Wrestling with Ovid

In Hughes’s adaptation of the story of Pygmalion, he includes a beautiful description of how the sculpting of Pygmalion’s bride is actually a collaboration – between the artist dreaming of his art, and the sculpture longing to be born:

Yet he still dreamed of women.
He dreamed
Unbrokenly awake as asleep
The perfect body of a perfect woman-
Though this dream
Was not so much the dream of a perfect woman
As a spectre, sick of unbeing,
That had taken possession of his body
To find herself a life.

She moved into his hands,
She took possession of his fingers
And began to sculpt a perfect woman
As if he were still asleep. Until
Life-size, ivory, as if alive
Her perfect figure lay in his studio.

On a good day, this is how rehearsal feels: you struggle and sweat and breathe and relax and then dive back in and wrestle with the fleeting appearances of The Play and yet feel somehow that The Play is working equally hard to come to you. On a bad day, you feel like the Play is sitting in a corner eating popcorn and watching you mutter and writhe and achieve absolutely nothing. And maybe sometimes it heckles you for good measure.

A week in, we’ve had a few of both right now. But mostly good days, I think (the actors can feel free to chime in here and correct me if they wish).

We have quite a few challenges with this piece – all of which are really assets, but meeting them in the rehearsal room can be disconcerting…

First, obviously, the silks. Our “set” is two 18′ columns of silk. Which we don’t have in the rehearsal hall. And with these silks we have a number of challenges:

  • how to incorporate them the appropriate amount into the playing – not just in terms of making their use specific and clear, but also in finding ways to use them that don’t necessarily involve actors doing stunts (my favorite moment of this right now involves them becoming Actaeon’s entrails as he is torn apart by his dogs).
  • how to make sure that we set high expectations for ourselves…but also realistic ones (none of us have had more than a few months’ experience working this way – there will necessarily be limits to what we can learn).
  • and how to track for ourselves where the silks are, and what the image of them will be – without having them in the space, it is pretty easy to suddenly realize that we’ve blocked a large chunk of the play in a place where part of the audience will be craning around the column of fabric to see…

The second major challenge is simply the style of the play – Hughes adapted Ovid in a clear, muscular, downright sexy way – but it is still a storyteller narrating a series of stories about extreme emotions and actions. So the actors are contending not just with being dropped into epic stories with very little warning (we’ve got 5 actors playing over 30 characters, so they are all bouncing about a bit) but they are also dealing with the fact that the style of the text can be somewhat alienating. Frequently, they are working as another actor (or even harder, as they themselves) speaks their stage directions. Or inner thoughts. Or history. Which is disconcerting, to say the least.

So we’ve been working hard to find out what the narrative voice is, and how to use it to our advantage.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, are the transformations. Some of them happen in the silks – and those are the easy ones: if someone is fifteen feet up in the air, it is pretty easy to suddenly see them as a bird. But a bear? Finding out how to increase an actor’s mass and form using only themselves and the other actors can fill a lot of time in rehearsal.

And tonight we dive back in. We spend more time coaxing the Play back into the rehearsal hall. And we keep working at it.

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4 Responses to Wrestling with Ovid

  1. serahrose says:

    This is a really fascinating process to hear about. Do the silks drape on the floor at all? to be used in other, more horizontal ways? or are they completely vertical all the time?

    • meg says:

      The silks have about a three-foot drape on the floor, so they can be used as different things throughout the evening. So far we’ve found the following: a waterfall, a royal sash, a noose, bed curtains, and various objects woven on a loom. I’m sure we’ll keep discovering new aspects as we go – and I’m eternally grateful for my wildly imaginative actors who bring so much into the room.

      I’ll start posting images from rehearsals soon so that you can get a chance to see what we’re talking about.

  2. I have an Acteon transformation mask, with both forms, the bold king and the terrified almost stag face that you may want to see. I have always wanted to be involved in a production of Ovid, a a designer/mask maker. In any event we should meet sometime.

    • meg says:

      Hey Eric,

      That sounds very interesting! We’re not using masks in our production, but it would be very cool to see it – do you have a picture you can post here?


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