Sophocles's Antigone, one of the first and greatest Western tragedies ever written, is often thought of as a grand clash of moral imperatives. The daughter of Oedipus — yes, that Oedipus — defies the law of man (specifically, her uncle, King Kreon) and obeys the law of god in order to perform proper burial rites for her brother, a wartime traitor, who was killed by her other brother, a wartime hero.
But in 2012, when Paige Rogers was first considering directing the play for the Cutting Ball Theater, where she serves as associate artistic director, she was attracted to something much simpler: the tragedy's family dynamics.
“The play Antigone begins well after the death of Oedipus,” she writes on the company's blog, “and it is the four siblings, royal in birth and shamed by their parentage, who seemed so clear and strong to me. The play begins just 24 hours after the two brothers kill one another, and the sisters, used to sharing the gross humiliation of their parentage, are the only ones left who can claim that their father was also their brother. The two other people on earth who understood this fact on a cellular and societal level have killed each other just hours before. The bond that the siblings shared, paired with what is happening the minute the play opens, sealed the deal for me.”
Three years later, Rogers has a cast that's had the unique opportunity to live together like a family in the middle of the woods in Eastern Europe.
Last year, Cutting Ball got an extraordinary invitation to work with Teatr Zar, a Polish avant-garde theater ensemble that practices teachings of the great mid-20th century theater director and thinker Jerzy Grotowski. Zar emphasizes song and movement over text; its work draws on the ancient folk songs from cultures all over the world. Cutting Ball is the first American company invited to work with Zar like this in more than a decade.
Funding its journey partly through Kickstarter, the group traveled to Wroclaw, Poland, where it spent two weeks training together, doing intense physical and vocal exercises with Zar. It was not unusual for the work to trespass upon private, deeply held emotions, and at times the performers broke down. But instead of stopping rehearsal, as other companies might have, Zar members thought crying was a natural, even necessary, reaction to the work, says Emma Crane Jaster, who plays various roles in the production. They asked an upset performer if he or she needed anything and then moved on.
Training together as an ensemble is rare in contemporary theater, as is spending almost a year on a project; most rehearsal periods in the Bay Area last three to six weeks.
“It's really helped me with the family dynamics,” says actress Hannah Donovan, referring to both the residency with Zar and the scope of the rehearsals as a whole. She plays Ismene, sister to Madeline H.D. Brown's Antigone. “I have a sister myself, and I feel super-comfortable with her. If Madeline and I had just met two weeks ago, we would not have the same shared experiences that we've had the past year.”
The luxury of time, says Jaster, allowed the group to explore more, improvise, and “make more interesting choices,” instead of the most expedient ones, as a result. Wiley Naman Strasser, who plays Haemon, who's betrothed to Antigone, agrees, “We had time to see what was in ourselves” as opposed to “foisting character upon ourselves,” he says.
The ensemble now has what Jaster calls “a shared vocabulary” to such a great extent that when Rogers gives them direction, they often first huddle among themselves in order to realize it. “[The actors] have [their] own locked-in egg that I'm not even a part of,” Rogers says.
This long-term collaboration among the actors helped playwright Daniel Sullivan write his new translation of the play. “It made the chorus much easier to write for because you can imagine their personal relations,” he says. Sullivan traveled with the performers to Wroclaw and worked on the script as he observed them rehearsing. In many ways, he wrote the characters for these particular performers. “I sat and watched and watched and watched,” he says. “You pick up things — how certain bodies are ready to express certain things.”
“Especially with Madeline,” says Rogers. “I hear some lines come from her, where I'm like, 'Oh, she'd say that. Oh, she'd say that.' What a gift!”