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An interview with guest director Saffron Henke

Jan. 23, 2013

Augustana College will present the world premiere of The Bock Eye, a bold and bawdy postmodern adaptation inspired by the Greek tragedy The Bacchae by Euripides. Written by American playwright Tommy Smith, The Bock Eye is a blend of old and new — a retelling of an ancient story, but with a strong contemporary attitude.

The production will be directed by guest director Saffron Henke, who also directed the 2011 production of the Metamorphoses at Augustana. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 25-26 and Feb. 1-2, and at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 27 and Feb. 3. in the Potter Theatre, Bergendoff Hall of Fine Arts.

The following is the text of an interview between dramaturg Gregory Donley and guest director Saffron Henke.

Saffron Henke

Donley: What led you to decide to get an adaptation done, and also why did you choose Tommy Smith?    

Henke: Jeff Coussens approached me last summer about directing again at Augustana last summer. I'd had a great experience directing Metamorphoses here a few years ago, and was excited at the prospect of doing it again.  

I was about to give birth to my daughter, and asked that the faculty select a play. Knowing that it is rarely produced, and my experience with the Greeks plays, they suggested The Bacchae. I read several translations/adaptations, and couldn't find one that I liked. I then reached out to Tommy Smith, a playwright with whom I'd collaborated before, most notably on a rock musical version of Greek mythology called The Tale. Our production was selected by a prestigious Greek festival and toured the islands and mainland.

Tommy's career is skyrocketing, so I didn't know if he'd be available, but he agreed to do it! Jeff was able to make it possible for him to not only write The Bock Eye, but Tommy will be here for opening night and teach a playwriting workshop as well.    

Donley: What were some of the challenges of working on a new script?    

Henke: I generally love working on new plays. it is so fun to make something that no one else has seen. In the case of The Bock Eye, Tommy had written in contemporary song interludes to serve as the Bacchae choral pieces, which we were not able to do for copyright reasons. Fortunately, I cast some multi-talented actresses as the Barbarian Asian Women (the Bacchae), and they worked very hard to create the pieces in the show.  

Donley: The play deviates from the Euripides in several ways. How do you see these changes impacting the meaning of the work?    

Henke:  Tommy's style is lean and visceral and as darkly comic as it gets, and I thought the subject matter might appeal to him. He likes to write about secret lives and the dirty underbelly of people's desires, which was a central theme in Euripides' play as well. He also highlighted the comedy in the play, as well as poking fun at the structure of Greek plays. It is a very condensed version of the play, with the theme of self destruction throughout.

Where the theme of The Bacchae might be "Don't mess with Dionysus or you'll get it", the theme of The Bock Eye is more like "That dark Dionysian thing inside you will come out, no matter what you do", and even The God himself is not safe from it. Overall, Tommy was very true to the original play, doing an almost line by line condensing of the material. There is an added prologue, and a very different ending, but other than that, the plot is all Euripides.    

Donley: How often did you refer to Euripides while working on the play? Did you refer to other adaptations such as Dionysus in '69 when making directorial choices?    

Henke: When I began working on this project, I researched past productions of The Bacchae, read several adaptations and watched any filmed footage I could get my hands on.There was a recent production at the National Theatre of Scotland that starred Alan Cumming and used music. That idea interested me, and some of that made it into our production. The first thing we did when we started rehearsal was read a translation of the original to get our bearings and to compare/contrast with our play. Working with that background, we have focused on making the play ours.

Editor's note: Saffron Henke most recently directed Les Liaisons Dangereuses at St. Ambrose University. Her directing work has been produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Sacramento Theatre Company, the University of Southern California, the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, Coe College and Cornell College and Riverside Theatre.

As an actress, she has performed in more than 60 professional productions, ranging from Taming of the Shrew to Tartuffe to the one-person, 24- character show, The Syringa Tree. She is experienced in on camera work including commercials, industrials and film, has been profiled in many publications, and is the recipient of the 2005 Princess Grace Foundation Honorarium for Emerging Artists.

Henke received her M.F.A. from the University of Washington's Professional Actor Training Program. She has taught ages preschool through adult in a variety of subjects. Her teaching experiences include the Sacramento Theatre Company, where she served as producing artistic director for the Young Professional's Conservatory, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, University of Iowa, University of Southern California, Center Theatre Group, A Noise Within Theatre, the Chicago High School of Performing Arts, Cornell College, and St. Ambrose University. She is a member of the Actor's Equity Association, and currently works as the assistant director for the Grant Wood Arts Colony at the University of Iowa.