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  • Writer's pictureSam Baldwin

Questions for Anya

Over the past several weeks, you've gotten to know our interns a little bit better. Now we are turning our attention to our playwright, Anya Pearson.

We are right on the verge of the official start to the internship, and the script development process that it is tied to. The first draft will enter into the conversation soon, but even before that, the interns have had the chance to ask Anya a few questions about this story, and Anne Carson's translation of it (we've chosen to work off of Carson's text at the outset). What follows is Anya responding to some of those questions.

What came up multiple times was a curiosity in Anya's selection of this particular translation. As Kyle Riper posed it:

"Why were you drawn to Anne Carson's translation, and what does it offer that others do not?"

My husband is a music producer and walks through the world in a musical way. My husband is moved by the bones of the song; its meat. When he hears a new song, he wants to know: who produced it? Who wrote the hook? Who wrote the verses? Who were the people responsible for putting the entire song together? While I also love music, and listen to a lot of it, I am most moved by the lyrics of the song. Like in most situations, I am most in love with the words.

In her introduction to Agamemnon in An Oresteia, Anne Carson says, “It’s like watching a forest fire. Big, violent, changing every minute and the sound not like anything else. Every character in Agamemnon sets fire to language in a different way.” This feel like an apt description of Carson’s translation. The language is on fire. It is a rich tapestry of language that is at once sleek and modern and yet otherworldly, harkening back to its Ancient Greek roots.

Choosing a specific translation is an essential step in adapting a play as each translator brings a piece of themselves and their unique perspective to the shaping of the work. Richmond Lattimore’s Cassandra sounds differently, resonates differently, and ultimately inspires differently, than Anne Carson’s Kassandra.

Ultimately, I chose Carson’s translation because, of the four that I read (Robert Fagles, David Grene and Wendy Doriger O’Flaherty, Christopher Collard, and Anne Carson), I was most moved by her language. Poetry is an emotional experience for me. When I read a good poem, the hair on my arms stands up. My soul smiles. In that moment, there is peace in the world. I am soothed by language, comforted by the delicate construction of words. Awe-struck by the way a talented writer weaves words together to create new meanings, new sounds, and new stories. Carson’s translation stirred me in a way that the others did not. I was particularly struck by the way she arranged words to create new meanings: “crimsoncovered” “purplepaved” “redsaturated,”(a continuation of Aeschylus’ technique). I have found myself experimenting with this in the Cassandra sections of the adaptation, fusing disparate words together and allowing myself to think in new and exciting combinations inspired by Carson’s poetry.

Orphic is no stranger to Anne Carson and the poetry that she weaves. Our work on the first commission, of Euripides' Iphigenia Among the Taurians, was heavily based off of her translation of that play. And it was just a few weeks ago that we talked to Kyle about his affinity for Carson.

This idea that "every character in Agamemnon sets fire to the language in a different way" draws us to think about how very unique these characters are. And it leads us to another of Kyle's questions, about the character Kassandra (Carson uses a "K" instead of a "C" with several characters, in reference to the Greek letter, Kappa...we'll alternate here). Kyle asks:

"What are your initial thoughts on Kassandra and what she represents both within and outside of this play?"

Cassandra is such an interesting figure in the original play. Unlike any of the other characters, she is a foreigner, brought against her will to Argos. She is blessed and cursed with the gift of sight. I am most struck by how she is unable to communicate effectively with others, held apart by the barriers of language. Because she is from a different land and because of her visions, she speaks in a manner that is almost indecipherable to them. She is completely alone in Argos. Further, she is completely alone in her knowledge of what’s to come. She possesses this great knowledge and is cursed to bear the burden of it without being able to warn others. She is also the only character who is resigned to her fate.

I found Carson’s take on Cassandra very interesting: the way she leaves portions of the Greek untranslated and her liberal use of screams are very intriguing. I think Carson’s poetic voice allows the audience to experience the way the chorus is perplexed by, in awe of, and dismissive of her, all at the same time. It evokes her sense of foreignness, her distance from the other characters, her Otherness, and her lack of belonging.

