Last night my husband and I visited the footprint of ancient Rome. We climbed the steps of Campidoglio, marveled at the remains of Teatro Marcello, Foro Romano, and Colosseo. It was late and the streets were quiet, but the vibration of these sites was palpable. History—composed of many thousands of stories both imperial and quotidian—is written on every stone, pillar and monument.
How appropriate that my collaborator and co-director Jocelyn Yuchia Chang and I are adapting an ancient Chinese myth in this historic city. The unearthing of this myth has been much like the process of excavating an ancient site. Like archeology, devising a performance from an ancient text is a delicate process of exposure, recovery/discovery, and cataloguing. Through the painstaking examination of the extracted material, the context (or story) slowly reveals itself. It is only in the process of excavation that we understand the true nature of the site…or rather, our interpretation of it.
Jocelyn chose the location of this “site”: the ancient Chinese myth Kua Fu Chases the Sun. Something drew her to this particular story at this particular time. In part it was the theme of the Lab this year (“Upheaval”), for Kua Fu abandons everything he knows in order to pursue his objective (catching or taming the sun); but she also followed an instinct that there was something special here to be mined. That instinct also led her to suggest using only one actor—to embark on this excavation project in a very intimate and rigorous way. A triumvirate of collaborators.
Like archeologists, we began working on our “excavation plan” months in advance (via Skype): translating anew the original myth; discussing in depth the possible meanings; exploring staging, costume and music possibilities. But it wasn’t until we cast the marvelous Francesco Meola that the footprint (or foundation) of our site truly began to come into view.
Devising is all about getting the right people in the room. Each collaborator brings a specific set of skills and abilities and Francesco rounds off our triad nicely. He’s is a very physical actor. He’s playful and present and incredibly generous (both as an actor and a person). He loves myths. He’s a poet and he plays percussion. We anticipated that these talents and skills would be vital to this collaboration. And we were right. But little did we know what creativity, passion and commitment Francesco would bring to the room. When I met him over coffee for the first time in New York I had a sense of it, and when he showed up on the first day with a beautiful, enormous frame drum he had dubbed his “Sun,” I knew we were right.
The dig began in earnest on the first day of rehearsals with the removal of excess “dirt.” Jocelyn led Francesco through a series of exercises that asked him to let go of the detritus of the mind, to find his “inner flow” or chi. To stop thinking and trust that he didn’t have to do anything, that if he was fully present and listening to his body that energy would guide him: “Tell your body it is safe” she encouraged. This work established the rehearsal room as a safe place to explore, and allowed him to open up to the current of creativity, instinct and invention: a place where the story could begin to flow through him.
And flow it did. It led Francesco to burrow deeply into the core of Kua Fu’s internal struggle. And it didn’t take long for him to uncover the resonant voice and posture of a powerful yet playful “Sun,” spiteful and taunting and at times grotesque. This was the first solid artifact, or “character” to emerge from the soil of this myth.
The original text of Kua Fu is very short, only a couple of lines, but the “translations” vary greatly in length and substance. One version of the story begins: “One day, Kua Fu decided to catch the sun.” Just that. Just decided to do it one day. The way you might decide to take a trip, or visit a place you’ve never been before.
Another version describes Kua Fu as the “brawny, sturdy, and tenacious” leader of a “Tribe of the Giant” who vowed to capture the sun because his people suffered from drought and “scorched crops.” A brave man who takes on the mighty sun in order to help his people.
This is the beauty of myth. Simple stories can be interpreted (and re-interpreted) in a multitude of ways. Meaning is often ambiguous and continually shifting.
Once we had established a solid sense of Kua Fu’s internal struggle—in one beautiful rehearsal Francesco used the drum to explore in depth the shifting enticement and fear that power can engender—it became clear to me that the myth was not only about one man’s internal struggle, but a struggle that takes place within a specific context. So I encouraged us to come back to the text and take our penknife to it. I introduced a series of structured improvisations that began to reveal shards of objects, fragments of characters, utterances, and the debris of landscapes that populate this myth. Jocelyn and I are finding a nice ebb and flow in rehearsal, riding the creative current with Francesco, gently drawing these discoveries out and encouraging deeper exploration, listening closely and offering support where needed. These physical remnants, combined with this deeply connected inner struggle, are piecing together into our interpretation of this myth. It has been a deeply joyous process so far.
The work must get more careful now. It is time to sift through what we have uncovered, dust it off (or dig a little more deeply), examine it closely, and allow it to tell us the story. Hopefully we will have time to polish it a bit before sharing our find with an audience. But this is a lab after all, and this site may require another visit for further exploration/excavation. Va bene. Sarei felice di tornare.
– Laura Tesman, New York City