Through Many Platforms, Yara Travieso Interprets Medea as Infinite

Medea is the Greek mythological character who kills her own children. Hers is a story line that has so resonated with us that nearly every generation has had its own adaptation or interpretation of her. In her adaptation of the myth, Yara Travieso, does not provide the audience with one version, but a multiplicity of interpretations simultaneously. Her Creative Capital project, La Medea, premieres as part of Performance Space 122’s 2017 COIL Festival. True to the concept of multiplicity, there are a number of ways to experience the work: either live at BRIC on January 20-22, where the audience will watch and also take part in the making of the film; livestreamed online; or, eventually as a film produced by Dance Films Association.

Amid preparing for the performance, Travieso joined us at our offices to talk more about the project.

Alex Teplitzky: Ok, start with a run down of the project. What is La Medea?

Yara Travieso: La Medea is essentially a made-for-camera, Latin-disco, pop musical that is simultaneously a show, and a livestream feature film. It’s based on Euripides’ Greek tragedy of Medea. I’ve readapted, rewritten the work to fit inside a musical composed by Sam Crawford and to exist as a live-television special tell-all, all surrounding this one myth-character Medea. It’s a portrait of her more than anything else, and it takes on many forms: it’s a musical, it’s a dance-theater work, it’s a feature film, it’s a live-television special, it’s a concert. It takes on many lives.

There are two ways to experience it. One way is as a live studio audience where you enter the space, at BRIC, and you see multiple stages around you, you see camera operators, you see a live band, and you essentially take part in the creation of a feature film. The idea behind that is that the audience members are also then doubled as my film extras and, in essence, the Greek chorus. They participate in the world as a group by coloring a scene—maybe slow-dancing together, maybe applauding really loud for a moment, maybe learning choreography as a group (easy choreography). They help push the story forward, they help push the world forward, they help contextualize narrative aspects of the story. They’re really taking the role of what traditionally the Greek chorus took on in the original play, which was to be there to support the narrative, there to push ways to look at the narrative, contextualize it, give voice and opinion to certain scenes, and allow the story to move forward at the right pace.

The second way to experience the work is as a feature film. It’s a live feature film, so it has an extra component—unlike the Oscars or the Super Bowl, that are also live—this way of experiencing the work is interactive as well. So as the live studio audience can dance or applaud and help create a scene, the home viewer or the movie theater viewer can interact with the world by adding their comments and questions through a live chat that will exist on the web platform on which the film will be screened. They can take on the exact same role that the live audience can take on, but remotely from their home screens, devices or movie theater. Those are the two ways of experiencing the world: equally important, but very different experiences.

Alex: The one thing that I want to know more about is your connection to Medea. I’ve seen Medea portrayed in many different ways: by Lars von Trier, and most recently, I was watching Never on Sunday where the main character retells the story of Medea with a positive outcome. So there’s Medea in many different story lines. What drew you to the character?

Yara: I love the way you ask the question because the concept revolves around how many versions of Medea exist out there…

It makes more sense when I tell the narrative of how I went into the work. At the time, I was interested in developing worlds and stories revolving around complicated female figures in myth or history. I was already working on a version of Dido and Aeneas where I was interested in using just Dido’s parts in the libretto as a portrait of Dido.
That led me to this Amazon book search engine, asking Amazon what I should read next… [laughs] This is kind of embarrassing. Amazon was like, “you should read this story of a mother that kills her kids because you’d like it!”

Actually, that all came from a period of creative time where I wasn’t really making work that I was excited about. I feel like I was making work that I was expected to make in my field, or that I thought I should be making in my field, whether it was to survive by getting the work funded or whatever expectations I thought I needed to fulfill. So I came to a halt and I decided if I was going to work this hard, then I needed to make work that came from a very personal place. It didn’t have to manifest as a personal work but it had to come from a very guttural place.

It was great. It was 2014. I made a decision to do that and a lot of work that came from that moment has been that and it felt special. This is one of those works that came from that feeling, which was: let me tell stories that dive into the complexities of me, as a woman, and find images, stories, people, characters that give me that feeling to ask more questions.

When I saw that Amazon felt like I would really be into this story, it was literally less than a second that I decided I would make it. I had read the play in high school. So, it was a long time ago but I hadn’t forgotten it. It was so fresh in my mind in some ways. When I saw it come up, almost the whole visual for the work flashed in my head. I’m very visual. (Sometimes I think I’m a visual artist that just connects visuals through movement.) I had most of the visual concept very quickly. I knew I wanted to use mirrors. I knew I wanted to make it a film. I knew I wanted to see the cameras… I knew I wanted to play with framing her through cinema or theater. I had a lot of visuals in my head: the colors red and orange.

