Post-Show Questions for Discussion and Activities

Note to Educators: Use the following assignments, questions, and activities to have students evaluate their experience of the performance of Phaedra Backwards, as well as to encourage their own imaginative and artistic projects through further exploration of the play in production. Consider also that some of the pre-show questions and activities might enhance your students’ experience following the performance.

  1. Phaedra Backwards:  Performance Reflection and Discussion.  Following their attendance at the performance of Phaedra Backwards, ask your students to reflect on the questions belowYou might choose to have them answer each individually or you may divide students into groups for round-table discussions. Have them consider each question, record their answers and then share their responses with the rest of the class.

Questions to Ask Your Students About the Play in Production

  1. What was your overall reaction to Phaedra Backwards?  Did you find the production compelling?  Stimulating?  Intriguing?  Challenging?  Memorable?  Confusing?  Evocative?  Unique?  Delightful?  Meaningful?  Explain your reactions.
  2. What were the most compelling characters or themes in the play and why did you find them compelling
  3. Did experiencing this imaginative and highly theatrical play in performance heighten your awareness of, interest in, or connection to the Phaedra myth? 
  4. Did you find Marina Carr’s interpretation of the Phaedra myth, her use of lyrical language in relation to dark subject matter, and her purposeful and incisive explorations of heredity, fate, legacy, and desire, intellectually stimulating and/or emotionally affective?  Did any one moment or part of the story stand out to you in particular?  Which moment or part was it and why did you find it outstanding?
  5. What overall effect did Carr’s “Backwards” structure and the merging of the past with the present—and the living with the dead—have on you?  Did you find this to be an effective and compelling way to tell “the back story of Phaedra’s family?”
  6. Do you think that the pace and tempo of the storytelling were effective and appropriate? Explain your opinion.

Questions to Ask Your Students About the Characters

  1. Which characters were you most drawn to in Phaedra Backwards and why?  Were there any that you were repelled by? 
  2. What qualities were revealed by the action and speech of the characters? 
  3. What did each of the characters want and why?  What are the things that stood in the way of them getting what they wanted?  By the play’s end did anyone get what they wanted?
  4. Did any characters develop or undergo a transformation during the course of the play?  Who?  How?  Why?
  5. Were you surprised by the fates of any of the characters?  Did each deserve their individual destiny?  Why or why not?

Questions to Ask Your Students About the Style and Design of the Production

  1. Was there a moment in Phaedra Backwards that was so compelling or intriguing that it remains with you in your mind’s eye and/or ear?  Write a vivid description of that moment.  As you write your description, pretend that you are writing about the moment for someone who was unable to experience the performance.
  2. Did you find the overall style of the production compelling and engaging?  Did the any design element stand out to you specifically?
  3. What did you notice about Rachel Hauck’s set design?  Did it provide an evocative setting/location for Phaedra Backwards?  How and why, or why not?
  4. What did you notice about the costumes designed by Anita Yavich and worn by the actors? What do you think were the artistic and practical decisions that went into the conception of the costumes?
  5. What mood or atmosphere did Jeff Croiter’s lighting design establish or achieve?  Explain your experience.
  6. Did you find sound designer and original music composer Mark Bennett’s soundscape emotionally evocative?  How did it serve in creating or enhancing the world of the play?  Were there any sounds or aspects of the soundscape that were especially evocative to you?
  7. And what about Director of Video Design Peter Nigrini’s projection design?  Were you compelled by filmed elements juxtaposed with live performance?  How did it the projections help to tell story of Phaedra Backwards?  What did you notice about the projections?  Was there a filmed image that stands out specifically in your mind’s eye?  Was there a time in the performance in which the filmic and theatrical merged to create a meaningful moment?  Can you describe the moment and its affect on you?
  1. Additional Post-Show Questions and Discussion Points for Phaedra Backwards.

Phaedra Backwards is the Story of…?”
When asked to sum up the story of Phaedra Backwards in one sentence, playwright Marina Carr retorted:  “Well, my first reaction is that if you can sum a play up in one sentence, it’s not going to be a very interesting play.”

