GLAMoms had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Lisa Peterson this week. Lisa is the director and playwright of who created an adaptation of the Odyssey based off of the translation by Dr. Emily Wilson. Lisa’s adaptation is being performed by The Acting Company this weekend at Wharton Center.
Lisa adapts a 12,000 line poem to a 95 minute theatrical production and she explains some of her process. She shares ideas about this all female cast and how we all are just trying to find our way home. She also suggests some places to plan to see the next time you visit New York City.
The Acting Company published the Odyssey Study Guide – Student Guide 2023-24 and it proved helpful with preparing to chat with Lisa.
An idea the study guide introduced an idea where the passing down of the story of the Odyssey was compared to an “inter-generational” game of telephone. And with our own experience playing telephone with children it often is a slightly different version of what kids hear or what they thought they heard with what they share. And to compare this simple age-old game to how the Odyssey was passed down from storyteller to storyteller until it was written down – it is a fascinating idea and makes you wonder how much it changed before it was in written form.
I love the game of telephone, the idea that these are stories that were passed along and told and anyone who had the interest and the ability to memorize certain passages. There are repeating passages in the original or little forms of poetry that are mnemonic devices to help remember.
I think different people told the story when they came to your town. They may adjust it for your town and it changed over time. At some point some person or group of people decided to write it down. I think it was not written first , it was spoken.
I have a little theatre company with my writing partner on the Iliad, Denis O’Hare and we call our company Homer’s Coat. We believe all you have to do is put the coat on and if you could wear the coat, you could be Homer.
There seems to be many different ideas of who wrote the Odyssey or who Homer is. Do you think it was a woman who wrote it?
Interesting. What I believe about Homer is that there was more than one person. I feel like it is a tradition and not a person and this comes from not only working on the Odyssey but the last 15-20 years also spent a lot of time doing a solo adaptation of the Iliad. I really think Homer was a bunch of people over time.
I feel women were involved. I don’t know why not. I do not know about the theory or about a theory if one or more of these storytellers were women. I will say, our Iliad has been done by women very successfully (in her theatre company).
I do not know why women would not be involved and I do not think that Homer was just one person.
How many actors are part of this performance?
There are 4 actors.
How many roles do the 4 actors play?
They play about 40 roles. Sometimes they play the sailors that go on the journey with Odysseus, they play the wind in a windstorm, there are just so many encounters with forces – some in the form of humans, some in the form of gods and goddesses and some are dangerous water that creates a monster.
They each play about 10 characters and they each take a turn at playing the main part, Odysseus.
This is really incredible. A 12,000 lined poem, that was shared through oral tradition before being written down in 24 books – in Greek – then while using Emily Wilson’s translation (who happens to be the first female to translate the Odyssey in English), and you take her translation that encompasses a story that took place over 10 years. With a company of 4 actors, playing over 40 roles, and you create a 90 minute production!
One word question… How?
Emily Wilson’s translation came about a few years ago and it got a lot of attention because it is really good. She is notable and highly regarded. It was the first published translation in English by a woman. She looked at the original Greek and line by line, idea by idea and chose her language. I have read it in two different translations, one in college and then again about 10 years ago by Robert Fagles and hers (Emily Wilson) is different.
I don’t know if you would guess it is a woman’s translation when reading. It is modern, very frank and straight up and you can understand it. It is not fussy. I think it also focuses on social questions in the story. Social questions like what makes a good host? What makes a good visitor? How are we meant to treat one another? And these ideas come through clearly in Emily’s translation.
How did you pick what you were going to focus on?
That’s the good question.
I had to decide who my storytellers were. I spent a lot of time researching migrant journeys across the Mediterranean in the last 10 years. I created these young women. One comes from Rwanda, another from Tunisia, one from Syria and one from Albania. I had to invent them, research them, create them and imagine their back stories. I also had to tell how they got to this Greek island. What are they doing there? What are they hoping for? Why did they leave their country?
