“Even if the text wasn’t about empowering women I would make it about that”. Welcome to Thebes is a play that places women at the centre of the stage.
I always thought that the world of theatre is a harsh world, in the sense that it consumes your whole being. I always thought that if you ever decide to get into theatre you need also to accept the fact that you have to be 100 per cent committed to it. Of course, that goes for a lot of careers, but theatre demands a great deal of commitment on a physical, mental and emotional level simultaneously, that requires great strength and stamina. Jimena, the director of the play ‘Welcome to Thebes’ came to my place carrying two chicken fillets in her hands, since her schedule is so busy these days that she could not find the time to cook earlier and not be late for our meeting. This small episode says everything about the life of a constantly active director and actor. I offered her my oven with great pleasure and laughter, and we used the waiting time to finally catch up. Her hungry belly welcomed both chicken fillets and Jimena was thus revived and ready for the interview.
The play is inspired form Greek tragedy. What is the role of Greek tragedy in the 21st century? Do you think it can still be relevant to a contemporary audience?
The play is set in a city called Thebes, which is a very famous city in Greek mythology and in general history. The story itself is not a Greek tragedy, it is a contemporary story, about the president of Thebes. Thebes has just experienced a decade of civil war and this group of women led a movement of peace. They were grass root leaders of the revolution and managed to get elected into the government. They need financial aid so they call on the leader of Athens to come. He is a man, misogynistic, a Western power. It’s about how politics is completely corrupt even if you have the best intentions. So she has the best intentions but she gets caught up in this political nightmare. And a lot of the warfare described in Thebes is very similar to modern warfare. For example, one of the biggest influences of the story is Aleppo, and the kind of warfare there, when the people up until recently were trying to go about their daily lives under shellfire. That’s what Thebes was before the events of the play and a lot of the way that they describe war is quite bitter towards the Western powers. In one line the character Hamen says to the leader of Athens: ‘Yes I was injured in the war by weapons that were made by Athenian governments’. And that’s obviously very relevant with modern warfare because a lot of rich powers are selling firearms to countries that are in turmoil. The reason why it is so relevant is that the stories are so human. I would argue that Greek tragedy is far more relevant than Shakespeare. Shakespeare is so focused in one particular culture, time and context and yes you can update Shakespeare and make him relevant but you have to really pull it from the Elizabethan times. Greek tragedy tends to be written about real human problem-solving. So that the way they deal with emotions is obviously exactly the same as we deal with it. It’s never that culturally specific, it is always just about humans, which is why Greek tragedy will be always relevant.
"I like stuff that has a little bit of magic in them, and this play definitely has that."
What has inspired you to choose this specific play?
Well my main motivation is to create work that shows the perspective of women and putting women at the centre of the stage. Whenever I do choose a play, I always choose one that has either equal genders or more women than men, and this one has got like eight leads and they are all women. So, I liked that part, I liked the fact that it’s written in a combination of verse and prose. And I really love that I think it’s a really interesting combination. I like stuff that has a little bit of magic in them, and this play definitely has that. The fact that it has a lot of violence in it is not something I am used to, and it’s a challenge. I usually do stuff that is quite gentle and therapeutic. This is blood and war and it’s horrible. Yeah, I really enjoyed reading the play and I enjoyed the message it was putting cross about war.
What is your role as the theatre director of Welcome to Thebes?
Usually i don’t work with scripts that much so working with ‘Welcome to Thebes’ is a different experience because the script came first and then the idea came. In this case I choose a script; I decide whether or not I can feasibly do it. I then come up with the general mood board for the show, what kind of colours it needs, what kind of atmosphere I want to create and what intentions do I have, and generally with theatre, it will be for a political or personal reason. I like to create something that is relevant to an audience and I hate the phrase ‘make people think’… but make people think. I am interested in something that has got complexities and I personally connect to. Because I believe that if you create stuff that you personally connect to it’s easier for an audience to connect as well because you are being truthful. Also, I would say that when you direct, you do look after the actors in the room and you are responsible for them, so you have to know what kind of day they’ve had, you have to know if they’ve got deadlines the next day so you let them go early or you give them a lunch break. You have to make sure that you take care of them. Like fifty per cent of directing is taking care of the people and fifty per cent of it is actually looking at the text, because you have to make sure everyone is alive!
What challenges and satisfactions do you derive from directing?
