It’s not often that you get a chance to participate in two versions of the same show less than a year apart. I’ve had the opportunity twice before—once, playing Rosalind in As You Like It with two entirely different casts, and again with two productions of the Hippolytos, once as Hippolytos and once as stage manager—but this year I had my first experience doing so from the director’s standpoint.
Last May, Stanford Classics in Theater mounted a Silicon Valley adaptation of Aristophanes’ Birds, reframed as Aristophanes’ Nerds. Instead of the Athenians Pisthetaerus and Euelpides, we introduced two Wall Street suits, Pete and Dick, who abandon the world of finance for the sunny prospects of Silicon Valley. (Precisely how sunny they are is a matter for debate, but that’s another story.) Pete and Dick enlist Tim Tereus (“senator turned tech guru”) to win over the nerd population with a daring plan: by leveraging their control of the nation’s data, the nerds can “starve out the government and become masters of [their] own destinies.”
The May production was shaped by an almost comical series of unfortunate events. Several of our actors had to drop out due to work or illness, the performance space we booked lost our contract and gave our dates to someone else, and our original director left the project. I received a field promotion from assistant director to director, the cast and crew pulled together, and we managed to come up with a full, fun production.
When the SCS Committee on Ancient and Modern Performance invited us to remount the production at the SCS/AIA Annual Meeting in SF earlier this month, I was overjoyed. Having been part of repeat productions before, I knew that the number of insights you gain in the process of adjusting to different audiences, actors, and spaces are enormous. We would face a new set of challenges, but we would also have many creative opportunities we hadn’t had in our beleaguered May production. I would be able to block the show in its entirety, rather than picking up where another director with a very different style left off. We would be able to shape our space to encourage more audience interaction than had been possible in our less-than-ideal lecture hall. New faces, making up about half the cast, would bring new energy to the veteran nerds.
The two biggest challenges for the CAMP production proved to be (1) our one-day rehearsal time, and (2) an audience of classicists more familiar with the original Birds than with the geography and culture of Silicon Valley. The first of these was much less of a hurdle than I’d thought it would be: I and the rest of the crew planned the day meticulously, the cast were attentive and energetic, and, miraculously, no one’s flight was delayed enough to disrupt our schedule.
The second was a more interesting problem. How well would our SF references (both Science Fiction and San Franciscan) carry over to a broader audience? Would an audience of classicists find our tech jokes funny, or simply confusing? Would conference goers return to their hotel rooms after the show saying, “The douche-moron δύσμορος pun was funny, and it was a hoot to see pictures of Richard Martin in nerd glasses, but the rest of the show fell flat”?
Fortunately, the audience was much nerdier than I had given them credit for—and, if the epichoric Silicon Valley references became too much, there were always plenty of dick jokes. But my worries reflect a broader issue in modern productions of ancient comedy. Aristophanes is highly topical and extremely political, continually engaged with the community and events around it. If you watch a production of the Knights without knowing who Cleon is, or see the Lysistrata without swotting up on the eel economy of Boeotia, it really isn’t that funny. In order to give modern audiences an authentic experience of Aristophanes, such references need to be updated to more familiar parallels. Who would want to see a production with projected footnotes explaining each joke?
(The necessity of adaptation is discussed at greater length in SCIT’s recent Eidolon article, and was the topic of CAMP’s fascinating panel at the SCS, “New Skin in Old Wineskins: The Place of Athenian Drama in Modern Society,” organized by Eric Dugdale and Rosanna Lauriola.)
But, in adapting comedies to engage with our own communities and politics, we run the risk of becoming as obscure as Aristophanes, given a few years or a new audience. For example, the May production of our show featured Chris Christie as Heracles. As witnessed by a recent SNL sketch, Christie has largely dropped out of sight, eclipsed by the rise of Donald Trump. Accordingly, we updated our script to include Trump as Heracles (played, with delightful Trumpian facial contortions, by Don Lateiner). Once November 8 passes, however, our script will become more difficult to convincingly update, its entire final scenes requiring significant rewrites.
Should we worry about this? Not necessarily. I would argue for an “adapt early, adapt often” approach to ancient drama. Each readaptation, whether on film like Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq or on stage like Luis Alfaro’s Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, gives the audience a direct experience missing in productions which attempt to be period accurate. Over time, the accretion of such adaptations bears witness to a larger truth about ancient drama: the timelessness behind its topicality. There will always be a power for the underdogs to overthrow (Birds), a loud and unscrupulous politician to lampoon (Knights), conflicts between rich and poor (Wealth).
The chance to remount a production less than a year after its original production drove home both the power of topicality, and the continuity of the structures behind this topicality. We had no trouble finding a new Heracles figure. The audience had no trouble relating the Nerds to the original Birds. Old jokes and new worked together as beautifully as our half-and-half cast.
In fact, my only real disappointment was that no one laughed at the Lando joke this time around. You would think that would be even more topical than last May, wouldn’t you?