Five of seven
When I was a freshman in college, I was lucky enough to sign up for Ancient Greek Literature with Dr. Tom Banks. I went to Augustana College, a small liberal arts school with Swedish roots, and in my mind, Dr. Banks was a cross between Socrates and a kindly Viking. He had twinkly blue eyes, lots of white hair, and a mad love for Greek history, language, literature, drama, everything. He was a linguist, fluent in Latin and Greek and probably some other languages too, and he loved to help us make connections between our word choices and their deep, ancient meanings. We might be discussing some passage of the Iliad and one of us would use a boring word (like, I don’t know, “sweep" or something), and suddenly his eyes would light up. “It’s interesting you chose the word sweep," he might say, “Because actually, that word comes from…. which comes from the German word…which is a modification of the Greek word…., which originally came from the combination of …. and ….! So you see, when you said sweep, you were actually using a word that’s over 5,000 years old, and somebody just like you may have used that same word thousands of years ago when they were talking about the Iliad." And we’d laugh, a little self-consciously, excited to discover that we, a bunch of midwestern kids in a small Illinois college, were Connected to Ancient Peoples, unwittingly, through the alchemy of language.
I wish I could remember what some of those words were, and the amazing way he could trace their DNA through time. (I’m pretty sure none of them was ever sweep.) But I do remember his passion, his pure delight, not only in these sidebars to our discussions, but in the material itself. I remember it because it infected me, too. What an amazing thing, to be 18 and free for the first time to fall in love with something as dorky and rich and wonderful as Sophocles and Aeschylus. I was coming from small town Iowa, where many of my friends thought it was strange that I really loved reading at all, let alone wanted to read things by Shakespeare and Willa Cather and J.D. Salinger and Carl Sagan (balanced with a steady diet of Danielle Steel and V.C. Andrews, of course), this class — this series of classes, actually, because I kept signing up for anything Dr. Banks taught — was an oasis.
I realize that this makes me sound like I might actually know something about the subject. Which I don’t. Not really. Titles, characters, plot lines … largely lost. Sort of embarrassing. But in the end, again, not really the point. Because today, and this week, and actually ever since I started writing the musical, I’ve been connecting with something that feels deeper than the story lines and the character quirks. Deeper, at least, to me.
It’s the chorus. The Greek Chorus. So fascinating to me, to have a character on stage which is a collective. A group. The Women of Argos. The Citizens of the Sparta. A voice, a presence, an emotional force, which is not a me, but an us.
There’s a Chorus like this in Reserve & Green. In the first go-round, it was played by three women (thank you Joan, Ali and Stephanie!), but as I’ve been working on the show these last few weeks, I’ve been reconnecting with what I originally intended for this Chorus to be. They are more than three. They are male and female. They are old, young, and in between. Some of them move, some of them don’t. They are not human. And all of them sing, and in harmony. (The ancient Greek Choruses sang and danced, too, but all we have to go on now are their words, so if you go see Greek theater, often the Chorus chants their parts. I was in one once. It was kind of cool, kind of weird.)
Wait — they’re not human?
Yes. Somehow I’ve been less-than-clear about this, in myself, in how I’ve talked about the Chorus, and written their parts. I’m so scared to write a Disney show. Every time I think about the Chorus as I really, truly want it to look, feel and sound, I freak out somewhere inside that I might be perceived as creating some Jungle Bookish, Lion Kingish, Circle-of-Life nightmare, and the editor in my brain leaps up, pulls on her hair, lifts her face to the sky and howls NOoooooooo!!!!
But here’s the deal. My Chorus, the Reserve & Green chorus, is not human. They are animal, vegetable, mineral of the non-human variety. They’re everything that’s Not Us, which lives outside (i.e., everywhere). But they are not big-eyed bunny rabbits who carry daises for the enchanted princess in their mouths. They’re…something else. Something with hooves and scales and fins, maybe. Some odd shape-shifting spirit-presences which look like goats in one moment and stones in the next, or tree-bears, or bat-bugs. This is what they’ve been, since the beginning, in my mind, but somehow I’ve chickened out from just making them that. As if Disney gets to define what wild is, more than wildness itself.
As I’ve relaxed (a bit) into developing the Chorus into the full character that I want it to be, I’ve thought about Dr. Banks, and how thrilled he was to get us thinking and asking about what the Chorus was in one play versus another. Why did they say this here, and ask that there. Were they the voice of the gods in this play? Were they speaking the inner thoughts of the traditional characters? Were they challenging them? Trying to stop them, or spur them on?
I thought too about my grandmother, Grandma Mary V as I called her, who took me to see numerous Greek plays (and Shakespeare, too) in an open-air theater, with a little flickering pool of water between our uncomfortable folding chairs and the cement slab which served as the stage. She, like Dr. Banks, opened my eyes to how magical and powerful it is to speak in a collective voice — more accurately, to allow a collective to have a voice. To make an impact. To be seen, and heard, and felt.
So why not a Greek Chorus of Wild Things? Why the hell not?
Thanks for listening.
P.S. Come get a taste of how the show is evolving on Sunday March 4 at the Ten Spoon Vineyard & Winery, starting at 6 p.m. Marilyn Marler, her team of amazing cohorts, and the fabulous folks at Ten Spoon are hosting a celebration and benefit party to support Reserve & Green. Marilyn’s answering questions about the evening at firstname.lastname@example.org.