Interview: Phoebe Angeni – Ithaca

An autobiographical feminist one-woman adaption of Homer’s Odyssey, Ithaca sees fantasy and reality merge in a dynamic and darkly comic production. Examining issues including fat phobia, bullying, chronic illness and immigration, this production is inspired by writer Phoebe Angeni’s own experiences and aims to be a positive portrayal of what is possible when you overcome obstacles.

Ithaca will be playing digitally as part of the 2021 Edinburgh Fringe and will be available on demand. To celebrate its launch we’ve spoken with the shows writer about adapting the production for an online audience and the inspiration behind the piece.

For those who may not be familiar with your work could you tell us a little about yourself?
Of course! I’m originally from San Francisco, CA, but I’ve studied in London, New York, and St Andrews, so I’d consider myself pretty flexible in terms of national identity. I’m passionate about working with material that pushes the boundaries of style and subject, especially in fantasy, classical, and dramatic genres. I’ve done the occasional bit of comedy, but I’ve been told I’m probably funniest when I’m trying not to be! I’m most known for my work in classical adaptations, for example, in 2019 I wrote, directed, and performed a site-specific eco-feminist one-woman show called Calypso, which was ballsy enough to almost get me arrested for debauchery (although I luckily had the proper permits and sidestepped a criminal record)! This year will be my third performing at the Edinburgh Fringe and my first entering the festival as a writer, director, and producer.

Ithaca sounds incredible! How did the idea for the production initially come about?
Thank you so much! Deciding to produce Ithaca was really a combination of good and bad timings as well as my own playful stubbornness. To give a little backstory, I attended university at St Andrews and when my student visa expired I had to go back to San Francisco, where I’m technically from, but don’t have strong roots. I reached out to local artist groups here, but got zero replies, so I worked a bit as a barista to get my feet on the ground – until the pandemic hit. We were all pretty quickly furloughed, and I thought: what better time to work on writing a show! When my café re-opened I went back for a while, but it was such a hostile environment with all the wild customers and changing restrictions that I decided I was better off sticking to my script. I reached out to theatres and local groups again to see if anyone was working on projects, but again no one replied, so I decided to just get things going myself.

In writing/producing/directing/performing/filming/editing Ithaca I wanted to create a story and characters that felt truthful to my life and experience. I also wanted to write myself a role that I haven’t really seen on stage or screen. More backstory – I’m about a UK size 20 and I’m 5’11,” which means I’m not a little woman, and it also means that in casting, the industry has a paradoxically narrow window of the roles I would typically play. I wanted to create a role that resonates with and represents a big part of who I am as a person and artist, that pushes me to fully exercise my abilities, and that shows the industry what they’ve been missing out on!

Homer’s Odyssey is of course iconic, but what was it which inspired you to adapt the text into your show?
Honestly I’ve wanted to do a show relating to the Odyssey for a long time. I first read the Odyssey when I was about twelve years old and I’ve been obsessed with the story ever since – my dog is even named Argos after Odysseus’. Most people who know the Odyssey think Odysseus is a bit morally dodgy, which I fully agree with, but I’ve always related to his journey home. I’ve gone through some hefty challenges in my life so far and reading a story about this man who loses everything, yet still manages to pick himself up from nothing, has been a great source of strength and inspiration for me.

I also find it empowering to look at a classically masculine story from a feminine lens. There are fewer, is any, conventions for a woman playing a male role, which helps bypass social and industry expectations for how women should behave and be seen. I ended up stripping the Odyssey back to a core structure of the obstacles that Odysseus faces and they somehow lined up pretty perfectly with my life, which I feel is a testament to how universal the themes of the story are. I translated my personal story into Homer’s framework, adopting Odysseus’ alias of ‘Nobody,’ and things fell into place!

Throughout the show some incredibly important topics like immigration and bullying will be covered. Why do you think it is so important for new productions to tackle these difficult and sometimes taboo topics?
I think in life it’s crucial to discuss difficult and taboo topics. I can only speak from my perspective, but as I have faced challenges in my life and moved through trauma I found it to be a very isolating and ostracising experience. I know that when I was a little girl I felt like I was the only one dealing with these sorts of obstacles because no one talked about them and there were few role models that I knew to look up to – no one who had made it to the other side. Now that I’m an adult and I know how prevalent the issues I’ve faced are, I hope that in sharing my story I can be truthful and real about it, but also advocate for change and inspire some hope. I’d love for someone who watches Ithaca and relates to my story to be able to think: ‘Yes she gets it, she sees where I am, and she’s also doing okay now, so maybe one day I’ll be okay too.’

Ithaca will be available via Edinburgh Fringe on Demand between Friday 6th and Monday 30th August.

While theatres have remained dark for the past year, content creators have been forced to think outside the box and produce innovative and exciting productions. How have you found the process of creating a show for a virtual audience?
It’s been challenging for sure, but also extremely exhilarating! I’ve found, as many others have, that restrictions are a great source of creativity. I’ve loved the process of translating what was initially a play written for the stage to a screen experience. It’s allowed me to bring in some of my passion for experimental film and think about creating an intimate and immersive experience that is really just for me and the other person (or couple of people) on the other side of the screen. Working entirely on my own has also been a weird experience – the thing I love most about theatre and performance is the community that is created around the production, both on and offstage. Throughout this pandemic the community around Ithaca has mostly been me working by myself all day in a blacked-out 16 square foot room. In a way that’s been nice, because what you see in Ithaca is entirely my creative vision and a pure distillation of my experience. In another way it’s been hard to dig up all the dark topics in the show alone (thank goodness for therapy!). Now that it’s done, I feel like if I can make Ithaca happen by myself, self-funded with a tiny budget, in a little room in the middle of a global pandemic – I can do anything.

If you had only one sentence to convince audiences to come see Ithaca, what would you say?
Ithaca is home, strength, selfhood, beauty, innovation, resilience, hope – it’s my story, and it’s also everyone’s story – we’ve all had a wild year, we’re heading out the other side, so come celebrate with me and get your ticket to the show!

Ithaca will be available on demand between Friday 6th – Monday 30th of August with tickets costing £9. For more information or to book your tickets click here.
Alternatively you can follow Phoebe on:
Twitter: @PhoebeAngeni
Instagram: @phoebe.angeni
Website: www.phoebeangeni.com/ithaca

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