When Saratoga Springs-based cellist Kathleen Bowman saw the ad looking for a performer to improvise a score for An Iliad, she asked herself, “Do they really know what they’re asking for? It’s a big process!” But she signed on to do the show, which was one of Capital Repertory Theatre’s “On-the-Go” productions for 2013 – a shortened version of what’s now being presented on the company’s mainstage.
And she’s creating what’s almost a new score this time. “Because this is a longer production,” she says, “and because we have more staging this time, the music had to change to facilitate that. It’s been a fascinating process, and requires everything I can give it artistically.”
Bowman grew up in Ohio, but moved around a lot, including stays in Texas and Hong Kong. She attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where she met her husband. “And three or four years after we got married, his company offered him a position in their Schenectady office,” she recalls. “We were ready for a new adventure, so we moved up here about five years ago.”
She teaches Suzuki-method cello, and was a Suzuki student herself. “My older sister studied Suzuki, so it seemed like a thing I should do. Also, my family viewed music as part of a well-rounded education. I saw my first cello at a music studio when I was about two and half. I don’t remember it, but my mother says that all I wanted to do was watch the cello.
“I have wonderful, practical parents, so when I was five they said, ‘We have a piano, and we have a piano teacher, so you’re going to study piano.’ So I went along with that – and I do love the piano – but I still had this driving passion to play the cello, which I couldn’t explain – nobody in my family played it. I wrote a letter to my grandmother when I was ten or eleven and said that I couldn’t imagine my life without playing the cello. I think I knew that she could help finance it, and sure enough she sent me a check and said, ‘Why don’t you start taking lessons?’”
Although Bowman is classically trained, she’s a fan of jazz, “and I studied for a while with a jazz professor – a bass player – which opened a door for me into more improvisatory work, more experimentation. That encouraged me to take on more projects that involve improvisation.”
Homer’s The Iliad is a Greek epic that dates from the eighth century BCE, telling the story of 40 days of battle during the ninth year of the Trojan War. Actor Denis O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson fashioned a one-man show out of it, retitling it An Iliad to give it some distance from the original, although it does draw upon the Robert Fagles translation of the text.
O’Hare, who won a Tony Award for Take Me Out and has been seen on television in American Horror Story and True Blood, played the role of the Poet in an acclaimed NYC production in 2012, directed by Peterson, who spent a decade as Resident Director at the Mark Taper Forum and who won an Obie Award for her direction of Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.
David Barlow plays the Poet in the Capital Rep production. His TV credits include Third Watch, Without a Trace, and the upcoming Blacklist Redemption. On stage, his NYC credits include Scenes from an Execution, Gertrude, Victory, and Serious Money, among many others.
Part of the challenge for Bowman, then, is to craft a score that fits this particular actor in this particular role. “I have to ask myself, ‘What in this moment does the character need, or what does this moment need emotionally, and how can I support this through the music?’ It’s a little terrifying at times, but that’s OK – those challenges are what stretch us.
Margaret E. Hall, the theater’s assistant artistic director, is directing the production, and Bowman credits her with deciding to use a cello as the accompanying instrument instead of the string bass employed in the New York City production. “She believed that the cello would embody more human voice qualities, in order to dialogue more effectively with the Poet.”
Although much of what Bowman has devised tends towards the tonal, even that won’t be always be pleasant. “Quite a bit of it is in a minor key, but this is not a light tale. There’s some humor, of course, but we’re dealing with some very heavy themes of humanity throughout time.
“Throughout the process, there’s been a sense of trying new things and experimenting with sound. At some points, the director wants me to create more of a soundscape than a melody. So at some points, for example, I’m going to the bridge for a ponticello, a scratchy sound that’s going to make you feel uncomfortable – it’s not necessarily what I want to do in that moment, but it’s what I believe the scene needs.
“But whatever comes from you is yours. It comes from who you are, and all of your musical background comes together in that given instant. All your training, all the music you’ve listened to is going to come through.”
Performances of “An Iliad” are at 7:30 PM Tue-Thu, 8 PM Fri-Sat, and 2 PM Sat-Sun at Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany. Ticket info: 382-3884, ext.139, or capitalrep.org. The show runs through Apr. 2.