In the face of an overwhelmingly, unthinkably chaotic world, where those in power and age-old systems show no sign of ever changing, it’s easy to sink into a feeling of eternal dread, where it feels as if anything and everything we do is futile and ultimately, inconsequential. How then do we push on and finding meaning in our actions?
For theatremaker Edith Podesta, that’s a conundrum she explores in one of her favourite ways – reimagining Greek myths to address contemporary issues, as she’s about to do in Inconsequential Goddess, opening the Esplanade’s 2022 season of The Studios. Adapted for the stage from her 2020 radio play of the same name (that premiered during the Singapore Writers Festival), Inconsequential Goddess takes place in a metropolitan city, and turns our attention to the daughter of Arachne, an unnamed goddess who wishes to maintain her anonymity and hide away from anything to do with the world.
At the heart of the play is the theme of shame, and overcoming it to return from hermitage and rejoin society once again. Speaking to Edith, she shared the process and choice to adapt the play in a new form, for new audiences. “The Esplanade reached out to me and gave me this opportunity to do something for The Studios, and I took the chance to revisit this work,” says Edith. “This year’s theme is ‘Nervous System’, and I think Inconsequential Goddess does have a lot to do with that, with the idea of care and how we move forward from trauma and things that deeply affect us.”
“The original play was created during lockdown, at a time when we were all communicating via phone and Zoom, so the oral world was very important to me, and one that I was interested in exploring. In adapting it from radio play to stage, the primary difference was how each episode of the radio play would be preceded by a 10 minute conversation with a specialist in Greek theatre, so we were able to give context to each part, including references to gods and locations,” she adds. “For the live performance though, we will instead be relying on the use of gesture and body, expression and space, with all these visual elements that come into play that carry history and context within them, rather than pre-empting audiences with a history lesson.”
While Inconsequential Goddess is in part based on the myth of the legendary weaver Arachne, Edith has taken the liberty of tweaking and combining the tale with other gods and goddesses from the Pantheon to create this original work, paying particular attention to ideas of weaving and fate. “Arachne has been reimagined as a goddess who weaves people’s futures for them in the underworld, essentially the tapestries of their lives, and planning out what they might learn in the next life before returning to Earth, to the ‘Republic’ based on Singapore and Plato’s Republic,” explains Edith. “She’s woven so many human lives, but now craves the human experience to see what it’s all about. So she comes to the Republic, meets a mortal butcher who’s also a prophet, marries him, and have a baby who becomes the inconsequential goddess. And all throughout, you’ll be hearing this from the point of view of Hecate, the goddess of intersections who holds the keys to all the doors between heaven and hell, who travels wherever she wants and is essentially Arachne’s best friend in this story.”
In so doing, Edith turns the attention away from the original Arachne myth, where she feuded with the goddess Athena over a test of skills (and won), no longer weaving in physical terms, but towards the metaphysical, of possibilities and the future. It suggests itself to be almost hopeful and forward-looking, in opposition to the last time she performed an adaptation of a Greek myth for The Studios in Leda and the Rage (2018), a piece characterised by rage and guilt and being in the moment.
“In Leda and the Rage, I explored rage and violence centred on gender, while in Inconsequential Goddess, I look at the theme of shame, which has a taste and a weight that bears down on us, and is one of the most destructive emotions of all,” says Edith. “For The Studios, I’ve written an ending that’s different from the original radio play to try to uncover the ways we move on from shame, and recover from ourselves. We’re also looking at death and grief, and learning to find the beauty in domestic situation, from sunrise to frogs, just things that bring pleasure, as a great antidote to shame, and to help us navigate out of our personal darkness.”
In saying that, Edith’s words remind us of how overwhelmingly dark and terrifying the last two years of the pandemic have been for the world, filled with death and uncertainty. There are times it is all we can do to focus on the little things in life, to find comfort in routines that us going, and finds order amidst the chaos. That in itself is also linked to Edith’s love for Greek mythology, which she enjoys for their ability to make sense of the tumultuous world we live in.
“I studied ancient history as a young girl and fell in love with Greek myths. Sure, they may not be as old as even say, the Australian Aboriginal myths, but I really adore the way they try to take the reins of chaos and get us into some kind of order, to give us a way of living our life,” says Edith. “Most of them have some kind of moral attached, like the myth of Narcissus tells us not to fall in love with your image, or the original Arachne myth not to be full of yourself. Mythology is so important to us, both then and now. We revisit these myths because they help us make sense of this world that’s so full of war and poverty and uncertainty.”
