Sina Gilani’s version of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis narrates a moment of stillness, in the horrifying progression of events toward ultimate (absurd) tragedy. This stillness, however, remains unstable. It is a militarized delay which creates so many value contradictions that the peace and innocence can’t hold any longer. As the virgin Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, says before actively participating in her own horrifying throat cutting: “It isn’t right for us to persist in what’s impossible”.
Inspired by the Iranian tradition of carpet weaving, the piece starts with ‘fate’ depicted as three separate women following the weaving rhythm: Lift, Over, Under, Press, Tamp, Knot and Cut. The three fates embody the three tenses of time: Past, Present, and Future. Past (history) is more passive and silent through the play. She says: “We are not the story… no… we but hold its rhythm”. Present (contemporary) sounds playful, and wordy. She even manifests herself as contingent, but she too is only the ‘teller’ of life, unable to determine the content of it. Future, however, starts as the most rebellious of the three. She intends to replace the red thread in the plot with the green. Yet strikingly she evolves to become the most submissive of all three, the most content with what is being determined in this geography of militarization. The play starts when the Future loses a thread, and the three start to unknot the weave just to press, tamp and knot the weave of events back again. The narration, therefore, unknots from the moment of Cutting, just to arrive back at the moment of Iphigenia’s throat cutting more pressingly. The future of the text, therefore, is its ‘lost’ starting point. The eventual ritual of Iphigenia’s ‘sacrifice’ is the first thread of blood in a carpet that will later be coloured overwhelmingly red by the Trojan War.
As the play unveils, the three weaving fates can only slow or hasten the events. The story itself, however, is determined by the militarized condition of Aulis and the value contradictions that such context ignites. Iphigenia’s blood ‘has’ to and ‘will’ be shed because the militarized stillness isn’t sustainable. To appease Goddess Artemis – to have wind so that Greek army sail the sea toward Troy – Iphigenia has to be sacrificed. Either she accepts her fate, or the war-thirsty Greek warriors will slaughter her. Nothing can stop the warriors anymore, not even their commander Agamemnon or the Greek hero Achilles. It is only Iphigenia’s blood that can help wind blow (events progress), even toward a more bloody future. Future can only be weaved by the thread of red, and this is not the result of pre-destined divine ‘fate’. Instead, this tragic end is the consequence of the fact that a militarized stillness eventually pushes social values to contradict each other; to destruct the whole value system in the name of security and nation.
This is where Gilani’s take deviates from its Greek roots, shapes its contemporary connotations and justifies its contradictory modes and diverse levels of English. While most readings of Euripides’s masterpiece contemplate on the sacrifice as the ritual, Gilani’s take contemplate on the diverse meanings and modes of marriage in this text.
The entire course of events (which eventually will lead to the Trojan War) has started from a marriage broken; as Helen (West) has fled for Paris (East) disrespecting her owe to her husband, Menelaus. Marriage, therefore, is the most valuable in this plot. While Agamemnon and Clytemnestra contradict each other in most values, they share one sentiment: To Marry is to sacrifice. [Clytemnestra: “Marriage is a sacrifice”. Agamemnon: “To wed is to sacrifice self, to unite, to become”.] With the rise of militarization the sacred concept of marriage, however, is easily used in the most cunning manner by the Nation’s commander to send for Iphigenia, on the pretext that she is being called to Aulis to wed the Greek warrior Achilles. Now the vows start to contradict each other: in the choice between the vow to his family or his Nation, Agamemnon chooses the latter, while Clytemnestra pushes toward the first. The question arises: Which do we sacrifice when our different social marriages are pushed to contradict each other?
In Aulis, this geography of militarized stillness, the values start to fade in the name of Nation’s Security and Common Good. The people, as a result, start to ‘purchase’ what they hate the most with what they most ‘love’. War heroes curse what they bless; as many start to thoughtlessly advance the rhythm imposed on them by warmongers, just by remaining silent.
