A journey to the landscape of memory
by Walter Bilderback, Dramaturg
Back in 2011, during previews for Our Class, I read a brief review in The Guardian of a director I’d never heard of, whom the critic wrote had “created a theatre that, while it has elements of the work of Jerzy Grotowski, seems very much his own: one that explores the cornered human animal in all its naked desperation." I immediately shared the article with Blanka, whose interest was piqued. “I got on the internet to find more,” she remembers, and she was taken with the acting, which had “a power and presence that I didn’t see that often.” This was our introduction to Theodoros Terzopoulos, and the beginning of the path to Antigone.
After first-hand observation of his work in Athens, Blanka invited Terzopoulos to bring his production of Ajax: the Madness to the 2013 Fringe Festival, and to lead a workshop for Philadelphia actors while he was in town. This visit convinced Terzopoulos that he wanted to direct a tragedy here.
Earlier that year, I’d read a New Yorker article by Daniel Mendelsohn that compared the furor over the body of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev to Sophocles’ Antigone. The article convinced Blanka and Terzopoulos that Antigone was the play they wanted to produce, and a second, ten-day training session with Philadelphia actors took place last January, from which the local cast was chosen.
In retrospect, it would seem that Theodoros Terzopoulos was destined to find his fame resurrecting the theatrical power of the great Greek tragedies. Born to a left-wing family in northern Greece, he grew up near Mt. Olympus, near where Euripides wrote The Bacchae. “When we played as children, we nearly always found remains of ancient vases and statues in the ground,” Terzopoulos has recalled. “The whole of Greek mythology was lying around in little bits.”
His family were “Pontic” Greeks, from the Black Sea, who had returned to Greece in the early twentieth century. After World War II, his home village was near the center of the Greek civil war. “This conflict was a disaster for the village. The whole village was divided into two factions, and my family belonged to the defeated side. That was the family tradition. Whether at the Black Sea, in Russia or in Turkey, they were always on the weaker side and were chased away. . . And yet they were optimistic people who sang and danced a lot and enjoyed life to the full.” Because of the village’s history, the culture was quite diverse, and Terzopoulos felt he could “always see in two directions at the same time – East and West, Asia and Europe. Both cultural environments are fundamental parts of me.”
In his early twenties, Terzopoulos left Greece to study at the Berliner Ensemble, the famous theater founded by Bertolt Brecht, and the experience had profound influences on him. From the great actor Ekkehard Schall he learned the importance of discipline: Schall would spend two hours or more on training, breathing exercises and makeup before every performance. Particularly important were the conversations with playwright and director Heiner Müller, who became his friend and mentor, and who would often speak with him about tragedy and mythology. On his return to Greece, he furthered his study of ancient Greek ritual.
In 1986, Terzopoulos founded Attis Theater, devoted to expanding and deepening the training method he’d developed. A central part of Attis’ repertoire has always been re-inventing the ancient spirit of Greek tragedy to speak to today’s world. The first Attis production was Euripides’ Bacchae, which was an immediate international success: after seeing Bacchae, Müller wrote, “In Terzopoulos’ theatre myth is not a fairytale, it is condensed experience. The process of rehearsal is not the performance of a dramatic concept, it is an adventure on a journey to the landscape of memory, a search for the lost keys of unity between body and speech, the word as a natural entity.” Etel Adnan, a poet who has collaborated with Terzopoulos, feels that he “gets closer than others to the original vision of the ancient authors. He does not look for symbolism or metaphors, but rather to that ancient Greek realism, which also encompasses the gods. Everything is clear, like a theorem in geometry, and has to be taken at face value. The ‘body’ is itself caught between two worlds: the conflict between humans, and the confrontation between humans and gods. Humans are therefore living under the double pressure of the natural and supernatural worlds.”
Ancient Athens, Vote Shards