Q&A with Johanna Hedva: She Work, a collaboration with Nickels Sunshine
Since 2012, artist and writer Johanna Hedva (formerly Johanna Kozma) has been writing and directing a series of plays that she now refers to as The Greek Cycle. The plays are adaptations of ancient Greek texts that, in the author’s words, “have been rewritten to respond to feminist and queer political discourse, and relocated into contemporary contexts.” Each play has been developed in close collaboration with their performers, and each has taken place in an unusual location–Odyssey Odyssey, for example, was an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey that took place inside of a moving Honda Odyssey.
On July 11, Hedva will open She Work, the fourth and final play in The Greek Cycle. An adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, She Work was developed with body-based artist Nickels Sunshine (formerly Nick Duran). It will be performed at d e e p s l e e e p, a private apartment that doubles as an art space. In advance of this concluding work, I conducted the following email interview with Hedva. To preserve the nuances of Hedva’s voice, the text is largely unedited from its original form.
Carol Cheh: Where does your acute interest in Greek plays come from? Why does adapting them for queer and feminist discourse appeal to you?
Johanna Hedva: my short answer to “why the greeks?” has always been “because they need it.” my longer answer is that i have a deep and complicated love/hate relationship with these stories, and couldn’t think of anything better to do in terms of storytelling. whenever i thought about adapting and directing a story, i kept falling into the greeks — probably because these are “original” stories in terms of their influence in western culture, and can be traced in many of the narratives circulating today in all kinds of art, and also because of their mythic-ness, their expanse and specificity. they are as big as cathedrals, oceans. also, i’ve had a tragic life, and find that i’m drawn to tragedy as a comfort (not a lesson). i like myths in and of themselves, and as cultural functions, as seen on a spectrum alongside or counterpoint to intimacy (my other fave), and i like a good story, so to that end, there’s really nothing better than the wildness of an ancient greek myth.
however, of course, of course, however, they are problematic af and deeply troubling when it comes to gender (and race also, to some extent, though xenophobia is probably a better word). we must remember that all the classic greek plays that we consider pillars, even lol mothers, of the archetypal western civilization narrative, were written by men, performed by men, and seen only by men (though the latter is debated, as we have no firm evidence). euripides knew he was writing only for men when he created medea, for example, just think about that. i mean, holy fuck.
in ancient greece, to go to the theatre was an act of citizenship, an act of political participation. but the citizens of the polis were only and always men. women were an enslaved class in ancient athens, the city we consider to be the first democracy, the model upon which we base our american idea of political life. but in athens, just as in america until not too long ago (like, black women weren’t given the right to vote until the 1960s), women were altogether banished from the political sphere: they were relegated to “the private” sphere, and therefore the unseen and the unimportant.
i guess, the work of “queering” or “feministing” these stories wasn’t there as an explicit mission at the beginning, but quickly emerged in the process, i think because everything i do is a queering/feministing project.
CC: Can you talk about the four plays’ relationship to one another? Were they all conceived together as a large project, or did each one emerge on its own?
JH: they were not originally conceived together or even as a cycle or body of work, but have been borne along by all kinds of instigation throughout the years. for example, there’s time, the third play, which is based on euripides’ first extant text, alcestis, came to me because i had a psychic reading from asher hartman, wherein he told me, “the next play you do will be alcestis.” i didn’t even know who alcestis was in this moment, so went home and looked her up. at the time, i was having a resurgence of swirling death anxiety (it comes in waves), and so when i read about her story, i knew i had to do it.
CC: How was She Work conceived and developed? What inspired it?
JH: i suppose what inspired it, conceived it, incited it, was the moment when nick duran approached me after a showing of there’s time, and asked, “do you ever work with men?” i said yes, and she said, “because i want to be a queen.” in that moment, our medea was born.
CC: Tell us about the process that you and Nickels have for writing the play together.
JH: each of the plays in the cycle has been intensely collaborative, but each with its own flavor and needs. the process of working with nickels has been perhaps the most personal and intimate. in the other plays, i’d write the script alone, by myself, in isolation save for the original texts and their translations. this’d go on for months, and then when i’d have it “working” i’d present it to the performers, and from there, we’d go back and forth in rehearsal on how the words lived in their bodies and adjust it accordingly (with the exception of motherload).
but with nickels, right away, we dug in together, not only to the text, but to who medea was, how she’s been portrayed historically, what politics are bound up in this story, now versus then, et cetera, et cetera. i’d write a little bit of text (that would sometimes include excerpts from nickels’s own journals), bring it to rehearsal, and it would start to live between us. this has been going on nearly a year, so has been cushioned by a lot of time, back and forth, back and forth, nickels memorizing lines, playing them out, my observations of how that feels, her observations of how it feels, what emerges, and then adjust, change, add, subtract, veer away, go deeper.
