Published on June 18th, 2013 | by Setsu Uzume1
The Helen Project Gives a Voice to the Face that Launched 1,000 Ships
You can hardly say the name “Helen of Troy” without the epithet “The face that launched a thousand ships.” Megan Cohen and Amy Clare Tasker dive face-first into the mythos of Helen in their new play, The Helen Project, part of this year’s DIVAFest in San Francisco.
The play shows Helen at four ages on four important nights in her life, bringing to life her experience of war, love and family.
“These four Helens are the actual historical person, Helen of Troy,” Cohen said. “They speak her untold story in our original text; they have psychological depth and sensory experiences; they are 100% personal. There is a fifth figure who is essentially the archetype, the eternal and immortal figure of ‘Helen.’ She speaks in found text from sources like Homer and Marlowe.”
Watching all five Helens onstage was a fascinating and realistic take on a woman’s experience during times of turmoil. Through poetic dialogue and magnetic performances, Helen tries to reconcile both beauty and her role in the Trojan war by owning her decisions. Sarah Moser floats around the stage as the immortal Face Helen, a pure archetype in her red dress. The other four (Misti Rae Boettiger, Roneet Aliza Rahamim, Ariane Owens, Lily Yang) come alive with fear, cynicism, curiosity and decisiveness. Helen’s legend shepherds her temporal selves into a coherent and intensely self-aware performance. When the young Helen asks, “This will all work out, won’t it?” the older Helen, knowing the answer, only looks away.
Cohen and Tasker masterfully juxtapose the recorded text of Helen with sensory and emotional detail that never made it into the histories. From the moment Helen convinces herself to abandon her children, to the public contempt and shadow of a marriage she returns to after the war, the audience is right beside her. The result is eerily intimate, as though you were watching shadows of Helen’s memory flit by.
Cohen and Tasker took a few moments to talk with us about their inspiration for the project and how to successfully create interactive theater.
Art Animal: How did this project come to be? Was it a collaboration from the beginning?
Megan Cohen: As I remember, it was sort of disgustingly collaborative from the first moment. I think Amy had “Helen of Troy?!?!” scribbled in the margins of a notebook we were flipping through, but not with any clear intention behind it. My memory of this whole process — start to finish — is less that anybody thought of anything per se, and more like we were using a Ouija board.
Amy Clare Tasker: Megan and I had worked together – well, really, worked near each other – a couple of times in 2009 or 2010, and I’m pretty sure this whole thing started with us at a bar saying, “We should do something together.” Around that time, I directed Euripides’ Andromache for Cutting Ball Theater’s Hidden Classics Reading Series, which led me down a rabbit hole of stunning plot twists in the Trojan War saga. I realized how little I knew the story of Helen of Troy, compared to what I thought I knew from her towering presence in Western culture. I think Megan and I were both interested in how Helen could be so famous and so mysterious – how we all could know her name but never have heard her story beyond the part about launching a thousand ships.
AA: How does having different Helens on stage bring out more of her story? Did their interactions determine the script or vice versa?
ACT: After we workshopped some early text with actors, who showed us how electric it was when two people playing Helen could have a conversation, we saw we could form some sort of relationship between a past and future self. From there, we wondered what it would be like to have a handful of Helens, or one hundred Helens. Five felt like the right number, and the text fragments sorted themselves well into four specific nights of Helen’s life: the night she ran away with Paris, the first night of the Trojan War, the last night of the Trojan War and the night she returned to Sparta. And then the fifth is the figure we think of when anybody says “Helen of Troy,” our shared cultural icon, who provides context for the temporal Helens. And they, in turn, recontextualize her.
AA: In your description of the project, you say the onstage performances are testing a Build-Your-Own-Helen-Play-Kit. What do you mean by that? Is this interactive theater at its best?
MC: The Kit is a series of short texts which show different sides of Helen. Within a set narrative arc, the Kit provides thousands of possible variations in how it can be assembled, or “built,” into a live experience. Sometimes the Kit belongs in the hands of the artists who prepare a presentation, and sometimes in the hands of the audience during the presentation. We’re on a quest to find the most elegant solution. We do already have an interactive element of the project — the Online Edition which you can visit here.
ACT: When we started writing, I think we spent a couple of hours trying to basically co-type the first page of the piece, which was slow and awkward, as you might expect. So early on, we developed this process of writing short fragments and “bookending” them. So Megan would write something, and I would write a beginning and end onto the text she had given me. Then I’d send it back to her and she would bookend it again – or not; when something felt done, we just let it be done. This tight creation loop has meant that we don’t have any idea who wrote what, or who thought of which idea. It also meant that the text was made up of a couple hundred fragments, like we had put Helen through a shredder. In thinking about how to assemble those pieces to make “a play,” we realized there could be thousands of ways to build a performance text, and no “right answer.” We also realized that if we used all of the text, the performance would be about eight hours long. (I hope to do that version someday. There is so much story to tell!)
AA: It sounds like each performance will have a different format, from online games, to a play, to a more abstract performance art piece. How are the different installations correlated? How are they independent?
ACT: From the beginning, I have felt a strong desire to tell every last fascinating, complicated bit of Helen’s mythological story. It seems deeply unfair to me that The Illiad tells in great detail how many ships came to Troy and what all the heroes were wearing, but it only bothers to mention Helen six times, and whenever she appears, she goes out of her way to shoulder the blame for the entire Trojan War while being as gorgeous as possible. We only ever get to see the external, lovely Helen, not the shocking, unattractive turmoil of her inner life.
There has been a very fruitful tension throughout our process between my desire to tell the whole story and Megan’s insistence that this is impossible and probably not dramatically satisfying. As we were editing, I began to forgive the storytellers who came before me for leaving out the parts about Helen’s children, her relationship with her new Trojan family, the secrets of Paris’ past, what happened when she returned to Sparta, did she ever see her parents again…The story is just so epic. The Kit forces us to consider all of Helen before we decide what we think of her.
MC: Across different media and/or the different “builds” of the kit, we hope that each artistic experience stands on its own, but it seems really cool to think of seeing more than one. It’s an exciting idea that something can’t be canonized; there isn’t a definitive edition or production, or even a definitive format, for these ideas and for this story.
Every installation or expression of the project is independent, but the more of them you see, the deeper your experience will be. They enrich each other.