Since the late 1980s, American theatre has been populated with event-oriented interactive shows, like Tony N' Tina's Wedding (running Off-Broadway for more than 7 years), Grandma Sylvia's Funeral, and various participatory mystery shows such as Shear Madness. The Whole World is Watching, by Douglas Jacobs and Scott Feldsher, offers a whole new form of interactive theatre, in which the theatrical audience transforms into a live talk show audience that will bear witnesses to and participate in Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy.
Feldsher, co-founder and artistic director of San Diego's Sledgehammer Theatre, and Jacobs, co-founder and artistic director of the San Diego REP, together have created and direct the production, adapting the three-part epic into a talk show format, including TV cameras and monitors. In a pre-show, audiences will be pumped and encouraged to participate, much as the hired, studio entertainers do on real TV talk shows.
The play opens with the story of Oedipus Rex, set in a futuristic, plague-ridden town of Calafia, a mixture of Mexico and Southern California, formed after the U.S. has been decentralized and states govern themselves, much as the Greek city-states did. King Oedipus, in a Clintonian town meeting style, stands up to solve the problem of the state's plague, only to discover, as secrets are revealed in a tabloid-like way, that HE is the cause of the plague.
This portion of the show has the greatest interactivity. The audience acts as the Greek chorus; the talk-show host as the chorus leader. After intermission, the show changes format slightly. From there on, the interactivity decreases while the events of the Sophocles' Antigone (usually the last play in the trilogy) reveal the Greek princess in the midst of her trial, like a courtroom drama. In a Nightline way, the reasons for her being on trial are revealed through flashback.
The final portion of the show, representing the Oedipus at Colonus portion of the trilogy, is shortened into a 20-minute deathbed interview with Ismene, Antigone's sister, the only living member left of the cursed ruling family. Through a reluctant, Barbara Walters-type interview delivered in the theatrical style of Beckett, we learn the last portion of the story of the heroic king. A spiritual law of the Greeks says that only after all the ancestors are deceased, is the curse on a house set free. After Ismene shares her family's story for a final time to the public, she dies, settingthe curse free and wrapping up the loose ends of the play. From a surface perspective, one might conclude that Greek tragedy and "The Oprah Winfrey Show" lack a certain coherence. Not so, according to the authors, Scott Feldsher and Douglas Jacobs, who have both been staples of San Diego theatre for quite some time . Jacobs co-founded the San Diego REP in 1976, where he has written, directed and acted. Feldsher, after graduating from the University of San Diego Department of Theatre, worked at the REP where he served as Associate Artistic Director and Literary Manager, directing and producing as well. Feldsher left the REP to co-establish San Diego's premiere cutting edge theatre, the Sledgehammer Theatre.
Feldsher says,"There's something about the formal aspect of how these talk shows work that is like the Greek Drama. The host is like the Chorus Leader. The audience is an extension of the greater populous, how the Chorus was used. Jacobs observes, "Americans love to testify. They love to see other people testify. They love that process... Oedipus and Tyreseus get into mud slinging that is similar to a talk show. Also, the [interpersonal] geometry in the Greeks is similar to that of a talk show, where one person tells a story, another disagrees and then a third person comes in and makes it really messy."
Although Greek dramas are no longer frequently performed in American theatres, they are studied seriously and honored as "classic" at many American conservatories. They are the oldest Western dramas still performed. Though talk shows at times reveal tragedy, they are also generally lacking in sophistication, and at times rather absurd and comical.
To maintain the powerful messages and dignity of the Greek text in a talk show setting seems like quite a challenge. Feldsher said, "There is a lot more comedy in the Greek tragedy then often gets translated."
Feldsher reminds us that because the plays were based on religious myths that were known to everyone, the audiences knew the story going in to the play, therefore, "they were only half titified, and half tickled. It is kind of farcical."
Jacobs said, "Great heros and leaders always have a ludicrous side."
Feldsher said that for the first two sections of the play, the adaptation is translated very faithfully to Sophocles' form. Only in Colonus is the text restructured into Ismene's 20 minute monologue. "I was very influenced by the Gospel at Colonus (a popular gospel musical telling the story of Oedipus), what was so good [about it] is that most of the tragedy I had seen in the past were heavy, serious -- but Gospel was so amazing because people were dancing in the aisle, they were talking back to the stage. From what I understood this was closer to what the experience really was; so joyous and spiritual -- this is what a Greek tragedy probably should be... and how audiences should be involved in these Greek tragedies."
How did the authors come up with their idea for a more inclusive tragedy? It all started when Feldsher returned to San Diego from directing in New York, and was staying for a while with Jacobs and his wife. Late at night they would discuss theatre while watching, with fascination, "The Jerry Springer Show," one of the more lowbrow talk shows broadcast out of Chicago. Eventually their conversations lead to a comparison between Greek drama and talk shows.
One night at a cocktail party, after a couple of vodka martinis, Scott posed the idea for creating a theatrical mixture of Greek tragedy and the American talk show, solidified into one multimedia event. After about five martinis each, the contract was signed.
Jacobs recalls, "Scott and I had talked about doing the Greek plays for ten years. There's a certain tribe we heard about that did the sober test...they would only make important decisions when they were drunk. In the morning, if the idea still sounded good, they would stick to it. The next morning although we were scared, we thought it was a good idea. As we worked on it, it made more and more sense."
There are many current political factors that add to the significance of the opening of The Whole World is Watching, the foremost being that so much of the media will be in San Diego as part of the Republican National Convention. Jacobs points out that "In it's talk show format, the show has heightened the basic issues relating to individuals, groups, religions, sex, power, prophecy, media and politics."
Jacobs goes on to point out political parallels in Oedipus and Antigone, where both plays are about a leader stepping up to the plate and confronting the citizens and being in front of an audience. Like many Americans still today, the Greeks believed a persons life in the end could only have any worth by his public acts and their reputation.
Jacobs felt that it was important to merge the trilogy into one show, because each play represents a different aspect of humanity; Oedipus representing the psychological, Antigone the political, and Colonus the spiritual.
How will the audience play the part of the chorus, without a script? Audience members who want to participate will be selected in the pre show, and it's up to them to stand up and ask questions of the actors. For preparation, the rehearsal process for The Whole World is Watching will include an audience much earlier in the process than normal shows. Feldsher says,"We want to get a sense of it being very spontaneous and having a very free willing quality, and a sense that it wasn't planned...When things start spinning out of control we want things off the cuff."
The directors hired actors that they knew could could handle the challenge of improvisation and flowing with the audience energy without veering too far from the plot structure. Jacobs admits "In major roles we cast only one person that we hadn't already worked with. It does take a certain resilience and you can't always determine that in an audition. You need people with a lot of stamina, flexibility and resilience... Creating a new work is disorienting in and of itself."
What do the creators hope their audiences feel after experiencing The Whole World is Watching ? Aside from thinking that it was a great evening of theatre, Feldsher hopes that audiences have a real physical experience, including a vast array of emotions and styles ranging from the obscene to the sublime. Jacobs' wish;"In a really electric way, I want audiences to experience that life and death are two sides of the same coin."
The Whole World is Watching runs July 16-Aug 10, San Diego Repertory Theatre at the Lyceum, in Horton Plaza. Tickets cost $19-27. For information or tickets: (619) 235-8025.
-- By Blair Glaser