Interview Series - Playwrights In Residence - Ryan Borochovitz and his play A Sphinx Lands in Corinth
Dead bodies fill the streets of Thebes, and King Creon is to blame. Sent into exile to atone for what he’s done, he soon stumbles into the world of a different play altogether – one where he could potentially earn his right to rule again. Bridging the previously unknown gap between the Oedipus Cycle of Sophocles and Euripides’ Medea, this bold re-imagining of classical drama explores the cyclical nature of tragedy and redemption.
Advisory Board Leader Sabah Haque returns with an interview with Ryan Borochovitz, the last of this season's Playwrights in Residence, who has developed his play A Sphinx Lands in Corinth under the guidance of Artistic Programs Manager Rosamund Small and Canadian poet and playwright Adam Seelig. Ryan spares no detail as he shares thoughts about his work and his ambitions as a theatre artist.
Sabah How did you come to find yourself in theatre?
Ryan I suppose I came to the theatre in the way that so many do: I wanted to be an actor. It wasn’t so much that I necessarily wanted to be a stage actor – having grown up with much more exposure to film and television than theatre – but when you’re young and want to be in the spotlight, theatre is really the only channel you have. I started acting in school plays and community theatre; I wasn’t very good, but when you’re one of the few kids in your high school who’s interested in that kind of thing, it comes as nice fuel to the ego regardless. When it came time to decide what I wanted to do after high school, I went on to study theatre at York University. Both of my older brothers had gone to university before me and I wanted to be an actor; it just made sense.
By the end of my first year, I was already sick of acting. Fortunately, after spending the year becoming much more exposed to a medium that I had previously known so little about, I came to realise that I genuinely loved the theatre. For that, I especially have to thank Dr. Robert Fothergill who taught “Origins of Theatre”, a first year introductory theatre studies course covering dramatic literature and history from ancient Greece to the Early Modern period. It was in that class that I truly found my passion for theatre, learning that I could study the form without being on or back stage. If not for him, I surely would have dropped out of theatre, likely winding up in English, Film, or Philosophy instead. I have been focusing my studies on the academic side of theatre ever since, which I believe has helped my playwriting and directing in ways that a practical degree never could.
Sabah How did you discover your interest for playwriting?
Ryan In a way, I’ve been writing since before I even knew how to write. When I was a preliterate child, one of my favourite hobbies was making comic books. I would staple together three or four pieces of paper into small folios, draw pictures all over them, and then tell my mother what I wanted the characters to say for her to add in the text. Having since acquired the skills to do that last bit myself, I’ve been writing ever since. It was a great pastime for an imaginative kid who never had too many close friends.
I don’t remember specifically when I started writing plays. In grade eight, I convinced the principal of my middle school to let me stage a play that I had written, to make up for our lack of any kind of drama program. The whole thing was only twelve pages long, barely filling the assembly that we received to present our months of hard work, but you have to start somewhere. I continued writing the odd play thereafter – especially as I became more and more interested in acting – but it didn’t become my primary literary form until I began intensely studying dramatic writings in university. At that point, having rid myself of the acting-bug, playwriting became a way that I could continue working in the field that I had only then begun to love, effectively combining my passions for writing and theatre.
Sabah What inspired you to write A Sphinx Lands in Corinth?
Ryan The first inkling of the idea came to me while sitting a “Tragedy in Western Literature” course that I look last year with Dr. Marcia Blumberg. In a lecture on Euripides’ Medea, she – very innocently, mind you – made a point of stressing to the class that the character Creon (the king of Corinth) was not the same as the same Creon (Oedipus’ uncle/brother-in-law and eventual king of Thebes) from the Theban plays of Sophocles that we had studied less than a month prior. Her reason for making this comment was simply for us to not confuse the two, but that was all it took for me to begin falling down the intertextual rabbit hole.
It occurred to me that, in Oedipus Rex, the title character is visited by a Corinthian messenger who informs him that his adoptive father (Polybus, king of Corinth) had died, and that the people wanted Oedipus to return to his homeland to succeed him as king. It is a pivotal moment in plot, beginning the trajectory that sends our hero down the path of tragically discovering his true identity, but its implications are quickly forgotten. Oedipus stabs out his eyes and ultimately dies in the land of Colonus, which means that he left a power vacuum in the Corinthian throne. Meanwhile, Creon took over the Theban throne after Oedipus’ two sons killed each other in battle, but his reign was short-lived due to the events of Antigone. Disgraced and broken, Creon was certainly no longer fit to rule Thebes. From there I began mentally filling in the gaps. Perhaps he would go into exile; from there, he would likely arrive at the same three-way crossroads which had previously led Oedipus from Corinth to Thebes; perhaps it might lead him to Corinth; perhaps the land had been plagued by a sphinx-like figure who had taken advantage of the aforementioned power vacuum in Oedipus’ absence; perhaps Creon could defeat the sphinx and marry the queen. Before I knew it, I had arrived at a plausible scenario by which the Creon of Thebes could become the Creon of Corinth – just in time for Jason and Medea to arrive in the city after their adventures to steal the Golden Fleece.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But in Euripides’ Heracles it is said that the Theban Creon is killed by Lycus the usurper, making it impossible for him to be the same Creon who dies in Medea. Furthermore, in Oedipus at Colonus the king of Athens is Theseus, whereas in Medea it’s Aegeus. Theseus was the son of and successor to Aegeus, which could only mean that the events of Antigone take place after Medea, not before, thus making your whole premise invalid. Clearly you know nothing about Greek mythology.” To that I say, yes, I am aware of this. I should make it clear that my goal here is not to prove Prof. Blumberg and the entire scholarly community wrong in their assertion that these are two separate characters. I simply became excited by the logical possibility that they may be connected, which resulted in this interregnum tragedy that eloquently bridges the gap between two previously unrelated plays with “mathematical precision” (to quote my festival mentor, Adam Seelig). Once the equation had become clear in my head, I couldn’t let nothing come of it, which led to the play’s conception.
