Interview with Wole and Emma currently in rehearsal for Derby Theatre's new production of Mike Kenny's The Odyssey.
I introduced myself to Emma Beattie and Wole Sawyerr as an aspirant writer for theatre and theatre reviewer and a big supporter of Derby Theatre having had a long and enjoyable experience of seeing most of their productions so far plus probably hundreds of plays from the former Derby Playhouse. I said the interview would be a relaxed talk about aspects of Mike Kenny's play The Odyssey. I wanted to find out how it was formed and how the play's text worked as a construction and story-telling medium and differed from translations of the original poetics by Homer. I had a brief understanding from the hour's worth of rehearsal I witnessed today and grasped that it has elements of narration through Odysseus, the lead, and other injections of story telling through the other actors who play a variety of other roles. This practice continues throughout the work and carries the story physically and vocally forward. Wole is playing Odysseus and Emma is Penelope/Athene / Man and Ensemble. Mike Kenny's The Odyssey is an ensemble work with eight actors directed by Derby Theatre Artistic Director Sarah Brigham.
Phil: Emma, I understand that you were an actress in Electra and Iphigenia in Tauris. Did they have any similarities to this show?
Emma: Actually I work shopped it at the National with Josette Bushell- Mingo. The idea for them work shopping it and potentially doing it was for them to do an all black production. I think though I was the only white actress! (laughs) The idea was to open up these great plays that were just seen as 'white' the whole time. At the time I was involved in Last of the Haussmans at the National so I agreed to do this project for them. It was interesting, we had a German girl from a physical theatre company so it was similar to this in that it was quite physical plus quite about the power you can create using the whole body not just the voice with your complete self, rather than it just being about the words. And I think that's what we are trying to achieve here though it's not completely physical theatre and it's about every bit of you on stage telling the story. It's about the emotion coming from every bit of you and that will mean that, hopefully, it's about eight of us creating a powerful theatrical story and landscape on stage for you to enjoy and hear the story from. With some songs, with some music too although we are backing away a bit from 'songs' but trying to explore musically the combination of vocals so that it become a blend of all. It's like holistic theatre I guess. It's not just physical, it's not musical, it's not – verse. It's everything! We move the stage. We create it. We tell the story together. Odysseus tells the story as well as being the story. So suddenly he goes from narrator to Odysseus in the moment.
Wole: You are right Emma. It isn't just about having song it's also about that musicality being part of our world that we may sing during our actions, during our character's lives on stage. A natural thing rather than 'hey let's now sing a song!'
Phil: How long do the actors have to prepare for rehearsals and I appreciate that it may differ from production to production, from job to job - if you like? Also how much time do you have to study independently before rehearsals start so that you have a degree of preparation for the role/s you are about to play?
Wole: Good question. Definitely, it does vary from job to job. With this one, for example we had the script from Mike quite some while ago.
Emma: When decisions had been made mid December 2013 we had the script but also Christmas gets in the way and we were under the impression that it may be a draft and therefore could change.
Wole: Maybe not significantly but it is one of the drafts along the production line and Mike is a hard working writer- creative force. So we've got that time with it. In terms of being prepared there is obviously the research that any actor can do depending on what the job or script requires and Sarah and Mike were quite keen to share one of the books they were using as what you might call a cornerstone and were referring to it a fair bit. I think it was by Dr Jonathan Shay and it's the Odysseus in America and he did also do...
Emma: Achilles in Vietnam. Both were about combat trauma using Homer's characters as models.
Wole: That's right. So basically we can use those texts and beyond and more as well as looking at translations of Homer's original if we choose to.
Emma: You can do as much or as little as you have time to do depending on how much time you've got before you get to rehearsals. And sometimes... er it's a lovely luxury to have access to the script and to let it wash over you a bit but I find you don't want to make any huge decisions before you get to the rehearsal room cos you don't know which direction your director's going to lead you; where other actors and their ideas are going to take you. So it's good for you to remain fluent and flexible and be able to adapt. So that means that now this process, which we are shoe-horning into three and half week's rehearsal (which is quite short) with a lot to do, I think is a very intense three and a half weeks.
Wole: Which we are only starting to feel. I don't know about you Emma but I am only just starting to feel the intensity today.
Emma: Today?! (laughs)
Wole: Yeah cos last week it felt slower and Sarah's style is quite relaxed.
Emma: Is it? (laughs louder)
Wole: You've not worked with some taskmasters, believe me. Erm, yeah Phil, so that allows us as a company to be jovial and jokey but also to work and concentrate but also to breath a little. I think, as with any director, I don't want to speak for Sarah but, I assume we'll start to ratch it up a little because we have to and for our own sake as well.
Emma: You have your first week and then you think 'oh my God' we've got two and a half weeks!
You don't want it to just be about learning lines and turning up. You want to keep thinking about it and still allow things to change, to shift. I find I just eat sleep and breath it and have had all sorts of weird and wonderful dreams and have to resist the temptation to text Sarah about various ideas that had come to me.
Wole: Just to interrupt. I didn't resist the temptation to email about some music even though I'm not that musical. I had to actually let them know.
Emma: It's exciting to be able to contribute to the piece creatively.
Phil: I've seen some of Derby Theatre's pictures on facebook of some the costume designs. Can you tell me about those and the modern soldier style of them.
Emma: Yeah, I texted an actor friend over the weekend. He's actually in The Musketeers, so he's doing very well and I said to him that we are doing The Odyssey in Derby that the costumes are great and sort of military and think Sarah Connor Terminator 2 and he said, “Sarah Connor - much more fun than a toga.” I am very happy with the costumes. They give you an earthiness and a grounding and hopefully it will be a very raw experience for the audience and hopefully they won't feel that there are words and verse floating above them and that it's all Greek and inaccessible. Hopefuly it will...
Wole: Hit home.
Emma: Yes. In the great way that films like Terminator 2 and Alien do. Whatever you think about these films, they're classic films. They take you … and ...
Phil: Pull you to bits.
Emma: Yeah and that's exciting to do to an audience.
Phil: At what point or points during the play does the notion or motif, if you like, of a soldier's experiences, namely haunted (as the publicity says) by the experience of war and horrors of The Odyssey build into the script?
Wole: Into the script? I'd say literally the first moment we see Odysseus. But then it doesn't carry on again until the end of the first half and then on into the second half.
Phil: So it's a non linear piece?
Wole: Yes, as Homer's is really. Reflective. I think Mike Kenny has reflected that because we have a starting point where we see Odysseus and then we get taken through Odysseus's journey and it's the journey of his men and his family. Then we come back to the end of the first half and come back full circle to where we first saw him and then, carry on with the rest of the story. Does that make sense?
Emma: We haven't even touched on that bit yet in rehearsals.
Wole: As Emma says, we haven't even touched on that yet although it's in the writing and Sarah and I have had some discussions around that and the effects of PTS (post traumatic stress) on Odysseus and the soldiers who have fought at Troy and tried to return home to a degree of normality. The effects of PST will influence Odysseus even through his narration because he has hindsight now – he's been through it to an extent and he's re-living it and he's not re-living it separate to what has happened. That makes sense in my head I hope the words make sense!
Phil: Perfectly. I can understand the cyclical theatrical device in the writing. It sounds very exciting and emotional. Lastly, has this particular play ever been performed before?
Wole: No, it's new writing.
Phil: New writing for Derby Theatre? Excellent. Thank you very much for your time.
Emma: Thank you. It's been great.