Saturday, January 25, 2014

Iliad prep: Achilles' killing rampage

So. The Iliad preparations continue apace. Next weekend is the first official all-weekend rehearsal.

I wanted to write about the initial Iliad meeting, way back in December when it happened, but I didn't really get a chance. At that meeting, we talked about how the rehearsals were going to work, what was going to be asked of each of the 18 or 19 tellers, and it was reiterated to the newbies to this whole 12-hour-epic thing (like me and Nicole Lavigne) that we were not scared enough. Nowhere near scared enough.

This is a huge project, not least because each of us brings our own performance style (and level of experience, hello) while the whole tale, all 12 hours of it, needs to be a single unit told by many voices. So, we have to all, collectively, get the characters figured out. Get the repetitions and the recurrences right. Match our tones.

In some ways, it's a lot like singing in a choral group, except that each of us performs our part alone. But our voices still have to blend.

Still, talking about the piece, and about how to think our way into ancient Greece and its mores and values, and finding the ways in which the story moved us and spoke to us, was only the first half of the meeting. The really amazing thing in that meeting, and something that I find hard to describe if you weren't there, was what we did in the afternoon.

We all stood, and we all closed our eyes. And we all breathed. And then Jan said she was going to say a word, and after that we could all say it, in whatever different tones or emotions came to us. The word was "War." So we stood for a moment (probably, most of us, feeling a little uncomfortable), and then she said it again. "WAR."

And someone else said it. And then someone else, and someone else, in different tones. Angry, exulting, pained, joyous, despairing. In the dark. And then Jan told us to take one image from the story that had spoken to us, and think about it, and then speak it, but in the words, "I am . . . " For example, "I am the burning fury of Achilles at the disgrace I have to endure at the hands of Menelaus."

It was uncomfortable for me at first - I get totally self-conscious about this kind of thing - but as I stood there with my eyes closed, in the dark, and heard voices that didn't always have names attached to them speaking random images from the story, it got trancelike. At first, people just spoke disconnected images. Sometimes Jan would prompt for more: "And how does that make you feel?" she would say to the character speaking through the storyteller. Then voices started answering each other. Waves of disembodied, connected sentences would build and then fade, skimming through clusters of ideas around things like glory, death, fear, honour, weariness, bitterness, comradeship, the unjust gods.

Punctuating this, occasionally, Jan would start up the repetition of the word "war" again. One or two people got into it enough to shout or yell the word. (I wasn't one of them.) Occasionally - particularly at the end - it turned into a scary kind of chant. "War! War! WAR! WAR!"

By the time we could all open our eyes again I had no idea how much time had passed. I kind of wished there was a recording of what we'd just done, because it had been . . . kind of like a Cubist reinterpretation of the whole story, but also of all the people who were joining together to tell it and all of their different entries into it and approaches to it. But then I also realized there should not be a recording of it. That - what happened - was really just for the twenty or so people in the room. It was beautiful in itself, but it was part of the process, not the end of the process.

But it was beautiful in itself.

So, that was our first meeting. Making me think I have no clue what will happen to me in the next one. I know I will be profoundly uncomfortable. I will feel silly, and angry, and scared. But as I am constantly assured by people who did the Odyssey, this will be a massive learning experience. And sure. Learning makes you feel silly, and angry, and scared.

I am, now, working on the chapter assigned to me: I need to have five minutes of it down for next weekend. I get the part where Achilles, driven to fury by the death of his best friend, finally joins the battle looking for blood.

I'm pretty glad I get the one moment when Achilles gets into his chariot, and one of the horses, with its head hanging down to the ground, speaks to him, only once (he's struck dumb by the gods right after he prophesies Achilles' death, "at the hands of a god and of a man.") That was the first "image" I brought to that "group dreaming" we did, because even hearing that bit in my audiobook version of the Iliad gave me chills. I think it struck me because of a scene in the play Equus, where the boy Alan describes seeing a horse with the reins and bit in, asking if it hurt, and the horse saying, "Yes." Something about that scene gave me the screaming willies when I first saw the play (in a production at the University of New Brunswick, way back when, starring my friend - well, my friend's big brother - Dana).

Alongside that, I get a couple of cracking fight scenes (well, Aeneas and Achilles, though that gets broken off by the gods, and a rather brutal slaughter of Hector's little brother), and a motivational speech by Achilles. I also get all the gods descending on the field of battle, each to wreak her or her own particular brand of chaos. And a final sentence that also resounds with me, because it matches with an image from one of my favorite "YA" writers of all time, Rosemary Sutcliff; it's the image of Achilles' chariot rolling over "dead men and shields alike," while blood spatters his "unconquerable hands."

Fun place to leave off my part of the telling. Whenever I get freaked out about the process and the eventual show, I think about that. About getting to that ringing last line - which rings, but just leads on to the rest of the story, which, spoiler alert, doesn't end well for anyone - and walking off the stage leaving that with the listeners, until the next voice steps up to continue the tale. And then I decide, yeah, I can do this.

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