I guess the biggest challenges with directing is, aah, it’s lots! You have to think really fast because you’ve got a lot of people looking at you for ideas and sometimes you will read a scene at home and you will have no idea what to do with it and this happens all the time with me, I can never think of stuff on my own at home. The only time I have my good ideas is in the rehearsal with everybody there. But you don’t want to be standing there like ‘Hmm I don’t know what I should do’. You have to be ok, no this is what I’m doing, I decided to stage it like this you decided to add this, and that is both a challenge and a satisfaction because it usually works out well, people respond well to it, because it feels like I am not a dictator. It feels like I am talking with people because I always say ‘Do you feel like doing that? Or do you feeling like doing something different’ so they feel like they have some sort of autonomy over what is happening. It’s challenging to keep that up and to keep rolling the ideas off and being the person who is constantly on. An actor can sit on the side and be on your phone if you are not in the scene, but if you are directing you are on all the time. So that’s challenging. But it always comes together, people always know their lines, people always know what is going on. It is very satisfying when something that you kind of come up with on the spot in the rehearsal room, everybody vibes off and then it creates the atmosphere that you wanted. And it’s very satisfying when you create something that people take different things from, when an audience understands things on different levels to you because you only got one brain so you can’t see it from all the perspectives, you have to just go from yours.
What difficulties did you face so far in the rehearsal process?
On a superficial level, making sure that everyone is there on time and learning their lines, making sure that people are quiet and taking breaks and so on.
Probably the most challenging thing so far is working with a script, and such a complicated script, in every page come on and off, it’s so much. So, organising the schedule is like ‘it hurts my brain’! The most significant one throughout every single directing process is making sure that everybody in the room understands each other and everyone enjoys the process. This theatre is kind amateur and extracurricular, so people are there to enjoy themselves. You have to make sure that people are enjoying the process while putting on a show at the same time. You are a bit like a fucking social worker. Nothing is really difficult, but once you get close to the show, the problems are in lining up the production process; so the set, hundreds of props, the costumes. I’ve got a production manager who does that but I have to make sure she knows exactly what it needs to be. That’s multitasking, and that is the difficulty; anything that involves multitasking.
"I did not march into the guns of men to then be silenced by them"
Some of the main thematic concerns of the play is feminism, power and leadership. Do you think your play can potentially empower women? And if yes, how is this empowerment achieved?
Oh, absolutely! Even if the text wasn’t about empowering women I would make it about empowering women. ‘I did not march into the guns of men to then be silenced by them’. There is one woman character who before her life as a politician was a mother, very traditional actually, and she suddenly has to rise in this political leader situation but she doesn’t know how to do it but she does it with empathy and grace. She is incredibly empowering because she is so normal. She speaks as though she is just one of the citizens and she has so many great lines.
The phrase empower women can mean lots of different things but for this play shows women in positions of power and not in an idealistic way. Women are not perfect and considering so is a misogynistic belief. You read the blurb and you think ‘Oh women as leaders, that must be amazing’. No, they do have the same issues as men the only difference is that they have a heart and empathy, whereas the male leader has lost that through the years. It shows them weak, and it shows the corruption.
"When the lights go down, you are a child again."
What is the role of theatre in the age of Netflix?
You can think of Film, TV, Netflix and theatre as being all the same, as they are all forms of entertainment. Well, they are not. If you are watching TV or whatever, you are distracted, chatting to your friend or on your phone. In theatre, you go into a room, you turn your phone off, the light goes off, and the only thing you can be engaged with is what you are looking at. You can’t really leave, you can’t really distract yourself, you are absorbed in what is going on and this is totally unique compared to all the other mediums. With cinema or TV, the person who is in the screen is on the screen, but in the theatre, they are right there. They are a real person, you can see real sweat, real tears. You can smell them, you are with them in that room. Anything that they are experiencing is up by a hundred per cent. The whole atmosphere of the theatre, going into the building, sitting on your seat is a whole performance by itself, even before the performance has actually started. When the lights go down, you are a child again.
And finally, what should the viewer expect from the performance?
The outward look on the play is that it is tragic and it’s very violent. But it’s way funnier than I thought it would be. For example, one of the lines that is really funny is when Eurydice is speaking to the crown. She is giving a speech and she is talking about the war like ‘ I lost family in this war, I lost my husband, my son was blinded in the war’ and he interrupts her and he has a blindfold over his eyes and goes ‘I am not blind’ and everyone like looks at him. And then she carries off her speech as if he said nothing, and it’s the funniest line in the play and the way the actor delivers it as well. Because it is about a normal country trying to get back on its feet after a war and they do normal things; they listen to music they laugh they drink and it’s not all suffering. You’ve got classic characters like Antigone and the way that she speaks is very poetic. And then there is her sister who is completely different she says ‘I wanna wear jeans, I wanna smoke…’ Don’t come expecting Greek tragedy, it’s not like it at all. It is very fast paced and it is about overcoming suffering in all of the different ways you do, and the experience of women in government and tragedy, showing the difference between them and men. Finally, it also shows western powers over third world powers. So, I would say that viewers should expect to be surprised!
Interviewed by: Alexandra Krstic