The language of Gilani’s take, informed by Roger Beck’s ‘pedestrian’ translation of this play, also floats between poetical, urban, literary, and ESL modes of contemporary English. This choice mirrors the diverse, transitory, and contradictory forms of marriages (familiar or unsettling) which shape the plot. The language with its shifting modes and deviated grammar also manages to apply sarcasm to tragedy and marry poetry with absurdity. Gilani further keeps traces of his journey from East to West by active employment of ESL mode of expression.
In sum, Gilani’s metaphorical adaption echoes sentiments of fear, widely shared by its contemporary readers of the play who are observing the dreadful rhythm of events in the present militarized world. The reader cannot stop but to think of his/her resemblance to Iphigenia, who has no choice but to ‘believe’ she is the protagonist in a narration that has given her no choice in any sense. By the end of this disturbing tragedy we ponder how long does it take for a militarized peace to push voiceless people actively participate in their own slaughter, self-deceiving that they will be revered in a future war history.
The views and opinions expressed in the articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the organization.
I’ve been a member of the Curtain Club for three years now, but a subscriber for much longer, as well as making regular donations to support the ongoing work of Soulpepper.
How did you first learn about Soulpepper/What is you first memory of Soulpepper?
Having friends in the theatre industry, I knew of Soulpepper for a long time, almost from its inception. I heard stories about their work from these friends and was intrigued by Albert’s vision for the company. My first memory of their work was a drama (the show’s name escapes my memory, must be my age!) and being impressed with the quality of the acting and the use of stage space. The small theatre space creates an intimacy that you cannot have in the large theatres.
What inspired you to support us?
It actually started from a negative experience with another company. I was distressed at how the company was treating their Canadian staff (remember my friends?) and thought that I was missing out on good Canadian talent. I “risked” a season with Soulpepper, and haven’t looked back. I wanted to support the talent of fine Canadian actors, so I became a donor. My participation was confirmed when I learned of Albert’s vision to treat actors fairly, and his willingness to step outside the traditional theatre mode, and improve the employment picture for his company members. Now, Soulpepper launches into its work to become a National Civic Theatre, an idea I’m happy to support in the little ways that I can.
What would you tell someone who is thinking about giving to Soulpepper? And, why do you think the arts should be a priority for philanthropy?
I would say to people that theatre is much more than Broadway musicals and big name performers. That we have living in our midst highly talented people that can compete with the best that Broadway can offer. I’ve just seen Billy Bishop Goes to War, and said that was better than most offerings coming to us from south of the border.
The arts, in all its various forms, convey culture. Without the arts our Canadian culture is diminished. Supporting the artist communities, will enrich the lives of generations to come.
How do you imagine Soulpepper in 10 years?
In 10 years, I hope to be sitting in the theatre continuing to be impressed by the fine work Soulpepper does. At the same time, I hope that others, across Canada (and indeed maybe even Broadway) will be seeing the same thing. Keep up the good work!
To learn more about supporting Soulpepper, visit soulpepper.ca
How long have you been at the Young Centre and what has your job consisted of lately?
11 months now! Hard to believe… As Operations Services Coordinator for the Young Centre, the bulk of my job revolves around the space usage. If you’re looking to host an event in our spaces, I’m your gal! Though no two days are the same at the Young Centre, and sometimes I help out on weird jobs like folding a 4-foot paper crane.
What kinds of projects have you been involved with outside of work?
I just completed Second City’s year-long conservatory which was a blast! And now I am in the process of writing proposals for a performance piece I’d like to remount that focuses on food and culture and how they act to preserve one another. The Universal Dumping looks to explore what each culture’s version of a dumpling says about their culture, through a dinner with members of Toronto’s diverse food community.
When you’re not at work, what are you doing?
I love to cook and I’m an avid cyclist, but for the most part, I spend a lot of time watching theatre, especially comedy. Most nights you can find me plunked in a seat laughing like crazy at the amazing comedic talent Toronto has to offer.
What is a surprised hidden talent?
