Behind every man is a woman with a story to tell, and this May that story is TESEO:MEDEA. Brenda Huggins makes her directing debut in New York City with in a production that has women center stage and ready to shine.
Get to know Brenda in the interview below.
Music by Handel, libretto by Haym
May 11th @ 7:00pm
May 12th @ 3:30pm
Underground Theater at the Abrons Art Center
466 Grand St, New York, NY 10002
Part of the @Abrons Series Program and the 2019 New York Opera Fest
Please introduce yourself: your name, where you’re from, your role in this project, and the first three things that come to mind when you think “Handel”.
My name is Brenda Huggins, I am based in Brooklyn, and am the Stage Director and puppetry artist for the production. The first three things that come to mind when I think of Handel is the harpsichord, gender fluidity, and Greek/Roman Mythology.
Our production of TESEO:MEDEA emphasizes the fact that women play very important roles in this opera. How has this influenced your direction?
In creating the world for where our production is set, I was inspired by Viking culture and the mythology of Amazon warriors, and the unique role women played in theses societies (both very real and fantastical) as fierce warriors. There is so much opportunity in Handel's works to explore gender from a non-binary point of view, and in our production, this has meant that characters often portrayed as weak and in distress take actions to control their own futures, and "male" characters can be masculine while still expressing emotion and affection in ways that are typically seen as more feminine. It has been a fascinating process and journey in blurring these lines.
You have an extensive background in puppetry. How did you get involved in that? And how did you decide to incorporate puppets into this production?
With a multi-disciplinary background as a singer, theater artist, and costumer, puppetry became a natural extension of my interest in story telling, textile craft, and design. During the recession (around 2009) the only job I could find at the time was working a few hours a week at the box office of a tiny puppet theater in Boston, and I learned so much about the art form from all of the touring artists. I also took classes from the resident artist at the theater, and had the opportunity to develop my own work through their incubator program. Medea's magic in TESEO:MEDEA easily lends itself to puppetry in the way we are able to transform the space and portray fantastical characters through design and movement.
Do you recall what puppet shows were playing at the puppet theater when you first started working there? And what your initial reactions to them were?
The theater presents a different show every week, so in the over six years that I worked there, I saw A LOT of puppet shows. One of the earlier performances during my time there that sticks out to me is a show called, "Raccoon Tales" by the first Resident Artist of the Theater, and brought to the stage by the new Resident Artist at the time. It was fascinating to me that one person could portray 5+ characters in the same story, especially in their character voice work. With my background in classical vocal technique, I later developed a workshop for creating character voices using a combination of theater and bel canto techniques called, "The Fundamentals of Silly Voices." It is such a fun class to teach, and is very much inspired by my time at the puppet theater.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made while preparing for TESEO:MEDEA?
The most fascinating aspect of this piece for me is the opportunity to explore Medea's character post Jason and the bloodshed of her children at her own hand. We see her still clearly tormented by these very recent and horrific acts, and yet, history appears to be repeating itself. Laura, Alaina (our Medea's) and I have talked a lot about Medea's addiction to her own power and the intersection of this power and self-harm. Every time Medea uses her power, she loses a part of her humanity, which leads her to murder her own children, or plot revenge and murder. I am excited to share these discoveries with the audience, and portray a point of view where Medea is more relate-able and human.
Medea has a deeply unhappy story. In your opinion, why do you think Medea finds herself entangled in these impossible situations, in which she brings death to those around her, again and again? (sorry, that's a deep one!!)
Wow, OK, this conversation requires a strong martini or some other adult beverage, so come and find me after the show if you want to talk all things Medea! The use of the word, "unhappy" is very interesting in this question. I think if you were to ask Medea if she was "unhappy," she would say that she is frustrated and enraged from the constant betrayal of men who have promised her one thing, and then gone back on their word. I think Medea finds herself entangled in these situations because that is an inevitable path of a powerful woman. Not much has changed in our current society. No man can stand to be her equal. In this way, Medea becomes an allegory for the lack of gender parity in our contemporary society. (Woah, about to draft an outline to a PhD dissertation or something from that question...)
I will say that Medea's unhappiness comes from her mistreatment as an outsider. She is seen as a barbarian because she comes from a society across the sea from Greece, has darker features, and doesn't fit into the usual social norms. I think so many people (people of color, the LGBTQ community, etc) can relate to this because there is a deep trauma from being treated as "other." A way this specifically manifests is in Medea's ability to love, the way that she loves, and the inappropriateness of this love within the ancient Greco/Roman (Western) culture. I always saw Medea's greatest down fall in that she loved Jason too much and in a way that was not appropriate for a woman to love a spouse. Marriage was much more contractual in that culture, so it was totally appropriate for Jason to nullify that contract for a better prospect that put him in the political position he wanted, to become King.
And if you could have a mythological superpower, what would it be?
Definitely controlling time, mostly to take long naps. Directing opera and papier-macheing puppets is EXHAUSTING!
One of the goals of this project is to showcase women in the arts - we have an all-female cast and a majority-female production team. What has this experience been like for you so far?
Right before beginning rehearsals for TESEO:MEDEA, I had just come from directing a program of works by female composers and performed by an all female cast in Boston, MA. Continuing this work back to back with CantantiPoject has been a bit surreal, actually! Women in the arts have to work much harder than their male counterparts, because competition is so much steeper for them. Often, only 25% or less of roles in any given production are played by women, and the statistics are even lower when it comes to women behind the scenes. Our conversations in the rehearsal room are very much centered in empowerment, making choices that create fully dimensional and relate-able characters, all within a safe space to share our own experiences as women.
We hope TESEO:MEDEA inspires other female/female-identifying artists and audience members. What do you hope they’ll take away after seeing this production?
When I go to the theatre or experience any type of performing arts, I am most inspired when I leave the theater and am suddenly able to see the world around me through a new lens created by the specific aesthetic of that artistic experience. I believe that performing arts have the power to transform us, and that is my goal with TESEO:MEDEA. In our production, every character on stage is a strong warrior, and all are portrayed by female artists. I hope that when the audience comes away from the experience, they will see the women around them through a new lens, and as the true warriors that we all are. Being a women in our society is an epic and constant battle; fighting for pay equity, fighting for the right to make decisions about our own bodies, the battle for gender parity in leadership and representation in our government, and these struggles we take on every day are often unnoticed or invisible to our male counterparts.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I am thrilled to be making my NYC directing debut with this exciting production thanks to Joyce and Laura's leadership of CantantiProject, and to work with an amazing cast of women warriors!