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Saturday, October 29, 2011

First-Person: Vanessa Porteous on The Penlopiad

(Clockwise from top): Meg Roe, Laara Sadiq, Rachel Aberle, Ming Hudson, 
Sarah Donald in the Arts Club Theatre Company's production of
The Penelopiad. Photo by David Cooper.

a world of echoes, shadows
A second shot at a beloved play
by Vanessa Porteous

It’s better to hear a play than to read it. I knew of The Penelopiad, which premiered in an international co-production between the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Arts Centre in 2007. But when I attended a workshop of the piece at Nightwood Theatre’s Director’s Summit in Toronto in November 2009, that’s when I knew I wanted to do it. I walked out into the late afternoon sun on Queen Street, thinking ‘Why can’t we do a play like that?’ Then it occurred to me: I was Artistic Director at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary, in the midst of planning the first season fully programmed by me. With some imagination, some cash, and some nerve, we could. So in September 2010, we did a Calgary production.

I knew immediately, right then on Queen Street, whom I wanted to play Penelope: Vancouver-based actor Meg Roe. Meg and I had worked together several times before, and I feel she is one of the most talented, creative, powerful and charismatic actors in the country.


Margaret Atwood
(photo: George Whiteside)
I wanted to celebrate the women in our acting community in Calgary, to emphasize the universality and relevancy of the subject, and to underline the theme of solidarity. So everyone else, including the design team, would be Calgarian.

The play tells the story of The Odyssey from the women’s point of view. Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, is our narrator and guide. She is in Hades, the Greek Underworld, haunted by her twelve favourite maids, who were hanged for disloyalty when Odysseus finally returned after twenty years away. In Atwood’s retelling, Penelope fills us in on events from her perspective, while the maids play all the other characters. They also get to have their say. These women’s voices weave a new version of the story – one about courage, survival, loyalty, grief, loss, injustice, and culpability.

I had strong instincts about the style: homespun, honest, pared down. With very minimal-seeming scenic effects, the cast would create the entire world of the play themselves, seemingly out of nothing: a royal marriage, a boat-trip, weaving a shroud, a slaughter, a hanging, and the gloomy, metaphysical halls of Hades. That’s the kind of theatre I really like – using simple effects to evoke great spectacle, and leaving a lot of details for the audience to imagine. More importantly, Atwood describes ‘a world of echoes, shadows’ – so I wanted us to suggest the partiality, the fragmentation of memory.

Hades is a forest of ropes.

The world of Hades would be ‘maid inflected’  - a place of baskets, mops, weaving. After all, Penelope’s favourite memories are of being with the maids while they work, so memories of the domestic world are what all the characters in the play have in common. 

Set designer Terry Gunvordahl came up with a beautiful organizing principle: Hades is a forest of ropes. The ropes that hanged the maids haunt Penelope almost as much as the maids themselves. That’s all she can see. Eventually, almost everything in the world of the play ended up being created out of ropes.

The cast (photo: David Cooper)

Right away, I could picture how the maids would look. Each would wear a kind of calico work-dress, like the kind you can buy at Kensington Market in Toronto. Eventually we figured out that Penelope would be in a gorgeous, chiffon blue gown, melting into the blue depths of Hades. After all, she is ‘half-water,’ according to the play.  Costume designer Deitra Kalyn took those ideas, and the idea of ropes, and of easy on-stage transformation from women to men, through the costume design to create a subtle, understated and very evocative world.

We were inspired by images from the script: rustles, whispers, echoes, feet dancing on air, birds flocking.

 Denise Clarke came on board to do movement design, which eventually became so integrated into the piece that the boundary between staging and movement dissolved. Movement motifs, like ‘raising your hand to watch us fall’, ‘dancing on air’, and lots of scrubbing, drifted through the show, varying and changing, culminating at some key point in the story. Denise’s approach was pretty powerful stuff.

We were inspired by images from the script: rustles, whispers, echoes, feet dancing on air, birds flocking. We thought about the idea of physical haunting – that your body remembers and reenacts its traumas. We pondered the pure lines and mystery of Greek statues. We wrestled with the question, how does a ‘chorus’ work nowadays, especially in a play that is attempting to underline the individuality of each member of that chorus? We never wanted unison, or clean ‘external’ choreography. We never wanted the maids to be ‘a block.’ Each maid had to have her own way of doing everything, and her own private reason for doing it.

Meg Roe (Photo: David Cooper)
Led by Meg, the Calgary cast leapt in with incredible imagination and creativity. We had to puzzle out many questions about how we would tell this story, in a very short time. The production in Calgary in September 2010 was very well-received, and I think it’s fair to say it represented a milestone for all of us. A big task, accomplished with passion, mutual support and devotion, and a very powerful evening in the theatre. I am so grateful to everyone involved in that show.

