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Myths, Monsters, and Medusa: An Interview with Director Denise Yvette Serna

Updated: Nov 20, 2019

Ophelia. Medea. Medusa. These are just a few of the many tragic, fictional heroines made famous for their prophetic speech, unsettling presence, and severe mistreatment from men before meeting a glorious, but violent end. Despite these figures being decades old, there's a reason why these names stay in our mouths today. One of them is the need to free these figures from their flawed fates. Instead of accepting their original stories at face value, there's a desire to explore the layers between the cracks, tell their truths, and release the details that their authors didn't care to divulge.

Medusa kindles this urge for justice for its titular heroine, and so much more. Through an hour long devised performance of lyrical movement, fixating sounds, and told by a deeply connected ensemble, director Denise Yvette Serna crafts a transformative work. It forces audiences to reckon with how the world takes a toll physically, emotionally and mentally on the female body. Monsters are not born, but created, and have always existed even in disguise. Whether through a devilishly handsome boy with a savior complex or a woman forced to contort herself under a male gaze in competition with her sisters, there's a godlike patriarchal power that hangs above this universe, razored politically sharp and unforgiving.

Medusa made a mini tour in Chicago allowing its performances to be shaped by distinctly different venues including Read/Write Library, Pilsen Outpost, Steppenwolf Theatre

(as a part of their LookOut series), Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, and En Las Tablas Performing Arts. The nature of its tour mirrors intentions of Serna and Pop Magic Productions in bringing the work to audiences instead of making them work for it. Audience interaction is based on level of comfort and accessibility is not a priority, but a mandate for all to be able to participate. Its efforts are fortified with the spellbound talents of its ensemble (Michaela Petro, Terri Lynne Hudson, Melody DeRogatis, Jenn Geiger, Mari DeOleo, River Coello, and Electra Tremulis), who each masquerade as Medusa and other players. And it would be a tragedy of Greek proportions to not mention the underestimated efforts of dramaturg/translator Emma Pauly.

In association with Global Hive Laboratories and En Las Tablas Performing Arts, Pop Magic and Serna's Medusa pioneer experimental, inspired work that's unlike most happening in the U.S. It doesn't abide by traditional theatrical standards, but challenges them navigating necessary, thrilling waters in a breathless, weathered voyage. Check out our interview with director/lead deviser, Denise Yvette Serna, who reflects on the seeds that planted the idea for Medusa, where the piece will appear next, and how Ovid got it all so wrong.

Pictured above: The Chicago ensemble of 'Medusa'. Photo by Gregory Hollis.

How did the idea for Medusa come to you?

I discussed current events and the conversations in the theatre community with the other facilitators last summer. We would have Google hangouts and brainstorm at odd hours to accommodate everyone's time zone. I saw a Tumblr meme about Medusa, and couldn't stop thinking about it. I shared it in one of our meetings, and it took hold of us. 

Prior to arriving in Chicago, Medusa previously toured Europe. What was that experience and the audience reception like?

We did a series of workshops in London, Paris, and Piacenza. Those workshops were week long devising intensives. We would train and devise all day, and the facilitators would stay up all night in various hostels, couches, and coffee shops of our host cities, figuring out what it all meant so we could be ready to keep working the next day. At the end of each workshop, we presented the work as an open rehearsal, and one of many drafts. Each city explored the myth from a different theme, and so we were able to create really beautiful, really contrasting expressions of the story. 

Audiences were so on board. We had amazing conversations with folks about what they were feeling. They were curious about the things we were learning, and how they were responsible as well for how their communities were able to access art. They challenged us, and brought up questions we hadn't thought of before. We had feedback forms as well, and we really used their ideas and suggestions to support the development of the process each time we did it. 

The play opens with the ensemble introducing themselves, what role(s) they’ll be playing, and their physical appearances. What went into the decision making process to begin the piece this way?

This kind of actor description would be included in a Touch Tour. Both the Touch Tour and Audio Description are services for folks who are blind or have low-vision. The Touch Tour consists of a brief artistic discussion by the actors and director, a detailed description of the stage area by the audio describer, and the opportunity for audience members to take a walking and tactile tour of the stage. The Audio Description is a live, audio guide of visual aspects within the show which audience members receive through earphones. We are trying to devise theatre that integrates this experience into the piece itself, allowing all audiences to experience the programming. In a future iteration, it might look different. The process evolves.

Medusa will soon be returning to London. What excites you about the next incarnation? Any new discoveries you’re going in with?

We will be presenting in two different venues, both of which are theatres. The Chicago tour was decidedly other kinds of spaces, which affected how we shaped the piece. Katie Merritt, who will direct that ensemble, is a brilliant director. She's been devising with us from the start, and bringing her eye, elegance, and experience with choral movement. I'm eager to see the piece in her hands. 

Pictured above: The Chicago ensemble of 'Medusa'. Photo by Gregory Hollis.

The show produces many stunning visualizations from movement accompanied by soundscapes. Describe one of your favorite images or moments in the show.

I really loved the scene with Medusa and her sisters. The movement that the cast created through their work with Earl T. Kim was stunning - and the scene was the product of a really fun day of generation. It made me really proud.

If you could be any Greek god, Gorgon or hero, who would it be and why?

I would be Medusa's sister, Euryale. In our version, she's kind of a wandering musician.

Medusa explores perceptions of masculinity, femininity, and traditional storytelling with a clear hero, conquest, and villain. What messages have you taken away about these concepts through this work?

We started this process devising Ovid's version of the myth. It wasn't until we started working with our Chicago dramaturg Emma Pauly, that we knew Medusa was a much older, much more powerful idea than he presented. We had no idea. And that made us angry. We took the same plot events, and said, how might this story be filled with feminine agency, joy, lust, power, and grotesqueness? How different might our world be if there were more images like that imprinted in our mythology? Not a victim. Not a tragedy. Not a monster. Not a Woman in a Refrigerator (a trope I had never heard of before this). In a mythology where those ideas carry the story, a woman can enjoy a physical connection because she wanted to, because she felt like it, and maybe not have to have her head cut off for it. 

In a mythology where "unconventional" beauty is paired with strength, intelligence, and compassion, anyone can be the protagonist, not just the fair damsels. 



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