Meeting Persephone

I have known Persephone for six years now. She has embarrassed me, challenged me, and right now, she’s somehow made me into a theatre producer. When we met, I was 26 years old, single and working nights at a cable news network in New York. We’ve come a long way. I’ve switched careers a few times, moved to Miami, Florida, and gotten married. I’m not sure what’s next, but between her over-protective mother and creepy Underworld husband, I know Persephone needs a few nights out in New York. This time around, she’s getting six. SIX SEEDS: The Persephone Project will tell Persephone’s story for six performances between June 2nd-11th. And somehow, I’m involved.

In 2005, I was invited by a friend to participate in a writing workshop to “explore” the myth of Persephone. Annie G. Levy, a director and theater-maker, and a friend of a friend, wanted to create a theater piece about Persephone. It had fascinated her since childhood. She planned to investigate if or how the story of the kidnapping of this ancient goddess impacted other people.

Annie gathered eight women, all in their mid-20s to, as she says, “unpack” the Persephone myth. I didn’t have much baggage. Somehow Demeter and Persephone slipped through the cracks of my education. What else had I missed growing up in a house without a copy of D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths? I didn’t even know how to pronounce this girl’s name. Per-sef-anie?

I was the only non-actor in the group. We met in rehearsal spaces, which are often near-empty rooms in strange office buildings where actors and dancers gather to work. Like motels in certain parts of town, they rent rooms by the hour. Each week, Annie had a structured curriculum with activities and exercises. We sat in circles or in pairs, back to back.

I was an English major in college, so sitting around and making stuff up about the feelings and motivations of imaginary characters was not unknown. I just hadn’t done anything like that in years. I was working for MSNBC then. I spent much of my time in windowless rooms watching video feeds overflowing with explosions, perp walks and sobbing people, looking for those few seconds that capture the most dramatic and emotional core of the visual story. The money shot. I had a television on my desk and televisions hung from the ceiling above me in front of a wall of more televisions. Even when I went home at night, I read about war, politics, murder trials, and missing kids.

Her story is chilling. But also exciting. It is the story of a beautiful, privileged young girl who is snatched by Hades, god of the Underworld. Her protective and stubborn mother, Demeter, goddess of harvests, fights long and hard to bring her back: refusing to let anything grow, causing cold, famine and misery. Finally, Persephone’s father, Zeus, commands Hades to return the girl to her mother, but there’s one catch. Persephone has eaten the forbidden food of the Underworld”¦ six seeds of a pomegranate. Demeter’s compromise is a shared custody agreement, of sorts, where Persephone spends part of the year on Earth with her mother and part of the year in the Underworld with her now husband, Hades, beginning a seasonal cycle of blooming growth and decay. During our sessions we read many translations and adaptations of various ancient texts. There’s the version where Persephone is raped, the version where she is a snake, the version where she loves her husband and chooses her own destiny.

SIX SEEDS begins where this story ends: What does Persephone think? What is her story? Was she coerced by her abductor or did she eat those seeds of her own free will? Is she the first case of Stockholm syndrome, a brave victim, or a clever Lolita who loves being both a princess and a queen?

With notebooks in hand, we speedily scribbled responses to timed prompts: Define a myth in 20 words or less. Then in 15 words or less. Now, five words. We wrote the mythologies surrounding our own childhoods, wrote text message-style conversations between teenage Persephone and her mother, Demeter. We stood up and sat on the floor and role-played the characters and asked each other questions: To Persephone: “Did you want to leave Hades?” To Demeter: “Did you ever suspect this would happen, that Persephone would be kidnapped?” It was magic. I still have my notebook from these sessions and in seeing the play in its current form, I still see our stories and imagination games in the finished script.

By creating the piece collaboratively, Annie’s hope was that her story would emerge as true as any of our own stories, with all its contradictions and exaggerations. Persephone’s story would resonate with daughters everywhere who left home for an unknown future.

Once I knew Persephone, and all the interpretations of her story, I would see her face in missing children posters; in the cover of a magazine with Elizabeth Smart, standing strong next to her mother, walking into court to testify against her kidnapper; in young women dating men their fathers’ age.

It has been six years since we the original workshop. Annie went on to graduate school at Sarah Lawrence and continued working with the piece. She and Franny Silverman (who had originally invited me to the first workshop) formed a theater company, warner | shaw, so they could write and produce their own stories. A lot has changed for the women in the original workshop. We have earned several advanced degrees, published books, married, separated, become mothers, fallen in and out of love. Moved in and out of New York. Now Persephone reveals herself more subtly, everywhere I go. A few weeks ago I came across an article by Kola Boof, who claims to have been Osama bin Laden’s lover. It was, by far, the most interesting thing I read about bin Laden’s death. Fact or fiction or some mixture, Kola’s story is intense. It is about strong women and powerful men and rape and love and politics and race. Sometimes we are empowered by our weakest moments and find love in difficult places. And everyone has the right to tell their version of their story.

It’s thrilling to be a part of this piece as it grows and changes. I’ve grown and changed along with it. Myths are both of the past and present. They are stories that evolve with us over generations. I don’t know if Persephone decided to eat those six seeds or if she was forced to. But whether you are in Miami or Hades, and it is hot as hell in Miami, we all have the power to tell our own stories. Somehow, right now, writing marketing emails, raising money and proofreading programs for this play, Persephone is helping me do just that.

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