incredibly relevant. Reading the Fagles translation, you can understand everything. It all makes sense. It's not like trying to pry your way through Shakespeare and decipher what he means and what the customs were back then. It is what it is, and it's completely relevant. It can still speak to you from however long ago that was.
Plus, considering that it was one of the first things ever actually written down, that's incredible just to wrap your head around that concept.
JS: It's both a good story and a relevant story. It is the roots of our history, at least for western civilization. I mean, all of these ruins that you visit in the Mediterranean, of the great cultures. This is a story that activates them. It lives on because it's, in some ways, a part of the culture that we live in.
So you retell the story, a story about long ago and far far away, to remind yourself that the things we go through today or have gone through at any point have their roots in history past. It gives us context. Whether or not it gives us a solution, but it does give us an idea of how these things were solved and whether or not it was a good idea.
OMC: So not quite "history repeats itself," but we learn from it.
JS: It's the story of our origins, and to retrace one's origin is always a powerful thing.
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