THE ELECTRA PROJECT: A conversation between Daniel Gary Busby and Mihai Maniutiu

The cast in rehearsal.

IRVINE, Calif. (February 26, 2015) – In preparation for the Drama Department's presentation of THE ELECTRA PROJECT, UCI Drama Department Chair Daniel Gary Busby sat down with the Creator/Director and Distinguished Professor Mihai Maniutiu for some Q & A.

Daniel Gary Busby: Where does THE ELECTRA PROJECT’s generative energy come from, and what inspired you to revisit/explore the Electra story as a “musical tragedy”?

Mihai Maniutiu: My inspiration came from the interaction between ancient Greek culture -- with its myths, traditions, and unwritten laws -- and the culture of Maramures, a remote region of North-Western Romania. Due to its isolation, Maramures’ ancient rituals and archaic traditions are still alive. These rituals are surprisingly similar to those of ancient Greek culture. In Maramures, music is a central element in the rituals and ceremonies that mark human existence: births, weddings, deaths, and other social events considered rites of passage.

The cultural interaction I’m proposing is not an arbitrary choice. The archaic laws of the ancient Greek polis (cities), and those still at work in the rural communities of Maramures, present very powerful similarities. Among these are a belief in destiny, the important role of traditions and unwritten laws, a sense of fatality, and the idea of honor and revenge. This mixture of cultures is meant to question the artistic means of theatrical and musical art, and to prove the extent to which music is essential to theatre.

The fact that Greek tragedy was a musical performance has now fallen into oblivion. Thus, bringing theatre and music together within the context of an ancient Greek tragedy is an artistic challenge. Bringing to life “musical tragedy” allows us to experience different kinds of musical structures and sources that revive the spirit of the unique Greek tragedies that have shaped Western culture and influenced its subsequent spiritual and artistic development.

DGB: How is the experience of producing shows at UCI different from that of other places you’ve worked?

MM: It’s thrilling because the actors at UCI are very talented. They are all so well trained that, as Artistic and Executive Director of the National Theatre in Cluj, Romania, I’d hire them there if I could. The fact that I deal at UCI with low production budgets makes me focus even more on the quality of acting.

DGB: What do you appreciate about American actors that differs from Eastern European actors?

MM: I don’t think there are real differences between them. In every part of the world, theatre artists are part of a special family that lives in something I think of as Theatre Country. However, if I had to point out a mere detail, it is the fact that American actors are trained mostly in the realms of realism and musicals, while Eastern European actors do not receive special training in musical theatre. That said, Romanian actors are very well trained in non-verbal and physically expressive theatre.

DGB: What do you bring to the creative process that Western directors might not think of?

MM: Like many of my fellow directors from Europe (be it Eastern or Western) my work is based on experimentation and taking artistic risks. Almost everything I do is experimental in nature, in the sense that I’m always questioning the aesthetic and theatrical style I’m adopting during rehearsals. And I’m changing forms all the time.

DGB: Corollary to questions above: from your vantage point, is there really a Western/Eastern artistic divide?

MM: No, not really. I think they are complementary and can enrich each other whenever they come into contact.

DGB: You have said that the characters onstage “control” the music with their movements, causing it to stop and start on their command; what does this say about the relationship between the actors and the musicians?

MM: The musicians are members of the Chorus, acting and playing as one single body, one single character.

DGB: The Chorus in your production takes the shape of homeless warriors committed to avenging Agamemnon’s death on Electra’s behalf. Some would argue that in classic works the Greek Chorus acts as a separate “character” in the drama, whereas others feel it is part of the consciousness of the main character(s); in your vision, how does the Chorus in ELECTRA function? Corollary to that, after vowing their allegiance and subsequently learning (falsely) of Orestes’ death, the Chorus (spoiler alert!) abandons Electra. Is this change of mind bred of her own failed confidence, or are they – as external and independent entities – acting disloyally?

MM: The Chorus is in fact a dramatic amplification of the character Electra, a multifaceted character, acting as a single body. If we are to look for a psychological explanation, they are those people who remained loyal to their assassinated king and to his daughter and son. They live as outcasts just as Electra does, they fear those in power (Clytemnestra and Aegisthus), but they are ready to kill them if they get the chance. In a way they are Electra’s shadows, Electra’s resonators, and they are living as she does with the obsession of revenge.

They don’t act disloyally, but it is a difficult moment when they give up hope because of the (false) news of Orestes’ death. It is a moment of deep despair which plays a dramatic role: it creates the impression of a dead end in the events. And this issue gives a dramatic impulse to the action, and restarts it with more energy after Electra and Orestes meet.

DGB: What was behind your decision to represent the Chorus as homeless (and, arguably, drunken)?

MM: The despair of an expectation that seemed endless. As I mentioned, they were banished from the city because they had been loyal to Electra. They were forced to live in the precarious conditions of homeless people.

DGB: The “hobby horse” is clearly central to the action of the play. What does this object represent to Electra (and to you)?

MM: The hobby horse is the only touchable/palpable recollection that Electra and the Chorus still have of Orestes. The hobby horse symbolizes the hope that Orestes will be back one day to revenge his father’s death. The hobby horse is also an image of time, of the remote happy days of Orestes’ childhood that have vanished forever.

DGB: Another iconic image in this production is the shopping cart (similarly, motorcycles were critical in AFTER TROY, and bicycles in THE BACCHAE TRILOGY, your previous productions here at UCI) – is there any relationship between the appearance of these objects in these three productions?

MM: The only relationship between them relies upon the fact that I like objects that may have, from a theatrical point of view, a multipurpose function. I enjoy using objects that are surprising and intriguing at the same time. In this particular case, the shopping cart is an object which can be associated with homelessness, and it has multiple functions in our production.

DGB: What surprises, if any, have you encountered so far in bringing this play to life?

MM: I was happy, but not surprised really, that the actors and, indeed, the entire artistic and technical team, seemed to truly enjoy bringing this play to life.

THE ELECTRA PROJECT will be presented in the Claire Trevor Theatre. Performance dates and times are March 7, 12, 13, 14 at 8:00 pm. March 11 at 7:30 pm. Matinees are March 8, 14, 15 at 2:00 pm. Tickets range from $11 - $15 and are available through the Box office at (949) 824-2787 or online at www.arts.uci/tickets. Ticketholders are invited to a post-performance TalkBack with the creative team and cast on March 8.

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