Guided by stage professionals Brandon Monokian and Kaitlin Overton, a dozen or so teens, most of them about to enter 9th grade at Princeton High School (PHS), are getting to grips with The Odyssey this week at the Princeton Public Library.
In preparation for Homer’s classic, required for 9th graders at PHS, the teens are researching and rehearsing for a staged reading this Friday of Naomi Iizuka’s 21st century version, Anon(ymous).
“We chose this modern version as a way to introduce Homer’s original to students who will encounter the book this fall,” said Programming Librarian Janie Hermann. “The Odyssey is an amazing work of literature but it’s also a challenging text, so we have partnered with PHS to help students toward a successful understanding.”
“Anon(ymous) is the story of a boy named Anon, a refugee searching for his mother in modern day America. Along the way, he meets characters representing the people and creatures Odysseus met in his journey, such as the cyclops who was blinded by him,” explained Jocelyn Furniss, who found the story to be sometimes funny but with dark aspects overall. “I love acting and so I decided to be a part of this program,” she said.
“The language is beautiful and descriptive and the play is especially well-suited to a staged reading; Anon is a sort of Everyman,” offered Ms. Hermann. Ms. Overton agreed: “When I first read this play, I felt that the character of Anon represented all children.” As for Mr. Monokian, he is particularly attracted to the way in which Ms. Iizuka’s play “takes Homer’s gods and monsters and makes them real people.”
That Anon is a refugee from a war in some unspecified country lends itself well to student discussion. “It’s is a modern and poetic version of The Odyssey that touches on lots of global issues,” said Princeton teen Ursula S. Blanchard.
“I enjoy the imagery and themes of hope, struggle, and finding a place in the world,” said Elaine Milan of Montgomery High School, one of several participants from schools other than PHS, like Trinity Chapa of Northern Burlington High School and Karen Wang of West Windsor Plainsboro High School South. All other participants will be at PHS this fall. Hunter Sporn, the sole boy in the group, came along in order to learn more about The Odyssey.
“I like the modern twist on an ancient story,” said Olivia Harrison. “My favorite character is Nasreen who I played in the read-through.” According to participant Karina Lieb, reading Anon(ymous) makes The Odyssey easier to understand “and more fun.”
On Monday, the students were still a little shy of one another. Chances are that will fall by the wayside as the week progresses and they pour their energies into Friday’s two performances. Throughout the week, for three hours a day, the students will also be examining source materials.
The workshop offers students an opportunity to bring their own interests to bear. At the end of their first session, they were invited to bring in an object from home that they felt had some association with the play. If they were up for it, perhaps they might stage a sword-fighting scene, suggested Ms. Overton, to general positive response. “O yes,” said one student, “that’s the sort of thing we do all the time in ballet school.”
Both Mr. Monokian and Ms. Overton, from Highbridge and Lumberton respectively, have been involved in theater from the age of five. They’ve been working together since both were students at Montclair State University collaborating on the Laramie Project. “We were both involved with a protest project called Revolutionary Readings that was created in response to a youth anthology, Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology edited by Amy Sonnie, which was banned from two public library’s in New Jersey. When the anthology was read at the Princeton Public Library, Mr. Monokian and Ms. Overton created the Library’s Page to Stage series with Ms. Hermann.
Mr. Monokian earned national attention with Revolutionary Readings. He’s helped to raise thousands for women’s charities and was recently listed as one of South Jersey Magazine’s “Names to Know.” His original play Grimm Women has been staged at New York’s Kraine Theater and in Adrienne Theater’s 2nd Stage in Philadelphia. He is also a professional actor with appearances at the Greater Ocean City Theatre Company, Vineyard Playhouse and Luna Stage, among numerous others.
Kaitlin Overton, a recent graduate with a BA in Theatre Studies and a minor in International Studies, is an actress with credits that include You Me Bum Bum Train, directed by Kate Bond. An intern with the critically acclaimed New York Neo-Futurists, she plays the ukulele and has written original music for several staged readings of the Library’s Page to Stage series.
Page to Stage
The Library’s Page to Stage series began three years ago with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The idea is to explore and present staged readings of books that have been made into plays.
Some eight titles including two other plays by Naomi Iizuka have been presented: Freak, which she wrote with Ryan Pavelchik, based on the Pygmalion myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Tattoo Girl an adaptation of “Perpetua,” a short story by Donald Barthelme.
In addition, Page to Stage participants have delved into: Eurydice, a retelling of the Orpheus myth by Sarah Ruhl; Einstein’s Dreams, an adaptation of the book by Alan Lightman by Kipp Errante Cheng; The Arabian Nights, Mary Zimmerman’s version of Scheherazade and the 1001 Nights; Jack and the Beanstalk adapted by Bill Springer from the classic fairy tale; Jookalorum!: a collection of stories from O. Henry adapted by Joellen Bland and named after the author’s own term for something special or spectacular; and Mr. Monakian’s Revolutionary Readings.
“Having high schoolers involved is a new direction for Page to Stage which more often involves students at the university level who come to share their love of theater, and so we are very excited about this production,” said Ms. Hermann. “This has been a really fantastic three year run and we are always evolving the program.” Princeton TV’s Sharyn Murray created a short documentary, Page to Stage: Bringing Literature to Life, about the program.
The teen drama and literary workshop culminates in two performances of Anon(ymous) this Friday, August 23, a public dress rehearsal at 2 p.m. before the performance at 6 p.m., both in the Library’s Community Room.