The (Re)making of a Myth

JAN 11, 2011

Dramaturg Ryan McKittrick interviews the Prometheus Bound creative team

A.R.T. Artistic Director and Prometheus Bound director Diane Paulus

I want to capture the vitality and aliveness of that rock environment to create a new kind of high-energy, visceral relationship to the language and themes of the play.

Ryan McKittrick: The audience experience is always a central part of your vision as a director and as the A.R.T.’s Artistic Director. Could you describe the kind of environment you’re creating for Prometheus Bound?

Diane Paulus: Steven Sater and I share a fascination with Greek theater, in particular with what it must have been like when those incredible plays premiered in Athens. Greek theater was deeply connected to the life of the Athenian community – to its rituals, its politics, and its identity. So we wanted to create an experience for audiences today that is a powerful event for our community, and make this classical text speak to our modern times. We’ve been working closely with Amnesty International over the past year, for example, to surround the show with events that raise awareness about current political prisoners of conscience. I am also staging this production in OBERON – our second space where we have been able to advance the A.R.T.’s mission to “expand the boundaries of theater” by exploring different spatial relationships between audiences and performers. For this production I’ve been imagining the audience standing in a kind of mosh-pit similar to what you might find at a rock concert. I want to capture the vitality and aliveness of that rock environment to create a new kind of high-energy, visceral relationship to the language and themes of the play. This is a play about a character who will not kowtow to power. Prometheus has the courage, charisma, and will to stand up to the tyrant Zeus. And so the Dionysian rebelliousness and energy of a rock concert spoke to me for this project.

There are many rock musicians who exude that kind of energy. Why did you think Serj Tankian was the right composer for this project?

I’ve been a fan of System of a Down and Serj Tankian for years. What I love about Serj is that he combines pulsating rock and roll with deep emotion. I always hear in Serj’s music a cry of pain, as well as irony and humor. And those qualities are what make the character of Prometheus so powerful.

As a director who is known for the intense physical life that she brings to her productions, has it been a challenge to imagine staging a piece in which the central character is chained up?

We’re not trying to be literal with that idea in this production. But the image of Prometheus being taken to the end of the earth and chained to a rock – which is essentially torture – is highly kinetic and physical in my mind. It is an epic image that has a lot of energy and tension.

Serj Tankian, Steven Sater, and Diane Paulus.

Prometheus Bound writer and lyricist Steven Sater

Aeschylus is the great progenitor of Beckett. Waiting is a part of that fundamental human condition. It’s Prometheus, hanging in the air in torment. It’s what all of us feel in some way—that we’re prisoners, or imprisoned in experience.

As a writer and lyricist, what do you find compelling about ancient Greek drama?

Steven Sater: The form of Greek tragedy allows an individual to speak as a culture, because the choric utterances provide a voice that is larger than oneself, in a language, inherited from Homer, which is epic in scope by definition. The ancient Greeks went to the theater for something far more than just to see themselves on stage. They went to the theater much as more recent societies have gone to temple or to church. They went to exorcise their demons and purify their culture.

What inspired you to adapt Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound into a new music theater piece?

It came out of a grave concern for our nation. Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound felt so timely to me because it is an outcry against the forces of authority—against tyranny masquerading as a benign agency for the people. I wanted to bring this tragedy to life in a contemporary way that, like ancient Greek drama, achieved its effects through a kind of total theater, combining song, dance, and spectacle. I always imagined music in the piece because song allows us to transcend ourselves, our minds, our thinking, our language, and our immediate surroundings. It lifts us somewhere else, as if through the memory of something larger than ourselves, which somehow we know we’ve been a part of. And rock music, which has always functioned as a kind of cry against the deaf heavens, seemed like the appropriate sound for this piece.

 The internationally renowned rock star Serj Tankian has composed the music for this show. What about Serj’s music in particular did you feel was right for Prometheus Bound?

It expresses the rage of an unheard generation. Serj is Armenian-American, and he’s been outspoken about the need for public recognition of the Armenian genocide. There’s a cry of pain in Serj’s music that brings out that sense of having a wound and not even having a name for it. And that feeling fits so well with this show. There’s also something in Serj’s music that is Bacchic – wildly celebratory, wine-headed, and crazy-haired. He’s brought ritual and joy to the production in a very alive and contemporary way. He’s also a profoundly gifted composer and musician, and I thought that it would be great for him to stretch into the theater, and that theater could really use him. Our choreographer, Stephen Petronio, also seemed like such a great partner on this project because his dances are ecstatic, and really transmute the body into something sculptural, living, and full of fire.

You wrote your own translation of Prometheus Bound before you began your adaptation. How did you begin translating ancient Greek plays?

