Questions for Peter Meineck, NYU

Winner of the Outreach Prize, 2010

by Kathleen Coleman

The citation for your award mentions four programs that your Aquila Theater Company has developed to bring the Classics to a broader audience. Why four different programs? What is distinctive about each one?

Peter Meineck Aquila’s going to be twenty years old this year and I think we’re starting to feel that we want to be involved in more than just putting on shows. If you ever want to get money out of people who aren’t inclined to give money to arts, you mention Shakespeare and people will give you money, and as Classicists we’ve got more than one great playwright, we’ve got several, and it’s a way that we can define ourselves to the general public and start them talking about what the Greeks and the Romans mean to them today in their everyday life. So each of these programs is a really a different way for them to intersect with the material in a way that goes beyond just doing a show. My colleague Paul Woodruff wrote a wonderful book called The Necessity of Theater, and he said something quite controversial, that you need to be trained to watch. I think we’ve forgotten that, to a certain extent. So we’ve learned that we have to have these different programs, very clearly defined, aimed at different sections of the audience. So we have a program for inner city and rural schools. We have a national touring program. We have the Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives program, which is basically the child of Page and Stage; it’s the biggest public program the NEH has funded, a program based around Greek drama, and they put $800,000 into that, so it’s a lot of responsibility. And we have our regular touring and our shows that we do in New York. We’ve stratified these, in order to make it very clear what we’re doing, but they all speak to each other.

In this age of electronic media, why is it still worthwhile to take live productions into schools and libraries, given all the effort and expense involved?

I think that what’s interesting is that, in a way, the more people are connecting themselves electronically, the more they crave other human beings, the more they actually want to sit with other people and have an experience, particularly if there is a discussion element involved. It gets back to the Greeks, because you think of an Athenian audience coming to watch the theater—which means “seeing place,” of course—and they’re watching dance and movement and masks and listening to text, and they knew these dance steps, they understood them, and now neuroscientists are telling us that, when people watch performance that they actually know something about, their neural systems fire. It’s really interesting, because when you watch an audience watch a live performance, there’s a response there, there’s something kind of unspoken that is happening neurologically in your brains, and when you watch a bunch of people on a ’plane watching their little TV screens, they’re completely separate, they don’t move and they have this very different experience. So I think ultimately people do crave this collective experience, and now the neuroscientists are starting to find some science to support why we want to sit together in a group. It takes us all the way back to the Greeks, who were perhaps among the first people to do this on a big scale.

What kinds of resistance do you encounter when you first propose to bring Aquila into a new community?

Running an arts organization is all about resistance. In fact, you realize after about five years that you’re not really running a company; you’re in crisis management. We’ve been underfunded since Aeschylus, really. Well, maybe he wasn’t underfunded, because they had the choregos; it was a good system. But, ultimately, theater always has to justify itself. You meet incredible resistance from school boards, from local councillors, from people trying to cut funding. To many people, arts coming into their communities represent a threat, and we have to walk that line really delicately. Then, once you’ve got in, someone might have a very fixed idea about what a Greek play and what a Shakespearean play should look like. The word “classic” to them is conservative. Of course, they’re not conservative plays at all, they’re incredibly daring plays, which is what makes them a classic. So that’s part of our fight: to be gentle with people and get them in the door, and then try to give them a transforming experience. But there is an enormous amount of questioning: why study this stuff, why perform it, why put it on stage. And now the school system is all about test scores, so a theatrical experience for a child is less of an aesthetic experience or a great school trip or walking into this wonderful temple that is a theater, and it’s now “How do I pass a test?” and “How do I get a grade?” So that’s a battle that we have to fight. We do workshops; we do master classes; we win them over; we bring them to see a great show. Now, at the end of the day, if it’s a great show, it’s a great show, and a great piece of tragedy or comedy is also very entertaining. You have to take resistance as a challenge and deal with it.

Is tragedy easier for modern audiences to relate to than comedy?