I can breathe fire. And then I taught my siblings. Now we’re like the Partridge Family of fire breathers. My parents are very proud!
What do you love about working at The Young Centre?
For sure it has to be the people. Everybody I get to work with is a joy and a laugh and incredibly supportive! I would work any job if these people were there! That, and OBVIOUSLY the Cruban Sandwich on Tuesdays at the Café.
How long have you worked at Soulpepper, and what has your job consisted of lately? I’ve been at Soulpepper since the summer of 2015. I am General Counsel and Director of Human Resources. “General Counsel” is another term for “Director of Legal Affairs”. My job consists of all things legal and HR-related for Soulpepper. On a micro level that means drafting and revising agreements, giving legal opinions on things like intellectual property rights, and providing recommendations with respect to regulatory requirements. I am also involved in staff recruitment and evaluation, and in developing and implementing workplace policies and procedures. I’m always happy to chat with Staff about questions, concerns, challenges and accomplishments!
What kinds of projects have you been involved in outside of work?
I’m very honoured to have been chosen to participate in the Federal Cultural Human Resources Council’s new ‘Talent to Lead’ mentorship/leadership program. I just finished a tenure as President of the Toronto Fringe Festival’s Board of Directors. Prior to joining Soulpepper I had my own entertainment law practice specializing in theatre, film and tv. In the slightly more distant past I was a cast member at Second City, a founding member, Producer and performer with the Toronto Festival of Clowns, and a Producer and performer with a multitude of other stage and tv shows.
When you’re not at work, what are you doing?
I have 2 very active toddlers at home, so I spend a lot of time running around after them! Oh…and I’m taking a painting class, which I was nervous about, but I’m really loving it!
What is something we might be surprised to learn about you?
I studied clown and bouffon for several years with John Turner and Mike Kennard (Mump and Smoot), and Karen Hines (Pochsy, Crawlspace, etc.). I’ve been told that my bouffon work is “side-splitting” (I can only assume in a good way). I really love making people laugh, it’s such a joy.
What do you love about working at Soulpepper?
Everyone laughs at my jokes! Seriously though, I love our team. I get to work with some of Canada’s most accomplished, passionate and delightful theatre professionals.
Photo: Daniel Malavasi
We caught up with Soulpepper Academy designer Michelle Tracey, fresh from working on It’s a Wonderful Life, to tell us about upcoming projects she is engaged with:
I am very excited that the Soulpepper Academy has led to my involvement in the development & production of new work. I’ve had the opportunity to assist my mentor, Lorenzo Savoini with his design work for Cage, a new devised piece he is creating alongside Soulpepper resident artists Diego Matamoros, Richard Feren, and Shannon Litzenberger. It’s inspiring to see Soulpepper’s contribution to Canadian theatre move beyond re-envisionings of the classics into new work and new theatrical forms. I’m excited for a non-traditional, non-narrative piece like Cage to be shared with the theatre community in Toronto and in New York this coming summer.
Watching Lorenzo’s process of creation, development & realization has been a huge learning experience. Cage encourages audience members to re-experience space, sounds, feelings instead of filtering out things that are often a given: Engaging with so called ‘silence’ for instance, or paying attention to otherwise innocuous objects through Lorenzo’s design that essentially creates a laboratory… of sorts…for the creators to experiment in. For this project: I have built a detailed scale model of Lorenzo’s design… which by the way, was exhibited at Artscape Youngplace in the exhibit Toronto Design Offsite Festival: Performance Design (curated by Shannon Lea Doyle) … it’s new, it’s odd, it’s crazy!
Meanwhile, I’m designing two other pieces as part of my Academy curriculum. I’m designing the set and costumes for Imeneo, an opera by Handel that is being put on by U of T Opera Division. I am stoked that Soulpepper allowed and encouraged me to bring this contract into my Academy experience. For Imeneo, I am collaborating with director Tim Albery to create an intimate theatrical experience. We’ve taken a site-specific approach to the design by placing the audience onstage at the Macmillan Theatre to bring them as close as possible to the performers.