Denise Clarke came on board to do movement design, which eventually became so integrated into the piece that the boundary between staging and movement dissolved. Movement motifs, like ‘raising your hand to watch us fall’, ‘dancing on air’, and lots of scrubbing, drifted through the show, varying and changing, culminating at some key point in the story. Denise’s approach was pretty powerful stuff.

We were inspired by images from the script: rustles, whispers, echoes, feet dancing on air, birds flocking. We thought about the idea of physical haunting – that your body remembers and reenacts its traumas. We pondered the pure lines and mystery of Greek statues. We wrestled with the question, how does a ‘chorus’ work nowadays, especially in a play that is attempting to underline the individuality of each member of that chorus? We never wanted unison, or clean ‘external’ choreography. We never wanted the maids to be ‘a block.’ Each maid had to have her own way of doing everything, and her own private reason for doing it.


An intense weekend of auditions yielded the best ensemble cast I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

Rachel Ditor, literary manager at the Arts Club, saw the Calgary opening. A few months later, we confirmed that Meg would reprise her role as Penelope, and I would go to Vancouver, with the Calgary creative team, to do a second production based on the first, this time with a cast of Vancouver actresses as the maids. An intense weekend of auditions yielded the best ensemble cast I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. 

The second time around, we had a lot to go from. A deeper understanding of the story; a fully realized design environment; a strong staging; and the experience of rehearsing and running it. This allowed us to go even deeper than in Calgary.

Meg Roe (photo: David Cooper)

One of the great gifts of the Vancouver production was watching the consummate Meg Roe re-explore her interpretation of the character of Penelope. The role is demanding: she drives the show; she brings the audience along every step of the way; she delivers some of Atwood’s most beautiful, most elusive speeches; she undergoes a journey that is breathtakingly huge, in its range and emotional demands. After a beautiful performance in Calgary in 2010, it would have been totally reasonable for Meg to more or less revive her previous version, perhaps settling into it more deeply. Instead, as she said once in rehearsal in Vancouver, “I’m rebuilding.” Bit by bit, she discovered new realms of feeling, detail, depth and nuance. It was astonishing to watch.

...they dove in with incredible generosity, warmth, humour, insight, and imagination.

Another gift in Vancouver was the additional sound design and music direction by Alessandro Juliani. He built off Allison Lynch-Griffith’s amazing, entirely acoustic, live sound design for the Calgary version, adding many subtle sound cues and atmospheres, and directing the sung sections with great feeling. The result is a delicate transformation of the production from the inside out. It’s the same idea, and it foregrounds Alli’s gorgeous compositions, but the result is even richer and more full of feeling, somehow.

And then there were the incredible Vancouver Ladies from Hades – the ten amazing actresses who played the maids. These performers were the absolute tops. Many of them have lots of experience carrying a show themselves. For this project, in which ensemble is everything, they dove in with incredible generosity, warmth, humour, insight, and imagination. They brought themselves fully and completely. 

Did we talk about underwear? Now that you mention it, we did.

Many have asked, “But what was it really like, working with all women?” This always makes me bristle. Do people really believe we women go crazy or something, when the almighty male presence is removed?

Did we braid each other’s hair? Yes, for the show – that was Deitra’s design. Did we laugh and goof around? Definitely. Then we hopped to it when the time came. Did we talk about underwear? Now that you mention it, we did. And, to be truthful, there was usually a raucous little flurry, whenever Alessandro came in to do music after a few days of just us women.

Were there moments of private melancholy and self-doubt? Probably.  Were there occasional tears? Sometimes. I mean jeez – it’s rehearsal! 

(Clockwise from top): Meg Roe, Laara Sadiq,
Ming Hudson, Rachel Aberle, Sarah Donald
Photo by David Cooper.
But there were no cat-fights, or destructive gossip, or snide bickering, or whatever it is our culture thinks goes on when men are out of the room. This was a team of powerhouse dames, ‘thoroughbreds,’ as Denise and I kept saying to each other, when we shared a glass of wine at the end of the day. We were all so glad to be there, working on Atwood’s powerful story. I had never worked with any of them before, and I loved every minute of it.

Now I’m back at ATP, with such good memories. At around 8:00 pm my time, 7:00 pm in Vancouver, I know they’re running the fight sequence, and the songs, before the show. I send a telepathic message to them across the Rockies: Have a great time onstage tonight, gals! I’ll be thinking of you!


Vanessa.

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