INTERVIEW FOR GEORDIE PRODUCTIONS’
THE ILIAD WITH DIRECTOR MICHELINE CHEVRIER
Q: How old were you when you first read The Iliad?
MC: I was either twelve or thirteen? Read it in high school, either secondaire un ou secondaire deux or something like that.
Q: First impressions?
MC: I remember how complicated it was, I remember how hard I found it to read, challenging in terms of keeping track of the story, but I remember loving the poetry. That’s never left me. We read both The Iliad and The Odyssey, but I remember preferring The Iliad. Isn’t that funny, and I don’t know why, but that’s my memory of it. I remember The Iliad more vividly than I remember The Odyssey.
Q: You’ve mentioned before that you love Greek tragedy. What do you think it is about it that really pulls you to it?
MC: I think it’s because, I really like this idea that people are who they are. I would say the biggest job we have as human beings is understanding ourselves. And the bravest act we have as human beings is to be ourselves. I think any kind of ancient Greek tragedy, ancient Greek piece of literature like Homer’s actually asks us to understand ourselves and understand what we do with that.
Achilles is being asked. He’s got this rage and he battles it the entirety of The Iliad. I’m drawn to watching characters thinking that they can be often closer to a god and falling because of that hubris. I think I know something, I get cocky, I think I can skip something and get something faster, that I can take a short cut, that I don’t have to work as hard or that I’m done.
All those things fascinate me so I love watching characters who do exactly what I do and how they fall, and I fall too and I get up again and hopefully learn something. That’s life. So that’s what draws me the most to them, is how human they are, how the situations are great, extraordinary, but that the people within them, whether they’re kings or not, queens or not, are beautiful and ugly at the same time. Achilles I want to kill him and I want to hug him all at the same time. He totally turns me on.
Q: On the subject of war, do you believe violence and war is innate for us?
MC: I know that it lives in me because I have experienced it at least once in my life that I can remember where I physically got violent because I felt threatened. I think what’s interesting though is; is there a way to take that desire and re-channel it? I think some people completely re-channel it. I think it’s once you become aware of what it costs you have a different attitude.
Yeah, I don’t know, I think it’s innate, sadly, but like anything I would say, I can’t change myself cause that’s the fate, that’s your fate, as the Greeks put it, it’s the hand you’ve been dealt and you are who you are and you have to play that out. But free will comes in how you live with it and how you use it. You can’t change who you are but you can certainly change how you use what you’ve got. And so I keep thinking that what we need to do as human beings is say; yes I have violence in me and yes we need, apparently, bouts of violence to work things out so how do we do that without actually killing each other.
Q: So do you think it lies more in the recognition of that instead of the denial of it?
MC: Yeah. I hate when we pretend that we can all be nice and love each other, it’s bullshit, it’s never going to happen. There are people who will make me mad, there are people who will offend me, people’s actions will disgust me, people’s actions I will not agree with and I think that’s what makes for an interesting world, frankly. All agreeing is really dull.
I think conflict without death would be what I would choose. I think if we could work it out and still be angry, still admit that we are human beings, that we are not aliens, then that would be really good. And then we could just somehow agree to disagree, that old standby, but yeah, I don’t think it’s…, yeah, I don’t think we can get along all the time. It’s not possible. And be yourself, and be who you are.
Q: On another side of things what are your views on war play when it comes to children? Did you ever play with weapons as a child?
MC: I’m sure we shot each other and things like that. It’s really fun to die, like that’s a great game, right? Ahhh! And you die, it’s all pretend and I think that that’s the difference, that it’s pretend. You get to live something that you’re very afraid of and I think sometimes those games confront our own fears, I don’t know what it is but we all love it. I did snow battles, snow ball battles right, and when you were hit by a snowball you were dead. So frankly, after a while, I think what’s the difference in terms of a play sword or that?
