How do you stage the creation of the world? For her senior thesis, College of Letters major Lila Becker ’12 did so not just once, but offered five different versions. “The Ash and the Elder,” a play she researched, wrote, and directed, recounts five compelling and mysterious creation myths from around the world. The play, which went up in the ’92 Theater this past weekend, wowed audiences with its incorporation of choreographed movement, singing, Taiko drumming, and shadow play. The Argus chatted with Becker about fairy tales vs. creation myths, synchretism, and the challenges of killing a giant onstage.
The Argus: How did you come up with the idea to research creation myths?
Lila Becker: I was working with David Jaffe, a visiting theater professor, who is unfortunately gone from Wes now. I was working with him on putting together some sort of directing project to be part of my thesis, and we were talking about plays that I would really like to direct. One of my favorite plays is “Metamorphoses” by Mary Zimmerman, an adaptation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” And at one point, Jaffe sort of said, ‘I think if you’re going to make this your thesis, it should be bigger than just directing a play.’ So then I started to think about what kind of things I would want to see in a play. I was sort of going back and forth between fairy tales and creation myths for a while, and then decided that fairy tales were pretty much covered in the arts…
A: Right, there are a lot of TV shows about fairy tales now.
LB: Yeah, I hadn’t even heard of any of those. Fairy tales are really in right now. So that’s kind of how I got to creation myths, and I thought creation myths seemed… harder, and more like something that I wouldn’t be able to do outside of Wesleyan.
A: When did you start working on it?
LB: I started thinking about it in about March, maybe, last year, and I read a whole bunch of fairy tales and creation myths over the summer, which was frankly a lot of fun. I feel guilty for having so much fun with my thesis! I didn’t really fully decide on creation myths until the summer, when I read a whole bunch of them and decided that they were really cool.
A: Your play had five creation myths—were they were all from different cultures?
LB: Yeah. Basically, there wasn’t really a specific reasoning behind the ones I chose, other than that I liked them. And I did try to find ones that seemed somewhat stage-ready—you know, that at least they involved a being, rather than…okay, that’s not true; in one of them two of the characters are oceans, so…[laughs] But there are some amazing creation myths out there, and I had pretty much never heard of any of them before.
A: Which one of the ones that you chose is your favorite?
LB: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me that! [laughs] I really like all of them, and I think it’s kind of an unfair comparison, because some of them exist as written texts, so they’re much more fleshed out and detailed in terms of what survived from the original culture. The Babylonian myth and the Norse myth in the play were both written down as texts, so they are much more detailed and there’s much more stuff written. I think those are in some sense more engaging, but I don’t know, I really like all of them!
A: What sort of research material did you look at? Did you just look at the texts or did you read scholarly material too?
LB: I mostly looked at the texts. I have this compilation of creation myths from different translations and there was this woman, a scholar, who edited that and she had this really long intro about creation myths and why they’re important, which was really interesting. And then I sort of took the translations she included in that book and then found other translations and read those also and the accompanying scholarly material…it wasn’t really a research-based thesis.
A: I think the only creation myth I’ve read is “The Silmarillion” by Tolkien—in that myth, I think the world comes into creation through music, which is really cool.
LB: I haven’t read that! There were some amazing ones that I read. Tolkien stole a ton of stuff from Norse mythology. There were also these amazing syncretic ones where…
A: Wait, what is “syncretic”?
LB: Oh, like when a Christian missionary or a Muslim missionary was, you know, listening to a creation myth and like halfway through decided that it was crap without Jesus or Muhammad in it, so there were all these myths that start like a creation myth and then halfway through Jesus and Mary come in and fix everything. They’re totally weird but super interesting! And the idea of an original creation myth doesn’t really exist; we don’t have the original ones but we have these really interesting hybrids and things that pass through all these different people before they got to English, for example.
A: You use Taiko drumming, singing, and shadows in your play to great effect. Did you make deliberate choices to put these things in?
LB: Yeah, I mean, well, I play Taiko and I think Taiko should be in every play ever! [laughs] Well, that’s not really true, but I think Taiko is great. In addition to being its own art form, it’s also really great as an atmospheric thing. The shadows—originally they were the way I was thinking of getting around all of these things that were totally impossible to stage, and making it look sort of epic on some kind of scale, and that was what ended up happening in the show. The lighting designer Gabe Finkelstein ’12 said, “You should really have a cyc,”—which is a giant white sheet that does shadow stuff when it’s lit in particular ways. So that was really his idea, and the actors figured out a whole bunch of stuff about what looked good and how to use it, so that was definitely a collaborative process. Basically, you could stage nothing literally. It was very abstract, and so we spent a lot of time in rehearsals talking about abstract things, and then we got into the ’92 and then finally, we got to see, okay, here’s how we can do… birthing children from an armpit, or killing a giant. We didn’t actually figure out killing the giant until we got into the ’92…
A: Which was about a week ago?
LB: Yeah, a week ago! The show changed a lot when we got in there, and the actors would say, “Hey, we figured out how to do the armpit thing, watch this!” And it was great! It was amazing to see how they learned to use that space and the shadows.
A: Did you guys start rehearsing this semester?
LB: Yeah, we started rehearsing at the end of January and then lost two weeks during Spring Break, which I totally forgot about! [laughs] But the cast and crew put in a huge amount of time and effort; they were really wonderful.
A: So you guys had these red and black robes you kept using, and I thought they were graduation robes, but [assistant director] Nick Quah [’12] told me they weren’t!
LB: [laughs] No, those weren’t graduation robes! They were actually made by master seamstress Noa Borkan [’12]. We were trying to figure out, what does a god wear? These robes have cool sleeves!
A: So, are you all done with your thesis now?
LB: Yeah! I’m done…like a week later than everybody else.
A: So is the rest of your semester more chill?
LB: Definitely. Yeah, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.
A: You can work on your senior year bucket list! Do you think you’re going to keep doing theater after Wesleyan?
LB: I would like to. I don’t know how feasible that is, but there are a ton of Wesleyan graduates who do theater. They make it work.