The Water Becomes a Character: A Conversation with 'Metamorphoses' Director Theresa Lang

December 06, 2018 John Mirisola

Since its debut in 1996, Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses has become a modern classic of American theater. The Tony Award–winning play’s hallmark feature is the body of water constructed on the stage—in this production, a river—which serves as a shifting setting for these unforgettable retellings of ancient myths of transformation.

Ahead of Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s Center Stage production of Metamorphoses, we spoke with Theresa Lang, the play’s director and a professor of theater at the Conservatory. She shares her thoughts on the power of classic stories, the dramatic possibilities water creates on stage, and how not assigning cast members specific roles for the first couple weeks of rehearsals helped shape the production.

What do you think has given this play such staying power?

There is something that continues to resonate about the classic stories, and Zimmerman strikes such a chord with these particular tales. It is both surprising and familiar—the stories are part of our cultural context even if we don't necessarily know them all by name.

As a director, what has excited you especially about this script? And how do you set about putting your own mark on such a distinctive play?

I am completely enamored with story and consider that the heart of what I do. So a play about storytelling is interesting, and I like the challenge of figuring out how you do that while maintaining a high theatricality and the necessary mysticism of these stories. And the water—getting to use the literal elements on stage is such fun. Also, the very notion of metamorphoses—of transformation. That is what theater can be at its best.

But I was mostly interested in figuring out how this telling could be significant. This company, in this moment—how could we tell these stories in a way that was truthful and meaningful for who we are and where we come from?

At what point in rehearsals do you start to work with water in the pool? What are some of the challenges involved with a play that requires a big pool of water on stage? And what sorts of dramatic possibilities does this kind of set open up?

We will only have six rehearsal days in the water before we have an audience. The challenges are huge—from a design and technical perspective, of course. How do you make something that looks good and how can it be executed in a way that is safe and secure and within the resource constraints? And for the actors, the water is a whole other character that is introduced.

One of the things unique about our set is that while the script describes a large pool, I was more interested in moving water, so we have ended up with a rock-lined creek and two smaller pools. They symbolize change and rebirth and transition and all kinds of things. Water is the source of life. It is the most essential element, and I wanted to create a waterway that had a source.

The play consists largely of stories adapted from Ovid’s poem (also titled Metamorphoses). Is there a myth you were particularly excited to stage?

Oh, I have come to fall in love with them all in their way! The story of Orpheus and Eurydice of course has such a powerful pull; but at the same time, Eros and Psyche—or really any of the myths— offer something valuable in a thematic or philosophical way. Each also has such rich theatrical possibility, so we had a lot of fun finding ways to explore each myth.

What kinds of conversations have you had with the cast and crew about this play’s themes?

We spent the first couple of weeks working with the idea of collective storytelling, and talking about myth, ritual, and tradition. It was really important that this ensemble brought themselves into the work, and we didn't even assign roles until we were two weeks in. I wanted them to have the sense that the entire piece is all of their stories to tell.

You’ve written a book on dramaturgy, which is a term I don’t think many people outside of the theater world understand very well. How would you describe what a dramaturg does, and how does that work apply when you’re shaping a production like Metamorphoses?

Dramaturgy is the context of a production. A dramaturg actively considers the information and point-of-view that the company needs in the making of the piece, as well as what the audience needs to fully experience it. The dramaturg is an artistic collaborator who is able to look at the entirety of the production and help navigate the creative team through the process of creation. Being a dramaturg is part of all my work—it is how you shape a narrative and how you select the necessary information and content you provide. This play required some traditional dramaturgical work in terms of the context of the myths, but also a close attention to the particular kind of piece we wanted to bring to our audience.

Anything else you’d like to add about this production?

It was such a great chance to work collaboratively on the artistic elements—the design and composing have been these iterative processes that came through conversation and trying things out. It's how I like to work in the rehearsal room and is such a boon to have that kind of organic process in the design elements as well. And as for the ensemble, they are an incredibly talented group of young artists; but the thing that I have been really awed by is how willing they have been to dive into a process that for some was unfamiliar and that required them to really trust and hold space for each other. It has been such a pleasure to get to watch them create, and I can't wait to see what they bring to the audience.

I have also been thinking a lot about our relationship to story and why we keep telling the same stories. For a while, I was thinking that we tell them over and over because we keep making the same mistakes—which is true, but as we started to really think about those who tell us the stories, the keepers of the lore, I moved away from the idea of repeating mistakes and started to think more about how we tell these stories because we have survived them before. The storytellers aren't offering cautionary tales, they are offering optimism and solace.

Zimmerman offers us this beautiful, magical telling of parts of our cultural selves that bring us together. Going back to the idea of the elements: we share earth, water, and air; and it is music and story that actually connect us.

Metamorphoses comes to the Boston Conservatory Theater December 12 through 15 as part of Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s Center Stage curated performance collection. For tickets and more information, visit bostonconservatory.berklee.edu/center-stage.