Getting to know Jenna Cady
We introduced our 2018 interns a couple of weeks ago, but it's time we get to know them a little bit better. Let's start with a conversation with the incomparable Jenna Cady.
Jenna! Can you tell us what draws you to the Greeks?
My first run-in with Greek theatre was when I was searching for something completely different. I absolutely love horror movies and I wanted to combine that with my love for theatre, so I read an article about plays that fall into that genre. The first thing that was mentioned in the article was ancient Greek tragedy. I read about dark, epic, gorey tales, and me being me immediately went to Barnes & Noble to dive in. I picked up the collected works of Sophocles, including Ajax, Electra, and the Oedipus cycle, and was absolutely blown away.
The Greeks provide something for me that Shakespeare doesn’t. While the two are millenia apart, in theatre education they are often equated as two eras of ancient interpreted texts to be studied and adapted. I’ve been immersed in this culture of identifying Shakespearean plotlines and archetypes in modern plays and films. I love that culture, but those plotlines were never ones I could really connect to. I found that the plotlines of Greek plays—the ones I’ve had the pleasure of studying, anyway—feel heavier and deeper. When I began reading Greek plays, specifically Greek tragedies, I found stories of questioning fundamental morality, the rules of the universe, and the worth of humanity, which are themes I rarely find so prominent in any other era or genre.
Greek tragedy is distinctive indeed, and unique in its insistence on driving at such massive questions. But I'm really struck by your comparison to horror movies. That's something that our first writer, Brian Kettler, was very keen on. Both The Witch and Scream were highly influential for him as he came to know the Greeks. Can you talk about the similarities between the horror films and Greek tragedy?
Horror movies and Greek tragedies surprisingly share a lot of common themes (namely, death) but a more interesting similarity isn’t the content of the plays, but the audience. For ancient Greek audiences seeing theatre was a joyous communal religious experience, even when watching tragedies. Watching theatre is a very different experience for modern audiences. It’s lonely, dark, and quiet. Even when we have the opportunity to see theatre with friends, any connection with our peers is saved for the car ride home. That’s why I believe that the closest modern audiences get to sharing the experience of ancient Greek theatergoers is watching horror movie.
Imagine this: you’re sitting in your living room with a group of your closest friends. You put on a slasher flick that you’ve all seen at least ten times. Despite that fact, everyone still screams, cheers, cries, and yells. You bond over the collective chills down your spine, the vulnerability that accompanies fear. This is what I believe ancient Greeks experienced while watching tragedies.
Horror movies also fill a niche role in their industry just as Greek plays are still an important part of our theatrical landscape. Horror movies and Greek plays both strive to illicit extreme emotional response, past the extent of most other genres. This response can be fear, disgust, sadness, admiration, confusion, but the films and performances themselves are specifically engineered to stir these primal reactions. When horror movies might use a chilling distorted score, Greek plays would use the chanting of a formidable chorus, and so on. The horror genre is often the perfect fit for pioneering new and experimental film techniques, and adaptations of Greek plays are frequently found in today’s fringe theatre circles. The similarities go on!
Perhaps I'm too Aristotelian, but I can't hear the "f-word" (fear) without thinking of "pity." Aristotle says in his Poetics that tragedy is supposed to evoke "pity and fear." Does "pity" have a role in contemporary theatre?
When people say “pity” in the context of the Greeks, they often mean something a little different than what we use the word for today. They use “pity” to describe a conflicting emotion where the audience simultaneously blames the hero for their mistakes and fears ever being put in their shoes. Pity becomes the projected fear that we deserve the bad things that happen to us, and there’s no escaping our punishments because we bring them on ourselves. I definitely believe this version of pity has a place in modern theatre, the same way some playwrights try to follow the three unities as a creative limitation practice.
However, I disagree if pity is being used with the modern connotations of detached condescending sympathy. If a play is written so that the audience will pity a character, it is being written so that the audience will look down upon that character. This power dynamic has the potential to be harmful, especially when telling the stories of marginalized people.
Marginalized characters should not be written so that non-marginalized people will pity them. In applied theatre terms, plays written about the minority should not be written for the majority. I feel strongly that I, as a white person, should be the one working to understand characters instead of having the stories of other people spoonfed to me in the most pleasant terms.
A performance I keep coming back to is Unwanted, written by Dorothée Munyaneza. I saw this back in 2017 when it was in Portland’s TBA festival. It was less of a play and more of a theatrical experience expressing the pain of the women who survived the Rwandan genocide. When I was in that audience, I was never asked to pity any of the women depicted or even asked to consider my politics or opinion regarding the situation. I was hit with a wall of sound and words filled with such pain and rage that I had no choice but to experience that pain with the best of my ability. That play wasn’t written for people like me, and because of that I was able to experience deeper empathy.
So a deeper connection can happen when a story isn't tailored specifically to you. That makes sense. the performance wasn't about you, but them.
We'll have to continue this conversation! For now, it's great to have gotten to know you a little bit better. I'm very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the play that Anya is writing.
On that note, we'll be announcing what tragedy our writer is adapting later this week! And we'll be getting to know our other interns, Emily Hogan, and Kyle Riper, in the weeks to come. Exciting times!
Everybody have a happy 4th!