Echo: Interview with Petra Kalive

With UHT’s production of Echo opening next week, Chloe Dallas spoke to director Petra Kalive to discuss the show.

The play is inspired by the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus. Could you explain the story a little?

Narcissus was born a gorgeous child. His mother was told that he would grow up to live a long and healthy life as long as he never learned to know himself. He grew up to be a handsome 16-year-old. Everyone wanted a piece of him, but he thought he was too good for everybody. One day he is hunting in the forest and – for the first time in his life – he sees his reflection and ‘knows himself’. He falls desperately in love with his own image – so much so that he can’t leave it behind. Meanwhile, a nymph called Echo falls in love with him. He doesn’t want anything to do with her, and she has been cursed by the gods so that all she can do is to repeat the last words that others speak. It’s really quite a tragic story.

What is your understanding of the play’s central theme of narcissism?

Over the course of rehearsals we’ve discovered that the kind of world we live in at the moment encourages us to focus on ourselves and the image that we project, rather than being authentic. Some narcissism can be good, but there are degrees of it, like there are degrees of anything. You can get to the point where you actually stop being able to empathise with people, and that’s when narcissism becomes a problem – when the only person you are concerned about is yourself.

How does the play explore this theme and what disciplines are involved?

The first part, part A, is a traditional retelling of the story. We’re using this idea of the Greek chorus to start with. Then in part B we smash that open, using a whole broad range of performance modes to unpack this idea [of narcissism]. We’ve got dance, physical theatre, images, monologues, duologues and music. It’s a performance mashup, I guess, of a whole lot of styles, as we tease apart all these interlocking things about narcissism. There’s no straight, linear narrative through it – it’s kind of piecemeal. But piecemeal for very good reason: it’s complex and we want the audience to actually be working a little bit as they make connections between all these various parts of narcissism and the self, and narcissism and the world.

How do you think narcissism manifests in modern life?

I think it’s clear in the rise of celebrity culture, the rise of plastic surgery…marketers use it all the time when it comes to ‘you need to look a certain way and you need to be a certain way’. I think it’s also prevalent when it comes to the way we think about the environment and our sense of entitlement towards it. There are people not wanting to give up their comforts because [they feel that] they’re entitled to live that way. That’s a narcissistic way of being. On the other hand there’s the sensitive issue of men in sport, and how entitled they feel when it comes to drug taking or women. They feel they can do what they like whenever they like. They have a very skewed view of where they are in the world and how their actions actually affect the broader community.

How would you describe the tone of the play? Is it mostly dramatic?

I don’t think straight drama could actually capture all this. It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s aware that it’s dealing with some really sensitive material, but it does it in a way that is sensitive. I don’t think a work like this should be too heavy and that people should be going out berating themselves about what a bad narcissist they are. I think they should leave the theatre thinking about narcissism in general, the way they are in the world, with a smile on their face because they’ve actually spent most of it laughing and enjoying the play that they’ve seen. So it’s sensitively humorous, I guess.

What has the rehearsal process been like?

We devised in a whole range of ways. We used improvisation, they talked to each other, I set them tasks to do. We worked through the body and we worked through the brain. The cast are the makers of this work and I’m just really the shaper, saying “yes, that’s great. Let’s do that.” So in the old Greek mythology sense I’m Minerva and I’m weaving all this together, but they’re generating the thread.

UHT’s Echo opens Friday 22nd May in the Union Theatre. You can book tickets here or at the Information Centre Box Office, ground floor, Union House.

Image: Sarah Walker

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