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Electra Director Amy Wagner on Creating a Greek Trilogy for the Girls

Wagner's final installment of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's female-driven "House of Atreus" trilogy took over three years to get from brain to Wild Project stage. logo

Amy Wagner
(courtesy of Amy Wagner)
For the last three years Phoenix Theatre Ensemble has produced an ongoing series featuring productions of ancient Greek tragedies — one each year — featuring largely the same cast and creative teams. First was Iphigenia at Aulis, followed by a new version of Agamemnon titled Agamemnon Home, and finally, the currently running production of Electra.

Electra, which is playing at the Wild Project through March 24, follows the princess of the show's title, who is consumed with grief and hatred after the assassination of her father, King Agamemnon, by her mother, Queen Clytemnestra. The play concludes the company's new exploration of the story line of the House of Atreus, one of Greek theater's most famous dramatic tales.

TheaterMania spoke with Amy Wagner, director of all three productions, about bringing a 2,500-year-old piece to new life.

Why did you choose to do these plays over the course of three years?

We wanted to be able to have this artistic link between players in the company, and also, we hoped that people who had been with us for the first play would want to see what happens. I talk a lot with my designers about ritual, both as it pertains to ancient Greek society and the ritual of retelling these stories again and again. I think that's a part of it; being a part of that legacy, that tradition, telling these ancient stories.

How did you find the feminine perspectives in this material?

To a certain extent, what we're doing is creating our own trilogy. We're telling the story of the House of Atreus in the way that we would like to explore it, beginning with the story of Iphigenia and her self-sacrifice at Aulis, which is not part of any of the traditional trilogies. We look at that and what that meant to her mother, the queen Clytemnestra. So the roles of women have come much more to the forefront in our selection of the trilogies.

Kelli Holsopple as Electra
(© Gerry Goodstein)
What made you decide to create this new trilogy?

We felt that Clytemnestra didn't get a fair shake in these stories, and we decided to explore her more. In the original Agamemnon and the Aeschylus version, Clytemnestra tends to come across as a monster, and we want to better understand why she's done what she's done. We don't want to portray her as the villain. We want to understand, by the end, how Clytemnestra came to be.

What's it like directing these huge chunks of text rather than more modern dialogue?

Sophocles is brilliant. Electra is really a character study. He's trying to psychologically dive into "Who is Electra?" "What does she think and feel?" Rather than dissecting whether or not she should want to kill her mother, let's just look at why she does. What has that done to her? What's she become? With Electra, it's been really fun because she's a little nutty; that's what has become of her. So when you get these long monologues, she goes from these emotional highs to lows. One second she's weeping, the next second she's screaming and raging.

Do you use a chorus?

Absolutely. Adding to the female perspective, we've only used choruses made up of women. That's traditional in Iphigenia at Aulis and in Electra. In Agamemnon though, it's old men, but in our play, we used daughters of the watchmen. In this play, we've concentrated the chorus into a single person. This is the role that has to create the world of the play for us without actually participating in the story.

Do you plan to do any more work with these stories?

We're launching a festival. We've invited other artists, theater and music and dance companies, to perform productions that are inspired by the ancient stories. We're kind of building it around our production of Electra and this last hurrah for our trilogy. Hopefully the festival will live on, but we've completed our trilogy, I think. I don't know when the next time is that we'll tackle a Greek tragedy.

What element was most important to you when creating this production?

It was important to me that we build some moments of lightness and even humor into our play. We want our audiences to know that just because we are dealing with ancient Greek tragedy, that doesn't mean we have to hold them up in some detached regard. My aim is to tell real human stories, not myths.