I think it is a tricky thing but it’s happening so how do you not deal with that? How do you not address the fact that yes, there were battles and people had swords and they did kill each other. But, in our case, it is a one on one combat. It’s about the art of it, it’s about the skill of it, and it is about confronting yourself through your opponent. It is not somebody in some room pressing a button and then dropping a bomb. The opponent has a face and they know each other, they acknowledge each other and they fight each other. And that is The Iliad.
There was a period we all lived that for a while, and then things changed in the twentieth century and faces were lost. It became a battle from the air and so suddenly you’re not on the ground, you’re not seeing the enemy so the enemy can be made into whatever, they can be dehumanized very very easily and therefore deaths become statistics. In this case you don’t feel that in The Iliad. People understand what they’re doing, right, they’re killing human beings but they’re doing it because they’re at war and they have to do their job which is win the war.
So I’m not terribly concerned about the impact of that on the kids, I hope they understand the difference but in our case it is, in rehearsal we talked about it, it’s about understanding the tension and the conflict between those two characters and why they are standing on opposite sides of the fence; how ways to end the war is to have two people confront each other and winner take all. They’re actually trying to end it. They’re not trying to prolong it. Nobody came to Troy to fight for ten years. Somebody came to Troy to get Helen back and they fought for ten years. So, it’s again that thing, it’s a weird perception that people think; ‘no, we have wars because we like them.’ No, we have wars because we can’t think of any other way to resolve the conflict and, you know, it’s hard for us to feel betrayed or that we’re not right, or that a wrong has to be righted and all those things, so.
Q: That is what is so beautiful about this production, that very very present thread of respect throughout the play between opposing warriors and that’s a good lesson to teach.
MC: Yeah, it’s interesting because now, when we go as Canadians, we go to Afghanistan, the soldiers are being trained to understand the culture. They’re being asked to understand the culture and the people there and what it’s about and what the nature of the conflict is and what they’re dealing with. It’s not easy. It’s not pleasant. I’m not saying that the soldier is saying; ‘Okay now I don’t hate them anymore.’ They may hate them, they may see things over there that they don’t like, the people there may see things in us that they don’t like. I mean it’s going to happen but I find it interesting that more and more now we’re being asked to understand what terrain we’re walking into.
And so I think that’s also something that you see in The Iliad. The Trojans know who the Greeks are and the Greeks know who the Trojans are. And the Trojan army is made up of many many other places and so is the Greek army. Not everybody is from Athens, people are from all over. So it’s an interesting idea, like in our modern wars there are allies, and people who fight each other try to defend what they believe or the person they believe to be right.
Yeah, it’s kinda interesting and I think you’re right about respect, that’s a good thing to mention because Peter [Smith] really really was conscious about that. The author of Game of Thrones said he was highly influenced by The Iliad and the thing that he really loved about The Iliad was that there were no bad guys. They were just people fighting for what they believed in, fighting for what they thought they had a right to. I think there is something about the fact that Troy disappears, and the loss of Troy. I think that Homer is saying all great civilizations can end because of a conflict. And the lesson is there too; is it worth it to lose a whole civilization.
Q: Is the approach different when working on a show for young audiences versus a show that is not geared towards young people?
MC: Not much. I think what working on shows for TYA has taught me is that, no matter what, you have to understand who you’re having a chat with. Same thing happens at Imago where I say okay, well, who are we talking to? Who do we want to talk to? You pick certain material and you have to decide ‘who am I trying to reach?’ So I find in my own directorial process there is no difference but in the material I do keep in mind always what the audience is experiencing. In this case I keep reminding myself that some of the kids will be eight, some of them will be fourteen and there will be adults.
Q: You have mentioned that you work in a ping-pong method with the cast, can you explain that process?