Sabah What is your writing process like?
Ryan It varies from play to play, but when it comes to a long one like this, I never go in without a detailed outline. I spent the lion’s share of last summer drafting a twenty-five page outline, with an additional fifty pages of notes. By the time I was ready to actually start writing the first draft, it was September, and school took precedence once again. I had to shelve the play for quite a while, and it wasn’t until getting accepted into Paprika that I dusted off the blue folder with all my notes in it and got back to work. Having the outline already completed made it surprisingly easy to jump back into it after so long. It has also allowed me to write the scenes completely out of order. I know what happens in every scene, what comes before it, and what’s coming after. Each day I’d decide which scene I felt like working on and jump right in from there. This has made it rather tough to send in-progress drafts to Adam and various dramaturgs, since the whole thing has been pretty much a mess of sporadic scene fragments until eventually the whole thing happened to be finished.
Overall, I like to think of my playwriting process as being very similar to how I go about writing an essay. I get most of my writing done in libraries, often with stacks of books all around me, constantly flipping through them for reference purposes. For this play, it being so deeply rooted in its source material, I always keep at least a copy of Antigone and Medea in arm’s reach making sure never to deviate too far from where the plot has come from and where it must eventually arrive. Beyond Sophocles and Euripides, the play is also fraught with allusions to Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Plato, Ovid, 1 Corinthians, Nietzsche, T.S. Eliot, and the like, which requires having the necessary books near me at all times.
Sabah How would you describe your play in three words?
Ryan Greek tragedy fan-fiction. (Is that technically four?)
Sabah What has been a challenge of working on this play?
Ryan At first, the greatest issue was trying to make the math work in my “Creon = Creon” formula. However, once I made the executive decision to ignore certain Euripides plays and aspects of the chronology that interfered, the outline pretty much wrote itself. From then on, my biggest challenge has been finding the time to work on it. The vast majority of the play has been written over this past month, just in the time since I finished school. It wasn’t until then that I was really able to buckle down and give it the attention that it deserved. That being the case, the draft being presented at the festival will be representative of the play in a fairly early stage of its development. More time would be lovely, but I think I would have had a much harder time finding the energy to write such a daunting piece if it weren’t for this deadline lighting a fire under my belly. For that I am grateful.
Sabah What do you hope to accomplish with your theatre career?
Ryan Up until fairly recently, I wouldn’t have been able to think of answer to that. Now, I can think of several.
Right off the bat, I should mention that in September I will be going on to grad school, beginning to work towards a Master’s degree in Theatre Theory and Dramaturgy at the University of Ottawa. Having fostered such a connection to the academic side of theatre studies over these past four years, I can definitely see myself continuing down this scholarly route. There is a part of me that would like to someday become a professor and teach theatre studies on a university level, sparking this fire in the hearts of future enthusiast the same way that my favourite professors have done for me.
With regards to my artistic practice, I can definitely see myself continuing to direct and write plays. I’ve already begun trying to build my portfolio as a director. Last year I founded my own indie theatre company, Sad Ibsen Theatre, which can best be described as a sort of “Soulpepper Lite.” Our main focus has been revivals of rarely produced classics and forgotten gems. For them I have already directed our debut production of James Joyce’s Exiles (January 2016) and am currently directing our follow-up production of Calderón’s Life is a Dream (slated for this July, tell your friends). I’ve already begun plans to keep the company operational in my absence after I ship out to Ottawa, so be sure to keep your eyes and ears peeled for future productions on the horizon. Doing projects like these – as well as Paprika and several other playwriting ventures on the side – has been enough of a career in theatre as I could handle for the time being, but my ideal goal might be to eventually get to a point where I can work in theatre full-time without needing a joe job on the side.
Sabah How has the mentorship you have received through the Paprika Festival benefitted your work?
Ryan This being my second year in the festival, my experience of the mentorship program has been twofold. Last year, while in what was then called the “New Writers Series” (now slightly adapted to become the “Writers Circle”) I was mentored by Daniel Karasik. This year I’ve been working with Adam Seelig of One Little Goat Theatre. Both of them have been so insightful and absolutely delightful to work with. This is perhaps the element of Paprika that I like most: connecting with and getting to know these great artists. It’s very comforting to be surrounded by people whose work you admire, who’ve been in your position before, and who have already achieved so much themselves. When you’re taking your first steps into Toronto’s theatre community, it can feel a little overwhelming; making these connections early on is a great way of crossing the threshold into that world, and seeing just how small and encouraging it really is once you’re behind the curtain. I see a lot of myself in both Daniel and Adam, and will undoubtedly take what I have learned from them forward as I continue making art of my own.
Catch the free reading of A Sphinx Lands in Corinth as apart of the 15th Annual Paprika Festival, in partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts.
When: Wednesday, May 25, 2016 2pm
Where: Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum Building, 585 Dundas St E
Stay tuned for the next instalment of the Advisory Board’s Paprika Festival 2016 Interview Series!