“Mythology is constantly being recycled, whether it’s by the Romans, or even today, where we can see how even Marvel films have brought Norse mythology into the mainstream with Thor,” she continues. “And by recontextualising and adapting them for the present day, we get to address issues such as the gender disparity, or the way characters are presented. Take the butcher for example, who owns a butchery called ‘Pro-MEAT-heus and Co’, which is a play on the Prometheus myth. He was modelled on some of the men in my life, who have this wonderful way of being in touch with their feelings and being open and vulnerable, and you realise that men learn through violence and peer pressure.”
“In all of my pieces, there is a conversation between men and women, from Bitch: The Origin of the Female Species to Leda and the Rage. And now in Inconsequential Goddessm you have a husband and wife speaking, with a child in the middle of it, learning how to take control of her own life after a traumatising incident that still affects her today. But instead of raging against that violence, she turns the violence inwards onto herself, quietening herself so much because she wants to be inconsequential, she doesn’t want to be hurt, doesn’t want to be heard, and doesn’t want to make any important decisions or be the focus of any discussion. All this shame weighs her down, and it’s such a great tragedy, because she’s a goddess and she can make a difference.”
All of this may be presented in the form of a myth, but of course, has connections to what’s happening in the real world as well. “Shame is something that is closely connected to issues of trauma and gender and sexual violence. In court cases relating to rape and sexual assault, the public tells the victim that if they bring the case to court, the perpetrator will lose years of their life in jail, or will not be able to continue their life as an outstanding member of public if the truth comes out,” says Edith. “So a vast majority of victims decide to remain quiet, because they don’t want the harm that has already been done to them to continue. To end the cycle of violence, they choose to quieten themselves and end up in self-repression. But at least in Inconsequential Goddess, she does try to heal in the end, and realises that no matter what we do, we all have some kind of consequence to someone else out there, your relatives and friends, and even the person on the bus you smile at, everything you do is of consequence.”
In her role as an educator and theatremaker, Edith of course, is anything but inconsequential, having been based here for about 17 years already, and continually contributing to our local arts scene. “For myself as an educator, whether as a mentor at Young & Wild or at Lasalle, I hope at the end of their formal course, I end up being inconsequential to these students, in that they own and internalise the education they have been given, and make the tools, techniques, skills and tricks something that they themselves can use,” says Edith. “I’ll be happy if they can be independent of me, and it gives me a great sense of pride and accomplishment to see them apply their skills in a transferrable way, whether they choose to act or enter a different industry.”
“Looking at these graduates, I do remain very hopeful for the arts scene here, because I see them do things I never imagined myself doing, like hosting TV series, or write and direct their own work, or even if they go into teaching themselves, where they work with younger students to help them express themselves eloquently,” Edith continues. “Acting contains transferable skills that will see someone through to the end of their life, and to see them take those skills into completely different job scopes, working with conservation or working with computers, it just goes to show that an acting degree doesn’t just lend itself to you to become an actor, and it can be a stepping stone to another career, or another passion. I’m very excited for the future of the industry here. It’s flourishing, and if someone cannot find for themselves a place that is ready made, then they end up creating that space for themselves, and I feel like I’m the one that ends up learning from them at the end of their training from the way they apply themselves.”
Coming back to the overarching theme of The Nervous System, Edith feels that there are now more opportunities than ever for people entering the industry. “You’ve got Wild Rice with Young and Wild, you have the Esplanade with their upcoming Trip programme for mid-career directors to put two shows in the Studios, and I love that I can still be a part of all this and tell them as a mentor ‘wow, how lucky are you to get to experience all this!'” she says. “I’m glad that I am able to care for the next generation, and that I get to witness people’s journeys, to watch them grow as they receive education and as a community we share our experiences, and hold space for each other, not only in the theatre ecosystem, but wider society as a whole.”
Inconsequential Goddess runs from 28th to 31st July 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets available here
The Studios 2022 – Nervous System runs from 24th July to 24th September 2022 at The Esplanade. Tickets and full lineup available here