If something resonated with people thousands of years ago, what are the odds you could expand on it, tweak it a bit, and shift perspectives to bring out a fresh, compelling narrative? I’d say the chances are solid — it’s something I love to see writers do. It’s like if you took an old gong, something that’s been ringing loud and true for centuries, and hooked it up to a stack of high-decibel speakers. Those same notes are going to ring out, except louder and maybe a bit differently.
This is what Margaret Atwood did with her novella and the adapted play, The Penelopiad. It’s a story that focuses on the life and times of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. The original story of The Odyssey is shifted, re-imagined and amplified to focus on the realities of class, gender and power. It’s a story that resonated with many people, one of them being Kristen Finlay, who is now bringing The Penelopiad to Walterdale Theatre.
“It was kind of cool to be able to tell a story with a full cast of women playing all the roles,” Finlay says, mentioning that often more than 75 per cent of people who audition at Walterdale shows are women. This also ties in with the themes that the original script expresses and is something that Finlay wants to explore. “I like the story. I like the retelling of the Greek myth,” she says. “There’s themes that are definitely a part of this. In terms of power dynamics set back in the time, that are still relevant today.” It’s a story filled with nuance, complex ideas, and moments of intimacy and action that Finlay and her team are well equipped to do.
Finlay has been doing shows at the Walterdale since 2006. In her career, she has performed about every position possible in live theatre, from set designer to actor to even working as Walterdale’s creative director. Outside of theatre, she works as a schoolteacher, which she says influences her ability to direct. “Maybe because I’m a teacher, I like being at the front and kind of orchestrating, but then letting people in their own way shine.” But something Finlay really enjoys about storytelling are the surprises.
“Sometimes you get a reaction you don’t expect, and that’s really cool,” she says, and as a director, she is keenly tuned into the musings of the crowd during a performance. Often she pays more attention to the audience than anything else and remarks on how each performance can give a different reaction. Or how her cast can give different perspectives on how to convey the story.
The thing about live theatre is that it’s supposed to surprise you. Each performance has its own opportunity to be interpreted in a different way to be performed in a different tone. Each production of the same script can be vastly different from one another, with each individual actor, set designer, and lighting technician choosing to amplify and expand on the different qualities of production. This is the joy of live theatre, and it’s very similar to how Margaret Atwood took this ancient epic and played it out in her own way. Now Finlay takes that idea and, with her excellent team, fine-tunes it in a vision that will resonate with people right here in Edmonton.
Set sail for Walterdale Theatre to catch The Penelopiad May 3 to 13.