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Inside Thebes: Where's the script?

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The people of Thebes throw up their hands, overcome by the plague. - SCOT MCKIM
  • Scot McKim
  • The people of Thebes throw up their hands, overcome by the plague.

Three years ago, NoExit Performance Group hit its stride with its production of Antigone in the gardens of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Director Georgeanna Smith turned the Lilly House into the castle of a Greek dynasty — and the grounds into that dynasty's kingdom — for the production. This spring, the company returns to the IMA to mount the entire Oedipal play cycle (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone) in repertory, meaning that one cast will present all three plays.

The big question here is: Have the members of this relatively young theater company bitten off more than they can chew? I can't observe the process entirely impartially; I'm a member of the four-person chorus for all three plays. But I do have the advantage of being embedded in a sense, and NoExit's leadership generously granted me permission to write about the rehearsal process, including any roadblocks. For the next three months, I'll write about the experience; here's my first installment.

Week One: Oedipus Rex

The trilogy begins with the downfall of Oedipus, who was fated to murder his father and bed his mother. In Colonus, we follow him into exile as his sons wage battle against each other for the right to rule. Lastly, in Antigone, his feisty daughter born from his own mother's womb fights for the right to give both of her lifeless brothers a proper burial.

We're starting from the beginning, with Oedipus Rex, directed by Michael Burke, who's a little overwhelmed. "The magnitude of this project didn't hit me until I sat down and looked at the schedule," he tells us. A general buzz of agreement resounded through the overwhelmed cast of sixteen; we've just seen the rehearsal schedule for the first time, too. "But it's going to be epic," he assures.

All of us are a bit nervous about having signed on for such a long commitment, with many in the cast having come straight off other performances, including Eclectic Pond's A Midsummer Night's Dream and PaperStrangers' The Pillowman. Burke has set an incredible pace for himself as a director in the past six months. He assistant directed Dracula at the Indiana Repertory Theater, a production he then helped to remount at Geva Theater Center in New York. He performed in NoExit's Nutcracker, mounted The Pillowman at Big Car Service Center and led a street performance troupe during the Super Bowl festivities.

Burke dives into the script during rehearsal. - SCOT MCKIM
  • Scot McKim
  • Burke dives into the script during rehearsal.

While his schedule may seem packed, it's not out of the norm for a director trying to make a name for him or herself. All that work has helped him build a sturdy resume and portfolio — and to score an interview at Yale's School of Drama upon his first application. (Many Yale graduates apply several times to the program before even being asked to interview.)

But the downside to Burke's artistically fulfilled life is becoming ever apparent during this first week of rehearsal. Upon arriving for the first rehearsal, one question is hot on everyone's lips: "Where is the script?"

When the cast list was sent out last summer, we were told to expect scripts by the first of the year. But our in-boxes have lain barren for months.

"The script is still an amorphous blob in my mind," explains Burke. "I had about half of it written, when my computer lost it." We spend the first two days working on a Fellini-esque opening dance number depicting Thebans-turned-showgirls overcome with plague. Our director has bought himself more time, and the dance number, set to Rufus Wainwright's "Oh What a World," has real potential to be fabulous.

Georgeanna Smith and Tommy Lewey demonstrate dance moves as Nan Macy looks on. - SCOT MCKIM
  • Scot McKim
  • Georgeanna Smith and Tommy Lewey demonstrate dance moves as Nan Macy looks on.

I pull Burke aside one night, asking him, "Are you shitting yourself about the script right now? I've noticed you're not as confident as you normally are coming into the process."

He chuckles, sighs and concedes, "I'm a little beaten. And it's not lightly that I would admit that. I like to keep myself busy, but I've gotten to the point where this is an unsustainable pace at which I'm operating. The reason that I'm not as confident right now is because I haven't had the time to mediate on this while I let it grow. None of my ideas are really rooted yet."

When the script finally materializes later in the week, it's a very rough cutting of Sophocles' text with a few pages from Seneca's adaptation. As we flip through the pages during a first read, the words "Oedipus is a Dick" stand alone, in bold, on a single white sheet of paper.

"That came out of frustration, but it's kind of has the vibe I want the chorus to exist in throughout the story," explains Burke.

As the week progresses, we begin to make sense of the mass of papers, cutting, editing and rewriting. We struggle, but we work together knowing there's no choice put to soldier on. With such a condensed rehearsal process — only three weeks for Rex, cut short by Burke's involvement with the Super Bowl — there is barely time to breathe.

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