Orion as a cop on the mean streets of 1970s San Francisco. Hera as the lady of a country estate in Victorian England. Chronus as an Arizona Republican politician debating whether to align himself with the Tea Party. These are some of the dozens of creative reinterpretations of Greek mythology that, Athena-like, have sprung from the brains of Bay Area playwrights and been seen in staged readings at the San Francisco Olympians Festival.
The Festival is a showcase for local theater and visual artists, an exercise in community-building, and a chance to seriously geek out on the Greeks. It’s the brainchild of Stuart Bousel, a playwright, director, and producer whose encyclopedic knowledge of the San Francisco theater scene is matched only by his encyclopedic knowledge of Greek mythology. He began the Festival as a way of bringing these two passions of his together, and is pleasantly surprised that so many other people have taken an interest in seeing new plays based on some of Western culture’s oldest stories.
In 2010, the first San Francisco Olympians Festival featured twelve full-length plays by Bay Area writers, each dealing with one of the twelve Olympians, the most important Greek gods. Not content to repeat this successful formula, we varied the structure of the 2011 Festival and encouraged playwrights to take risks. This year, while the Festival still lasted twelve nights (every Thursday, Friday and Saturday in October), we expanded to include 32 plays of varying lengths by 29 different writers, related to Greek myths of the sky, planets, and constellations. We had several nights of thematically linked short plays, such as an evening devoted to the characters of the Perseus myth and another to the many lovers of Zeus. We also had our first musical: Evelyn Jean Pine’s Walking the Starry Path, which turned Uranus into a country-music patriarch and Chronus into his rock-and-roll son.
I’ve been involved in both editions of the Festival, serving as the box-office manager last year and as a playwright and associate producer this year. (My full-length Pleiades, which updates the Greek myth of the seven starry sisters to 1971, had its staged reading on October 22.) Without a doubt, participating in the Festival has made me a better playwright. It introduced me to the wealth of talent found in the San Francisco theater community, and exposed me to new work from a variety of writers in a variety of styles. Some playwrights go for a more traditional interpretation of Greek myth, while others burlesque or twist or transform it.
Moreover, becoming involved with the Olympians Festival caused me to let go of a long-standing personal prejudice. I actually used to be a real snob about playwrights who adapted myths or folktales rather than creating new, original stories: I thought it indicated that the theater was moribund, backwards-looking, and irrelevant. But now, after two years of Olympians plays, I no longer disdain artists who adapt older stories. It is sheer hubris to think that these stories, which have endured for so long, can no longer speak to a modern audience. I have gained a new respect for the relevance of mythology and the way these ancient stories can put us more in touch with our present-day selves.
Greek mythology has retained its power for thousands of years because, paradoxically, it is big and small at the same time. The Greek gods represent such large concepts as Love, Time, War, and Wisdom, but they are also flawed and petty and vindictive. They have bizarre and kinky sex lives. They are hard to love, but easy to understand. Though they are divine beings, their stories get to the heart of what it means to be human.
Similarly, I wonder if the Olympians Festival has flourished because we’ve been able to think big and think small at the same time. Producing a 12-night festival of staged readings is a large undertaking for a small indie theater company, but, in a way, the success of the Festival is linked to its size and its status as a destination event. Very few people could be persuaded to spend money on a staged reading of a new play about the sun god Helios, if that reading were an isolated, stand-alone occurrence. But if that reading is part of a 12-night festival, people get excited about it. We funded the 2011 Festival through Kickstarter, a tool designed to reward artists who are planning bold and interesting projects. And the reading of Stuart Bousel’s Hyperion to a Satyr, which depicts Helios and Apollo as business rivals in modern-day San Francisco, was a sellout success this month.
Yet at the same time, we also thought small – paying attention to the little details that make the Festival feel cohesive and special. Though these are one-night-only readings, we brought members of the San Francisco fine arts and illustration community on board to create original poster art for each play. We raffle off a poster, a bottle of wine, and a themed prize (or two) at each reading in order to raise additional funds in an amicable way. The Greek-American community has shown an interest in our work, and this year we received in-kind sponsorship from Mezes, a local Greek restaurant. We designated an official Festival bar, the convivial White Horse Tavern on Sutter Street, and we invite our audiences to join us there after each show for drinks and conversation. We even have a free iPhone app, created by Festival playwright Kirk Shimano, that provides the Festival schedule, cast lists, and poster art.
The ancient Greeks would be baffled by many aspects of the Olympians Festival: the black box theater space, the female actors and playwrights, the iPhone app. Yet we like to think that they would understand the Festival’s larger goal: to make sense of our humanity and bring a community together through myth-based theater. In its two years of existence, the Olympians Festival has brought together tech geeks and classics nerds, veteran theater-makers and fresh-faced newbies, the immensity of myth and the intimacy of indie theater. We’re already making plans for the third edition of the San Francisco Olympians Festival: Titans Versus Olympians, to take place in December 2012. And by taking into account the lessons we have learned from two prior festivals, we pray that the gods continue to smile upon our endeavor.