For more than 2,500 years, Euripides’s Medea has shocked and enthralled audiences across the globe with its high-stakes social commentary and its poetic, heart-wrenching feminism. This week, the Alley Theatre brings a free, translated version of the Greek tragedy to the living rooms of its dedicated patrons and, hopefully, a slew of new audiences, with its virtual performance spearheaded by Artistic Director Rob Melrose and featuring Alley Resident Acting Company member Elizabeth Bunch in the titular role.
Bunch, a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, has performed in more than 75 shows at the Alley and is a familiar face to local theater devotees. “It was not lost on me that Elizabeth Bunch would be a fabulous Medea,” Melrose said in a release. “And, how great it would be to give her the time and space to explore what her Medea might look like.”
It’s been a full year since the Alley's stage went dark due to the pandemic, and we reached out to Bunch for her first-hand experience in preparing for the role, and the season as a whole, in the theater’s recently adopted digital format.
What are some of the more difficult challenges you’ve faced transitioning from the stage to the Alley’s virtual productions, and what challenges have surprised you the most?
Bunch: There have been so many challenges for all of us at the Alley as we have created digital content this year, but I am so happy to say that none have been insurmountable. However, without a doubt, the challenge is that the actors film these projects in our own homes completely alone. The Alley provides everything we could possibly need to film—backdrop, lights, cameras—I mean everything, down to the tape to spike our living room floors! However, the actor is responsible for setting up and running every technical element. Then you have to act in addition to all of that. We have a team of people helping and guiding us via Zoom, but in the end, it is all up to us to make it happen in the moment. The thing that has surprised me the most is that this wild scenario also gives me the greatest sense of privacy and safety I have ever had as an actor. Because once sound and video are rolling and everything is set, I am completely alone. As an actor, the ability to create from a place of complete privacy allows a truth and vulnerability in the performance that is completely the opposite of performing in front of 750 people every night.
What has the rehearsal process been like for the virtual shows, and for Medea specifically?
Bunch: To begin with, the Resident Acting Company has not been in a room together in over a year now. Everything is done virtually. We first read this script together as a company in the summer over Zoom. At that point, there was not a plan in place to film it. It was always a possibility but not yet a plan. That was very liberating for me as we worked together that week. Although we were only working virtually, I was able to explore the play without the pressure of trying to memorize words, create the staging, or make concrete decisions. It was truly about the words and the connection to the character. That is a very rare gift to be given as an actress. Then, as the Alley continued to update our plans throughout lockdown, Rob Melrose decided to include Medea in our virtual offerings. So for the next few months, I worked on the show in a very isolated way at home as I memorized the piece. We had a very short week of rehearsals when we rejoined as a cast and then we were suddenly filming. I would call it both the longest and the shortest rehearsal process I have ever had!
There are many discussions to be had regarding Medea, both the story and the character. How would you describe the play’s depiction of the human condition?
My hope is that this show still does what great theater should do, and that is it makes you feel something big and profoundly human. To me the, huge dynamics that are presented in Greek theater are explorations of the deepest human emotions: Despair. Desire. Rage. Love. Loss. Triumph. This is a translation of Medea, not an adaptation. The scenario is not modernized, and the stakes have not been shrunken so they fit neatly in a small screen. This play still goes to every extreme of our human emotions. I think many of us have felt some, if not all, of these big human emotions to the extreme these past 12 months.
How did you prepare for such a powerful and impassioned role? Were there any characters, artists, or interpretations that inspired your performance?
We are all living through this lockdown, but those of us in the theater are really living through a total shutdown. What we do has been completely impossible. I feel lucky to have found a real silver lining during this time—I have been devouring online classes and experiences. No matter an actor's age or experience, continuing to train and strengthen your artistry is crucial. Just as most everything else moved online, so did acting classes and training opportunities. So this means I could reach out to teachers and look for experiences that normally are not possible for me to schedule or I would need to travel to experience. I have to say my inspiration is those teachers that have been able to find a way to create meaningful classes virtually. Their work has taught me how to keep that connection real and alive and vulnerable through a computer screen.
What do you hope audiences take away from Medea once the virtual curtain drops?
For those that feel like they know the story, I hope they will find that the twists and turns are more complex that they realized. For those that miss the theater, I hope they are invigorated by digging down to the roots of drama. For those that are watching virtual theater for the first time, I hope they see how different this feels than watching a movie. For those that love and support the Alley, I hope they are reminded that we are growing and changing along with the rest of Houston.
Medea premieres Friday, March 19. Register to view the performance on the Alley Theatre’s website here.