The following interview with playwright/actress Anaïs Alexandra and visual artist Kevork Mourad centers around their most recent collaborative piece, Tangled Yarn, which is set to be performed on Friday October 15 at Alwan for the Arts.
The Ismene character is best known from “Antigone”, the third of the Theban plays written by Sophocles, and dealing with themes of civil disobedience, fealty, pride, and resilience. In Antigone, Ismene and the title character are the sisters of Polyneices, one of two brothers who perished while warring over the throne of Thebes. Though both brothers lost their lives in this battle, only one was denied a proper burial by Creon, the newly appointed Theban king. Creon declares that Eteocles, one brother who died fighting in the Theban civil war, will be honored, while the other brother, Polynieces, will be left to the elements and without divine last rights. This act of insult activates Antigone into civil disobedience as she plans to bury Polynieces with honors in defiance of Creon’s edict, and pleads Ismene’s assistance. But Ismene demurs and refuses to go against Creon’s dictate in order to bury their brother. The character of Ismene has been alternately viewed as chronically weak, or as strategically strong, for her actions, with vacillating viewpoints on the result of those actions. While it is open to debate whether Ismene was making a point about compliance to the state, fidelity to man-made or divine law, or rational versus instinctual actions, her fate has traditionally been read as open-ended, and it remains that this daughter of Oedipus was the only one of her royal family to survive and extend that lineage.
Q: How do you describe your play?
AA: For ten years we have been talking about how to work together, with me as an actress and Kevork as a visual artist. I decided to write this play as the vehicle for this collaboration, and I wanted to write about what I was obsessed with, which at the time was motherhood. I was also obsessed with Greek myth so I took the story of Ismene, the sister of Antigone, who doesn’t get much attention in the Greek plays, and decided to tell, through hers, the story about my mother and my grandmothers. I had collected my grandmothers’ stories over many years and I wanted to share them. When I was writing the piece, it was with Kevork in mind, and I knew that his art was going to be another character; two of the main vehicles of the piece are Ismene’s story and the art, both interpreting the story and setting the scenes.
KM: I have been working with musicians for the last 12 years and it was my idea to collaborate with Alexandra, but like I had in the past with musicians and dancers. I wanted to use the hand that is drawing throughout the play as a motif: as a part of the acting, where things come out of the hand, and interact with a person, the person being Alexandra. There was this idea of things coming out of the hand, and the hand being an architect of destiny. I read the play and thought about it for several months, the (drawing) lines that came out were very similar to Arabic or Armenian handwriting so we decided to keep the drawing lines like that, to keep the flow of that look. I wanted to create magical moments, happening then and there, with the audience taken to a different dimension through animation. Through the live drawing I want the audience to see and feel that there are things happening behind Alexandra, almost to the last moment, that there are things from her spirit, the drawing, her speaking, where the yarn is drawn out.
Q: When you think of Antigone you tend to think of someone rebellious whereas Ismene is more accommodating of the structure; we don’t know if she got her way in the end. How did this influence your thinking of yourself as a mother, of your mother, of your grandmother? Was there a statement being made there?
AA: Partly conflict – I think Ismene is so conflicted; she says no but then yes, she wants to give up her life for her sister but isn’t allowed to. The piece is also about sisterhood, not just mothers and daughters. What fascinated me about Ismene was that she didn’t know her place, her role. Antigone knows her place but Ismene seems to me more of a third wheel, wracked by uncertainty. And I have struggled with what my own place is, as an artist in New York. It is a challenge to be an active actress in New York. I have another identity as a singer as well… There’s also the uncertainty you feel as a young mother, especially in this society, and trying to be an artist at the same time. And the uncertainty of someone who has lost a mother recently as I did, you feel yourself now at the top of the matrilineal pyramid and that in itself is confusing. My grandmothers were so important in my life and so fascinating and their experiences were so immense; of course they were important to me before my mother died, but their importance came back to me even stronger afterwards. I felt like my Armenian grandmother always had a sense of what she was for in the world- for her it was religion (Armenian orthodox). She spent her life giving to others and we realized that was what made her strong – the ability to give. The forward motion she clearly had was more resembling of Antigone’s, in a way, though her forward motion is constant and unending. The Latvian grandmother in the play was revolting against the fact that she was so tied by the ropes of her family. She suffered from depression and wanted to leave life but the people who loved her pulled her away from death and kept her alive, perhaps against her own wishes. Ismene also realizes she is being carried forward by the ropes of those she is close to, rather than having a distinct idea of what her end will be. She is tied to her parents, her brother, her sister. In the Greek play she is late in reacting to those ties, and doesn’t react like Antigone does, but she does need to be there, to offset Antigone and carry the actions forward.
