To a god sitting atop Mount Olympus, no landscape might seem more foreign than the trailer parks of Montana. But bringing mythic power into working class America is exactly what playwright and choreographer Joe Goode plans to do Mythic Montana, a work in progress on the U.C. Berkeley campus.
After years of teaching appointments at UC Berkeley, Joe Goode has now joined the full-time faculty of the Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies Department. He brings 15 years of experience with his own San Francisco-based company, the Joe Goode Performance Group. His work has won national recognition, including a New York Dance and Performance Award and two Bay Area Isadora Duncan Dance Awards. Mythic Montana, opening in late spring at Zellerbach Playhouse and the Yerba Buena Center, will be his first project as a full-time Berkeley instructor.
"What appeals to me about Greek myth is that you never know what's going to happen," Goode says. "The gods are capricious, and people are forced into situations they don't want to be in. It seems there's a lesson to be learned in a culture where we feel we're very much in control over our own destiny."
This vision of life as a continual surprise is a theme throughout Goode's work. It also governs his own creative process. Before he sits down to write, Goode workshops with his actors and dancers, deriving what he calls a "physical score" for the piece. As the performers explore their characters, a whole set of movements and relationships unfolds, and Goode uses these to develop the text. The result is what Goode calls a "very physical approach to theater," an intricate blend of language and movement emerging out of the actor's own being.
Goode's method brings to mind the Luigi Pirandello play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, in which a group of characters bypasses the playwright to tell their own story. "It's exactly like that," says Goode, laughing. "I really do want the characters to reveal themselves. It's an exciting way of working, because there's a kind of authorship in the performance that is key to making great theater."
The students in Goode's UC Berkeley group will have a chance to experience this kind of authorship firsthand. Their work will be instrumental in creating a piece that Goode later plans to take to UCLA and Cal State at Long Beach. The goal, Goode says, is to come up with a well-balanced interplay of speech and movement, Greek chorus and dance parts, all rooted in real human experience.
"If you think back to early theater, tribal traditions where we wrote on the cave wall and danced around the fire, there was ultimately no separation between the performers and the characters they played," Goode says. "Often the purpose of these performances was to elevate the spiritual tradition of the tribe, and a key to that spiritual experience is the performer's involvement."
This approach was demonstrated recently in What the Body Knows, a piece by the Joe Goode Performance Group. Onstage, the face of the central character is projected onto a 20-by-20 foot screen, magnifying all her expressions. The audience watches her facially take on different elements of her surroundings, empathizing with the various people she meets. "The actress who played the part is, in fact, an incredibly empathetic person," Goode says. "Her character became a wild enlargement of something that's very real for her. In the process of working through something of her own, she was enlightening us all."
Goode calls this kind of personal identification "powerful and risky." But he sees it as an essential component in all his theater, the only authentic way to bring the divine forces of Mount Olympus onto the stage of modern life. "I'm not just up here doing Shaw or Ibsen," he says. "I'm up here doing my life on some level. I think that is a fairly radical approach, and it's one that I believe in."
– Todd Dayton