by Matthew A. Everett • Normally, I’m trying to figure out how to present a story with as few characters as possible. Or rather, as few actors as possible. There’s a reason one and two-person shows are so popular with producing theaters around the country – they’re cheaper to do. Because you have less people to pay. I also imagine it’s less of a headache. Fewer people means fewer schedules to coordinate to try and pull together rehearsals. If I want a play produced, getting the number of people down is a way to make it easier for theaters to do so.
But necessity really is, in this case, the mother of invention. Having to constantly keep the number of actors foremost in mind has made me a better writer. I don’t add random characters at will, just to say a couple of lines here or there. Giving each character a lot of thought before bringing them into being hopefully insures that they have a singular purpose as part of the story. With luck, it means the actor will have a role worthy of their time and talent to invest in the piece. The last thing I ever want to do is cause an actor to feel like I’m wasting their time. They should always have something important and/or fun to do.
With this Medea project, however, I was faced with the opposite problem. I kept asking how many actors do I have, thinking the number would be low. Instead, they kept bumping it up. Most of the other college productions I’d worked on in the past, a half dozen actors at most would be available. With a sprawling legend like this one, it was clear, no matter how many bodies were on hand, they’d all be playing multiple roles. Honestly, you get the right actor and you can do pretty much any story with one. Get the right pair of actors and two is no problem either. Challenging, but still doable. I kept getting the response, “As many as you need” which is sort of like telling someone they have to write a paper for English class and they can write about anything they want. With all the subjects in the world laid out before you, the mind goes blank and you can’t think of a thing to write about. There’s such a thing as too much freedom of choice.
So you turn the question around and ask the college, “How many do *you* want to use?” Something clicked over in my head – remembering that sometimes, with a shorter season with fewer productions, sometimes the object is to get as many people on stage as humanly possible. And when you’re doing the Greeks, just like doing Shakespeare or Chekhov or Shaw, there’s normally a large ensemble required. After all, in college, everyone’s doing it for the experience, and you don’t have to pay them. This time, maybe I’m thinking too small. So, how many actors? What’s the magic number?
“I’d prefer nine. I really don’t want to go higher than 12.”
Wow. I *was* thinking small.
“Let’s say I write it for nine, and if you feel compelled at auditions to expand the ensemble to 12, we can adjust.”
So those were my marching orders. Still plenty of story, still plenty of characters, still a lot of ground to cover. But, nine people, that’s a luxury. It also means keeping about twice as many people in mind as I normally do, when thinking about making sure that everyone gets a balanced menu of things to do.
Greek chorus style, all nine actors enter at the start, all from different places, and converge together. There’s probably some kind of ritual, live music created by the actors – vocals, percussion, low tech but something to let the audience know what kind of world they’re entering. One male actor and one female actor stand apart. We may not know it yet, but they’ll be tackling Jason and Medea.
The male actor asks, “So, did she kill her kids or didn’t she?”
The female actor responds, “See, that’s not the point. It’s basically a love story.”
“Gimme a break.”
“No, really. You think anyone starts out like that?”
A third actor (who I realize later will become an Oracle), takes the lead on the first of the stories…
“It starts with the Golden Fleece.”
A fourth actor (who I realize later will become, appropriately enough, Cupid) chimes in…
“Because without the Golden Fleece, they never would have met.”
Actor 5 introduces, “Jason.”
Actor 6 clarifies, “Of ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ fame.”
Actor 7, “And Medea.”
Actor 8, “Of ‘mother killing her own children’ fame.”
“Hey!” says the actor who will later be Medea.
Actor 8 – “That’s the first thing people think of when they hear her name, that’s all I’m saying.”
Actor 9, getting everybody back on task, “It starts with The Golden Fleece.”
and we’re off.
A page and a half, everybody has spoken aloud, everybody has taken the reins of the story. Some are starting to inform their lines with the personalities they’ll be creating later.
But there is no one narrator. There is no ponderous speaking in unison. The thing is going to live and breathe and fight and change hands over the course of the evening. There will be differences of opinion, there will be different points of view, there will be different versions of the same key moments. A story passed down through so many people over so many centuries is bound to have some rough edges and loose ends.
So far, about 14 pages into the thing where I sit, the role of lead narrator (the task of driving a particular chunk of the story forward) has changed hands three times. Particular actors have assumed the roles of Jason’s primary royal nemeses, King Pelias, and King Aeetes (Medea’s father). An Oracle, and Cupid have also made appearances in other hands. And a couple of actors will get to play Hera, queen of the gods, and Aprhodite, goddess of love and beauty (and mother to Cupid), one of Zeus’ many bastard children by women other than his wife, Hera. And that’s keeping it simple.
There’s a page with a list, Actors 1 through 9, and as I go through the script on one side of my computer screen, I add to the different actors’ tallies of characters as the script moves forward. Keeping it balanced, so no one feels left out, and no one feels exhausted, and the story keeps barreling forward, ever forward. I get the feeling no matter how this shakes out, everyone is going to end up getting a workout by the time the final curtain falls.