  • Ask your students to take three minutes to write on paper a one-sentence summary of Phaedra Backwards.
  • Next ask them to skip a few lines on the page and then give them the opportunity to take ten-minutes to sum up the story of Phaedra Backwards in as many sentences they would like.
  • Ask students to share their one-sentence summaries aloud.  Ask them to reflect upon the specific challenges of writing a one-sentence summary of a play like Phaedra Backwards.
  • [Students might even be asked to sum up in one sentence another more conventional play that the class has read or seen as a group (e.g., Romeo and Juliet).]
  • Then ask a few students to volunteer to share their expanded summaries aloud.  After each sharing ask the class to indicate what words or phrases stand out in each summary and write those words or phrases on the board.
  • Next work with the students to create a new collaborative one-sentence summary of Phaedra Backwards.
  • And finally, share with the students Marina Carr’s multiple-sentence summary:

    I think it’s about how to live and how to die. It’s about the big pains, the big passions, the big moments, what we were made on and what the price of that is. It’s about how our ability or inability to love is finally what defines us. All that’s in Phaedra Backwards.  And I think it’s about death. And it’s also about dealing with mystery. It’s about encountering things that are not comprehensible, and allowing them entry into your life.

    How does Carr’s summary compare to the class summary?   In what ways are the summaries similar?  Where do they differ?  What accounts for the difference?

Marina Carr on Writing a Different Kind of Play and Her Sudden “Bore”dom with the “Well-Made Play.”

When asked about how Phaedra Backwards compares to the rest of the body of her work as a playwright, Marina Carr opined:

I think it’s incredibly different.  For one thing, I don’t even think there is anything Irish about it.  I think it could take place anywhere—the cadence and the language might give it away but that’s about it.  Also, I think in terms of playwriting structure and plot points it’s not a traditional play. It’s quite experimental, I think, in its approach.  It’s a very imagistic piece—the use of film elements and the changes of time, and dealing with the supernatural and with hauntings… But I don’t really see it as a mythic piece—these people are very real.

I just got bored with the” well-made play”—beginning, middle, and end, you know? We’re all kind of bored of it. It’s all shifting so fast now. I think our capacity to take in information has quickened in the past twenty, thirty years. We’ve changed with the advent of film. We grab onto things. We’re very tired of anyone who tries to hammer something home to us. It gets harder and harder to keep our own attention and certainly to keep anyone else’s attention.  I know that’s true when I go to the theatre. If I know what’s going to happen and the way it’s going to happen within the first 5 minutes, then that’s it, unless there’s another factor like an extraordinary performance or something.  I think it’s no longer the story you’re telling but how you’re telling it. There are a lot of great traditional well-made plays out there are, but that form just doesn’t do it for me right now.

—from Interview with Marina Carr

Share the above quotations from Marina Carr with your students and then engage them in a discussion of Carr’s remarks in relation to their experience of Phaedra Backwards.  Below are a few discussion points:

  • Did you find anything reminiscently “Irish” about Phaedra Backwards, that is, in “the cadence and the language” as referenced by Carr? If you didn’t know that Marina Carr was one of Ireland’s most admired contemporary writers, would you have thought that Phaedra Backwards was written by someone Irish/British?  By a woman?  If yes, what clued you in?  If no, what effectively cloaked Carr’s various attributes or facets of identity?
  • Do you agree with Carr that this play “could take place anywhere?”  What do you think she means by that?  Also, do you agree or disagree with her view that Phaedra Backwards isn’t really a “mythic piece,” and “that these people are very real?”  Are some more real than others?  What accounts for their “realness?” 
  • Did you find Carr’s decision to escape the boredom of the traditional or “well-made play” and its conventions for her telling of Phaedra Backwards effective and compelling?  What meaning does the term “well-made play” mean to you?  What are the characteristics of a “well-made play?”  [For educators:  Carr’s definition relates directly to the Aristotelian principle of a story with a beginning, middle, and end.  Other characteristics might include an expository beginning to set the play and its given circumstances, clear causal (i.e., cause and effect) arrangements of incidents, a rising action with mounting tension, leading to a climax, resolution, and denouement.]  Did Carr’s unconventional and innovative approach “grab onto” you?  Was your attention held?  Can you describe your experience of your journey through the performance?  What other plays have you seen or read that eschew “well-made play” conventions?
  • Do you agree with Carr that for contemporary theatre audiences “it’s no longer the story you’re telling but how you’re telling it?”  Taking into account not only Carr’s script, but also the collaborative contributions of director Emily Mann and her production design team, what attracted you about how the story of Phaedra Backwards was told?  Was there anything that distracted or diverted you?  How did the various production elements (setting, costume, lights, sound, projections) combine to tell the story while grabbing and keeping your attention?