I am so interested and perplexed by what her ultimate role will be in this adaptation. At this very early stage, I have the idea that she is not quite of this world; that there is a very ethereal quality to her. She is both perpetually youthful yet centuries older than her actual years. Though she does not actually appear as a character in the play until the second act, she is always present, always looming near or onstage. I have this image of her dressed in all white, in flowing fabrics, barely lit upstage. I have the idea that she communicates through song, a haunting poetic ballad that is dark and heartbreaking. In the first act of the play, she is a sort of premonition or apparition, an omnipresent voice of conscience, of reckoning. In the second act, she solidifies, but still possesses that quality of foreshadowing. She is that sense that there is something larger shattering, that there is a cost, and that we are all paying the price.

We're very excited to see how Cassandra manifests in your play, Anya. To have her continually present...that gives me chills, and want to know what it means, even before seeing a draft!

But she's not the only woman in this story. Emily Hogan is keen to ask about the other female character:

"What makes Klytemnestra's decisions and morality translate to today?"

Clytemnestra is a puzzle I am trying to solve. There are moments when I see her so clearly and others where she eludes me entirely. I understand the immortal sense of the original character. But I am more interested in the human form she will take in a modern re-telling. And somewhere in the journey from almost-God to mortal, I am sometimes confused by which qualities she retains. What qualities make her luminous? And what are her quiet moments? What is the marriage between the legendary woman and the one who is every grieving mother? Sometimes I find that I am writing a scene and she will take me in a direction I didn’t anticipate. We often quarrel. I write intuitively, feeling my way around the shape of a piece, coming to understand what it wants to be through empathetic listening, free association, and time spent imagining. Sometimes I will hear her say something and I will think, well that doesn’t serve where I was trying to go with this scene. Or I will think, where I am going to go next? And then I go back and think who is she really? Have I gotten the shape of her yet? And to my dismay, or delight, depending on the day, I realize, I have not.

I am still getting to know her. I find that as she becomes more human and less of an abstract idea, the more I can see the justification of her actions. She is consumed by the grief and driven to act from a place of utter heartache. I wonder if I can make an audience sympathetic to this woman?

I am also really interested in the relationship between Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. In the original story, Aegisthus is passing glance. He is only in the story briefly and the portrayal of him is not favorable. I find myself wanting to know about the real relationship between Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Could they actually be in love? What is Aegisthus’ side of the story? Could he be a source of support and solace for her?

Seeing her "human form" reveal itself will be fascinating. Even when a character bears the universal, I suspect that it is who they are as an individual that makes them relatable to contemporary audiences.

One of the most contemporary elements of your script is the perspective with which you tell the story. While I won't drop details about the setting you've chosen, this is a play about the African-American experience. That prompts Jenna Cady to ask:

"Is there something about Agamemnon that lends itself to telling the stories of people of color?"

This is a somewhat difficult question to answer without talking about what drives me as a creator. It is not so much a question of seeing a direct link between Agamemnon and the stories of African-American people. But by virtue of being a writer who is a person of color, I can’t help but be influenced by the lens through which I view the world. As a writer, I strive to present rich, complex, and multi-faceted portrayals of African-American life. Because that’s what excites me. I long to see better representations of my people on stage, in film, and on TV. The stories that I want to see are not stereotypical stories of black suffering. I am not interested in easy stories about slavery or civil rights that are one size fits all – I am interested in exploring the complex humanity of black life. Its rich complexity. Its deep humanity. Yes its sorrow and pain but also its joy and laughter, its deep human capacity for both shared understanding and joy. I want to get into the depth of what it means to be human told through the black lens. What does it mean to move through the world with the added pressure that the deck is stacked against you but yet you are still trying to do the best you can, raise a family, live a life, get ahead, survive?

I am a political writer because as a black woman in America, there is no way to divorce myself from the politics of race and gender, especially given this current administration. So when I was approached about the adaptation, I asked myself which story from the canon of Ancient Greek drama would lend itself best to an adaptation featuring African-American characters. I knew I wanted to take the bones of the original story and set it in a time period and a cultural framework that would both resonate with a modern audience yet still honor the original story. Agamemnon seemed to nestle into my consciousness in a way that I could not quite shake free. I was watching the Netflix series “Troy: Fall of a City” which is really about Helen and Paris but I was most struck by Iphigenia’s sacrifice and Clytemnestra’s grief. This idea for how to update it emerged and started to play out in my head and I just started to run with it.

We're excited for your play, Anya, and also gracious for your taking some time to let us inside your process.

Stay tuned! The real fun begins soon!

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