With tech week—also known as crunch time—starting next week, Theatre Erindale cast and crew are all extremely busy. I sit down with Autumn Smith, director of Orestes, to chat about the process of putting Euripides’s ancient Greek play onstage with the graduating class of the Theatre and Drama Studies program.
The Medium: What’s it like working with classical text as opposed to contemporary?
Autumn Smith: Well, this is a translation, so it’s a new adaptation by Anne Carson. It has a contemporary feel to it for sure. It has a feel more of Oscar Wilde than a “true” contemporary text. But the intent and the stakes are still there. She’s kept that very true to Euripides, so the language is just slightly more accessible, I think.
TM: Does that complicate things? That you are using a translation?
AS: It’s a very weird play. It’s very random. So trying to find a time and a place to suit it, to suit the work is very difficult. I’ve actually never been challenged that way as a director. Usually I can conceptualize something immediately. And I did that with this work, but just trying to put all the nuts and bolts of it together was really tricky. Part of it is the translation, because it’s so banter-y, and for me the only place I could make sense of it conceptually is Victorian England. A little bit of Monty Python-esque, over-the-top bravado, and yet [also] these really devastating characters that remind me of a Dickens novel.
TM: Did you end up setting the play in Victorian England?
AS: I most certainly did. We explore the voice of women and how it was muted at that time, and we explore the transition between [the focus on] God and the incoming evidence that Darwin presented in his work that challenged everything that came before. We also looked at colonialism—Troy [in the play] is representative of Ireland at the time so our eunuch slave is actually an Irishman. He has absolutely no say in his own country’s matters.
TM: You mentioned the “muted voice of women”. How does that play out in a cast mostly consisting of women?
AS: We talked a lot about it. They’re all powerful women, so we explored this idea that the piece itself is so misogynistic. But Electra, the main character, and the chorus are so strong that they’re fighting against this misogyny throughout the whole play, but what that actually looks like in the end is that they are helpless. Everyone is a slave to something or [someone], so women are slave to men, Helen is slave to the gods—well, we’re all slave to the gods—and the Irish are slaves to Britain. It’s all about challenging what we believe and that idea that traditionally things were that way.
AS: It’s very interesting to discuss with a contemporary class and go “What’s wrong with this picture?” and how can we push against that to create a piece that is dynamic and contemporary while still being true to the classical version.
TM: What’s it like directing students?
AS: Oh, I love it. It’s my favourite thing to do. There’s an energy you get from students that is different. It’s different from working with professional actors because there’s an energy of play and acceptance, and they haven’t been truly jaded by the industry yet. They’re just willing to go. Their work ethic is amazing. I just finished doing my MFA at York—I did a Masters in Directing with an emphasis on teaching at a university level, so I quite enjoy it. And they’re incredible. I’m really lucky that way.
TM: Do you have a methodology when you direct? Is there a way you do things?
AS: Dirty. I’m just dirty. Dirty and specific is my motto. No, I don’t [have a methodology]. It depends on who you have in the room with you—it’s going to switch up. But I work a lot based on instinct and intuition and I like digging into the ugliness of humanity, all the grey areas—I’m not very black and white. I try to keep my work very physically grounded as well, so there’s movement paired with the stillness in this piece.
TM: Is there something that you want the audience to come away with?
AS: Other than, “What the hell was that?” You know, everything I direct, I want people to go away and talk. I mean everyone is going to look at the work differently. Like going into an art gallery, everyone always has their own opinion of the work. So, even in conversation with my colleagues here, everyone has a different opinion on how they view the work, how they think the work should be done. And yet ultimately, theatre is about debate. Theatre is about going away thinking and dialoguing. If I can ask the audience to go away with anything, it’s that idea of, “Wow, I didn’t get that, can you explain it to me?” or, “Well, that really pissed me off,” or, “What the hell was Euripides thinking when he wrote that play?” I just want people to dialogue, whether they loved it or hated it. Just be impassioned about it.
Orestes opens at Theatre Erindale on October 21.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article has been corrected from the print edition. The online version was originally not credited to Kate Cattell-Daniels.