The following is an interview with Elizabeth Lanier, the writer/director of the upcoming play Narcissus and Echo, which premieres on June 10th at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. There is no spoiler content in this article. A link to tickets is available at the bottom of the page.
From the time of its inception, theatre has been inextricably intertwined with the political process. In ancient Athens, theatre-going was in fact a state-sponsored activity, with citizens being directly paid by their government to fill seats at the Theatre of Dionysus, often in droves of up to 17,000 at a time. With such massive reach, the satires and tragedies of playwrights like Aristophanes, Sophocles, and Menander wound up holding great sway over the opinions of the voting public, giving theatre a pivotal role in the development of democracy as we know it. In 2017, ancient Athenian politics aren’t usually on mind when I attend a play or performance piece, but they sure as hell seem to be on Elizabeth Lanier’s (among about a billion other things).
Lanier is the writer/director of Narcissus and Echo, an upcoming play set to premiere as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival on June 10th, fresh off the completion of a successful Indiegogo campaign. What exactly is Narcissus and Echo? In Lanier’s own words, “it’s a dark comedy that explores the current water crisis through music, movement, and Greek mythology”. If that sounds like a bizarre hodgepodge of unconventional genres, it’s because it is. And the flouting of convention doesn’t end in the logline. In addition to genre-blending content, audiences can also expect the play to be told through a variety of innovative, unconventional staging techniques that take inspiration from a wide variety of theatrical disciplines including movement, contemporary dance, and the minimalist aesthetic of a travelling folk troupe, in which the actors themselves will fill in for the lack of set and props.
As one might expect, the genesis of Narcissus and Echo has its roots in a unique time in the writer/director’s life: one of those rare, inspiring moments in which a group of disparate, seemingly-unrelated ideas found themselves coalescing under the ideal circumstances. During the California drought, Lanier explains to me, she was in New York City directing the myth-influenced Sarah Ruhl play Eurydice. “So, I had been reading a bunch of Greek and Roman myths to get ideas, and I found myself very attracted to the Echo and Narcissus story. It seemed relevant. It made me think about love, and unrequited longing, but then water is such a huge element in that story, too; I related it back to the crisis in California. From there, I started relating all of the Greek gods to the political powers that let to this water crisis happen, and the systems in place that allow for that to begin with and our part in them…” She pauses for a moment, chuckles at herself, and cheerfully confesses, “I don’t know I guess it’s just like a big pot of things that interest me.”
The pot would soon have more ingredients thrown into it when Lanier found her cast, nearly all of whom had backgrounds in music and dance. Soon, Narcissus and Echo was being shaped into a full-blown musical by a long-lasting and collaborative development process. “We worked and reworked the play for months,” says Lanier. “It wasn’t like a traditional musical where the actors would just come in and learn a bunch of prewritten songs and choreography. We would meet at my place and read through the latest version of the script I had written, and the actors would offer ideas or insight about their characters, and I’d go home and rewrite it. And during a reading, I might call out something like, ‘Hey, improv me a song where you and your friends are trying to seduce Zeus’. And they’d just pick up their instruments and do it, and sometimes it came together beautifully, so we’d incorporate it into the show.”
This community-driven development process is reflected in the formal approach of Narcissus and Echo, which eschews elaborate design or special effects to focus instead on the raw performance abilities and physicality of the cast. The set for the play consists simply of a handful of instruments and three rehearsal blocks. There are no pre-recorded soundtracks or audio effects used in the show. In keeping with the show’s themes of water and fluidity, there are also no breaks nor blackouts at any point in the play; all actors remain onstage the entire time. If an actor’s character is not in the scene, Lanier explains, that actor will become a piece of the set, turning into a “mountain, tree, holistic medicine store, whatever the scene needs”. Lanier notes further: “We wanted the play to feel like it was being put on by a traveling folk theatre group, the kind that would go to hippie communes and put on antiquity plays or Shakespeare, with no kind of formal stage or set, just performance. We wanted that energy and immediacy.”
This immediacy seems especially appropriate given the subject matter of Narcissus and Echo. As funny, abstract, or musical the play promises to be however, its larger aims are still ultimately that of fostering some sort of positive political discourse or action, much like the antiquity plays from which it takes partial inspiration. “I have a lot of cynicism in me and in my work, but I still believe in fighting the good fight,” reflects Lanier toward the end of our interview, “I don’t want to be too cynical, but I also don’t want to be too hopeful, because I feel like both just lead to inaction. I like to find a balance. The issues that the play deals with—like the fact that because of our indifference there are now entire communities of children who may suffer permanent brain damage from their drinking water—are very serious and very dark, but the humanity on display in the characters is also absurdly funny, as humanity tends to be.”
When asked to discuss her overall outlook on humanity, Lanier considered the question for a moment before answering: “I think most people try to be the best person they can be, but nobody achieves it. There’s an absurdity in that that I hope we can laugh at.” And, in an effort perhaps to enact just a bit of that tangible positive change that the play yearns to create, Lanier has pledged to donate 25% of the play’s proceeds to the Flint Child Health and Development Fund, in order to help those most directly affected by the water crisis that the play deals with so heavily.
Narcissus and Echo premieres on June 10th at The Complex, OMR Theatre in Hollywood, and runs for five dates: 6/10, 6/11, 6/17, 6/21, and 6/24. Tickets are available through the show’s page on the official website for the Hollywood Fringe Festival here.