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Oresteia in Chicago

April Cleveland

Depaul University

In this presentation, I will discuss the preparation and rehearsal process for DePaul University’s 2019 US premiere of ORESTEIA, Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Aeschylus’s classic trilogy. I will discuss my relationship and history with Icke, my unorthodox method of acquiring production rights, as well as the pre-production and rehearsal processes.

The pre-production process included over six months of intensive design meetings before rehearsals began. Our team sought a radical reciprocity between each element of design, naming our approach to achieving this cohesion “designing side by side.” Rather than working independently, as is typical, every department of design—costumes, sound, lighting, scenic, projections, dramaturgy—developed their ideas in conversation with one another, and with me. We spent hours rigorously defining the terms we would use to fill “our well”—what we called our repository of guiding principles. I insisted that every design choice spring from this well of shared ideas. One way we added to it was by watching the television shows and films that inspired Icke’s adaptation: The Sopranos, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, and Inception, among others, discovering together the way these pieces related to Aeschylus’ trilogy. When we worked towards a final design, the terms in our well helped us articulate our disagreements and guide our progress towards a cohesive design.

I will also outline some of the challenges we faced as a production team. The length of the production posed an early obstacle. I will explain how our production ran at three hours, whereas Icke’s ran at nearly four. This involved some approved cuts to the text, but our most substantial time-savers came from decreasing the length of three “pauses” (intermissions) that Icke scatters across the play. These pauses are essential features of Icke’s adaptation, which ultimately serve the major reveal between the third and fourth acts of the play. We honored but shortened these devices.

I will also describe the rehearsal process in detail, addressing our relationship to the original text and our dramaturgical priorities. I started collaborating with dramaturg Grace Grindell almost a year before rehearsals began. We primarily worked as co-readers of Icke’s text, slowly combing through the play and drawing out the “DNA,” questions, and tensions that would motor the entire production. Grace and I agreed that the best approach to dramaturgy with the actors was to treat Icke’s adaptation like a new play. In rehearsal, we only touched lightly on Aeschylus’ original. This kept the performance text at the forefront of our focus. I contended that if Icke did his job well, then he accounted for the heartbeat of Aeschylus’ trilogy and kept Aeschylus’ most vital themes alive, so the best way to keep Aeschylus fresh and contemporary for the actors—and for audiences—was to engage the actors in the action, relationships and stakes of Icke’s version. I believed that if we could keep actors up on their feet, rather than in their heads, we would blow the dust off the old master and give audiences an electric contemporary experience of Aeschylus’s famous trilogy.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Theater in Chicagoland

Session/Paper Number

13.3

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