I would have said, a few years ago, comedy; but I think, right now, tragedy. I do think that American audiences have a problem with tragedy. If you see a good tragedy in Greece or somewhere like Bosnia or even south Italy, there isn’t a problem with keening and mourning and expressing emotion. But I think most Americans and most northern Europeans get very embarrassed by seeing people express those kinds of emotions on stage, and we tend to shut down. The whole idea of going to a tragedy sort of fills us with dread. It’s an incredible emotional experience, and I think that the trick is to perform it emotionally. It’s very hard, because you have to translate that. Plays designed for the open air, for masks—they operate very differently from the kind of emotional drama that we’re used to today, and emotion can so easily stray into sentimentality, which kills tragedy. So it’s a very delicate thing. Even the word “tragedy” means something different to us now. And not all tragedies necessarily have a tragic message, in the sense that we think of a car accident or a death as tragic. We’re doing a production of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which is all about tragedy, and we’re doing it in masks, which is what Pirandello wanted. Pirandello was a great Classicist. And that is working. People are seeing their own children in the masks of the children, and when they die it is incredibly moving. Can we do that with ancient tragedy? That’s the challenge.

I understand that your recent work with the Iliad has especially engaged veterans. What have you learnt from their responses?

I think that we tend to not put ancient drama in its correct context. Jonathan Shay’s quote that Greek drama was “theater by combat veterans, for combat veterans, about combat veterans” is very true. Now, I take “combat veterans” to also mean the entire society—women, children, the culture—and I think that all of us who work in the ancient world know that there was war, and peace broke out, and war is everywhere in Greek tragedy. What was interesting watching veterans watch these plays who’d never studied Greek or never even seen these plays before (many of them probably never went to the theater) was, they’re so moved by Ajax, Philoctetes, Heracles, they understand these characters and they’re dealing with questions like, “Well, I’m a warrior and I’m proud of that, and I have guilt involved in that. How do I become a productive member of society? But I’m not the same person I was before I went to war.” And now we’re seeing this with huge numbers of women who are also now on the front line, so these questions are really important questions for America right now, and I think that these plays raise these questions in a very direct and honest way. There’s a truth and an honesty about war and its effects in these plays that work very well with veterans, because we tend to polarize the argument—we’re anti-war, we’re right-wing, we’re left-wing—but these plays don’t do that. There’s just war (the same with the Iliad), and how are we going to deal with that? So, when I watch veterans watching these plays and have discussions with them, it’s incredibly moving, it’s electric, you really feel something very powerful, and it must have been incredible to be in that theater during the Peloponnesian War and watch plays of Euripides or even Aristophanes. Think of Aristophanes’ Birds, when the Sicilian expedition is under way. So I would encourage every Classicist to sit with veterans watching these plays, because it is a very real, visceral experience, and I think I learned an enormous amount from that.

Have you had their families in the audience too?

In fact more than you would think. We had one of these readings in Mississippi, and we had various veterans in the audience, including the president of the Mississippi chapter of Rolling Thunder, who were the Vietnam vets who drive the bikes, and this guy wasn’t going to speak. It was funny, because it was his wife who started to speak, responding to Tecmessa talking about what happened to Ajax, and she totally identified with that (and her daughter was there as well), and then he started to speak and you felt this great privilege that this person was sharing something. Our approach with the veterans is that we’re not therapists; that’s not what we do. We feel that we can learn from the veterans. Also, putting veterans together with the public is a wonderful experience, because I think many of us in the general public don’t really understand the veteran experience, and as people who vote for leaders who get us into wars we have a responsibility to understand the effect of war on the family and what happens in nostoi, what happens when somebody comes home. Do they ever really come home? So, now we’re talking about the Iliad, the Odyssey, all these homecoming plays, and this is very, very rich. What’s wonderful about the Classics is you can keep refracting them off different places in our own culture. So this is one way I think that’s really relevant right now.

In your Page and Stage project, giving readings at places like libraries, do you stick to more literary genres such as epic, or is there a way in which you can convey the visual dimension in drama within these kinds of restraints?

