Kirsten Brandt on An Iliad: ‘We have to keep telling the story until the war stops’
By Reema Gowalla
Bengaluru’s Jagriti Theatre is getting ready for a special play — An Iliad. Directed by noted US-based theatremaker and educator Kirsten Brandt, the 90-minute play is a modern retelling of Homer’s ancient tale of the Trojan War. Acclaimed artiste Patty Gallagher essays the role of the poet, accompanied by musician Jake Sorgen, as the muse. This piece is written by famed playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare.
Touted to be a gripping adaptation of the Greek classic, An Iliad’s Bengaluru run is scheduled to take place from November 3 until November 12. Ahead of the shows, TheatreRoom caught up with Kirsten, who is currently serving as the Executive Artistic Director with the Nevada Conservatory Theatre. In the exclusive interview, the director spoke about why she thinks An Iliad is a relevant piece of art in today’s world, her preoccupation with projects centred on women and gender equity, her eagerness to try the food in Bengaluru and more. Excerpts:
Q. We all know about Homer’s Iliad. What inspired you to direct this piece as a play?
A. The play was created a few years back by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. It’s had many productions. Denis actually acted in the first production that Lisa had directed. Over the years, many different actor-director teams have taken on this show, and it just seems to have this life, mainly because it’s always topical.
I first read the Iliad well before the Covid-19 pandemic happened, and had asked Julie James at a theatre in Santa Cruz, California, if she was interested in it. Eventually, I was relentless about it, actually, because I felt so passionately about the way Lisa and Denis had crafted An Iliad. I read Robert Fagles’ translation of the Iliad. It’s a huge book, but they condensed this down to a little over 90-minute production. It was so immediate and present-day, even though it was an ancient Greek epic poem, that it just needed to be done.
And the only person who ever came to mind for me to play the poet was Patty Gallagher. The second I read it, I went, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this with Patty. Every time I talk to somebody about, Hey, do you want to do this show? Would you like to do this show? I would like Patty to do the show’.
Q. Tell us more about why you thought Patty Gallagher is best suited for this piece. Also, how was it collaborating with Jake Sorgen?
A. I’ve worked with her numerous times. I’ve actually written several characters for her, as I’m also a playwright. She is one of the most breathtakingly brilliant and fearless performers I’ve ever worked with. It felt right to go on this journey with her. When the Jewel Theatre Company [in Santa Cruz, California] said yes, we crafted the production and got into the nitty gritty of it, we realised that Lisa and Denis give you an option in the play. They say that the muse, which is the musician, can either be a live musician or be recorded sound.
I just felt, why would we have recorded sound when we have this solo show, and music moves us on a different level than text does? So, we brought in Jake to create that music. This is the first time I’ve worked with Jake, but Patty had collaborated with Jake many times earlier. The two of them had a nice shorthand that I then got involved in. He’s an improv musician. So, we improvised a lot of the music until we settled on what it was, really working together with how Patty and I were crafting the text, and then we were crafting the music on top of that. It’s just a really beautiful collaboration.
Q. Why did you think it’s important that a woman play the role of the poet here?
A. I think thematically, the idea of war, rage and that of glory and honour are so prevalent in Fagles’ translation of the Iliad were really profound for us. Particularly, there’s something interesting in a woman playing this role of a poet; talking about death and the horrors of war. During the show, the poet is, of course, telling the story of the Iliad. The poet takes on playing the role of Achilles, Agamemnon, Patroclus and all the heroes. But the poet also takes on the role of Hecuba (Hector’s mother) and Andromache (Hector’s wife) and Helen of Troy.
There’s a moment when Hecuba realises that her son is dead, and having the poet be a woman and play that role — in the loss for mothers, wives and daughters, it’s just devastating. There’s something really interesting that I think in the show to have a woman play that role. I have to really compliment Lisa and Denis on that. A lot of times when you write a play, you say, ‘Oh, this should be played by this type of person’. But they’re like, any age, any gender, any race — go for it. They’re very open to any voice taking on this role, because the voice of this character, this poet, this song, as they say in the show, is sung by everybody. At some point, we all are singing a song against the atrocities of war and the horrors that we have to live with in those types of situations.
Q. Given the times that we are living in — be it the Russia-Ukraine war or the Gaza-Israel conflict — as an artist/playwright/theatremaker, what are the thoughts that are crossing your mind?
