What does it mean and what does it take to “remount” a show? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that question in the past month because as a young actor/director I have never remounted a show before. When it was announced that we would get to remount The Penelopiad at Rhino Fest and The Poetry Foundation, I was so excited to see how this show could further develop but I had no idea what that process would actually look like. At first, the possibilities felt endless because we already had a great show on our hands and now we got to make it even better! Then I looked at our rehearsal schedule and realized we only had two short weeks to completely transform the show to fit the new space and five new cast members. Moving from a theater-in-the-round venue at Chicago Fringe Fest to a proscenium stage at PROP Theater meant almost all the blocking and choreography would have to change. I was excited about the changes but the thought of starting over felt overwhelming.
Now a month later, I must say I am incredibly proud of this show and all the changes it has undergone. All the moments and elements that meant the most to the cast, creative team, and audiences are still there and pushed even further than before. Things we weren’t perfectly happy with the first time around, we got to tweak and fix or completely scrap. How many times do you open a show and wish you had more time to do all those things?! The freedom, challenges, and improvements it allowed us were beyond rewarding and I think it will be equally wonderful for audiences who saw the original run at Chicago Fringe as it will be for newbies!
So I was curious to hear about the experience of remounting this show from the perspective of our insanely talented creative team: Director Erica Barnes; Dance Choreographer Sheena Laird; and, Music Composer & Director Joshua Dumas. I decided to interview them about their inside perspectives of what it took to remount this show because this is a director, a choreographer, and a music director who all poured every ounce of their hearts into this show the first time and now somehow they have poured even MORE. -Lexi Saunders
Going into the remount, what did you want to
change, adapt, or improve about the show?
Artistically, I knew I wanted to make some changes to the way we handled the Oracle, Naiad Mother and Suitor characters. I wanted the larger group movements to enhance the bigness of these characters. Genevieve Lally-Knuth and I met over the holiday break and rolled around together on the floor or her studio and sort of rolled into the shapes of the Oracle and the Naiad Mother reveal and then we got into rehearsal with the girls and none of it worked! But that is sort of the beauty of pre-planning large movement sequences and then getting into the room with real human bodies and reshaping and listening to new ideas to make something new. Genevieve and Jabu Mickle-Molefe continue to make up the main unit of the Oracle, but all twelve maids are now integrated into its reveal. The Naiad Mother appears onstage out of a giant crest of a wave of maid bodies. It’s really lovely what we made. The biggest change I wanted to make was with the Suitors. Genevieve and I were really able to dig into this in her studio because we decided to make the number of people involved in the suitor scene smaller and we knew integrating Brittany Ellis into the main body of the suitor entity was one of the best things we could do, not only to tie her character to more scene work, but also because she has such an incredible physical and mask background.
SHEENA: I think many artists close projects thinking they would change certain things or make different choices if they could, so I was really excited to have that opportunity. Most of the gigs I get as a choreographer are for individual, stand-alone dances. So when I started creating movement for the songs composed for the show, I found myself thinking of the imagery we wanted to achieve and listening to the song as an isolated story, not as a moment within a larger story. And when we plugged the dances in to the show, they felt a bit removed or disjointed from Penelope's monologues.They were cool individual pieces, but I didn't feel they fit in to each character and actor's journey, nor the larger story being told.
So with the remount, that's something I really wanted to focus on. Why are the maids singing this song at this time? What are they saying to Penelope and the audience? What imagery would heighten and communicate that? What does my character want to do in this moment?
I also had to think about how these poems and songs would look in the new space. We had this cool second level to play with throughout the show, so how could we use that to demonstrate the presence of the maids? I also wanted to be sure to use the many entrances available at Prop Thtr to add to that omnipresent sensation of being haunted by more than one being.
JOSHUA: There is just never enough time, so I was thrilled by the opportunity to mess with these songs again. I feel like I’m pretty decent at creating lovely music and creating strange music, but I really struggle with angry music. I knew going into this remount that there were two songs in the show that I didn’t quite get there at Fringe; this time I knew I wanted to push to find their volatile core. With the help of Erica’s and Sheena’s choreography, I think those moments now do feel truly dangerous.
I also delighted in making new discoveries with this cast. So much of this music has relied upon the input, thoughtfulness, and collaborative generosity of the performers. I love that moment in the rehearsal room when someone just tries something, or offers a new idea, or pushes me to revise, and then that just becomes part of the song forever. There were a handful of those moments -- things I hadn’t planned to revise in this remount but that made the songs richer ‘cos our cast is brilliant and brave.
What was your biggest challenge in the remount?
A personal challenge for me, as a director, was the constant feeling that I possibly wasn’t supporting my new cast members (Elizabeth Bagby, Mia Vivens, Jessica London-Shields, Grayson Heyl, and Brittany Ellis) with as much richness, dramaturgy, or character support as I felt I was able to give to the other gals over our long building process in the summer for the CFF. They are all incredible performers, super smart of mind and body, and so delightful to work with, I think we were always on the same page, but I wish I’d had a bit more time to explore and answer more questions. I had to kind of be like, ok, (pushes actors onto stage) SWIM!
SHEENA: Oh man. Time. I always want more time. I'm such a perfectionist because most of the improvements I made as a dancer and choreographer were in the dance team world and there, precision and unison is key. I have also spent a lot of time teaching beginners, so I always want to spend more time breaking down weight changes and specific elements of movements and steps so that the performer executes the movement properly and confidently. I joke that I have to remember we're not going to nationals, I'm providing blocking for story telling. Fun, rhythmic blocking, but blocking. And the thing is, I LOVE seeing dances performed by really distinct characters who interpreted the same movement differently. It's so satisfying, even if the whole group isn't lifting their arm on the same exact count, it looks really cool. So I promote and support open interpretation of the movement when I'm teaching, I just have to remind myself once in a while not to slip back in to dance team mode and remember I have 20 minutes to teach the whole dance so I gotta keep moving!
JOSHUA: Time. It is always time. I wish I had an extra month with this genius cast and creative team to keep poking at these songs and making them better.
What are you most proud of in this remount?
I have wanted to produce and direct this show for many years and while I am so pleased with the actual show we have created, I can’t get over how much we all really like and support each other. Fourteen actresses and seven creative team members is a large number of ideas, brain power, creativity, and ego to manage. But everyone seemed to continue to bring the love and support for one another time and time again- in both the original and the remount. It’s a good feeling to have in the room.
SHEENA: I have to say my heart sang when some of the actresses (and many of the creative team members!) said "I really like they changes. They feel right for the story." It felt like I had used my second chance well. My pride and joy is definitely the changes we made to the Wily Sea Captain song. That boat we make is so cool!
JOSH: Oh, I couldn’t pick one thing. I’m proud of the whole show. Drama, dance, and song, all in the service of this wildly smart feminist (and arguably marxist) retelling of the Odysseus myth, performed, directed, and designed by a cadre of wise kindhearted collaborators. It pretty much doesn’t get more rad.