With Page and Stage we were very ambitious. We did sixteen public libraries. And we were really charged by the NEH to create a program that could be a model that other libraries could buy into and really get public libraries to think about public programming. Libraries are under great threat in this country. The public library is just the greatest route to democracy, and it’s a very precious thing, because it’s where the audience are that we’re not getting any more: new Americans, working people, people looking for information, people wanting to use a computer. So we relish this opportunity, but what we decided to do to attract them to come and experience the Iliad was perform it, and we actually with Page and Stage performed the Iliad, the same production we did in New York, fully costumed, light system, sound system. In some of these libraries we literally just pushed books out of the way and people sat on the floor, and they came into their local library and there were these New York actors doing a show, and I think it was just remarkable. And then we would have books on display outside, and everybody would get scholar-essays specially written by Classicists. And so we used theater as a sort of entry point for getting interested in this material. We did Book 1, with a little bit of Book 2, to say, “Well, if you want to know more, go get the Iliad.” Each library got fifty copies of the Iliad, because we found that most libraries would have a couple of Gilbert Murray translations of Greek drama and maybe a really old translation of the Iliad, and no one was going to get excited about that. But by maybe using Fagles and Lombardo and just putting some new translations there and creating a display and having this performance, we got people really excited, and they understood it and enjoyed it, and they laughed at the gods and had all kinds of questions, because it was not what they thought that the Iliad was. They thought the Iliad was this sort of stately thing, although Book 1 is this colossal argument, it’s like a movie. There are women involved, and politics, and comedy. So that was a really great experiment. Now, with Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives, we can’t do a hundred performances, so we’re doing staged readings, and actually that works a little bit better, because we actually did find that sometimes when you do a show—and our Iliad was set in World War II—the discussion can be a discussion of aesthetics, which is a National Endowment for the Arts program. But we were funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and they had never given money to theater on this scale before, so it was very important for us that we steered the conversation to literary content and themes. The readings are quite good for that because, although you’re dramatizing them, you’re not dealing with costumes and set and those questions, which are great questions for a piece of theater but they’re not necessarily something to get a discussion going; they can be distracting. We’re still keeping that live element—I think that’s very important, because it’s exciting—and encouraging the libraries to have these events in the evenings, and have some refreshments, and make it a fun community event for people to come and see.

Have you staged readings from the Odyssey?

Yes. Right now we have a scene from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, from Ajax, from Heracles, and from the Odyssey. We do the bit from Book 23 when he talks about his bed. He’s not really home, I think, until he plays that trick. That’s a moment that veterans love, particularly their wives, they kind of get that. The anger that Odysseus has turns into this tender moment. It’s a beautiful scene. So that one works really, really well. We use the Fagles translation for that, because it’s beautiful.

Have you tried staging readings of Greek lyric? What sort of impact do you think lyric might make?

No, I haven’t, and, you know, I’m becoming very interested in Pindar. I’ve been reading his dithyrambs, and they’re really the precursors of drama. People are really talking about who they are and what they’re doing and where they’re performing. I love JaÅ› Elsner’s theory that there’s a visual turn that happens around the 530s, 520s, where choral performance—which is very frontal, and you watch the song and listen to it—develops into acting, where instead of just watching something you become a voyeur; you start to become part of that secret conversation. I think Pindar is the bridge to that. How you do it, though, is so interesting. I think you would need really great music. You would need the audience to actually get so absorbed by this great music, rather like opera or even rock music, that then the message of the lyrics comes across. And, of course, we forget that this stuff was really great music: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Pindar, the music was probably one of the primary things that they went for, and we just don’t have it.

Are there works of Roman literature that you would like to perform?

I’m always getting into trouble for talking about Greek drama and forgetting Roman drama. It’s funny, because to a certain extent it’s the bridge between Greek drama and Shakespeare, if you think about plays like Comedy of Errors. I think we’re put off Plautus and Terence because some of the content is quite difficult and quite unpolitically correct. So, again, it would be a challenge. And Menander—I know we’re not talking about Roman plays—even Menander would be a huge challenge. I mean, who ever does a Menander play? But Menander was it. So we’re missing something, aren’t we? I did a whole series of workshops once, where I took a scene from Casina and did it in English, and then put the Latin back in and had the actors speak the Latin, and the Latin came out as if it was Italian, as if it was a group of mobsters speaking it, and it was brilliant, it was really funny. So, it would be a fun project to do, but you would have to make it really hip and cool and do it in a very cool kind of downtown New York theater, and give it that kind of hipness and make it sexy, to really make it work. So, one day.

Your translation of the Oresteia received the Louis Galantiere Award from the American Translators Association. What were your primary aims with that translation?