Coincidentally, there was a grant due soon after I took on the story, and I thought, “I should definitely apply with this idea.” [laughs] I just felt it and it just came out so quickly. Writing about the work was so easy. I wrote, basically for myself, a proposal for what I wanted to make. I didn’t even proofread it, I just submitted it.

Alex: That was your Creative Capital grant proposal?

Yara: [laughs] NO! That grant took months to write!

Once I began to dig deeper into the character, herself, I thought, “Oh shit! Reading it as a  woman today is really different!” [laughs]. It was such an interesting feeling because I still had the same excitement that I had for her going into it, which was, “wow, this is going to be a really exciting figure to portray”—as choreography, on camera, as a narrative face, and in theaters. To attach all the weight of myth and history in a theatrical character. When I dug deeper, I still had that excitement, but I had all these other questions and anxieties around the work, which manifested in pressure and responsibility: I hadn’t really digested the fact that she was written so long ago by a man for Greek men, performed by Greek men.

Understanding that she is portrayed as this sort of barbaric, savage, foreign woman, mother who is older and who will do anything for this man… She murders her brother, she betrays her father all for this man Jason. Then she leaves her homeland of Colchis where she was a woman of power, she was a princess and her father was the king. She leaves her homeland to run away with this warrior, start from scratch and build a home in Corinth, where she’s a foreigner and considered a noncitizen a.k.a, a woman.
The Euripides play starts where Jason leaves Medea for the younger princess Glauce because his end game was always power. So now you have Medea alone in Corinth, a home that isn’t even hers and she’s being banished by King Creon. She can’t go anywhere because she’s known for all the horrible things she’s done back home. So she’s essentially a refugee. Within Corinth, she’s viewed as this barbaric, animal, savage, foreign woman. She’s also really knowledgeable so she’s viewed as this dangerous witch, as many knowledgeable women were throughout history. She’s also a woman who is portrayed as one that responds to her feelings really quickly, she’s a bit volatile. Some versions are “hysterical” and some versions aren’t…

There are a lot of aspects about the character that are a little bit difficult to digest as a woman living in the current socio-political climate. Within the play, Medea rejects those roles as well, but she still is those roles: she is a volatile, quick to respond, vengeful woman who reacts in extremes. Yet, she is also this magnificent voice for women. A radical revolutionary figure never before seen in fiction, giving voice to the great injustices enforced by Greek men and exploding herself out of the limiting roles forced onto her, into Goddess and myth! So there are a lot of sides to this character that made her even more complicated.

I want to fall in love with that part of the story because I do love the theater of that part of the story. So the question was, how do I have the traditional version coexist with so many other versions of it? Part of that was creating the multiplicity of Medea

And then you add the complication of years and years and pletheora of interpretation of Medea herself. Everyone wants to see her in a different light, everyone wants to resolve her story because it’s such a controversial and difficult story to digest… this woman who murders her own children to take revenge on her own husband. Everyone has a different take on it, either to appease her, appease the story, or resolve her in some way. That became the big drama. The big drama for me, as the creator, was having the responsibility of determining Medea: who is she? I decided at a certain point that I didn’t want that responsibility. I wanted to free her, to make her infinite.

Essentially, in my mind that it’s what Euripides hopefully was also after. You can think of Euripides as having good intentions. He was trying to create a cautionary tale for the time. So if this was performed by men for men, then you can assume that he was saying, “Watch out! Stop oppressing women, foreigners and the Other because you never know what could happen. They have power of their own, and they can use it against you.” His intentions were in the right place, but what ends up happening when he makes that claim, he confirms the fears of those in power which were, foreigners are dangerous, the Other is inherently dangerous, women are volatile and hysterical and witches. It’s problematic in that way. It’s also interesting in that way too because I have the freedom of reinterpreting her.

The “infiniteness” of her came from that. It came from really seeing her as this collage. She’s both a collage of the fears of those around her and an empowering disruption of Greek patriarchy… What were the greatest fears of the men at that time? It wasn’t to die, it was for their legacy to be cut off, and their legacy is through the blood of their boys… specifically their male heir. So, to kill her two sons, that was really the worst fear of the men at that time.

That’s what is interesting about her: she is a pastiche of so much. But now being able to interpret her, and being able to absorb all the different layers of this woman, not only inside the story but in history and playing with the lens in how we view her… How we view her through the frame of the camera, how we view her live in theater, how you romanticize her inside of the lens versus how we decide to demystify her in a sort of live, behind-the-scenes moment is part of adding to that infiniteness.

"La Medea," at BRIC. Photo by David Andrako. Set design by Brookhart Jonquil.

La Medea, at BRIC. Photo by David Andrako. Set design by Brookhart Jonquil.

