Friday, July 23, 2010

Those Crazy Ancient Greeks Alive and Well in SF

The last paper I was tasked with writing in college was supposed to be on Ancient Greek Theatre, the topic of the class I had been loathing all semester long. Having dragged my feet for a month it came down to 24 hours before it was due, and I hadn't started. After thinking about the paper for, really, the first time, I quickly decided that instead of an essay I'd write a one act play, and that play would be a sophist debate on the relevancy of Ancient Greek Theater today. I drank tons of coffee, spiked that coffee, smoked a ton of cigarettes, got kicked out of the library but finally turned it in on time ... I got a C ... and I totz passed college homies!! Now I could straight party ALL THE TIME!!

OK, back to the crazy Greeks. I mention the story above to give a context from where I have viewed Greek plays, namely, "Yeah yeah, they're great, very smart and necessary and blah blah blah, but do they really mean anything to people today?" I'd say most of that hang up was due to the language - even well translated versions of those ancient plays read like they were translated about 2,000 years ago. I have the same problem with Shakespeare or Chekhov - the language is so out of common use, that it is simply difficult to understand and follow. Not saying it's impossible, it's just tough, and a lot of audiences, including myself at most times, don't have the patience to focus so intently for three and a half hours to make sense of The Oresteia.

Enter No Nude Men's SF Olympian Festival and Atmos Theatre's SF Theater Pub.

No Nude Men describes The Olympians Festival thusly,"Twelve new full-length plays written by fourteen local writers, each one focusing on one of the twelve Olympian gods of Ancient Greece." Essentially, they put out a call for scripts explaining the concept behind the festival, then picked 14 writers to create brand new plays about each of these totally awesome Greek gods. Remember in elementary school when you read all about Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and that rascal Hermes? Remember all their shenanigans and crazy adventures and fighting monsters and falling in love and generally being larger than life, vaguely incompetent and thunderingly mighty? The Olympians Fest has hired local playwrights to re-imagine those tales in a way that audiences young and old can very easily relate to. I was lucky enough to catch Artemis by M. R. Fall (the festival has been almost entirely sold out) with a rowdy and engaged crowd intent on every word and move of these characters who, in all likelihood, that audience hadn't really thought of since third grade.

Theater Pub has managed to do something very similar. With programming which encompasses both re-imagined classics and new plays, mixed with well selected musical guests, and a price point and location which are alluring to everyone (free and at a bar, specifically Cafe Royal on the Tendernob), Theater Pub has packed 'em in for each show with great success. Ben Fisher, a local playwright/actor/director/producer and co-founder of Theater Pub, recently said this about the company:
"In our brief tenure, we have produced a number of totally obscure plays with great popular success. Our first event was a reading of Euripides’ Cyclops, a play that is almost never performed by established theater companies and relegated to the sort of academic curiosity file of the Greek canon. Our reading drew a crowd of well over 100 people and everything that might have made that play so unsavory to a theater – its short length, the extreme darkness of the comedy, its crassness, and the fact that it is all but unknown outside of scholarly circles – made it such a success in the bar. Moving forward, we have performed other off-the-beaten path classics like Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes or Havel’s Audience, with a similarly enthusiastic response. The draw of free theater in a bar is certainly a key factor, but really what these elements do is remove the level of pretention or self-importance that is often attached to the classics. The audience is drawn to them not because it is “good theater” but simply because it is fun. It becomes responsive to the community because it is about the communal experience of going to see something with other people, hanging out afterwards, and supporting what is generated locally."
That last sentence above from Fisher (who also wrote and directed "Hermes" for the Olympians Fest), also I think, applies to the Olympians Fest. Both Theatre Pub and the Olympians Fest have managed to dust off texts and stories that are today most commonly reserved for an academic setting, and made those stories wholly accessible to an audience that may not have a degree in theater studies, ancient religion or philosophy. In an incredibly smart, successful and fun way, they've lowered the access point to creating, watching and participating in the Classics.

One of the coolest aspects of life is the ability to change your mind or change another person's attitude towards something. At PianoFight, one of the most common responses we get to our shows is something like this, "Gosh, I haven't been to a play since high school and I didn't know theater could be like this, you know, fun!" We've flipped more than a few non-believers into solid theater-goers. And for me, personally, Theater Pub and the Olympians Festival have done the same to me in regards to the Classics. It was incredibly difficult for me to imagine how Aeschylus and Alfred Jarry could be fun and engaging. By lowering the access point, removing the often pretentious nature surrounding such work, and engaging the local community of artists, audiences, and businesses on meaningful levels, SF Olympians and Theatre Pub have, for me anyway, made those Classics relevant to my everyday life. Had I been exposed to this style of work a bit earlier in life, I might have just gotten a B on that last college paper.

The Olympians Festival continues through July 31 at The Exit Theater and Theatre Pub takes over Cafe Royal in August with "Pint Sized Plays" (full disclosure: I play Queen Mab in drag and a drunk llama in that show).

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