You know, Goethe was a great translator, and he always said that you have to feel that you’re the living embodiment of that original person in your culture. This sounds a really arrogant thing to say, but I really believe you have to have great passion for what you want to say in a translation. I came to Aeschylus early in my career, because the person who really turned me from being a Latinist into a Hellenist was Pat Easterling, and I had just come out of the marines. Literally, I was in the marines one day and at UCL the next day, and Pat took one look at me and said, “You should study Aeschylus, because he was a soldier like you.” And it really just opened up this world. Here was a man who was a soldier and also a playwright. And it was great for me, because I’ve always felt that there was an element of Aeschylus that wasn’t getting out there and I felt very passionate about it. I still regard the Oresteia as the best work I’ve ever done. I mean, the stuff you do in your twenties when you’re arrogant, it’s like rock bands—all their best stuff is done when they’re in their twenties. It’s like any playwright: you need to have something to say with a translation, and it needs to be deeply personal. By the end of the fifth century, something’s going on with books and texts, but, certainly, when we talk about Aeschylus, this is song culture, this is composing to song, to music, and I think there’s a great liveness to Aeschylus that doesn’t translate sometimes to the written word, which is why he can seem quite difficult. And I think there is a sort of literary intellectualism behind Euripides that makes him more interesting to us as moderns, but Aeschylus has got this visual, live, kinetic power that I’ve always been interested in.

As a producer, what do you look for when choosing a translation to perform?

Well, you look for something that doesn’t suffer from translationese, which is this strange language used in cribs. It’s terrible for performing. You give it to actors, and actors have this very weird idea of Greek drama in their heads, so you get incredibly experienced actors who do Shakespeare and Ibsen and Chekhov, and suddenly they become the chorus from Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite. You really want a translation that just sounds real and sounds like real language, even if the language is heightened. And that’s probably why I started translating, quite frankly, because I was dissatisfied with the translations that were out there. I’m not saying that mine are better than anybody else’s, but every generation needs twenty translations of each text, to a certain extent. Translation has an enormous impact on a director. When we first did the Iliad ten years ago with Fagles’s translation, the production came out very Celtic and ancient. And when we did the Lombardo translation, it came out World War II. So, the words are enormously important. And, once you give that translation to the actors, they’re not your words anymore. They will argue with you till they’re blue in the face about the meaning of the words, even if you’ve translated the play, because the words belong to them. Translating for the stage is a really difficult process. Of course, these are all performance texts; they’re not books. Even the Iliad is a performance text. I always say to translators, “Don’t be afraid to cut, change, amend, but do it from a position of knowledge, not from a position of ignorance.” I understand that the reason why the chorus in a play like Agamemnon are going on and on and on about the messenger coming is because he’s walking along an eisodos, and that takes him about six minutes. Well, in a modern theater, when he steps on from the wing, you can probably cut that and still keep the integrity of the play. I’m a great believer that, as Classicists, we can provide dramatists with the tools to make these plays work, and you certainly don’t have to hold these plays up as some sort of sacred text where you can’t change a word. But there’s another step: now you translate the words, and now you’ve got to translate the words to the stage. So I try to do a translation that’s both accurate with the Greek and works for the stage, which is a lot easier with tragedy than with comedy.

In your review of The Philoctetes Project in Arion two years ago, you wrote powerfully about audience participation as opposed to audience witness. Have your thoughts about the role of the audience in shaping the message of the play been informed by modern literary theory, such as the idea that meaning is created at the point of reception?

It’s funny, because I’ve always separated my scholarship from my work as a theater practitioner. I kind of think you have to sometimes, because it’s like two different sides of your brain, and I think the two sides are very good for each other, because at the time when you feel lonely in front of your laptop typing, you can get with some actors and actually do something. It’s funny: actors hate theory; it’s about doing. But I’ve definitely got better at applying theories through practical work, and vice versa. I’ve been very inspired artistically by the work of a lot of Classicists and people working in literary theory. I don’t know if it’s conscious; I don’t know if it’s at the front of my brain. Right now I’m interested in the participation one gets in watching a mask. A mask is actually an emotional sounding board for the person that’s watching it, so I definitely think I’m putting those ideas into practice. As artists we can’t separate ourselves from some of the ideas that are percolating around us. But it’s a very difficult question for an artist to answer, because you want to think there’s a purity to what you’re doing, and you’re being inspired. I’m a child of the eighties, really, and a lot of those ideas influenced me, particularly social theory ideas about what theater can do. Now I’m starting to think, with the Germans, that the Greek theater was a four- or five-thousand seat space on a frontal plane. That would certainly fit with other traditions of theater that are all fairly élitist, so I think I’m changing my views on that to a certain extent, but I still think theater can lift the conversation.

