In Conversation with Sarah Kitz – Director of Agamemnon at the Next Stage Theatre Festival
Interview by Ryan Quinn
RQ: Hello! I’m speaking with Sarah Kitz, director of Agamemnon. It’s premiering at the Next Stage Theatre Festival, presented by Theatreworks and the Agamemnon Collective.
RQ: So this is a new adaptation and translation by Nicolas Billon of the ancient Greek play by Aeschylus. For those unfamiliar with the original story of Agamemnon, do you want to tell me a bit about it?
SK: For sure. The back story is really important. What happens ten years previous is that Agamemnon agrees to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, in order to get a win from the gods to sail to Troy, to sack Troy, to bring back Helen. So that’s what happens at the end of the play Iphigenia. Now we flash forward ten years, it’s been a ten year war in Troy. Troy has now fallen and the men are coming home. So Agamemnon is coming back to his home and, of course, the men coming home from war are expecting to enter a soft, domestic, female space. They’re expecting to leave the war zone behind and instead they enter a different kind of war zone.
My entrance to the play, my vision of the play is that the sacrificing of this young woman is a thing that breaks the world. They are doomed from that moment. All of the soldiers die in that moment, before their bodies are actually blown up and all of the people in the community that are left behind are in a kind of death, as well. All of the things that we value like the body and life and youth and the future and the feminine, all of those things are immediately upended and devalued in the sacrifice of this young girl. So the men return from war to a broken world. That’s where we are now, and Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife and mother of Iphigenia has been plotting revenge for ten years, waiting for this moment.
RQ: So history was written at that moment ten years ago, and now Agamemnon is reaping what he’s sown.
SK: Now it’s comeuppance time, yeah.
RQ: Do you want to tell me a bit about the adaptation?
SK: Yes! So Nicolas has updated it to now, even a few years in the future. We’ve taken this classical structure and we’ve perverted it into the vulgar, base, funny, uncomfortable world of reality TV, let’s say. So, to hit on these themes we live with now, but have turned up the volume on even more so. The level of sex and violence we accept as the normal baseline in our culture is even higher. And that, again, is because of the sacrifice of this young girl, things that we value have become devalued. So, violence and extreme sexuality are everyday and not noteworthy until we see people come back into the community and register the horror show that is normality.
RQ: So with reality TV, the second we embrace that vulgarity, there’s no way to take it back in the future.
SK: Exactly. It becomes the new normal, and we just keep building up from there.
RQ: I want to know how this came about. You’ve got this great playwright. You’ve got a great cast including, but not entirely limited to, Nigel Shawn Williams, Brigit Wilson, Earl Pastko. What was the genesis of the show?
SK: Nicolas was commissioned to write Agamemnon for Theatreworks. After Theatreworks saw Iphigenia, which he did at Summerworks years ago, they approached him and asked him what he’d like to do next and he said he’d like to write this companion piece. So, he wrote it for them and they workshopped it a few years back. Then, nothing happened with it and he really wanted to put it on. He and I have been friends for quite a while and are always looking for opportunities to work together. So, when I was out in Winnipeg this summer directing Antony and Cleopatra, he called me up and said he wanted to submit Agamemnon for Next Stage, and he wanted me to direct it. He sent me the script, I read it and I was captivated. I called him back and said yes, and we immediately started excitedly planning.
RQ: A lot of Agamemnon has to do with myth-making, and the myths we create of ourselves, our culture, our history. I was wondering where those parallels are between the way myths were created by the Ancient Greeks, and the myths we create for ourselves now.
SK: There is a myth that is at the center of this show, which is unfortunately valid still. That myth is that you can purchase peace with war. Or you can purchase forgiveness with violence. That this war will be the last war. That hasn’t changed, and that is one of the central arguments of this play both in its classical original form, and in the contemporary form; and the fact that it is updated only underlines that point. It’s the idea that people who go to war are heroes. In this play, we have people who come back from war, who have seen and partaken in atrocity, and they know different. It’s the people who haven’t gone to war who treat them like heroes in some aspects. We have one character say to a returning soldier “You are a hero,” and he says “No, miss”. He’s been, and he’s seen, and he’s done.
RQ: The original myth that we bought into.
SK: And we’re still buying into it. The only way to stop that myth and stop that history is to refuse to go to war and have everyone in the world refuse to go to war. That is the only way to break that myth. Otherwise, when these warring tribes in this far away country are fighting each other, we will still feel entitled to involve ourselves in that, we’ll make an incursion into another country, blow it up, and create a vacuum of power. Then some other insurgency will step in.
