The Making of a Play

Interview with Co-director Anna Crandall about Two Rivers Theatre Group’s production of Metamorphoses

By D. Elizabeth Cohen

Anna CrandallQ. Can you tell me about Theater at Two Rivers?

A. Theater at Two Rivers is a theater program run by Open Hearts Open Minds with prisoners at Two Rivers Correctional Institution, a men’s medium security prison in Umatilla, Oregon. Johnny Stallings started the program and ran it for quite a while – I want to say 5 years but maybe it was longer – and previously they were only doing Shakespeare plays except for one year when they did a contemporary play, 12 Angry Men. The way it always worked is that they spent half the year in a dialogue group and the other half in rehearsals leading up to a performance of a play usually in the fall. This year two other directors – Patrick Walsh and Victoria Spencer – and myself have taken over the program, giving Johnny Stallings a chance to step back a bit. And the program has been reformatted so that the dialogue group and rehearsals are happening simultaneously.

Q. How many men are in the group?

A. Right now there are 13. Last year there were 20 or so. It fluctuates based on what year it is. Next year we will open it up to a new group – it will be the existing members of the group plus as many others as we can fit in. There is a waiting list already.

Q. Can you tell me a about the play Metamorphoses?

A. It’s a contemporary play by playwright Mary Zimmerman, and it’s based on Ovid’s poem, Metamorphoses. Mary Zimmerman frequently creates her plays through a process called “devised theater”; as opposed to sitting down as a playwright and writing a play, she starts with a classic text and works with a group of actors and a director to create an original play based on the classic stories. So Metamorphoses, the play that we are doing, uses a lot of contemporary language but stays true to the poetry and themes of the original piece of writing by Ovid.

Q. Something significant that recently occurred is that you removed a scene from Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses and replaced it with another scene that your group created. Why was the original scene removed?

A. The Department of Corrections, which approves all of the literature that we perform, requested that the scene be removed because it presents issues that could be troubling to its prisoner audience – the story of Myrrha and her father Cinyras is an incestuous story of the unrequited and illicit love of a daughter for her father.

Q. What process did you use to create the new scene?

A. First we talked about the importance in the play of the scene that we removed. Because the play has an arc of action and emotion, when we remove part of it, we need to do justice to that part and ensure that what it’s being replaced with is holding the same space in the play. So we had a conversation with the whole group about what the removed part represented, and we agreed that an important theme was shame – it was a shameful scene and a low point in the play dealing with unrequited love and the lower parts of human nature.

In taking all of these things into consideration, one of our participants came up with the idea of replacing the scene with the story of Echo and Narcissus, also in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. That story is about the nymph Echo, cursed by the gods to repeat the last thing she hears as her only utterance, who unfortunately falls in love with the self-involved Narcissus. He cruelly rejects her, and she pines for him for so long that she wastes away until all that is left of her is her voice. So it is another sad story about unrequited love that fits really well as a replacement.

The way we devised the new portion of the script is we took the poem of Echo and Narcissus (translated by Rolfe Humphries) and broke it up into pieces by chronological order. We divided the participants into groups, and each group worked with a different section of the poem and did some writing and movement to figure out how to represent it on stage. They answered the following questions. Who are the characters? What are they saying? What music should be playing? Then we took all of the pieces that the groups came up with and integrated it into a whole scene, and that’s what we’re working with.

Q. How does everyone feel about the new script?

A. I think it’s great, and the actors feel good about it as well. I’m continually impressed by the work of all of our actors. They’re so creative and have such interesting things to share. And I think they’re very brave for tackling something that even a lot of professional actors would be fearful of. It doesn’t surprise me at all that we came up with something really fantastic.


See our photo gallery from the play "Metamorphoses".