Behind the Scenes, Getty Villa, J. Paul Getty Museum

Thespian Experimentation at the Villa, with Singing Frogs

The Troubadors posing in front of the Getty Villa with their fellow frog actors.

The Troubadors posing in front of the Getty Villa with their fellow frog actors.

A 2,400-year-old comedy. One week to work on it. Oh yeah—and it’s a musical.

The Getty Villa is a hotbed of new ideas about very old theater. In the new Villa Play-Reading Series, translations and adaptations of classical plays are workshopped by theater companies in one week and then read to an audience in a weekend of free performances at the Villa. There are no costumes, very few props, and most of the actors have to play at least two characters. In the recent rendition of Aristophanes’ The Frogs, Herakles was played by a woman.

The results are unpredictable, but this is part of the point—to try out a play on a live audience and troubleshoot problems. With luck, these plays will get refined at the Villa and move on to full productions elsewhere.

Norman Frisch, manager of the Villa Theater Program, says the world of classical theater is a tough one because good translations are hard to come by. Many translations are British, so they don’t work well in North American accents and fall flat with audiences here. For The Frogs he sought out a comedy troupe from Burbank, the Troubadors—aka “The Troubies”—to read a version of the play rewritten as a Bush-era critique on war and culture by New York playwright David Greenspan. The Troubies have experience transforming ancient comedy for contemporary audiences. Their version of Oedipus set to Elvis’ music, Oedipus The King, Mama!, was a comedic hit last year at the Villa and was just performed again this past Saturday, April 10, in Long Beach.

The Troubies’ reading of The Frogs in March was a fresh mash-up of the contemporary and the ancient. The story follows Dionysos, the god of theater, as he travels to the underworld with his sidekick Xanthius—a sort of travelogue of the sights and characters of Hell. A live organ accompanied the performance, the frogs were a chorus of hand puppets, stage directions were read aloud, and a Powerpoint slideshow illustrated the reading with ancient imagery of the gods and heroes, as well as maps of the ancient world and 20th-century images evoked by Greenspan’s script.

In this version of the play, there’s a Starbucks in Hell, Euripides was killed in Iraq, Xanthuis fought in the Gulf War, Dionysos is a cream puff, and Charon (escort of the dead in Hell) has the accent and demeanor of a New York City transit worker. The story managed to cram in references to Peter Pan, the Wizard of Oz, Law & Order, and The Muppet Show, among others. And the grand finale? A debate between ALL of the greatest playwrights of the modern and ancient ages, done American Idol-style and called “American Agon.” (An agon was an ancient contest, and also a verbal spat between an antagonist and a protagonist.)

The result was fun, witty, and cacophanous. You may be wondering, “Why did Dionysos go to the underworld in the first place?” Hmmmm. When asked in the play, Dionysos replies: “I’m in the arts. It’s a business trip.” In this story, the journey was definitely all of the fun.

Up next: The Villa Theater Lab series also explores reinterpretations of classical theater. Check out Piedra de Sol (Sunstone), inspired by Octavio Paz, coming up May 14–16.

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.

      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”


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