Third Year Director Miriam Grill Breathes New Life Into a Greek Tragedy About Betrayal and Murder
BY Paola Alexandra Soto , January 16, 2019
The next thesis production, Medea directed by Miriam Grill, premieres January 23rd at The Flexible Performance Space at Lenfest Center for the Arts.
Medea is a story about endings. It begins at the end of Medea and Jason’s happy marriage. Medea starts the play by threatening to end her life. She is humiliated. Jason has betrayed her, leaving her abandoned and exiled in a foreign country. But if she can pull off her bloody plan before the sun rises, she’ll not only claim her vengeance but also her divine birthright. When it becomes a choice between silence and complicity, Medea makes a third option: she’ll tear the House of Corinth to the ground. Medea is the story of a woman who wins at all costs, but do we call that victory or tyranny?
Told in present-day with an international cast representing over nine countries, this highly physicalized staging of Euripides' Medea explores gender roles, citizenship, and justice in a divided world.
We talked with third-year directing student, Miriam Grill about the upcoming production.
What is your philosophy for directing?
“Make the light lighter and the dark darker” — Anne Bogart. This means making the differences in events and characters as dramatic and as seen as possible. Fiona Shaw, the great British actress who once played Medea, said that actors always like to be comfortable. But acting is not about being at ease with things, it’s about being at dis-ease. When her students in London deliver classical monologues in a nice firm stance, she gently kicks the back of their knees so they buckle and are thrown off. Actors naturally strive for balance, but when the obstacles are not present or unknown, the striving can become indulgent. I think directing is giving the actor the right “kick of discomfort” to fight against. Human beings are more important than the product we make. In my directing philosophy, that comes first.
Why did you choose this particular play as your thesis?
I’ve always been attracted to powerful women: literary and historical females full of self-determination who overcome great challenges. I grew up in a Mormon community in Arizona with more conservative female role models, but I felt myself drawn to more transgressive characters when I left the church and lived abroad in Asia. Stories of women stepping outside of social boundaries were so compelling to me. As a young adult, I loved the story of Medea. It was so easy to connect to her as a woman who has lived in different countries, her struggle to overcome her social circumstances and her triumphant ending. I saw her as a revered feminist icon. However, in doing this show, I realized another story at play. Although Medea is the ultimate story of female power, it is also a story of ultimate power. How attractive it is to love a tyrant especially when it seems they are the underdog, when we root for their victory and how easy it is to pay the price of humanity when the end justifies the means.
What do you find most enjoyable about directing Medea?
Working with classical text is a joy because the stakes are so high. Lives, kingdoms and the future of humanity is on the line. I also love working with a cast of international actors. Talking about how different cultures and languages interpret Medea’s story is fascinating and using theatre as a way to bring people from diverse communities together is extremely fulfilling for me.
How have you prepared?
I read everything. Essays, books, scholarly journals. I researched previous productions and I talked to people who directed it before or acted in it. I talked to my dramaturg, Annie Wang, and she and I had a bunch of meetings before the rehearsals even began.
How much time did you have to prepare for production?
We had a five-week rehearsal period including tech, but because my thesis coincided with the university’s winter break we had two weeks off for holidays. I actually really liked this. We did a bare bones staging in two weeks and had a run before holidays. That way, myself and the cast were able to really take the time to reflect on what we did and solve problems during the break. When we came back, we were ready to go.
How do you feel your training has prepared you to direct this production?
Columbia directors have the chance to direct so many shows in the first couple years. We are able to form artistic partnerships with actors in the city and learn through experience who we work best with. Talent is not the only factor in casting a production—teamwork and being game to commit to new ideas is one of my top priorities. I’ve worked with both my Medea and Jason before, as well as a couple of people in the chorus. I really enjoy the combination of working with actors I already know and new faces on the scene, it’s a great chemistry! The actors I’ve worked with bring in a shared vocabulary and established trust and the new actors are able to question the process and bring in new ideas. Although there’s a lot of my training that has prepared me for this production, casting well is something I’m most proud of.
As the director, what is your greatest challenge?
Communication in general is the key to running a successful production, but it can also be the most challenging. Making sure the cast, the creatives, and the production team are on the same page is no small feat. It’s always a challenge to find the right vocabulary to communicate your vision to each individual, as well as giving your collaborators enough time to successfully support it. Also, every production will have its unique advantages and limitations. How can you make sure those limitations don’t work against you while utilizing the resources that you have? Recognizing this and incorporating it into your vision is essential.
What is one thing that you would tell your first year self?
Your worth is not dependent on the quality of work you create. In grad school, it's easy to get lost in the big picture and as artists, it can take feel like our work is ourselves. It takes a toll on you as a human being. I think keeping in mind what’s really important—family, friends, food, love—that’s what’s really going to get you through life.
What will you remember most about your time here at Columbia?
My classes with Anne Bogart and Brian Kulick and my cohort of directors. Going through such a rigorous program with five other incredible human beings is one of the greatest strengths of this program. Their support and insight in every step of my process is beyond measure. I’ll never forget finishing our first year’s final performances and singing and dancing our hearts out to Celine Dion. I wasn’t alone. We did it together.