Art, History, Love: Hannah Van Sciver and FIFTY DAYS AT ILIAM

With last year’s Fringe hit Marbles and her recent SoLow show Bicycle Face, Hannah Van Sciver has been building a reputation as a “smart, funny, and provocative” local playwright. This Fringe, she’s bringing her talents to bear on a piece inspired by modern symbolist painter Cy Twombly’s series Fifty Days of Iliam, housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Hannah’s FIFTY DAYS OF ILIAM addresses Twombly’s subject of the Trojan War from Greek mythology, his art-making process, and his biography, including his tempestuous relationship with fellow painter Robert Rauschenberg. [Asian Art Initiative, 1219 Vine Street] September 3-5, 2015;

The cast of FIFTY DAYS AT ILIUM in front of the paintings Fifty Days at Iliam. Photo credit: Hannah Van Sciver.
The cast of FIFTY DAYS AT ILIAM in front of the paintings Fifty Days at Iliam. (Hannah Van Sciver, left). Photo credit: Hannah Van Sciver.

Phindie: Maybe I’m a Philistine, but the room at Philadelphia Museum of Art with Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam paintings has always been one where I think “what the hell is this shit?” What am I missing?

Hannah Van Sciver: I think part of what’s remarkable about the work is the intensity and inconsistency of the reactions it elicits. Frankly, a lot of people hate this art! When I first encountered Fifty Days at Iliam as a college student, I found it to be haunting, thrilling, and explosive. I didn’t understand it on any sort of formal level, and yet I returned to the Fifty Days at Iliam room often, just to sit in silence and absorb. I frequently tell people that the work makes me weep. For me, the paintings capture the enormity and heightened emotionality of The Trojan War. They feel oddly accessible. A member of our cast (the ridiculously talented Elizabeth Audley) told us a story about viewing the room as a seven-year-old. She says it made her physically ill, and she had to leave. Her mother sat her down outside and told her that “Sometimes, art gives you big feelings.”

So essentially what I’m saying is, I don’t think you’re missing anything. The work is strange and off-beat and controversial and abstract, and folks have really varied reactions to it. I’ll add, though: Twombly once explained his paintings as being about the experience of creating them. That is to say, they’re not so much visual as they are meant to be kinetic. I think this is why they lend themselves so well to a physical theatre piece.

Phindie: What was Twombly’s beef with Robert Rauschenberg?

HVS: The two had a romantic relationship in art school. They left school to travel Europe and Africa together, despite the fact that Rauschenberg had a pregnant wife at home. Eventually the relationship ended – Rauschenberg went on to more publicly date artist Jasper Johns (after divorcing his wife) and Twombly moved to Greece, where he married the sister of one of his patrons. The Twombly-Rauschenberg relationship is rarely mentioned in a lot of art history criticism. Naturally, it fascinated us.

Phindie: How do you see that relationship reflected in the Fifty Days series?

HVS: In the Fifty Days paintings, Twombly focuses largely on the narrative arc of Achilles. (Vengeance of Achilles, The Fire That Consumes All Before It and Shades of Achilles, Patroclus and Hector.) In the story, Achilles slaughters Hector to avenge the death of Patroclus. In our research, we found some dramaturgy suggesting the two (Achilles and Patroclus) were lovers. We saw a parallel there. In our production, the actor playing Rauschenberg doubles as Achilles.

Phindie: What kind of conversation is your show having with Twombly’s works?

HVS: First, we are telling the story of Twombly’s art-making process. In the piece, we encounter elements of his biography, and then we see these elements come to life in the art he makes. In addition to the Rauschenberg doubling, we see the Trojan princess Cassandra appear in Twombly’s life long before he starts making the Fifty Days paintings.

Second, on a less literal level, the piece itself “is a painting.” Our illustrious director, William Steinberger, says this frequently. The sonic, visual and movement elements of the piece are deeply tied to an attempt to physicalize the energy and movement within the paintings themselves. That is to say – the piece is both about the paintings, as much as it is the paintings.

Phindie: You’ve received a lot of acclaim for your last few shows [see here and here]. What new things are you attempting with FIFTY DAYS AT ILIAM?

HVS: ILIAM is devised, for starters. It is ensemble-generated. We aren’t working from any sort of a traditional script. (Even with Bicycle Face, my Solow Fest show, I wrote a script prior to beginning rehearsal.) We are constantly making and trashing and reworking bits of the show in rehearsal. It makes for a terrifically engaging rehearsal process, but it’s also fairly terrifying.

ILIAM is also movement and dance-based in a way that is new for me. I’m a text person. I do a lot of Shakespeare. Physical theater excites me because it is such a departure from the usual way my brain conceives of and experiences theatre.

Lastly, ILIAM is narratively avant-garde. It has extended dream sequences. It is both expressionistic and impressionistic. As a literalist, this is a stretch for me. Iliam is honestly the most challenging project I’ve ever attempted. People ask me how it’s going and I say, “It’s hard. It’s awesome, but it’s really hard.” I have no idea how folks will react to the work, and I’m learning to be okay with that.

Phindie: You’re also acting in Revolution Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost for the Fringe. Do you see any similarities between the two shows?

HVS: Sure. Revolution director Samantha Bellomo has this brilliant notion that Love’s Labour‘s should be presented as a folk music concert. Similarly, ILIAM is also heavily underscored, mostly by actor-generated music. And both pieces engage with some unlikely musical-mash ups. ILIAM plays a lot with seventies funk, as well as the aesthetic of Freddie Mercury. (We realized early on that Achilles and Freddie Mercury probably have a lot in common). In a recent rehearsal, Sam mentioned that the character Holofernes, for her, is Bob Dylan.

Also, while differing enormously in style, I think both pieces seek to make classical work feel relevant, alive and engaging in unexpected ways.

Phindie: Will your schedule allow you to see any other shows? What are you looking forward to or upset you have to miss?

HVS: I hope so! I have yet to fully tesselate my Fringe calendar. If I have my druthers though, I’ll get the chance to see Underground Railroad Game, Damned Dirty Apes, 901 Nowhere Street, Exit The King, City of Woes, and The Captive, to name a few. (There is so much great work happening!) Oh, and Andy: A Popera: I would love to see The Bearded Ladies’ take on devising a show around a contemporary artist. And Swamp is On. And Jason Rosenberg’s Me First: An Autobiographical Comedy About Dying. I have enormous admiration for Jason. Oh, Fringe.

Phindie: Thanks Hannah!

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