CC: The location for this work changed during the course of planning. Can you talk about what the site of the performance will mean to the work?
JH: all of my practice has an ambivalent relationship with the institution of the art world and its commercial market; and specifically, the greek cycle has been in critical dialogue with conventional venues for theater and art, so as to see what possible meaning can be made when all components of the work — down to the chairs or lack thereof — are up for grabs. i am just not very comfortable in traditional settings of any kind, especially those within art; like, white-walled galleries and the economies attached to them usually make me itch. so each of these plays has taken place in some kind of “non”-traditional space: a moving van, the hallway of a school.
she work was always to take place in a home, medea’s home, but it drifted around that term and place and its meanings for some time, before nestling in to my actual home, an apartment in macarthur park. earlier this year, i started thinking of my home as a place “for” art: its contemplation, production, exhibition, as well as its content and, even, its own audience. i’ve been calling it d e e p s l e e e p. she work will be the first thing to happen here that’s open to the public; i’ve “shows” by other artists currently in the works too, including an exhibition of medea’s drawings.
for some years now, i’ve been thinking about the bed as the only site left where we can resist and overthrow capitalism, but this year that site expanded to include the home. this is foremost a feminist gesture toward rethinking where politics happen, but also a gesture toward making places for different kinds of bodies to be attended to and made comfortable, in order to move toward a state of radical openness and critical discursivity. bell hooks, my leader, dislikes the term “safe space,” and instead calls for a space that can be trusted, so that risk can happen. i like that.
CC: I know each of the plays is unique, but She Work feels special, almost like a culmination. Perhaps this is because of the significant life transitions and challenges that both you and Nickels have undergone while the play was being developed? I think it’s worth noting that trauma and attendant questions of agency is a strong theme in all the plays.
JH: trauma is absolutely core to this cycle. and so of course also: coping. i don’t think the greeks would like me using that word, but it’s a sound description of what is at work on all levels. very much, i’ve been “coping” with these texts, their misogyny and sexism and heteronormativity and xenophobia, as well as their centrality to my and our culture’s consciousness around stories, and indeed, politics, in the same way that the characters are “coping” with their own fucked-up circumstances, the tragedies that befall them, the gods baffling their plans, the presence of chaos in their lives.
the cycle has also occurred during a time in my life that has been, if not completely traumatic, then nothing short of “character-building,” in all meanings of that term. the first play, motherload, based on euripides’ hecuba, came in the wake of the most devastating period of my adult life: a miscarriage, divorce, mental breakdown, and involuntary hospitalization when i was 27. the second, odyssey odyssey, based on episode five of homer’s the odyssey, was my contending with men and masculinity, and attending to the various things, which include trauma, that i’ve felt at the hands of that. there’s time is very explicitly my work around my fear of death and my fear of love.
and medea, well, that’s just the mothership. it is everything. i’ve been saying that this play is a “reckoning with ‘female’ rage,” and this word “reckoning” is key (as are of course the quotes around the word “female”). all of the plays have grappled with gender, specifically “woman”-ness, and how that’s been historically performed and represented, how that’s been born from this greek blueprint, and my relationship to all of it; i’ve tried to expose the labor around my reckonings with gender in all of the plays, but in medea it is front and center in all of its ambivalence and confusing-ness.
yesterday in rehearsal, i had a minor epiphany about the character’s relationship to her own story as being one of antagonism: our medea is antagonistic not only to jason and her circumstances, but also to euripides, her author, and the history of her representations, and the myth she has become. she is acutely aware of the violence done to her in terms of her location within a politics of representation, and she disagrees with it, and wants to reclaim her own space.
also, our medea has paralleled major transformations for both nickels and me this last year. nickels went through a debilitating injury that sidelined her for months. then, at our first rehearsal, she “came out” to me as a genderfluid person. i was the first person she’d told. we have since enfolded the work around this process for her, making our medea gender non-comforming, as well as directly addressing how gender gets performed, how it both works and does not, from a queer perspective, and from a trans or fluid perspective. alongside this, i also decided to make public my queerness and my “sickness” (i’m a spoonie), and be explicit about it in my life and work. this happened because i went through another six-month flare-up of my chronic illnesses, that had me confined to the bed, then wheelchair, and then the house, unable to do anything, for months. the only thing available to me as a means of surviving the day was my work, and embracing my body, my healing, and coping, as a site of resistance, as a protesting body.
in all aspects, yes, she work is a culmination. i think it’s the first time i’ve integrated my daily world into my work in a successful way, one that is both immersive and critical. it’s also a culmination of my working with the greeks, in that it’s the end, the cycle is done after this. no more greeks.