Playwright Dan Dietz takes Aeschylus to post-Katrina New Orleans

About a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina, playwright Dan Dietz was living in Austin and working as a guest artist at Florida State University. He drove back and forth — not exactly the quickest commute in the world — and passed through New Orleans, the midpoint, on every trip.

“I was just really struck by watching a city that had been dealt a gut punch like Katrina slowly try to get back on its feet,” said Dietz. “I was really struck by what it takes, on a human level, to get up every day after you’ve been hit by that kind of disaster and go through that agonizingly slow process of rebuilding. And I knew that I wanted to write a play about that.”

(Courtesy Dan Dietz) - Playwright Dan Dietz.

Dietz’s “Clementine in the Lower Nine,” enjoying its area premiere at Forum Theatre, is loosely based on Aeschylus’s tragedy “Agamemnon,” taking the gist of its characters and plot and transplanting them to post-Katrina New Orleans.

“I was trying to figure out how you could do justice to both the sheer size of Katrina and its effect on that city while still keeping it very true and human, and that’s where I started thinking about the Greeks,” said Dietz.

“To me, ‘Agamemnon’ boils down to a woman saying to her husband, ‘How do you do that to our daughter?’ ” he said. The play follows the Greek king home from Troy, where he has sacrificed his daughter so that the gods would change the winds and permit his ships to sail into battle. As you can imagine, this wartime strategic maneuver did not go over well on the homefront. “It’s the emotions of that, and the idea of an intense betrayal between a husband and wife,” Dietz said.

He researched for years while developing the play, digging through documentaries and consulting friends who had lived in New Orleans. “I did my best to constantly refer back to that source material, to ground things . . . so that the larger-than-life aspects of the play, the things that are a little less real, never get in the way of the reality of the disaster.”

Composer Justin Ellington is responsible for the live blues music that “saturates” the play, said Dietz.

“When I tell people it’s a post-Katrina Aeschylus blues piece, it sounds like it could get really unwieldy,” director Derek Goldman said. “But it’s very deftly and delicately woven between all of those pieces.” The play grapples with “how we overcome the unspeakable and the unthinkable.”

“This is a play about the aftermath,” Dietz said. “It’s a play about rebuilding. Once you’ve weathered the storm and, in some cases, returned to the city, where do you go from there? How do you pick your life and make it whole again?”

May 23 to June 15, Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, www.forum-theatre.com, 240- 644-1390

Muse, spinning instructor

Studio Theatre artistic director David Muse is helming Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” which means Studio is undertaking a bit of a construction project: Muse decided to stage the show in the round — and on a circular platform 22 feet in diameter that rotates like a Lazy Susan on a restaurant table. He talked to Backstage on the first day of tech about what it takes to tear up the Milton Theatre and get the pieces back together again in time for opening night.

Why do “The Real Thing” in the round? Was it something you’d seen before?

I’ve never seen “The Real Thing.” But the idea to do it does seem a little anti-intuitive at first. Like, somehow, you tend to imagine plays of great language and plays with such great words in a proscenium space. So the idea is that somehow a more intimate space and a more in-the-round style makes a play like that feel somehow less artificial. Less “up on a stage.” And that’s particularly helpful for this play, because “The Real Thing” is Tom Stoppard’s most personal play. And it’s full of difficult, thorny emotional material. It’s a play full of scenes where you see the most difficult moments that relationships or couples go through, and I just thought [about] taking those scenes and putting them right in our laps in the most aggressively intimate style we could find.

What effect do you think seeing the play in the round has on the audience? People in the audience kind of get to see each other in this structure; you can watch someone across from you watching the play that you’re watching.

I think it will feel voyeuristic in that sense. More so than normal. Because you’re in a community of people, all of whom are watching these scenes that it doesn’t feel like you’re supposed to be watching. You’re in a surround of people, and all of you are eavesdropping. I think it does provide a certain conspiratorial sensibility.

In addition to being in the round, the actors are also on a revolving stage.

Yes, we chose to do them both at once, and that has certainly never been done. . . . You do have to invent the idea [of in the round] anew, in a way, when you do it. . . . Essentially you’re building theater seating and building a set. Now we also decided to do it on a revolve, so there is a big spinning disc at the center of the space.

Which presents its own challenges . . .

We learned, actually, that the floor of the Milton Theatre, if you take all the deck away, is not quite level. And a revolve requires a level floor. So it became a big engineering feat, because before the revolve and the deck that we built could even be put in, we had to shim the floor and make it flat, and then put all of that on top of it, and then build a theater around it. It has been a huge undertaking.

How long did the whole process take?

It’s taken us probably something like six weeks. And if you count planning time, it’s more like four months.

Through June 30, 1501 14th St. NW, www.studiotheatre.org, 202-332-3300

More theater content

Show more
 
Read what others are saying

    The ten best books of 2014

    50 notable works of nonfiction