February 16, 2005

All Hail Nero

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The Schwartz Center is opening its curtains tonight for an exceedingly different and exciting endeavor: The audience will not only see a performance, they will be involved in a process of creation along with the collaborators Steven Sater (Carbondale Dreams, Umbrage) and Beth Milles (God Said Ha, The Imaginary Invalid).

The Nero Project is a two-act play (for now) depicting the life of the Roman emperor, Nero. The project has been in development since Spring of 2003 when Sater, Milles and their students at the time developed the idea of creating a new kind of theater that required, and indeed, depended upon, the active participation of the actors. The players were selected based on characters that they wanted to include in the performance and, above all, on bravery. The script, which chronicles eight events in Nero’s life, was not even written until after casting.

The Nero Project features four of Cornell’s Resident Professional Teaching Associates (Sarah K. Chalmers, Laurence Drozd, Godfrey L. Simmons Jr., and Peter Zazzali) and six student actors. Since its initial conception, the play has been workshopped at the Magic Theatre in Los Angeles. Well-known composer and song-writer Duncan Sheik was introduced to the project after three weeks of rehersal were already underway.

Many changes have been made since the original writing of the play. The main concern now for the creators are technical elements which Milles describes as an act of exploration: “[In this stage of theatricalizing Nero] We are trying to find the tone and explore that tone that is resonating at that moment [in Nero’s life],” Milles said.

The project is ambitious on a number of levels. The convention, or rather the non-convention, of the creative process brings in a number of different voices from a variety of artistic minds that are not necessarily theatrical. Placing Nero on stage is an ongoing activity of learning from its inception to tonight’s execution.

The historical aspect also presented itself as a challenge. Milles noted that there are only two Roman historians who studied and wrote about Nero’s life, and any secondary and post-secondary writings that sprung from these two scholars have had a tendency to vilify his character. “I am interested in Nero on a human level,” says Milles. “Above all, Nero was an artist. He wanted to live life as art. While he may not have conquered any land during his reign, Nero created festivals of bacchic proportions. Theatrical performance along with everything and anything Greek was preoccupation for Nero.”

On the historical and political context, Milles became interested in the “idea that people change their moralities to survive in a treacherous political environment, which to [me] was a very contemporary thought.” She added, “I think many of us are experiencing […] different sides of political parties [requiring] us to alter our beliefs too survive in our current political environment.”

These historical, political and biographical thematics will be performed in a round in the round, evoking and encouraging a different relationship between the audience and the actors as opposed to a conventional proscenium theatrical setting. The play is divided into eight scenes and visually interpreted into eight rooms, as inspired by Nero’s 150-room ancient palace known as the “Domus Aurea” or “Golden House.” Nero’s biographer, Suetonius wrote that the octagonal room at the center of the palace had a revolving ceiling adorned by ivory and wood that showered its occupants with flower petals and perfume. The creators of The Nero Project took this kinetic model to inspire their telling of Nero’s life.On stage, Milles has kept the set elements to a minimum, focusing mostly on the language of the performance. Under Milles’ direction, Wardrobe and Set Design did not build costumes and set as one normally would; rather, they pulled costumes from the departments stock and set up a very organic setting. Milles enhanced the environmental set and the second-hand costumes with the help of award-winning guest lighting designer Russell Champa.

The creators of The Nero Project are simply hoping to learn from the following performances. Requiring no prior historical knowledge of Nero’s Rome, the project aims to create a new theatrical experience for both the spectacle and spectator.

The Nero Project opens Wednesday, Feb. 16, at 8 p.m. Evening performances continue Feb. 17-20 and 23-26. Afternoon matinees will be offered Feb. 20, 26 and 27 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $8 (students/seniors) and $10 (general). A “Meet the Actors” discussion will be held following the Feb. 24 performance. For tickets and information, call or visit the box office in the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, 430 College Ave., between 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. weekdays or call 607-254-ARTS.

Archived article by Whine Del Rosario
Sun Staff Writer