MC: Actors get to a point where they know more about the play and the production than I do. And they also know who they are. So I cast but then I expect from the first day of rehearsal that they will tell me what’s going on. I’m not one of those directors that arrives and has everything mapped out and I’ve decided a bunch of things and you fit into that mold. I think rare are the directors that do that but at the same time I expect actors to come back at me with some of the offers that I make to them and then I will come back at them with some of the offers they make to me. That’s why I’m in theatre, it’s to collaborate, that’s what appeals to me. And as I have said before I feel really stupid when I’m alone at home and really brilliant when I’m in a room with a bunch of actors and designers and stage managers and assistant directors and I suddenly know what the play is and I suddenly feel really smart.
Q: That really struck me, the collaboration. It was beautiful.
MC: The thing that I always feel is important is that at some point you make decisions and the cast knows that you will make decisions so they don’t feel that they’re exploring in a vacuum, endlessly. I feel good about that, I’m good about making decisions and so at some point I say, okay, this is what it should be, this is what reads, this is what works and then I learn from what they show me and then I can tell them.
And the idea for me is that everybody in the room should always have a proposal handy. That means everybody’s thinking, all the time, all the time paying attention. I expect that of everyone. If we stop then somebody, I don’t care who it is, says ‘well what if we did this?’ and then you can either say, mmm, maybe not because of this or sure let’s try it. But we should all always have, each one of us, something to propose, something to offer, so that you don’t end up abandoning people in the process. I think actors can’t abandon directors and directors can’t abandon actors like it’s, I can’t abandon my designer and the designer can’t abandon me. That’s always what I think. If everybody comes prepared nobody will be abandoned.
Q: And which god or goddess would you want on your side?
MC: Aphrodite cause she’s mean so if she likes you she helps you, if she doesn’t like you she kills you. There’s no medium point with her, it’s an all or nothing. She’s really really mean, she kills people, it’s terrible.
Q: What are you watching and why are you enjoying it?
MC: I just watched third season of Game of Thrones again before the fourth season begins.
Q: What do you love about it?
MC: I love the female characters. I love the complexity of the discussion in such a creative, fantastically entertaining, way. I love the fact that we are talking about land, that we are talking about loyalty, we are talking about family, we are talking about love, we are talking about war, we are talking about birth, we are talking about loss, we are talking about power, or the lack of it. The layers are astonishing. There’s not one thing about it that I don’t like.
The other thing I’m watching is The Good Wife and catching up with that. I like that because again I’m watching a woman confront herself and she’s not, I love the title, The Good Wife, it’s a little bit like Breaking Bad. I think she’s learning to be bad and stop being a good wife and it’s really really hard for her. So I’m watching somebody who’s dealing with her nature and understanding what is nature and what has been learned in a world that’s incredibly male. So I like that, that’s the other one I’m watching.
Q: What are you reading at the moment?
MC: The Iliad. I’m also reading…, see the problem is is that I only read things that are related to my work, this is a problem. I am reading stuff about Caryl Churchill and I’m reading stuff on Top Girls which I’m directing next so that’s what I’m spending time reading. And the newspaper. I tend to flip through it and keep up on things a little bit.
Q: And how do you feel every time you start a new project? Does it differ?
MC: It’s such a job now and I like that, I like that it’s a job. I don’t have the same kind of expectations I used to have of it when I was younger when I thought it would change me and my DNA and I would then change the DNA of Canadian theatre or the world. I look forward to the conversations in the rehearsal hall, every time. And I always feel unprepared, that’s a given. My whole life I’ve felt under-prepared when I start so that’s a common feeling and I think that I will always feel under-prepared because, as I’ve said before, until I’m in the room I don’t know what I know. I need other people to tell me what I know.
Q: What’s your biggest dream?
MC: My biggest dream is that we understand each other better. And that’s why I do theatre. My dream is also related to the fact of preserving the importance of telling stories through that. Yeah, I just wish we listened to each other and understood each other better. That’s my dream.
Q: Beautiful. Merci madame.
MC: Fait plaisir madame.
By Cristina Cugliandro
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