Prometheus Found, Unbound, and Rewound

Sicpa's Prometheus '91 -- Aug./Sept. 1991
Produced by Sicpa, a performance/art collaborative
Written by Magus Wake and the Sicpa Ensemble
Directed by Bill Conte

By Bill Conte

The raison d'etre for Sicpa's production of this compelling myth lies in the site on which it was performed -- Snug Harbor Cultural Center. Constructed over a twenty-year period during the early 19th century, Snug Harbor was the vision of philanthropist Richard Randall. His ambition was to create a safe haven for 'aged and decrepit sailors', a 'snug harbor' for old salts in their declining years. Randall chose a five-acre site along the banks of the Kill van Kull, Staten Island, NY, and erected a complex that would later become renowned as one of the finest collections of Greek Revival architecture in America. Now, the correlation between the complex's function as a nautical hospice and its form of majestic Greek temples is known only to Randall, but it may be that he was merely responding to an architectural trend of his day. Regardless of the reasons, Sailors' Snug Harbor fulfilled its mission for over 150 years, gradually falling into desuetude until it was forsaken to the bureaucratic mercy of the city of New York. And for ten years it stood, gloriously haunting Richmond Terrace, until local politicians and activists undertook its revitalization and created Snug Harbor Cultural Center.

For over 10 years, Snug Harbor has served New Yorkers, and Staten Islanders in particular, by providing a forum for artists in all media. The restoration focused primarily on transforming the interiors of the old dormitories into gallery, studio, performance and office space, but it was the exterior that captured Sicpa's collective imagination. The idea of environmental theater had always been exciting to us, but the greater challenge was to create site-specific performances that would inextricably link the space to the event. We had done this quite successfully in a production of T.S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land', staged amidst the ruins of an abandoned industrial complex, and were eager to try again. It made sense that only an ancient Greek classic would serve this particular site, and the only one I was interested in undertaking was Prometheus.

There was, however, a problem. Antiquity has bequeathed us only the second play of Aeschylus's trilogy, and we realized that this would not permit us to capitalize on the many exciting opportunities Snug Harbor presents for staging a work of this kind, since Prometheus Bound is itself chained to the Aristotelian Unities and is therefore confined in time and space. In addition to the temples, there are huge open fields, sculptures, dense woods, and a large circular fountain that was once home to an imposing statue of Poseidon. We decided that we had to use all of it; to do so would require the production of an epic titanic in its proportion.

So we tried to envision what Aeschylus would have framed the extant play with. Since the Greeks were an orderly, logical lot, we figured that the first play was probably about how Prometheus incurs Zeus's wrath by rebelliously bestowing the gift of fire to mankind. The third play, we assumed, was about Prometheus's escape or liberation from hell, and his reconciliation with Zeus. After a thorough investigation of Hesiod's Theogony, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, the Aeschylus play, and other sources and commentaries, we began to see Prometheus as a sort of universal imperative, a divine thruster-on for the evolution of the cosmos. At this point, we decided to part company with tradition and essayed a retelling of the myth that would take the audience on a metaphorical journey through time and space, beginning with Gaia's rising from the void and concluding in the literal present.

The script developed over a period of several months under the direction of Bill Conte. At the time, Sicpa was about twenty strong in its membership, comprising mostly young (and not-so-young), highly energetic and ambitious actors between the ages of 18 and 35. The cast was guided in improvisations based on characters and situations derived from our sources; these sessions were taped and transcribed. After several weeks, we began to associate attributes of the characters with our own natures and personalities, and the play was cast according to these explorations. The dialogue and scenes were therefore written with specific actors in mind, derived primarily from things that they themselves had said and done during the improvisations conducted on the various sites.

Interesting things started to happen at this point: the further we went, the more unwieldy it all became. We were creating a monster that could only be fed through a redoubling of manpower, resources, and resourcefulness. Our explicitly public process (Snug Harbor is a highly visible, well-patronized institution) served us well here. Passers-by would stop and watch. Most would chuckle bemusedly and continue on, but others found what we were doing so exciting they asked to join. The word spread; eventually, more actors, musicians, artists, craftspersons, and tech people found their way to Snug Harbor, and by the time we opened in August, the production had no fewer than 40 people working on it.

It was very strange, almost as if the gods were on our side. We had no money to start with, no idea where funds would come from for props, costumes, special effects, lights, etc. Snug Harbor was not in a position to act as producers; they graciously provided the landscape and left the rest to us. But as things were needed, so came the means to fill those needs -- Whose uncle is in the construction business? Who's got a line on cheap fabric? Who sews? Who paints? Who does magic? Who has lights? Who will compose a score? Who will go into his or own pocket to underwrite the 'need du jour'? Who will sell ads in the program to underwrite whatever we can't beg for, borrow, afford, or make? It was community theater in the purest sense, but also theatrical community -- amateurs, aspiring professionals, and professionals in different disciplines collaborating on the realization of a single epic vision.

The production was ultimately four hours in length and traversed four acres of grounds. Hundreds of people saw it during its two-week run, and the production, cast, and crew all received outstanding reviews. Prometheus 91 turned out to be an important benchmark in the lives of many of us who participated, as well as for theater on Staten Island. We showed that something new could be made from the old, that the familiar could be made novel, that the traditional could be invigorated, that the universal and archetypal could be made unique and personal without sacrificing the majesty and dignity of the original. Most important, in an age of Broadway theme-park extravaganzas costing millions of dollars, we showed that the profoundest, most valuable resource in the creation of any theatrical endeavor is now what it was in the time of Aeschylus -- people. And it always shall remain so.

Bill Conte

(Bill Conte is a director, writer, actor and teacher living on Staten Island in New York City; presently he is directing a new production of Osbourne's *Luther*.)