Your home page mentions that you have been involved in a performance at the White House. That sounds enviable; how did it come about?

We had been part of a big NEA-funded program called “Shakespeare in American Communities” which brought Shakespeare to all fifty states. We were already going to about forty of them, so we were a big part of this program. When George W. Bush got re-elected, his administration had never had an artistic event at the White House. As you know, the NEA has to make a request to the President to set the amount of money they’re going to get, which is then approved by Congress, so they asked us to perform for Shakespeare’s birthday. The first thing I heard about it, I got a call from the White House. I thought it was a joke. They originally wanted a couple of actors doing readings, and I said, “No, if we’re going to do this, we should come and do a show.” And people say to me, “Well, where did you do it at the White House?” And I say, “Look at a twenty dollar bill and see that room there? That’s the East Room, that’s where we performed.” So we arrived there and we brought our actors, and we did our really quite risqué production of Much Ado About Nothing, which had a sort of Avengers sixties feel to it, and all the girls were in pleather cat suits and all the guys in bowlers, and it was quite loud and raucous. We did half an hour, because Bush goes to bed early, and there were three hundred people in the East Room. Bush was in the front row. The moment was encapsulated for me by this wonderful Scottish actor, called Tony Cochrane, who’s famous for his long, indulgent pauses. Before the show I said to him, “Tony, you can’t do that tonight, we’ve only got half an hour,” and he says, “Okay, okay.” He was playing Benedick, and he goes out and he does the famous Benedick speech, “Shall I put aside being a bachelor and adopt these mature ways?”—a line very applicable to George Bush—and he delivers these lines to the President and these two men lock eyes, and there was absolute silence, and then he paused and he paused and he paused. It was an incredible moment, and everyone was very nervous. Then suddenly Bush laughed and everybody started laughing, and it was amazing, because in that moment the artist had the most powerful man in the world under his spell. Afterwards I said to Tony in the pub, “I told you not to pause,” and he said, “Listen, the leader of the free world had to wait for me tonight; he could’ve been nuking countries during that pause.” And I thought that was a beautiful metaphor for the power of the artist. Actually, the next day, Bush did increase the money for the NEH, which Congress then struck down, but we felt we’d done our job, we felt we’d gone there and, if we really believe in what we do, we should be able to sell it to anybody of any political persuasion. Bush knew we were a bunch of New York liberals, but once you’re in that inner sanctum, those conversations are not happening. You realize that quite quickly. There’s a different level of conversation going on, and we felt it was important to show what classical theater can do, and as he left with Laura I heard him say, “I really enjoyed that,” and I thought, “Well, we’ve done our job.” It was an amazing experience, and it captured something of what it must have been like to perform in the Theater of Dionysus in front of everybody and all the leaders. You got a sense of the thrill of that, actually. It was a great learning experience—a wonderful night.

Anything else?

Well, just to get Classicists involved in Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives. We have to recruit between fifty and a hundred scholars to be local scholars in this huge program, and we’ve already got a lot of people. The NEH has never given a Chairman’s Special Award before to a public program; it normally goes to a large museum or a gallery for a big exhibit. And this is Classics. They’re basically innovating through the Classics. And this is a great time for us to show everybody what we can do, because we’re polymaths. Classicists have to do everything. We’ve got to go where the people are, and go there and show them who we are. If nothing else, we’re going to get Classics professors out there, into the infrastructure of America. So, really, if people aren’t involved yet and want to be, they should contact us and get involved. And we pay, too, we give you government money for doing it. So it’s a pretty good deal. Basically, the local scholar does a public lecture of their choice, coordinates a reading group and chooses what books that group reads, and facilitates the post-show discussion. You don’t have to be a Greek drama specialist or even a Hellenist. Most Classicists are actually really great communicators and we want to put them out there. So that’s the message, really.


Ed.: Since this interview was recorded, Aquila has performed at the White House again, this time at the invitation of President Obama.

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