Brett Bailey: 'Myths are like stones that have rolled down a river over millenia'

South African playwright and director Brett Bailey. Photo: Andreas Simopoulos

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Are ancient myths still relevant for us today? Definitely, says South African playwright and director Brett Bailey. He currently curates the DAS Theatre study programme The Mything Link: Breaking Stories form the Dawn of Time. We talk about his personal fascination with myths and raise the question: how do you turn ancient myths into ‘breaking stories’?

How did your personal interest in myth develop?
‘In the first works that I made, in the mid-nineties, just after the downfall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, I worked with South African origin myths. It was a moment in which there were many attempts to move beyond the boundaries that had been in place for so long, and I spent a lot of time working with black rural communities, looking at their origin myths. In the last ten years I worked with ancient myths. For instance on adaptations of Medeia and Orpheus; and in my most recent work, Sanctuary, in which I reference quite strongly the classical myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. My new work is a look at the biblical story of Samson and Delilah.’

The word ‘myth’ has a lot of meanings and connotations attached to it, from 'sacred story' to 'traditional narrative’ to ‘things we don’t believe in anymore’. What is for you the essence of a myth?
‘A myth is an ancient story from a pre-literate society that expresses the morality or law of the particular people in a language of symbols. Myths express our relationship as human beings to our outer world and to our inner world. Myths express something about our psychology, our inner life. The mythical underworld can also be seen as an aspect of ourselves that we access for example in dreams, trance, depression, initiation or death. Myths to me are interesting because they structure our societies. As soon as we talk about our lives or report about our dreams, we tell a story. We live inside stories. Our worlds are to a large degree shaped by the stories we tell and the stories that have been told.’

These stories have been told over and over again. Why do you think it is worth telling them again?
‘Myths are like stones that have rolled down a river over three or four thousand years. They have become very smooth, they are really essentialized. One can drop them into the chaos of a contemporary context, and they can bring shape to that context. For instance, the Greek myth of Orpheus is about a man who comes from another part of Greece and brings this beautiful poetic music with him. In my version of Orpheus I looked at the cultural enrichment that immigrants from different African countries bring to us in xenophobic South Africa. A Congolese musician played Orpheus. I allow the myth to grow in contemporary soil.’

Do you thus create new myths?
‘No I wouldn’t say that. The way we use myths can be very new. But I don’t think there are a whole lot of new stories to create. The skeletons of our stories lie in the distant past. We can put new flesh on the skeletons, we can test them in new circumstances, we can dissect and analyse them. And we can try to emancipate them, because so often they carry ideologies, belief systems, stereotypes and prejudices that don’t have a place in the era that we live in. In this way we can shape ancient myths into stories that fit our time. For instance, in MedEia, in the script of Oscar van Woensel, we see strong women who celebrate Medeia’s victory against the xenophobic forces that try to crush her. When I made the piece in South Africa it was told from the viewpoint of a group of Zimbabwean refugee women, who are at the bottom of the food chain in South Africa. It became a story of the transcendence of these refugee women over the forces that are holding them down. I am interested in a particular situation in South Africa, or somewhere else, and I use the myth to organize the material: to shape it into a powerful narrative.’

Is there, in your view, one skeleton of myth? For instance, Joseph Campbell’s ‘journey of the hero’?
‘There is a sea of stories out there and Campbell’s analysis was one attempt to find an underlying structure. During this course we have looked at his ‘hero’s journey’ as an analytical tool, but certainly not the only one.’

You’ve asked students in the programme to choose one myth as a starting point to work with. Did they all pick ancient stories?
‘There is an interesting diversity. Most students work with an ancient myth, like Hercules or Persephone, but there is also a student who works with the Jewish myth The Dybbuk and uses as her source material a film from the 1930’s. Another student chose a fairy story, and there is a student who works with Star Wars, a piece of pop culture that was very consciously constructed upon the mythical journey of the hero of Joseph Campbell.’

What do the students do with ‘their’ myth?
‘They carry the myth through a series of impulses and lenses brought by the teachers in the programme, both artists, curators, theoreticians and practitioners. What is the original story? What is the structure of it? Why does it interest me? How do I bring my own voice into the story? How do I make it fit the times I am living in? The dramaturgical structure of the course moves from the psychological interior to the socio-political outer context, and is loosely based on the path of the mythical hero. So we started with a retreat led by two South African shamans, and looked at personal connections to the myths, and we are slowly moving towards the place of myth in the world today with its social and political resonances. At the end of every two weeks the students create a new public presentation that is a response to what the previous teachers and their fellow students have brought to their myth. So their myth slowly accumulates meaning.’

You are now halfway the programme. What are your observations?
‘There is a lot of joy in the rediscovery of myths, the meaning they can hold for us and the richness around them! What’s also interesting for me is to see how problematic myth can be to some of the students. The question arises: do we have to keep telling these stories forever? Some of the models we use to analyse myths are in themselves problematic and outmoded. A lot of myths frame women and men in limiting roles: the telling of them reinforces a hetero-normative, patriarchal order. In their work on their chosen myths, three students have opted to emancipate the women from their myths – for instance by making women the protagonists – and thereby destabilize the structure.’

You have been engaged with myth for a long time in your work. Do you gain new insights yourself during this programme?
‘Yes, I do. By no means am I an expert or academic in mythical studies, so I learn as much as the students. It is fascinating to work with such a diverse group of teachers and students and see all the different avenues and viewpoints people take and how this amplifies meaning. My own work that I am busy with now, Samson and Delilah, is broadening from the impulses they bring in.’

Public Events
Throughout the DAS Theatre block programme The Mything Link: Breaking Stories form the Dawn of Time there are several public presentations. The next events are on 9, 12, 17 and 20 March 2018. Go to our Facebook page or to 'what's on' for more information about our events. 

Interview: Petra Boers

DAS Theatre Block 2018: The Mything Link – Breaking Stories form the Dawn of Time