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Directing the ancients with Anthony Nicola

Anthony Nicola is Resident Director at State Theatre Company South Australia and will direct Elena Carapetis’s commission of Antigone in the company’s 2022 season. Our State Resident program offers financial support and precious development time for local creatives. The program is generously supported by our partner Waternish.

We caught up with Anthony to chat about directing and reinventing ancient texts for the modern era.

Tell us about Antigone and the vision for adapting the work in this way at this time.

Antigone is a celebration of young women, and in particular the strength and vulnerability of speaking truth to power. This play looks at the endurance of the patriarchy, and interrogates why we haven’t been able to topple this centuries-old system that continues to oppress all of humanity.

Greek-Australian writer Elena Carapetis begins in Ancient Greece with the original Antigone story, before hurtling us into a kaleidoscopic vision of the world today, where the spirit of Antigone is reincarnated over and over again into a chorus of modern women who continue to fight for true and lasting change.

More than ever, this is a time where I feel it is the artist’s duty to force audiences to confront our reality, to confront their place within it, to confront the damage we have all caused and to actively find ways that we can work together to both make sense of our world and – hopefully – change it.

As a director, how do you approach the adaptation of an ancient text?

Well, the first known iteration of the Antigone story was in 441 BCE by Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles. Centuries later, Elena Carapetis brings us her bold subversion of this ancient play, and my approach is to burrow into the original text, and every version I can get my hands on, in order to better understand why Elena is making the particular choices that she is making with this adaptation.

My job is to then honour those choices by bringing them to life in a way that drives home the questions this adaptation raises in a way that lingers in the audience long after the production is over.

What is the directors role in the rehearsal room?

My job is to bring out the most interesting and exciting work from the particular creative team that I am working with at any given time, and to create a space where they feel free and emboldened to do this work. And this includes absolutely everyone, from the design team to stage management. It truly takes a village, and my role as a director begins and ends with the wellbeing of the other artists that I am collaborating with.

For me, the only ‘rules’ that I carry with me are that theatre-making should always be fun, and that the work should always be approached with joy. As long as I’m following those rules, I have found that directing is an incredibly malleable role. I have the great privilege of working as a director, and my understanding will forever evolve as I continue to grow into this role.

What inspires you as a director?

All the great theatre-going experiences of my life have one thing in common: they made me feel seen as a human being. There was some nugget of truth that the creative team had magically harnessed within their production that made me view humanity in a new light or somehow re-positioned a long-held belief. A great experience in the theatre can quite literally be life changing. There is just nothing like it.

So, I guess I’m inspired by these great experiences I have had in the theatre, in darkened rooms with random strangers, where we have communally shared in something startlingly real. These experiences have forged a deep love for the theatre, and I want to create those experiences for other people so we can all share in the horror and beauty of what it means to be human.

There are many surprises and pop culture references throughout this production. What was the inspiration for these elements and how do they play into the broader narrative of Antigone?

All the ancient playwrights were men, and hence the storytelling models that we are accustomed to have been developed entirely by men – just as history has largely been written by men. Many of the choices in this production are intended to disrupt the patriarchal structure that many of our favourite classical texts abide by.

In his Poetics, Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle famously writes about the unities of drama: time, place and action. Essentially, he asserts that we must follow a single storyline that takes place in one location over the course of 24 hours at most. Elena endeavours to disrupt these rules by doing the exact opposite.

Antigone does not have one main action that it follows, but rather introduces you to a broad range of young women, and although they each represent the spirit of Antigone, they are distinct and have their own interior lives. Further to this, Elena takes us around the globe with her play, and spans centuries in her retelling. It’s simply brilliant.

How do you want audiences to feel when they leave this show?

I want audiences to feel empowered by this production. We are all capable of affecting great change, but it means addressing lots of sticky, scary things that are easier not to think about. Antigone brings these issues to the forefront in a way that is exciting and thrilling for the audience.

Why are new adaptations and commissions important in modern theatre?

It’s important to never think of any text as being frozen in time. Any great play should be viewed as a living, breathing thing, and as the world changes – or rather doesn’t – it’s important that we continually look back to these texts and reinvent them in ways that speak directly to modern audiences.

In the words of Natalie Haynes, writer of Pandora’s Jar: “Every myth contains multiple timelines within itself: the time in which it is set, the time it is told, and every retelling afterwards. Myths may be the home of the miraculous, but they are also mirrors of us. Which version of a story we choose to tell, which characters we place in the foreground, which ones we allow to fade into the shadows: these reflect both the teller and the reader, as much as they show the characters of the myth.”

This is our version of Antigone, from a creative team comprised of culturally diverse, queer artists. It’s about time the story was re-written. I hope you enjoy!

State Theatre Company South Australia currently has several playwrights under commission. The creation and writing of these works is supported by the members of our wonderful Commissioning Collective. Learn more about the Commissioning Collective and how you can support these works.