The Greek Chorus Cookbook
TABLE OF CONTENTS
This page is a record in progress of my research on staging Greek choruses and related forms.
I’ve been interested in directing Greek choruses since I directed my first Greek play, LYSISTRATA, in 1999. For that production, I gave the choruses to a choreographer to stage, and focused my rehearsal time on the proper scenes with characters in them. She did a beautiful job staging them. They were spectacular. However, when I saw them performing, I had a strange feeling that there was more to be explored. I realized that my interest in the choruses was equal to–perhaps even greater than–my interest in the characters.
Since then, I’ve taught workshops on approaching the Greek chorus in performance for actors, students, and theatres across the country, and I’ve directed choruses every chance I got. Full disclosure: I’m not a classical historian, I don’t read ancient Greek, and I don’t try to reproduce the ancient form or some facsimile thereof. I try to make the chorus accessible, performable, palatable and enjoyable for contemporary actors, and I collect techniques that make this possible.
I define the word “chorus” very broadly. I am interested in what might be considered a traditional manifestation of the form. We really don’t know what the Greek chorus sounded or looked like–our archaeological and textual evidence gives us hints, but no definite answers. Still, most people, if pressed to do so, would probably define a Greek chorus as something like a group of people speaking, singing, and chanting in unison, with music and dance. This is what we expect–it’s something between what the ancient chorus was really like and what we think it was like. But the expectation has become a reality of its own.
My performance research focuses on making such “traditional” choral performance techniques more accessible to contemporary actors, and I find that the more broadly I can define the chorus, the more accessible it becomes to them. I would argue that it is not to the director’s advantage to narrow the definition of the form. On the contrary–if we want these ancient texts (and the fascinating performative shapes they can take) to be exciting and relevant for contemporary actors, we have to define the form quite loosely, and allow the actors to help us to discover what the nature of a contemporary chorus is.
Consequently, I’m interested in any kind of contemporary performance form that replicates some aspect of the Greek chorus. Elements of both form and content define the ancient chorus, and those elements, in one shape or another, persist in contemporary performance. Some of those elements would include the following:
any kind of unison speech or movement;
commentary on the action;
synchronization, imitation, or “co-ordination” (a term I borrow from Pieśń Kozła);
musical or rhythmic elements that alternate with non-musical, “realist” scenes (think of the verse-chorus-verse tradition in songwriting, or of hymns alternating with sermons in a religious setting);
poetic, metrical, or stylized text;
any combination of music with text;
and a disenfranchised group commenting on the actions and lives of more powerful characters, but powerless to intervene.
When I teach chorus workshops in schools, I try to have the students come up with a similar list of their own. We define our term through a very broad, diffuse map of loosely related elements of form and content. I learn more, and they perform better, by widening our mutual definition.
Currently, I’m studying how Polish theaters approach forms resembling the Greek chorus, on a Fulbright grant in Warsaw. My initial project was to look at the theaters with some connections to the theater directors Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor. Both Kantor and Grotowski notoriously experimented with choruses in their productions, and the companies historically related to one of those directors–including but by no means limited to Gardzienice, Zar, Pieśń Kozła, Chorea, Studium Teatralne, Teatr Cinema, and others–often include choral elements.
However, upon coming to Poland, I discovered that choral elements were present in the work of theatres and directors centered outside that tradition. In fact, I stumble upon choruses in almost every Polish production I see. Interestingly, in Polish, the word “chór” means both “chorus” and “choir,” which helps my project of increasing rather than limiting the definition of the form. Marta Górnicka’s Chór Kobiet is perhaps the best example of how the meanings of these words, as well as the nature of speech and song, blur together in a Polish theater context.
Before I came to Poland, I was experimenting with choruses and American actors. Most recently, in 2010, I founded a theater group in Baltimore called The Parallel Octave (||8ve), an improvising chorus of changing membership that meets monthly to record a poem with music. The idea was to focus on the audio aspects of performing in a Greek choral format, and see if the method might be simplified by removing the challenges of simultaneous movement. It proved effective.
The best way to find out what a contemporary chorus (with the freedom of improvisation) might be like is to participate in one yourself–and if you’re in the Baltimore/DC area, all you have to do is show up. Parallel Octave continues to meet bi-monthly in Baltimore, under the direction of Daniel Schwartz, under the auspices of the Baltimore Free School. We hold sessions that are open to anyone who wants to participate; for more information, email paralleloctaveATgmail.com.
To hear some of the ||8ve recordings, and think about what an improvised chorus might sound like, you can go to our Recordings page. You can also see videos that different filmmakers made for six of our recordings for our first collaborative film, ANTHOLOGY I. We also teach chorus workshops for schools and for theaters, and have an ongoing collaboration with the Writers in Baltimore Schools nonprofit.