Q: Predetermined destiny, are you trying to make the point that women particularly are governed by, are archival carriers of history?
AA: My experience has been that the feminist movement’s fight for equality hasn’t really been won. In this society when you get into motherhood, it’s impossible to really have equality because women are so tied to their children. They are lovely ropes but ropes nonetheless.
Q: You chose to use the foil of the relationship in the sisterly sense of Antigone/Ismene, but you chose the coupling of your Armenian and Latvian grandmothers. You are duplicating the narratives into an entwined one…
AA: I meant to show that Antigone’s route is something that ends but Ismene does what she does and goes through weaving her destiny using what she is given by her grandmothers, pulling from her past. I see Ismene as a survivor who needs to be in the story at the end of it, in order for the story to be told.
Q: The problem is never so much the catastrophe but the trauma afterwards, the suffering of the survivors. In your sketches, Kevork were you conscious of the interplay of the characters that were almost one and the same, replicating history, rehearsing the past but rather ambivalently, with the convolution and tricks of memory?
KM: I realized there is a type of symmetry – things happening left and right, with the characters constantly changing. Sometimes the character is on the right and is a specific representation, sometimes the same on the left, but sometimes the character is in the middle, and these are the more universal things, like when we share experiences like war. So the sketches, (and my compositions on canvas) were meant to resemble the actions on stage, and the symmetry flows according to these lines. So I know there are four women in the play for example but I don’t know where I am going to start the sketch, I have to follow where the characters are and what they are saying. You see my drawing live and you think I’m improvising but I am not. It is like there is a dialogue between the painting and the acting. It goes back and forth between thoughts, stories, a backdrop on the stage (like a balcony in Africa in one scene). I am also painting because of my own direct experiences with Alexandra’s grandmothers. Like the one who smoked in her room who was surrounded by art (the Latvian), she really enjoyed life. She was really about her environment; the present, capturing the moment. She was obsessed with the painting hanging on the wall. But the Armenian one was always about others, she was always fixing things for tomorrow, planning. Probably the Latvian was the way she was because that was how she survived, how she got through the day, to be surrounded by art and to live in the moment.
Q: What is the role of music into the piece?
AA: Music is such an important part of both our lives. I have a trio called Zulal (Armenian folk). I was very drawn to the idea of the Three Fates, the literal weavers of destiny in the Greek lore, and there are threes abounding in the piece. Music is linear so it made sense for it to be a pivotal part of the piece. Most of the melodies were original. We used some Armenian and Bulgarian folk music. When you think of the arts, you think of visual art, music and theatre (written art) and so we captured that trio; and it was fitting to use my Armenian trio, which has the right haunting, lyrical sound for a piece such as this.
KM: Both of us, being artists, it is difficult to join our paths sometimes and we’ve been thinking of this for ten years. Our original idea was to weave the music onstage while the presentation was happening, to hear live sounds as the characters move and have the weaving motif throughout. But it became so difficult to get all the musicians together and so we developed the soundtrack. We had the logical idea to have a Greek chorus as well. It just became too cumbersome to be involving others so we wanted something we could put on ourselves whenever we wanted to and could.
Q: Can you talk about the dichotomy of the sisters?
AA: Ismene is a mix of my sister and me, as is Antigone. I have this fascination with the bonds of sisterhood, the love, the competition, which sister assumes more responsibility for the family, for maintaining the stories. This is part of the main tension between Antigone and Ismene, the sense of abandonment Ismene has by Antigone. In the Greek play Ismene is the one made out to be more selfish. In my play I made Antigone the more selfish one, the one who just goes through with her destiny, with no thought for the survivors. But if it were not for Ismene, the family line would be dead. I think that is true strength- the willingness to be a survivor, the one who carries the threads of the family and the history to their future. Antigone is more masculine whereas Ismene is more feminine. Ismene as the feminine, as a woman, wants to survive.
Q: In taking this now ubiquitous Greek structure and trying to give it an Armenian flavor, how did you fit in your narrative?
AA: There is such a strong sense of destiny in Armenian culture, so many songs about fate in the village, where women have their fates read by stars, it seemed like a good fit with the Greek style, where these great primordial questions about fate, choice and subjectivity are in constant interplay.
Q: Did Armenian lore or mythology filter into the text?
AA: It is not pulled from Armenian mythology but there is a bit more Armenian feel than Latvian, because, I suppose, of the dominance of Armenian players in the piece, (myself a half-breed, Kevork, and the women of Zulal), but it wasn’t a measured decision. We know we are children born of the past. We are here today as we are, formed by our ancestors. The Armenian grandmother refers to the genocide, to her survivorship through decades of hardship over several continents – that adaptation that keeps on going and keeps us going.
Thursday, September 23, 2010