Phaedra Backwards and Back Story
In her approach to the Phaedra myth, Marina Carr decided to not only to tell Phaedra’s story backward—that is, starting where her dramatic predecessors traditionally ended their versions and journeying in and out of a chronological context—but also to show and tell “the back story of Phaedra’s family:  her mother, Pasiphae; her father, Minos; her brother, the Minotaur; her sister, Ariadne.  I began to think about what that relationship might have been and how they lead to the death of Hippolytus in Racine’s Phèdre.”

Ask your students to contemplate Carr’s backwards and back story approach in a discussion based upon the following questions:

  • What intellectual or emotional affect did seeing “The End” (or an end) of Phaedra’s story as the first scene in the play have upon you?  Did it influence the way you received the story?  Did it confuse you?  Intrigue you?  Did it make you watch the play in a different way?
  • Why do you think Carr chose to start her play with “The End” of the story?  How did “The End” at the beginning of the play compare with the end of the actual play?  Carr describes the movement of the play as follows:  “…the play starts at the end, and then goes back through to a different end, or sort of a similar end in another dimension.”  What do you think Carr means by this?  What affect did this different end have upon you?  What meaning did you make from it?
  • Carr is the first Phaedra-myth dramatist to stage Phaedra’s back story.  Why do you think Carr might have been inspired to do this?  In many ways, this was Carr’s response to reading Racine’s Phèdre, whom she felt “only told one side” of Phaedra’s story.  How does incorporating the past with the present tell “the other side” of Phaedra’s story?  What affect did knowing Phaedra’s back story have upon you?  Does knowing her back story make you view Phaedra and her actions in a different way?
  • What aspects of Phaedra’s familial relationships and dynamics do you think Carr intends us to especially make note of?  How do you think these relationships and dynamics in Phaedra’s past “lead to the death of Hippolytus” in the present?
  1. The Modern Mythical Woman:  Collage Project

    A few thousand years ago we could blame Aphrodite…Now I have to take the blame for everything myself. That’s the thing I really cannot abide about being modern. Open another bottle.
    —Phaedra, Phaedra Backwards, Scene 4

    Read the above quote from Phaedra Backwards and then ask your students to reflect upon what it is Phaedra means or is suggesting in this moment of the play.

    • Ask students what modern means or what it means to be modern?  What is the converse of modern?  How does the traditional or classical compare to the modern?  What are the characteristics of a classical woman?  (A classical Phaedra?) A traditional woman?
    • Then ask your students to consider the ways in which Marina Carr’s Phaedra is a modern interpretation of Phaedra and/or a modern woman.  Are there anyways in which she is not?  [Or is she post-modern?]

    Next ask your students, either individually or in pairs, to choose one of the following mythical women:

Andromeda
Penelope
Clytemnestra
Helen
Medea

  • Next, students should research their mythical woman and create a modern character biography inspired by her classical back story:
  • Next, students should think of ways to visually communicate their impressions of their individual modern mythical woman through the medium of collage.  They should seek out photographs and images online and in magazines, and collect small objects and fabric/material for their character collage.
  • Students will need access to art supplies (e.g., paper scissors, glue, found magazines) to create their collages. 
  • Educators might also opt for their students to create electronic collages by utilizing PowerPoint technology and images gleaned from the Internet. 
  • Students should be given time to show their finished collages to the class and to explain their approach to making-over their mythical woman for the modern day.
  1. Phaedra Backwards:  The ReviewHave your students take on the role of theater critic by writing a review of the McCarter Theatre production of Phaedra Backwards.  A theater critic or reviewer is essentially a “professional audience member,” whose job is to provide reportage of a play’s production and performance through active and descriptive language for a target audience of readers (e.g., their peers, their community, or those interested in the arts).  Critics/reviewers analyze the theatrical event to provide a clearer understanding of the artistic ambitions and intentions of a play and its production; reviewers often ask themselves, “What is the playwright and this production attempting to do?”  Finally, the critic offers personal judgment as to whether the artistic intentions of a production were achieved, effective and worthwhile.  Things to consider before writing:
  • Theater critics/reviewers should always back up their opinions with reasons, evidence and details.
  • The elements of production that can be discussed in a theatrical review are the play text or script (and its themes, plot, characters, etc.), scenic elements, costumes, lighting, sound, music, acting and direction (i.e., how all of these elements are put together).  (See Theater Reviewer’s Checklist.)
  • Educators may want to provide their students with sample theater reviews from a variety of newspapers.
  • Encourage your students to submit their reviews to the school newspaper for publication.