I had a terrible accident when I was in college. I was trapped in a fire, which is a nice irony for this play, and I had to jump out of a burning building. I spent my time in recuperation teaching myself ancient Greek. Then I went on to study Homer, and in graduate school I spent a lot of time in the Classics department. They say that your literary influences choose you as much as you choose them, and I’ve felt chosen by Aeschylus. His trilogy, The Oresteia, has probably affected me more deeply than any other work of dramatic literature. The words themselves are so powerful – like songs of joy and pain. And I don’t think there is any literary character as touching as Aeschylus’s Cassandra. Aeschylus’s achievement has been undervalued on account of a widespread adoption of diagnostic playwriting that we’ve inherited from Aristotle’s Poetics, which favors Sophoclean tragedy. When I read Aeschylus I feel like I’m experiencing the heart made into words. The sorrow is so profound that the language has to be remade to accommodate it. And his mind is so searching and rebellious. So it just felt like a duty – like something I owed to Aeschylus – to bring Prometheus Bound forward.

Over the centuries, some dramatic critics have complained that Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound is static, because the protagonist is chained up for the entire play.

I think the most beautiful tragedies are completely static.


Because they explore the state of the human soul in its dilemma of being earthbound. It’s the dilemma of being human. I believe that’s why we respond to plays like The Three Sisters and Endgame. Our inability to act, and to participate fully in our own experience, is a tragic component of our human condition. I think plays of stillness offer something really different. They become plays of the mind – of the mind struggling to make sense of its captive condition and its will to action. Aeschylus is the great progenitor of Beckett. Waiting is a part of that fundamental human condition. It’s Prometheus, hanging in the air in torment. It’s what all of us feel in some way – that we’re prisoners, or imprisoned in experience.

You’ve been collaborating closely with Amnesty International on this project. Why did you want to partner with Amnesty, and what are your hopes for how this production might impact the audience?

I’ve always thought of Prometheus as the western world’s first political prisoner of conscience. It’s something I wanted to explore in the production—and a concept that Diane, Serj, and I have been shaping since our earliest talks. That’s why we’ve reached out to Amnesty, and made them such a close partner in bringing this ancient story to bear upon our world today. There are so many grave situations around the world, so many people being held unlawfully and unjustly. My hope is that the cry of one voice can be heard in the hearts of many others, and that dramatizing the plight of this one ancient prisoner of conscience will help shake people to action.

Prometheus Bound composer Serj Tankian

Injustice is definitely a thorn in my side—as well as everyone else’s—and the Prometheus story really resonated with me in terms of injustice and tyranny, and also the creation of civilization.

When Steven Sater first started talking with you about Prometheus Bound, what made you want to work on this project?

Serj Tankian: Early in our conversations, I told Steven that I’m not a big fan of musicals. He said that was good because he was looking for someone to create a fresh sound, something completely different for the theater. Then I read the script and was immediately hit with a lot of profundities having to do with civilization. My whole life I’ve been not only a musician but also an activist. Injustice is definitely a thorn in my side—as well as everyone else’s—and the Prometheus story really resonated with me in terms of injustice and tyranny, and also the creation of civilization. The ending of civilization is something I’ve been dealing with a lot, especially on my last album. So I was interested in being a part of something that deals with the beginning of civilization, and with the tools that were given to humans to create civilization.

This is the first theater project you’ve worked on. What has it been like to compose music for the theater, as opposed to music for an album or concert? Has it changed the way you compose?

It hasn’t changed that much because what I do is quite theatrical already. My music has always been dramatic. If you listen to my work with System of a Down or to my solo records, it all has dramatic highs and wide ranging dynamics. The songs are either powerful and fast and high or mellow and beautiful and low, and those dynamics work really well to push the emotions of a theatrical performance. I’ve also always been very Dadaesque in my approach to music. I put pieces next to each other that don’t naturally belong together and try to create an interrelationship, both in terms of audio as well as lyrics. And that is what has happened with my music and Steven’s script. We’ve combined these two different elements – modern music and the Greek myth – that create an interesting new dynamic together.

What are your musical influences?

I’ve been influenced by a wide variety of music. When I was young I grew up with Armenian music, Greek music, Arabic music, and even French music. Then in my teens I was listening to disco and soul music. Then goth, new wave, and dance music in the 80s. And then I got heavily into rock. I listened to the hair bands and then to punk, from punk to metal, from metal to death metal, and then to jazz, to classical, to experimental, to noise. My tastes are quite varied. World music is a big thing with me as well.

Why is music important in the adaptation or retelling of this myth in particular?

I’ve been reading about the mythological power of music and its relationship to the origins of man, and how the original word was music. How we are music—we’re all made from vibrations and our physical interconnections are also musical. They carry harmony of some sort, sometimes dissonant, sometimes perfectly harmonic. So it makes sense to me for music to be involved in the Prometheus story, because I see this as a myth about the creation of civilization, the rise of man as a neo-god.

How would you describe the music you composed for Prometheus Bound?

I wanted the palate to be really rich and diverse. I like records or projects that have a dynamic range and don’t really stay on one tone or emotion. I felt that what I could bring to this piece was a really diverse range of emotions, schizophrenia, craziness, and beauty. I drew from materials that I’ve been compiling over years, ranging from noise to experimental sounds to rock songs to jazz to electronic beats to a hip hop song to a more classical piece for the daughters of Oceanus. It’s all over the place, but somehow it works perfectly together. And that’s kind of what nature is. And what we are. So my goal was to bring this really diverse, different type of sound to the piece. I guarantee that it will not sound like any other musical on the planet.

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