50 percent of the adaptation is about these contemporary young women and the journeys they are on. Then looking at the Odyssey itself, I first pulled out all of the female characters and looked at them. Also anything that had the magic four in it – I had chosen four and was not quite sure why but there were a lot of fours. There were the four winds, the four horses, rowing the ship like four fine stallions. The number four shows up a lot and I then pulled everything that had to do with fours. Then I was focusing on the idea of trying to get home.
That is the primary theme of the Odyssey is to get home, I think. Anything that talked about feelings of home, desires of home, definitions of home. Not just about going back to where you came from but moving onward to a new life or the home in your future. That theme helped me pick and choose.
I wanted to keep my Odysseus moving because over the course of the 24 books he does not show up until book 6 and he spends a lot of time telling stories within stories. I wanted to keep him in motion and had to look at what was important.
I wanted to keep Athena as a constant presence. She is but if Athena was involved maybe we would not have to spend much time there and sometimes when we land on an island or a relationship or an adventure I use Emily’s translation and sometimes though, if I want to move a little more swiftly, because like you said, I have 95 minutes.
I will basically create a simple line of narration that simply says, “…then we landed on Cyclops Island.” Now in the original it may take several hundred lines to get there but I have the freedom to move it. “We get back on the sea, it’s dangerous and we landed on Cyclops Island.” I can do it in like 10 words. The translation needs to honor the original 12,000 lines. We do not have to.
What do you hope people take away from your adaptation of the Odyssey performed by The Acting Company?
One, I hope they have fun and they think theatre is great and get involved in a way that makes them want to continue to see theatre. I also hope people lose their fear of Homer and the originals and maybe look back at it because it still matters. It seems very fresh and relevant.
Also, I am hoping to increase empathy around the idea of migrants. I think it is so hard for us and this is like a perennial issue. There is a migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, there is a migrant crisis here in the United States. But people have always had to move onward if their home isn’t safe or for whatever reason they move. I think sometimes these people are thought of as victims or as dangerous to us in some way.
The reason why I set it to this ancient story of migration and dangerous travel and trying to get home and in a contemporary setting in a migrant relocation center in Greece is because I would like to think of these young women as heroes too. There is a reason why people leave their homes with everything they have in a couple of bags and try to get somewhere else.
That is dangerous and I think we need to empathize with them. We can always continue to learn new ways of how to be a better host for those who visit us or for those who come to our land. I am hoping that by looking at the ancient story against the modern story, people just have a new thought about it.
What is an Odyssey? Every human being has an Odyssey in their life in some way.
Speaking of home, where do you call home?
I live in New York City. I grew up in Santa Cruz and have been in New York City for a long time. New York City is the place you want to be in the theatre.
I am looking at the Hudson River and New Jersey out my window while talking to you.
Wharton Center shared the performance is appropriate for ages 13 and up – who do you expect to be in the audience?
I have watched little girls younger than that watch this and be really into it. I think it depends on the kids and I think there is an age where kids get into Greek Mythology. My best audience is for women.
What are you working on now, or next?
Another play with Denis O’hare about Rome. It is really about America but it is about Roman history. And working on a bunch of new projects here in New York. A couple of new musicals, a couple of new plays.
I have to have a bunch of pots on the stove and keep stirring them all.
And finally, since you live in New York City, where would you suggest people plan to visit or maybe a favorite spot?
The Whitney Museum and the Highline where you see old New York and it is so beautifully designed.
Lisa Peterson offers a perspective of the story of four women who are going from one place to another and they are heroes. They are brave and are all building and banking on the unknown. They are moving forward because it has to be better and without hesitation they jump without the safety and security of a net. And they do so in hopes they will find their way home.
If you plan to visit Wharton Center and see The Acting Company perform Lisa Peterson’s stage adaptation of The Odyssey, here is the Odyssey Study Guide referenced earlier to give some insight, hints and a little more about how she created her take on an ancient tradition.
A special thank you to Wharton Center for introducing GLAMoms to Lisa and for making this thought provoking conversation possible!
For tickets and additional information, visit wharton.com