It’s been a while! In March 2020 in situ: courses closed as we went into lockdown, and it will be a full eighteen months until our face-to-face public courses resume again in October 2021.
But we’re coming back with something very special. Here, Artistic Director Richard Spaul tells us all about it.
Richard, the new course focuses on Homer’s epic poem Odyssey. It’s not the first time you’ve focussed on Greek Tragedy. You’re clearly passionate about it!
I certainly am and have worked on it extensively, especially over the last 15 years.
We’ve done Euripides’s Bacchae, Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and Aeschylus’s monumental trilogy Oresteia. This last-named project took four years to complete – proof that we are fairly serious about things! I translated all these, with research, additional writings and improvisations from the group, which is how in situ: has always worked.
Of course, Odyssey is Epic not Tragedy and narrative not dialogue, so it’s a new medium for us, offering new challenges. Odyssey is also much older than classic Greek tragedy, but along with the Iliad is the prototype for that, and for almost all Western literature.
The poem is very long, rich, diverse, with famous incidents and characters that many people who wouldn’t actually read it nevertheless know about, and likely first learned in childhood.
The Cyclops, the one-eyed cannibal. The Sirens, who lure men to their deaths with beautiful singing. The goddess/witch Circe who turns men into pigs. These are archetypal stories which have influenced not only high art but also popular fiction, television, even gaming.
All the popular sci-fi series such as Star Trek are based on Odysseus’s wanderings and adventures – I recently Googled the Odyssey tale of Scylla and Charybdis and got pointed to a computer game!
There’s a lot to get passionate about.
A New Translation
Do you have a particular interest in Odyssey? What’s your own journey, your own experience of learning about and working with it?
My main experience has been translating Odyssey, with the core challenge of doing justice to its complexity and multi-layeredness.
I don’t feel that any of the contemporary translations I’ve read get anywhere close – too timid, tentative, tied up with notions of vague and lofty nobility. It’s boring, so my aim is to do better.
I’ve been preoccupied with two things in particular. One is that Odyssey was created during a civilization that collapsed – although then the story somehow survived into another civilization. The second issue is that Odyssey was originally created and passed on entirely by word of mouth, and when it was written down was done so in a composite language that no one ever actually spoke.
So what we have is a set of broken remnants, a mixture of radically different time-periods and places, covering hundreds of years and thousands of square miles, with a language that’s a jumble of fragments most of which have been lost. It is sensationally eclectic, with much in common with Modernist and Post-Modern writing. It’s also post-apocalyptic, which is particularly relevant now when our own civilization is threatened with collapse and the pandemic has focused us still more in that direction.
I’m working with those ideas in mind. And it seems to me that – with few exceptions – this is not what modern translators have done. On the contrary, most of the translations I’ve read are seamless, bland, unremarkable. So my mission is to communicate something of what this amazing poem is actually like – and that calls for experiment and risk-taking.
Translating Odyssey has been a personal project. But the upcoming in situ: course will naturally be different, group-oriented and collaborative, with everybody writing their own exciting, gripping versions which I hope will lead all the way to performance.
‘Greek Tragedy’ sounds quite challenging – so who is course for? Do participants need to know Odyssey already? More generally, do they need to have a good grasp of English… or to have previously done much drama work in order to benefit from and enjoy this course?
Yes, the course will be challenging. Everything in situ: does is designed to challenge received ways of thinking and open new doors, whether that’s regarding subject matter or technique.
But this doesn’t mean that taking part demands special qualifications. The course isn’t suitable for under-16s or those who really speak or read no English, But knowing Odyssey or having done drama work are not prerequisites.
The best in situ: groups contain a mixture of different levels of knowledge and experience – and many non-native English speakers are among our most active participants. All that’s necessary is a willingness to collaborate and experiment, and the energy to sustain that!
What will participants actually be learning and doing? Give us a taste of what a class might look like and feel like!
Typically a class starts with warm-up games and exercises – all aimed at getting the group relaxed, energized and working together well. This doesn’t usually take very long. We then focus on whatever the topic of the week is. That includes a range of things – text, voice, movement skills, ensemble work, characterization, pretty much everything.
We usually finish by creating short drama pieces in groups or pairs and presenting those to the group. It’s amazing how much can be done in just a few hours. At the end of the class, participants typically feel they’ve had a good warm-up, learnt a new approach or developed an old one, then created something new for performance. So they don’t feel they’ve been wasting their time!
For obvious reasons, the last year and a half didn’t involve group work – plus my focus during lockdown has been on writing and I would like the course to reflect this. So this year I want group devising and writing to play quite a big role, and I hope participants will find that as exciting as I have found it.
I should stress that none of this work will be done as individuals or in the abstract – it will be group devising aimed at performance. In fact very often we’ll be performing something at the end of a session that we only devised at the beginning. It should be great fun and very rewarding to be part of.
Previously, in situ: autumn term courses lead on to more detailed work and performance in subsequent terms. Is that what you’re planning?
Yes. It’s a three-term project leading to a performance in Summer 2022. I’m imagining that we will work very broadly in Term 1, start focusing on particular texts, techniques and incidents in Term 2, then work towards performance in Term 3. Participants need only sign up for a term at a time and can step away at any point. That said, though we’ll welcome new participants in Term 2, after that and as we approach performance, we won’t be adding to the team.
Do you imagine any changes to the usual course format because of the ongoing pandemic?
I hope not. Of course there will be measures in place on arrival and departure from the space and we will observe any guidelines to keep people safe. But I’m planning not to employ masks or social distancing during the work itself – that would be very frustrating and would make things difficult. That said, we don’t know where we will be in two months’ time – we need to keep our fingers crossed.
What do you think students will most enjoy about attending this course?
I think there are many things in theatre work, in the approach in situ: takes and in Odyssey that are stimulating, original and enjoyable.
And after all that has happened over the past year – distancing, fear, lack of physical contact, ‘remote’ communication, Zooms and Skypes – there’s such a need for focus on what is really happening here and really happening now.
I think for most people, just being able to explore live interactive collaborative work again and have fun is the most important thing – it certainly is for me. There will be a lot to celebrate in the fact of just doing it again after what has happened. In that way, you might see the course as more of a necessity than an entertainment!
So… I hope that people who have been involved with in situ: previously will continue with a renewed sense of the importance of live theatre. And that people who haven’t worked with us yet but may have considered doing so will think that this is a good moment to start!
Title: Odyssey Project
Dates: Monday October 18 – Monday December 6
Times: 8pm – 10pm
Venue: St Andrews Hall, Church Street, Chesterton, Cambridge.
Dates: Monday January 17 – Monday March 7
Times: 8pm – 10pm
Venue: St Andrews Hall, Church Street, Chesterton, Cambridge.
Monday evenings. Dates and times, including performance dates to be decided.