In addition, I’m designing the set for Crawlspace by Karen Hines, a Soulpepper Presents production in the Tank House Theatre (another new work!). Crawlspace is a one woman show about Karen Hine’s real experience buying a house in Toronto, and the grave impact it has had on her life. It was first produced at Videofag and has since been performed in peoples’ homes. I am collaborating with Karen on a design that will maintain a similar sense of immersion and intimacy. Stay tuned for more details to come!
By Sina Gilani
*Michelle is a Graduate of York University 2013 (Toronto), Design Intern with Tarragon Theatre 2013-2014 (Toronto), and a Member of the 2016-2018 Soulpepper Academy.
How long have you worked at the Young Centre and tell us a little bit about what your job has consisted of lately.
I joined the Young Centre this past June. It’s been a quick seven months! Located in the beautiful atrium, my team (who I couldn’t do this without, they are amazing) and myself serve the staff, artists and students that work and learn within the Young Centre. We make a bit of a transition from cafeteria during the day to a theatre bar for our evening shows.
Over the past few months, I’ve really worked on bringing a new energy to the café. Whether it’s our new wines, menu items or approach to customer service, if you haven’t been to the Young Centre Cafe in a while, you might be pleasantly surprised!
What kinds of activities are you involved in outside of work?
Since moving to Toronto a year ago, I’ve done a lot of hiking from the Don Valley to trails near Orangeville. I’m always on the hunt for a new type of coffee, drink or dish that can inspire me. Another reason I love this city is the culture: the concerts, shows and events that happen all over the place. I try to get out and support them as much as I can. I’m also a pretty avid Toastmaster, which is a group where you get to hear some great speeches and interesting ideas.
What else occupies your time?
On weekends, you can usually find me reading a good book (currently J.D. Salinger’s biography) at my favourite coffee shop around the corner from my home. I’ll typically read 2-3 books a month (most of them on my commute to and from work.) In my spare time, I try to get to the gym to counterbalance being surrounded by desserts all day long. I think that’s the secret to not being 300 pounds when working at a café! Most recently, I’ve also starting taking a Spanish language course with a friend of mine, which is a lot of fun.
What is a hidden talent of yours?
I’m pretty good with recalling people’s names. There’s some people I meet just once and can still remember their name years later. To be honest, I don’t have any tricks, people’s names are just something I remember.
What do you love about working at the Young Centre?
My favourite part of the day is being able to bring a smile to our patrons’ faces. I love having the opportunity to talk with people and get to know them, whether it’s their first time to the Young Centre or they have been coming to shows since we first opened our doors. Our patrons are some of the best in the city, and beyond, with how supportive they have been. They are the reason we do what we do!
Photo: Daniel Malavasi
It has been so interesting to work with Lorenzo as he designs a recording studio from the 1940s as the set for the radio-drama version of It’s A Wonderful Life. We are working on a functional yet nostalgic space where this timeless Christmas story can come alive in the mind’s eye of every audience member. Each prop that you will see on the stage will be used by the actors to create live sound affects along with some incredible voice acting which will transport you to the Bedford Falls of your imagination.
I have been building the model for Lorenzo and assisting him with sourcing practical lights and choosing paint colours for the set. We have started collaborating with the sound designer on the show, John Gzowski, making sure we have all the specialized props we need for the actors to start making radio magic as soon as rehearsals start. The incredible fun of this show will be witnessing the wacky ways certain familiar sounds are made. My favourite so far is a pillow case full of corn starch being used for footsteps on snow.
One of the best things about my time in the Soulpepper Academy so far is the chance to work with specialists such as John and Lorenzo. This is my first time working on a show with such detailed foley and it is my first time building a box set model. I am really enjoying learning Lorenzo’s tricks of the trade.
Here is a sneak peak of the preliminary model. The final one will be presented on the first day of rehearsals, in just over a week. Bring on the holiday production season!