News & Features
A Novel Approach to Ancient Greek Drama
Aristophanes’s ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata is built on two timeless themes: war and sex. But when visiting director Ianthe Demos ’00 was asked to assemble a cast of Vassar students to perform the 2,400-year-old play, she knew she faced a challenge bringing it to life for a 21st century audience.
So, the first thing Demos did was go out and find a wrestling coach.
“I began by having the actors wrestle each other, with the help of a choreographer, to start to put the fight scenes together,” she says. “The play is a mixture of farce and drama, so I decided to use wrestling to bridge the gap between the two.”
Finding unorthodox ways to help actors interpret their roles is nothing new for Demos. As a Vassar drama student, she consistently astonished her professors with her cutting-edge approaches to producing and directing, and she has continued to inspire rave reviews since going on to juggle multiple roles in the entertainment industry.
Demos is artistic director of the New York City-based ensemble company One Year Lease and books theater and dance troupes throughout the world as vice president of a management firm, Columbia Artists. Every summer, she returns to her native Greece to run a theater workshop for young actors, including many from Vassar.
Adding a yearlong directing residency at Vassar to her already hectic schedule hasn’t seemed to faze her.
“[One Year Lease] just finished a show in Manhattan, and I didn’t get to see the opening or the closing because I was up here,” she says. “It was nice to learn things could run down there without me.”
Demos arrived on campus in September to begin casting Lysistrata and she’s been here full-time since early October, running rehearsals and mentoring drama majors.
She says she is thoroughly enjoying her work with student actors.
“It’s different from working with professionals because the students have so many other things going on in their lives,” Demos says. “But I think I’m finding that balance between teaching and directing.”
The play, written during the 27-year-long Peloponnesian War, chronicles the efforts of the title character to convince the women of Greece to withhold sexual favors from their husbands and lovers until they make peace. Demos says the cast didn’t fully grasp its meaning until she rehearsed the final scene, when a beautiful naked woman appears on stage.
“The woman is subjected to crude, vulgar remarks by a group of men, and that was hard for some of the students to get past,” she says. “We talked about the scene and about how elements of war and sex can be the same, and then it clicked.”
“Suddenly, they understood,” she notes. “And that’s the theater’s job: to make us a little uncomfortable, and to teach us something.”
Sophomore Meropi Papastergiou, who attended Demos’ month-long workshop in Greece last summer, says she signed up to audition for a part in Lysistrata as soon as she learned Demos would be directing it.
“Ianthe taught me not to overthink things, to just let things happen naturally, and that has helped me more than anything I’ve ever learned in acting,” Papastergiou says before a recent rehearsal. “She is showing us all how to create our own way as actors, and spending this time with her has confirmed what I want to do and how to approach the profession.”
Senior Ben Morrow says he took a year off from college to act professionally and learned of Demos’ reputation as a director from others in the New York City theater business. When he heard she was coming to Vassar, he decided immediately to audition for a part in Lysistrata.
Morrow says he agreed with Papastergiou that Demos’ style of directing resonates with young actors.
“She makes the experience a collaborative process,” Morrow says. “She assures us that uncertainty is okay and has trust in us all that it will come together.”
Drama professors Gabrielle Cody and Christopher Grabowski got to know Demos when she was a student and have continued to work with her at her summer workshop in Greece. Both say they are thrilled she has agreed to spend the year on campus.
“Ianthe was very shy when she came to Vassar but unbelievably thoughtful,” Cody says. “She was one of those people who doesn’t speak often, but when they do, they blow your socks off.”
She says she wasn’t surprised to learn her former student was using some unusual techniques in directing Lysistrata.
“She’s always been very courageous in dealing with actors, putting them through physical hoops before she even discusses the text,” Cody says. “She’s developed her own rehearsal strategies over the years, and they’re not always what we’re teaching here. She had a kind of ‘beyond her years’ wisdom when she was a student, and I’m still seeing that.”
Grabowski says he was certain Demos’ interaction with the students this year would have a “ripple effect” in many of their lives.
“Most students come here as actors and they’re not as committed to learning other phases of the craft,” he says. “They’ll be able to learn from someone who runs a whole theater company. That can inspire them to seek other paths.”
Demos says she is enjoying her role here as solely the director of the play.
“It’s nice to be back—it’s given me a fresh perspective,” she says. “Unlike my job in New York, I can concentrate here on working with actors and nothing else. I’m unencumbered by worries about the box office, and that’s kind of liberating.”
The play will be presented Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, December 6-8 at 8 p.m. in the Martel Theater at the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film.
Photos © Vassar College-Buck Lewis
Posted Wednesday, December 5, 2012