Desire is no light thing.
-from Autobiography of Red
Photos: Sadie Mallon
Anne Carson's unusual novel in verse, Autobiography of Red is, in the opinion of many, a devastating masterpiece, and if you have not read it, you must do so as soon as you can. When I heard Phoebe Fregoli had written and directed a play adaptation of the book, I was in awe and went to see it opening night. It is so beautifully rendered and cast, AND you still have time to see it too. The second run of shows are from March 28 - February 3, 8pm at Tuesday Night Cafe Theatre, 3485 McTavish St (below the Islamic Studies library). Phoebe graciously took a moment to speak with Godberd about the whole process of undertaking such an ambitious project.
Autobiography of Red is such a masterpiece I’d never have the courage to try to make a play adaptation of it, so you have my major respect there. What inspired you to create this play adaptation?
I used to keep Autobiography of Red on my bedside table and reread it periodically before falling asleep. Last spring, I was figuring out which play to apply with to direct at TNC, a student run theatre company funded by McGill. One night I was in bed reading Auto, when I suddenly jumped up with the idea to do an adaptation of Anne Carson's novel in verse. A lot of the poems include dialogue and I thought that would translate really well into a play.
What was the effect of the book on you the first time you read it?
Carson’s ability to express so much with so few words is remarkable. I loved the story because I loved all of the characters, Geryon especially, but Herakles, Ancash, the mother, the grandmother... I found myself thinking of them as if they were real people. Once I read Auto it became a part of my life and my routine—reading it over and over before bed, while cooking, sharing it with all my friends.
You did such a great job with casting - Geryon, Herakles and Ankash were exactly how I imagined them in my mind’s eye when I read and re-read the book. What was the casting process like?
The casting process was very long. In the first weekend, miraculously, we found Geryon (Mich Cota). I was extremely nervous about casting Geryon—who could possibly play such an intricate and complicated main character? But Mich walked into her audition, having heard about it from a friend, and immediately, even from the way her presence took over the room, we knew we had found the perfect Geryon. One of us cried from her cold reading! She just had Geryon in her from the very first moment she performed that first scene.
We had seen a lot of people who could have played Herakles in the first weekend, but we were still not convinced. The portrayals of him that we saw were a little simple—playing up his cockiness, or his sexual drive to the point of sexual aggression, and that was not what I wanted. Reading Auto, it is so easy to dismiss Herakles as a self-centered, manipulative and childish person. Of course, he is far more complicated than that. Stephen played Herakles with a sensibility and buried vulnerability that I really wanted in Herakles. On top of that, he looks like a half-God, ringlets and all.
Ancash was harder to find. We had actually cast a different actor to play him, but he dropped out four weeks before opening night. Panic ensued, as you can imagine! We sent out calls and were holding auditions every day before our scheduled rehearsals. Jose got in touch with us and was from the start very enthusiastic, professional and determined. We cast him, and about a week later he'd read Auto for the first time and was off book! Very impressive. I'm so grateful to Jose for his commitment to this show.
Is theater a genre in which you plan to continue? What if any contemporary theater do you find particularly inspiring?
Yes, theatre is a genre in which I plan to continue. I went to LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts in drama, and after I graduated, I wanted nothing to do with theatre. But slowly as I got back into I remembered how much I love it as an art form; I just don't want to be an actress. Directing plays is what I'd like to do. I have recently been reading up on Ivo Van Hove and would have loved(!!) to see his adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage, where he had three separate couples acting out different scenes at the same time in the space.
What have you learned with this whole process of writing and directing this play?
We ended up with a lot of people who had never acted before. The beginning rehearsals were spent teaching those individuals basic principles of acting. I think working with people who had never experimented with the art form really forced me to sharpen my directorial skills as an acting coach. I think there are twenty of us—tech week, leading up to opening night, where we spent fourteen hours in the theatre one day, really taught me how to manage and patiently be considerate of many different needs at once. I didn't realize how big of a production this was until about halfway through the process...I guess it also taught me about my own perseverance and that of the people who have been working on this show since the beginning.
On a personal level, it was working on this production that solidified my desire to pursue directing. It is also noteworthy to me to say that almost the entire cast and crew is queer. Being around only queer people since September (this show has literally been my whole life) has been such a positive, affirming and beautiful experience in and of itself.
Phoebe Fregoli is a student at Concordia studying Women Studies and Creative Writing. Phoebe wrote and directed Be Tween in 2017 at TNC Theatre, a comedic one act that follows queer tweens across one day that culminates in a school dance as they go through puberty. Phoebe graduates next spring.