RQ: When we think of war in terms of results instead of the act itself.
SK: I’d say that’s one of the other central points of this play – that in war time, violence doesn’t stay at the site of conflict. It affects all of the communities that have sent people to war. We are then living in a culture of war, and violence and sexuality reach a kind of fevered height, both at home and at the site of conflict. All adrenaline becomes the same adrenaline at that point. If you’re not fighting, then you’re playing violent video games or watching porn, because all of those things are the same. The body has no value, and there’s no intimacy, there’s only getting off.
RQ: One of the things we spoke about when you were directing Three More Sleepless Nights by Caryl Churchill was about the class divide at the center of that piece. Do you feel that’s present in this piece as well?
SK: There is a strong sense of class in a way that may be invisible, but is definitely noteworthy. In the classical Agamemnon, they’re royalty; but in this updated version we’re doing, they’ve moved way down in the world. The people we send to war now aren’t kings and presidents. The people with power, money, and status are at home or at a far, safe distance pushing a button. The people we send into physical contact are poor, dispossessed, and working class. So the family we’re looking at, the house of Atreus, were royalty ten years before the Trojan war. Now they’re blue collar at best.
RQ: What draws you toward a project?
SK: Danger excites me. Laughter excites me. People living large excites me. Words excite me. If I don’t get that physical rush reading a script, that’s a good indication that I shouldn’t do it. I’ve started to say “no” a lot, which is interesting to me. And that doesn’t mean a show shouldn’t be done, it means I’m not the person to do that show. I want a show that has something to say to us. Pure escapism is not for me. It has its place, absolutely, but I’m not the director or the actor for it. I’m also interested in politics, but I don’t want people to come to the threatre and think they’re being lectured at. However, I do believe that theatre can be a revolution. If you get people breathing in a room together, and you’re presenting an argument, it’s a challenge to the way we live our lives. That’s revolutionary ground. It’s an opening for dialogue, and it’s a dialogue that’s happening inside of a community.
RQ: As we start 2016, what would you like to see in the world of theatre this year? For yourself personally, or for the community as a whole?
SK: I would like to see more diverse voices being programmed, and that not be something specialized. That needs to be the new normal. We need to stop talking about it already and just be doing it everywhere. Diversity isn’t a genre. A show about a family is a show about a family. Whether they’re a Greek family or a Chinese immigrant family, or a family run by a mixed-race lesbian couple. It’s a family story, and that’s what we want to see. So, I’d like to see a greater diversity of voices happen.
Also, I’m really excited by what’s happening in the indie theatre scene in Toronto a lot. I love watching our generation step up and start producing the work that they want to make without waiting to be invited into larger institutions because there aren’t always enough places for everyone to be. It’s very exciting and sometimes creating outside of those boxes is the best way because you have the most control. Then when you get to move in to more institutionalized places, you’ve probably worked out kinks in your own process and in your own aesthetics, and you have a good idea of what it is you want to do, how you want to say it, and who you’re really great working with. That makes me really excited to watch happening. And they’re breaking structures of plays, too. What is a play? Do we need to follow the classical structures? I think the idea of dramaturgy can be shattered.
Presented by Theatreworks Productions and The Agamemnon Collective
What: After a ten year siege, the city of Troy finally lies in ruin. Clytemnestra waits for Agamemnon with murder in her heart. A visceral, contemporized re-imagining of the opening chapter of Aeschylus’ Oresteia by Governor General award winning playwright Nicolas Billon.
Where: Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst St)
Length: 75 minutes
Playwright: Nicolas Billon (after the play by Aeschylus)
Director: Sarah Kitz
Featuring: Nigel Shawn Williams, Brigit Wilson, Earl Pastko, Susanna Fournier, Ron Kennell, Amy Keating, Zita Nyarady, Marcel Stewart, Samantha Brown
January 06 05:45 PM buy tickets
January 07 09:30 PM buy tickets
January 09 04:15 PM buy tickets
January 10 06:30 PM* buy tickets
January 11 08:45 PM buy tickets
January 14 05:30 PM buy tickets
January 15 07:30 PM buy tickets
January 16 08:45 PM buy tickets
January 17 02:00 PM buy tickets
* Talk Back after the show
Connect with us:
Sarah Kitz: @Sarah_Kitz
Ryan Quinn: @MrRyanQuinn
In the Greenroom: @intheGreenRoom_