Roman Holiday w Stuart Bousel

I had a great experience writing this commission, and the resulting play, Sanctuary at the Oak Grove, is my favorite play of mine in years (here’s a monologue from the play). In light of the momentous occasion of its completion (there’s still a little work to be done, but it’s all there), I decided to talk to Stuart Bousel, founder of SF Olympians, and my personal vote for best facebook threads of all time, about how this project came to fruition, what it’s about, and where it’s going.

Come to the fest, in San Francisco in October, and if you’re feeling inclined, throw in!

by SF Olympians Art Director Cody Rishell

How did you come up with the idea for SF Olympians?

I came up with the idea for the SF Olympians Festival while I was directing a production of Aristophanes’ THE FROGS. I was remarking one day to an actor in the show that part of me loves Greek theater so much I had occasionally wished for a venue dedicated entirely to producing the extant Greek plays and performing or developing new work based on Greek mythology. I then jokingly said, “I’d also commission a new play about each of the 12 Olympians Gods, and we’d produce one a month for one year.” And this actor was like, “That’s awesome, you should do that.” And I started thinking about it and I thought, “okay, maybe I could do this.”

But of course, I didn’t have the resources to produce 12 shows, but 12 readings… that I could do. And that first year I did produce the whole festival myself, and it was 15 writers for 12 gods (there was a team of 3 writing for Poseidon), and my boyfriend, Cody, was like, “I bet I could find 12 artists to make 12 bitchin’ posters for the festival” and that’s basically how it all came to pass. Honestly though, I never expected the festival to actually be a hit. So that first year I thought we’d do this thing, and it would be fun, and that would be that. But then over 700 people attended that first year and everyone was like “So what are we doing next year?” and now here was are, in year 9.

You have produced and made alot of your own projects, as have I. Sometimes I feel like this provides for lots of artistic freedom, and other times, due to budget constraints, or being relatively unknown, quite the reverse. What’s your experience been like?

My experience as an indie artist, which is how I prefer to think of myself, rather than as a producer, is that it’s like everything else and exactly like you describe: full of perks, and full of pitfalls, and a mixed bag with some genuine highs and some genuine lows. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have many experiences as an artist who is a member of a company or working for someone else, and the same can be said of those experiences: there’s good things and not so good things, freedoms and limitations. There’s no perfect solution for anyone, or at least not for me. So, my approach has been to not limit myself or categorize myself too strictly.

I entertain all offers, even if I don’t accept them all, and when I want to work on something and can’t find a satisfactory avenue of production through someone else, my experience of opening those doors myself has been rewarding enough that I feel confident taking that route. As long as I go in accepting whatever limitations there may be, I usually find most experiences rewarding. But on a very basic level do I also sort of sweat bullets whenever I have to fundraise for or back a project myself and does that factor into my choice of when that level of stress is actually worth it? Absolutely. Resources, or the lack there of, always influence the production of art, whether you’re helming the ship or not.

What is it about the god & goddess stories and characters that makes you want to bring them back to life?

I don’t think gods and goddesses actually do need to be brought back to life- I think they’re always with us in one way or another, whether we realize it consciously or not. Mythology is so deeply embedded into our culture that we’re basically swimming in it everywhere we go and every time we open our mouths, we just don’t usually realize it. Greek and Roman mythology, in particular, is a huge part of our Western Identity, partly because of the one-time pervasiveness of the Roman Empire and partly because of the Romantics reviving interest in Greek and Roman mythology just in time for the even wider pervasiveness of the British Empire.

But you can’t really talk about Greek and Roman mythology without talking about Egyptian mythology, and the ancient religions of the Middle East, and the Celts and other Northern European tribes and so over time the festival has expanded from being strictly Greek mythology to including a sampling of these. To go back to your original question, I think these stories remain relevant not just because of how threaded into our culture they already are, but because they tap into two very basic human needs: the need to understand and explain something, and the need to express or articulate a sense of wonder. Mythology serves both needs very well.

Before embarking on this project, I had only a cursory understanding of Roman mythology, or really mythology of any kind, but now I’m pretty much obsessed. Do writers typically come in with a good working knowledge of their subject? And have there been any big surprises of interpretation over the years?

Some writers definitely come to the festival with a good working knowledge of mythology, or a passion for it- it certainly attracts writers who already know and love the classical myths- but most, I think, are only passingly familiar or entirely new to mythology, and part of what makes the festival exciting is that opportunity for enrichment or exploring a figure they’ve heard of and want to know more about. It’s why one of the requirements of the Festival is that they all have to do a little research on that figure, and post that research on the website.

That said, every now and then it has gotten back to me that some writers don’t apply to the festival because they are worried it’s too esoteric for them, or that they won’t be able to find a way in for themselves due to the subject matter, or that they worry they’re expected to do some kind of strict or academic interpretation. But the truth is, we’ve always been very loose, at the Festival, regarding just how much the subject myth of any given project needs to play a role in the final product, and there are have been some shows at the festival that are only connected to the source mythology in the most tangential sense. There have been really good examples of strict interpretations, and there have been really good examples of loose or “inspired by” interpretations, but I’d probably say that of my personal favorites over the years, most are usually the ones which take the source material and adhere to it but totally reinvent it in this crazy, unexpected way that makes the myth feel truly relevant again.

Do you think there are any modern myths being created? Like what gods and goddesses would be SF Olympians feature in it’s 2,000th season?

There are no new myths under the Sun… or Moon. That said, all ancient myths are constantly being recreated, retold, and made relevant to a new audience. So, the answer is, yes, I do think modern myths are being shared all the time. Which is better than being created. If SF Olympians hit a 2,000th season- and it wont’, we’re capping it at 12 seasons- I would posit you could still be doing the old gods, because there’s always something new to be said about them, even if it’s just exploring what their new faces are for new audiences. Because that’s all any new god really is. An old god with a new twist- a new face.

Do you think, culturally and speaking of the western world, we’re heading toward deepening our religious beliefs or chucking them off altogether?
I’ve always been someone who believes that there’s a big difference between being spiritual and being religious, and generally speaking I do think we’re seeing the end of organized religion as we know it, though I would also argue that it is probably evolving more than ending, and those religions which can evolve in a way that allows them to still serve a purpose for a community, will continue to be with us in the future. Most humans have a part of them that yearns for something bigger than themselves, something that makes us feel less alone in the universe and more connected with one another and the world around us, and spirituality is really all about that, while religion tends to be more about rituals and rules that help us achieve the mental state wherein we feel that mystical connection to the Great Other, or whatever. I’m actually a big fan of ritual, and I think it can serve all kinds of useful purpose, and help us process things, or endow us with a sense of structure and tradition, and there is an aesthetic to it as well that I personally enjoy, but rules kind of rub me wrong in general, and I definitely don’t like anything or anyone doing the thinking for me, and that aspect of many religions of the past and present is not appealing and, I hope, on its way out.

Come check it out! And if you’re so inclined, throw in some cash, and of course follow the fest on facebook.

SF Olympians Festival, October

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