Five years ago, celebrated theatre director JoAnne Akalaitis called her friends and announced: “I’m giving up theatre.” It “doesn’t seem to be feeding me or the society.” A day later, the executive director of Poet’s House invited Akalaitis to do a piece in their space, and when she looked at the courtyard, she said: “Yes, I want to do a piece called BAD NEWS! i was there…, which is about messenger speeches from Greek plays. I had never thought about it before. The idea for this piece came from the gods.”
To create BAD NEWS, Akalaitis “sat down with several classicists from Princeton and then collaged texts together from various Greek tragedies. Then I gathered several actors for a single day of rehearsal, and we did it outside in the courtyard at Poet’s House as part of the River to River Festival.” Akalaitis was most excited by the fact that it was public, that it was extraordinarily moving material, and that it could be rehearsed in a single day. She continued to develop it at New York Theatre Workshop; at some point she decided the piece needed music, so she and composer Bruce Odland embarked on a ten-day workshop at Bard College to put the basic form together. BAD NEWS! i was there… had its official premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where it moved through the lobbies and “woke up the lonely, haunted, public spaces of a large institution.”
BAD NEWS! i was there… is sung and spoken, primarily in English, with Greek, Latin, French, and German. The sources are Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Racine, Racine, Caryl Churchill, and Ellen McLaughlin. It focuses on Medea, Thyestes, Orestes, Phedre, Hecuba, Oedipus, Antigone, and The Persians. It’s a journey, or processional piece: audiences will travel from site to site throughout NYU Skirball – “a space whose architecture tells them to sit down and face the proscenium stage will be violated and assaulted in friendly, artistic, creative ways” – so they have to rethink their relationship to the space and to each other.
Akalaitis is currently most interested in “theatre where there are no cues, and no scenery (other than the site). No lighting except for homemade or handheld lights. I’m interested in homemade theatre these days. I’m interested in theatre that can be assembled in a day or a week. I love the idea of no tech. When actors know it’s on them to get it right and work together, both in terms of acapella singing and in terms of communicating with each other without cues, it’s an opportunity to have this shared rehearsal process which is connected, for me, to the notion of doing theatre in a democracy. That’s what Greek theatre was: the polis coming together to examine what is unthinkable.”
As the audience is guided through the piece, they are invited to leave notes in boxes that are placed throughout the theatre. BAD NEWS! i was there… ends with a public sharing: people pick up pieces of paper that have been left by fellow audience members, and they read the bad news out loud. “The bad news people write about is not surprising. But this section of the play is very moving, and it creates community.”
Erin B Mee is Artistic Director of This Is Not A Theatre Company, Assistant Arts Professor of Drama at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and assisted JoAnne Akalaitis on “The Screens” at the Guthrie Theater.