Cast member Gwendoline Horning discusses the upcoming performance of The Brides of Atreus and “the exciting and occasionally challenging nature of ensemble-based theater-making.”
Interview: The Brides of Atreus
As an ensemble, Gwendoline Hornig, Sophia Cannata-Bowman, Andrew Goehring, Ben Natan, and Brennan O’Rourke are committed to a rehearsal-based approach to acting; the notion that dramatic work can be excavated through the rehearsal process and the instincts of the actors to “play.” The Brides of Atreus is our first ensemble-based collaboration, in which we are all sharing the responsibility of co-direction as we explore Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis and Sophocles’ Electra in a text-based engagement with these stories.
Myka Cue: How did the group form?
Gwendoline Hornig: We were all in the Theatre at Gallatin production of The Crucible together in the fall. One night after we closed, I was visiting Sophia Cannata-Bowman at the tea parlor where she worked, and we were talking about the show and how wonderful it was to work with everyone, and the burning desire we had to continue acting with members of the cast. Then we had a sort of light-bulb moment and reached out to the other individuals who are now part of this ensemble: Ben Natan, Andrew Goehring, and Brennan O’Rourke, with the idea to work together in an ensemble-based rehearsal process of a show in the spring. We had our first meeting on the fourth floor of Gallatin and brainstormed a list of thirty or so plays and musicals that we are all passionate about, and then eventually narrowed it down to Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis and Sophocles’ Electra, which we chose to integrate into a complete theatrical cycle: The Brides of Atreus.
The beautiful thing about the theater program at Gallatin is that the courses are taught by theatre artists and educators who share similar values, methods, and vocabulary that they bring into the classroom or rehearsal room. We as students are gifted with the incredible experience of absorbing their creative and pedagogical brilliance, and then encouraged to take all that we absorb into our own processes, thus developing a new shared vocabulary rooted in shared working values. Our rehearsal process for The Brides of Atreus was structured through a tutorial under the mentorship of Ben Steinfeld, who has been an invaluable resource to all of us in navigating the exciting and occasionally challenging nature of ensemble-based theater-making.
One thing that has been of great importance to us is the expertise that each of us brings in addition to our work as actors. Andrew is our composer and music director, Ben is our fight captain, Brennan is our costume designer, and Sophie and I have drawn on our production and administrative experiences in theater and film to do the work that gets us into the rehearsal room each week. We are also so fortunate to have our wonderful stage manager, Sydney Martin, who joined our process about a month into rehearsals, and who has been a marvelous addition to our team.
MC: What was the inspiration for the project? Why choose to combine two Greek tragedies?
GH: Our initial plan was to do one. But why do something that easy? We narrowed down our list of thirty plays to what would fit this group best. In Ancient Greece, these plays would have been performed with three actors in masks, so approaching these texts with the luxury of five actors seemed not only doable, but allowed us to explore the life of music in these plays and the chorus as a constant witness to the events onstage. We started by reading Anne Carson’s translation of Electra back in December, which we were all incredibly excited by. Then we read several different translations of Iphigenia in Aulis as another option for a play to work on. After reading both, we started to have conversations about the cyclical nature of revenge, rape, and war-related trauma, and we realized that these two plays combined create one full cycle: the fall of the House of Atreus beginning with sacrifice of Iphigenia and ending with the vengeful murder of Clytemnestra.
One of the guiding forces in combining these two Greek tragedies was the character of Clytemnestra: how can we sympathize with a woman who murders her husband when he returns home from the Trojan War, marries Aegisthus, and abuses her children that were fathered by Agamemnon? Does seeing Clytemnestra and the young, optimistic mother in Iphigenia in Aulis, and gaining an understanding her grief-stricken lineage, invite a less demonizing response to the woman we meet in Electra? Throughout the process, we had several discussions centered on questions relevant to today’s cultural landscape concerning the roles of women in times of unrest, the use of violence as a personal and political tool, and the importance of familial bonds in society.
MC: Can you talk a little bit about your text-based approach to the rehearsal process and how it has informed the work?
GH: We begin our rehearsal process at the table. Tablework—where we focus on making the events of the play happen at the table in whatever way we can, and relishing the time we have with text in front of us to dive deep into what the language reveals about the heart of these plays. We play lots of text games at the table—many of which we learned in classes here at Gallatin, and some that we made up as ways to continue unlocking and activating the text. For example, in our scene work, we give the actors working the permission to say “Say that again” while their scene partner is speaking, at which point their scene partner repeats whatever their last thought was. This provides an opportunity for specificity – both for the speaker and the listener – and also establishes the symbiotic nature of receiving and responding in a scene. Everything in the physical life of these plays—the set, costumes, props, blocking, music, etc.—is derived directly from the text, with the focus on illuminating the language and the story, rather than imposing something on it.
MC: As artists, what motivates you to keep creating art?
GH: Something that has come up consistently in our work on these plays in connection. We view the opportunity to share space with each other and with an audience, is an opportunity to connect. Our experience of the world—of current events, family dynamics, pain, suffering, joy—are human experiences. Though written years and years ago, these plays are a reflection of our world because they are an embodiment of what it means to be human. We care about what these plays are saying about our actual world and get excited about any material that reveals something deeper about our humanity, or gives us the permission to discover a new depth in our own experience of emotional reality. The act of getting behind these characters is one of learning how to love these characters. And it’s the same process we go through as people. Learning how to love ourselves. Learning how to love and believe our friends and family. Making theatre is all about deciding to care about something larger than the self—and that larger thing is the connection we share with people. A connection based on love, kindness, care, and respect.