A. We did a run-through of the show recently, and were absolutely wrecked just because of what’s happening around the world, and the continuing violence and loss. In the play, the poet doesn’t want to sing the song; doesn’t want to tell the story. But the point of the show is we have to keep telling the story until it stops, until the war stops. The poet has a beautiful line in it, where she’s like, ‘Every time I sing it, I hope it’s the last time I have to sing, because I only have to sing it if war is happening. Unfortunately, another war is happening, so now I have to tell the story because it won’t stop’.
I think as an artist, we’re just wanting to have that conversation about or get the audience thinking about — the humanity we all share in our grief; what can we do?; how can we find grace?; how can we find a way to end this?; can we stop singing the song for once and for all? It is about having that conversation. I think what the play really does is that it just gets the audience thinking. For me, that’s the political act of theatre; it’s not just about getting the audience entertained.
That said, the show is very funny. Every time I talk about this play, I always stress that there’s a lot of humour in it. Homer is very funny and Patty’s hilarious. There’s a lot of humour within the story. But I think the act of conversation, the act of spurring someone to action is what our job is as artists; to get the conversation going. Of course, we’re not on our soapbox saying, ‘This is how we’re going to stop all war across the world’. But it is like, what little steps can we do; how can we look at something that happened thousands of years ago, and recognise that they’re the through line of it all.
Q. What are the things that you are looking forward to during your visit to Bengaluru?
A. I am coming to Bengaluru for the first time, and I am absolutely excited about it. Patty has, of course, been there many times. I have a lot of colleagues who have either worked there or are from here who are saying that I am going to have the best time. It is the most beautiful city. Partly, I’m really excited to meet the audiences and meet the other artists that are in the community. But I am also looking forward to trying the food, to be honest. I’m a huge fan of Indian cuisine, and am very excited to get to know a part of the world that I haven’t been to yet.
If there is a positive outcome of Covid-19, it is that it allowed the building of a more global community. I really want to come there and see what the culture is like. I just want to take it all in and learn about the community there and learn about how this play resonates. To be able to have the opportunity to actually go and be present for several weeks in another part of the world is really important, I think, for everyone to do.
I live in Las Vegas and I’m sure this place has a very interesting persona in the world. It has a reputation. But it’s so funny, I tell people that the Las Vegas Strip is not what this city is about. I’m really interested in breaking down what novelist Chimamanda Adichie meant when she spoke about ‘the danger of a single story’. I want to make sure that we don’t fall prey to that.
Q. Any future projects that you would like to mention..
A. Well, I just finished a staged reading of a play that I wrote, called Grendel’s Mother. It’s based on Beowulf. I do like finding source material and old classic texts. Currently, I am doing a lot of writing projects, and working on a new musical with a partner that I can’t really quite talk about much yet.
Meanwhile, there’s another play in the offing. Called Forty Elephants, the piece is about a notorious gang of women shoplifters and petty thieves in Victorian England. I’m really interested in the socioeconomics of women, and what women have had to do over the course of time to make a living when society didn’t allow them to either have a job or have property or anything like that. I’m very interested in those causes. There is also a series on climate plays that I’m working on, which hopefully will be done this year. These are short plays, some of which are created using the UN ideas of the climate objectives as a springboard. I’ve been writing one short play a week. I’ll see what I have at the end and then put something together as a yearlong meditation on climate. As we all know, we’re in this horrible heat at the moment. I live in the desert now and it’s even hot here.
Recently, I started this new job in Las Vegas, as the Executive Artistic Director with the Nevada Conservatory Theatre and I’m also Chair of the Theatre Department at the University of Nevada. The conservatory is part of the university, and I’ve been doing a lot of producing in that respect. We’ve got a world premiere of a British pantomime version of Cinderella coming up. Then, we are doing María Irene Fornés’ Mud and Pride and Prejudice.
The writing projects take a while, and having a writing partner on the musical is great. But a lot of my work is very centred on women and gender equity. Politically, I tend to err on the side of human rights. That said, I think climate justice is a social justice issue, and I’m really exploring that in what I’m doing right now too.
Catch the shows of An Iliad on November 3 (7.30pm), November 4–5 (3.30pm and 7.30pm), November 7–10 (7.30pm) and November 11–12 (3.30pm and 7.30pm). You can book your tickets here.