Posted on April 11, 2013 by Haymaker

I spent the first ten years of my professional life working on what they call “classic theater.” Plays by your standard Dead White Males: Ancient Greeks and Romans, Shakespeare and friends, Moliere, Ibsen, Wilde and Shaw, et al. And what those plays have in common is that they are incredibly language-dense. Nothing happens onstage in Greek plays – just debates about issues and poetic descriptions of things that happened offstage. Shakespeare’s plays had no scenery – the language is the scenery. Wit and banter stand in for spectacle and decoration.

So when we started work on Elektra, a Greek play with even less happening than most Greek plays, that should have been in my wheelhouse. Hell, language-based plays were my specialty.

But good lord was I bored. We read other adaptations, all by great writers, and the paint could not dry fast enough for me. When we made our own first draft, all about getting close to violence, we included a verbal face-off between Elektra and her mother as one of the scenes. It was …fine. But next to the feeling of an ax chopping wood a foot away, or of a woman being strangled in our laps, or of a wailing violin, that arguing scene felt like some weak tea. It was petty and small, and not even great acting could make it immediate. It was all head and no guts, an intellectual debate. No amount of one-note screaming could conjure up a family’s history of hurt. If Aeschylus couldn’t make that scene compelling, I sure couldn’t. It all felt fake.

The mission in this second draft has been to chase what feels real. Not realistic, mind you – real. When I remembered the fights I had with my parents, there wasn’t much screaming involved. What happened was that an innocent comment or two from them filled me with a huge amount of emotion – rage or sadness. I was getting emotional at things they didn’t say.

I started reading about parent-child relationships, and I found a name for that unspoken emotion: “metamessage.” Underneath the literal meaning sits judgment or disappointment or anger, and whether the speaker means it or not, that’s what the listener hears. It’s like a secret message piggy-backed on ordinary speech.

Finding out about metamessages is making it easier for me to fight against those ten intellectual years. It’s hard work for me to make a play where what characters feel is more important than what they say. The messenger’s speech from The Persians and the Ghost’s speech from Hamlet and Aeneas’ speech from Dido Queen of Carthage – great feasts of descriptive language –  those were the reasons I loved theater in the first place. The teenaged version of me loved plays because their language was beautiful, and now I have to throw that overboard. It’s falling in love when you’re eighteen compared with falling in love when you’re thirty. It’s a different universe.

In this draft, I want scenes made up of a few words and silences to feel like they have axes and murders and violins in them. The unspoken parts will bypass the brain entirely. Ordinary nothing will sting. Without thinking about it, you’ll recognize your parents or children. I want an audience to feel this way, and I want myself to feel this way. I need to show myself that I can make a play where beautiful words aren’t the point.


Public presentations of the second draft of Haymaker’s Elektra Project are April 22 and 23rd at 8pm in UNC’s Swain Hall. Haymaker is an artist in residence of the Process Series at UNC. For more details or to RSVP for the draft performance, click here.