Returning to the Source of Ancient Hellenic Theatre
Represented by an ensemble of artists, researchers and professionals covering a wide range of disciplines in the arts, sciences and humanities, Imalis is first and foremost an artistic and scientific process that emerged gradually out of the growing awareness both in Greece and abroad of the need for a theatrical revival in the staging of Ancient Greek Theater. Current creative approaches have led to an impasse under a defective economic model of exploitation of the, texts, artifacts, medium and sites, which must no longer be viewed, treated or staged as disparate elements of a defunct genre, but as integral aspects of a living tradition.
Of the countless productions that Epidauros has seen come and go since the theaters first opened, few have been those that offered an answer to the old question which the ancient audiences would ask: “what does this have to do with Dionysos?” It is somehow that same question that has led us in our search for ancient performance to our own roots, to the music of our ancient tongue, to our own spirituals and their psaltic art, to the poetics of epic song in our own traditions as much as in the parallel sacred traditions of Persia and India. What is it, beyond form, that ties these together?
Should we be surprised to learn that in the fourth century BCE (as described by Gellius in his Attic Nights), an actor named Polos, for his role as Electra in the recognition scene of Euripides’ Orestes, filled the urn meant to hold the ashes of her brother with those of his own son, fallen in the field of battle seven years prior? We recognize in this psychological device a combination of two well-known techniques of the contemporary repertoire (Stanislavski, Strasberg, Cantor) known as “Personal Object” and “Substitution.” There is something profound at work in what links gospel singers to orthodox cantors to Greek mountain bandits to the Persian troubadours to the Indian Bauls to the performer singing Electra. Should one speak in Darwinian terms of “survival” and “adaptation,” or might one imagine that what links Stanislavski to Euripides, Aristotle and Longinus belongs to a higher shared order, to an ever new and living present rather than a dead past? That order is the vertical dimension of Ancient tradition that taps directly into the same source as these survivals/revivals, fragments of the ancient body, which when brought together reveal once again the beating heart of the God of the Ancient Stage.
Thus, Imalis is both research lab and creative platform, and functions as an integral process that ties primary sources to living performance traditions which it views as belonging to the ancient stage as an integral body of means that were assembled with a unified intent towards a singular end. It being clear to us that the present impasse has emerged as much on an artistic as on a social level, Imalis views the crisis as the revelation of a total problem of civilization and emerged as the search for an integral solution that puts the native tongue back into its works, the works back into their spaces and the spaces back into their society. Thus Imalis evolved into the search for a new approach to the socialization of the ancient stage viewed as a total cultural artifact, with the goal of bringing closer the present use of the archeological spaces to their original social function. It is an initially artistic approach that led to the conception of a regional development model which will transform the sites through the creation of a research and training center for the performance of ancient theater.
Imalis is a vehicle designed to penetrate to the core of the problem by means of a singular objective: to stage an Ancient Greek play in its native tongue as a pre-verbal game of sound and gesture, played according to the fullest comprehension of the original rules of ancient prosody and ritual catharsis, in oratorio form, as a historical genre piece.
Raising the stakes from the outset in this manner opened the level of play to a new dimension, a vertical one proper to the θέατρον as a collective spiritual practice and a contemplative art form, executed according to a heightened awareness of its specifically therapeutic aims and the objective conditions by which it sought to induce its effects. In short the θέατρον in Ancient Greece was the home of a total art form which we term “ethopoetics” whose performance practices Imalis seeks to re-discover by re-introducing its three lost dimensions as formal compositional elements: the linguistic, the musical and the vertical (otherwise translated in the Western tradition as “the sublime”). Thus Imalis does not seek to explode the conventions and rules upon which was built ancient theater as is the habit in contemporary stagings — at least not initially — but to identify these codes in the primary sources and performance spaces by bringing these together.
This “native tongue staging” is what is meant properly by “revival.” The native tongue of the ancient dramaturges, the poetry of the ancient texts was not only dramatic but eminently theatrical. What we term “native tongue staging” as a means of underscoring the interaction of space and tongue was otherwise known as prosody (πρός—tending towards, ωδεία—song). Prosody functioned as an encoding device for the key performance and staging directions of the great dramaturges' works, while acting at the same time as a musical score. The tongue spoken on the Greek stage, as is well attested, was a musical tongue to be decoded by the actor through prosody in their search for the physical and vocal technique by which they embody the role. Discovering the dramatic significance of prosody and making it ours is of primordial importance to Imalis’ staging approach and establishes space as a dimension of sound, both internal and external.
Thus our next concern must be with the actor’s use of his scenic space, the amphitheater, designed specifically to be used as a musical instrument for the playing of the voice according to the rules of prosodic monody which we can legitimately identify as a distinct musical genre. The actor’s work on the dramaturge’s native tongue culminates in the dramatic role and must be profound, personal and scientific, relying on linguistics, comparative phonology and surviving dialects, in order to circumvent the false problems of pronunciation raised by pedantic “teaching aids” for speaking Ancient Greek. The actor thus arrives at a true apprehension of the very real performance issues raised by prosody and native tongue poetics, out of which they will then build the physical and vocal actions. Ultimately the actor will form an authentic and powerful scenic presence organically from these raw primary materials. Imalis’ rehearsal process includes a rigorous and effective program of language training for the acquisition of prosody developed over many years of research, that ties directly into the specialized forms of ear training and solfège in Ancient Greek modal systems and temperament.
For the actor speaking a supposedly “dead” tongue, the issue of meaning, or “do they understand what they are saying?” will have been resolved over the course of this process, which will have exhausted the “verbal” element of their communication, in and through the vocal, dramatic and physical expression developed out of prosodic monody and choral. The surplus of meaning generated by this organic work process allows us the luxury of dispensing with the need for subtitling, replacing it with a spare and discrete narrative commentary (something like thought-bubbles) at the limits of the audible in voix-off. But just as the opera singer who does not speak Italian winds up “speaking Verdi” by the time she is ready to sing her role, so too the player of the ancient stage, by relying on the sound of Euripides’ tongue. She will wind up, if she is any good, feeling and understanding the role and what she is doing with her newly acquired tongue. What hypothetical differences may exist between the two will have been reduced to insignificance, at least until such time as someone dares to bring them down from the lofty and dusty heights of theory to be tested on the living stage in the form of a new approach advancing the cause of theater revival.