Alex: That infiniteness you speak of really sums up what is so special about your interpretation of Medea. In this day and age, having one more interpretation of her is not enough. You have to have multiple ones at the same time. That makes the piece so complex, but hard to write about and hard to think about, or even to know how to approach it even as an audience member.

Yara: I felt like that was a lot of responsibility of reinterpreting her one way… I had to figure out a way—if I wasn’t going to change the story—to cope with the fact that the original story was always going to live. So, Medea, the myth, will never change. The truth is it was written to be interpreted in so many ways. At the time, there was more than one Medea that was written. Seneca wrote another famous one too, which I’m taking from as well. But Euripides wrote the one that has survived in most iterations…
When it was written, many other versions of Medea came out, with a lot of different interpretations. In some interpretations, she didn’t even murder her children, the townspeople of Corinth did. So, the only reason Euripides’ version has lasted so long is because of all its extremes and the fact that she murders her children. That’s the whole spectacle, that is what we come to Greek theater for. It is for the incest, or the murdering of your own children, it is beyond human nature, so far and extreme to one direction that it calls to us and we can’t look away. It’s a big car crash.

If it wasn’t for that car crash—her murdering her children—then we wouldn’t have Medea. We wouldn’t be obsessing over her today. So it was important for me to be aware of that and say, “I don’t want to change the story.” And I want to fall in love with that part of the story because I do love the theater of that part of the story. So the question was, how do I have the traditional version coexist with so many other versions of it? Part of that was creating the multiplicity of Medea, so something we’ve been playing with is seeing her through multiple frames for example, or multiple platforms. In the space we have multiple mirrors, mirror installations created by this incredible artist Brookhart Jonquil, who is a friend and collaborator of mine. We have the visual aspect, but then conceptually, it was interesting for me to think of, in the script, all the characters potentially being Medea.

That’s part of the narrative: how do we find different aspects of Medea through all the characters in the story, and make it very clear for the audience to follow? That’s part of the game that I’m playing, along with having her exist both in a theatrical setting, in a musical setting, in the band, in a cinematic setting, at home, on your phone. That’s part of the concept.

Alex: Can you talk about your background. You were saying you went to Juilliard? You’re a choreographer?

Yara: I’m a choreographer, director. I grew up in Miami and started studying dance at a very late age, like 13 or 14. But I grew up in a house of visual artists, so visual art was always part of my practice: painting, drawing, making sculptures. I ended up in New World School of the Arts, which is one most incredible places on earth. And, there, I studied dance. I was a dance magnet student at the arts high school. While I was there, I felt like I needed to create something visual because I grew up almost half visual artist, half performer. A group of friends and I got together and we decided to make a film festival, like in the hallways of our high school, and we convinced the school administration to give us a stinky closet. We used that for our film editing space because there was no film department. As a collective, we just started making films, and from there, we founded the Borscht Film Festival. We continued to do the festival in the summertime, in Miami, out of my dad’s garage/office.

The idea being that I was a dancer, studying dance, but the itch to make these visual worlds and narratives was so big. I didn’t know how to do both at the same time so I had to carve it out with this group of friends. We got together: musician, composer, playwright, me and my brother who’s an artist, and we started making different kinds of film projects with different voices. I, then, thought I was going to film school and I ended up going to Juilliard out of pure beautiful circumstantial luck. I didn’t apply. But the stars aligned: I did this Young Arts performance… and the director of Juilliard saw me perform. He was like, “Why are you not auditioning tomorrow in Miami to go to Juilliard?” And I was like “Well, I didn’t apply [laughs].”

When I was doing my audition for Juilliard, the director said, “Why didn’t you apply?” I said, “To be honest, 1. I didn’t think I could afford it or get in, and 2. I want to make worlds. I feel in my gut that I need to be making works that are multi-dimensional, and that use a lot of different kinds of mediums. I’m worried about going to a conservatory that is just dance. All day.” I think that is amazing, and I admire those artists that are completely focused on that form. I tried to explain to him that my form, that I want to focus completely on, is this other form that involves multiple mediums.

And he said this great thing to me: “If you want to collaborate, and if you want to create these kinds of worlds, why don’t you go to the place where you find the best artists in the world?” That was such an amazing thing to say because I did find a lot of incredible voices and collaborators there. Juilliard proved to be a very difficult place to experiment outside of a classical form, but I’m really glad I went there and focused my energy on one field for four years…

So, this piece, La Medea, to me is the most honest form of my craft. It’s unapologetically using all of the storytelling tools that come so naturally to me all at once.

Purchase tickets to the premiere of La Medea, co-presented by Performance Space 122, BRIC and Dance Films Association as part of PS122’s COIL 2017 Festival, Jan 20-22, by clicking here.