In the Moment: Interview with Emily Whitworth, Synetic Theater’s ‘Titus Andronicus’ Adaptor

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Synetic Theater’s marvels of silent Shakespeare begin with a superstructure; the adaptation of one of The Bard’s works and his words into audacious silences of the human voice. Over the years those of us who have followed Synetic have come to expect potent Shakespearean productions loaded with the force of new interpretations pulling us in new directions.

The current Synetic production of Titus Andronicus is one to be reckoned with, as my DCMTA colleague Sophia Howes wrote in her finely calibrated review.

Alex Mills, Irina Tsikurishvili, Irina Kavsadze, and Dallas Tolentino in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.
Alex Mills, Irina Tsikurishvili, Irina Kavsadze, and Dallas Tolentino in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

I was struck that there was little excessive about Synetic’s take on Titus, even with its grisly subject matter, murders and mayhem. It wasn’t Baroque, to use a current term of usage.

As I looked over the Titus program, I was drawn to the name of the adaptor, Emily Whitworth. Over the past year or more, I have also seen Whitworth’s fine acting on stage not only with Synetic’s Sleeping Beauty, but with Flying V and Forum Theatre as well. I wondered how she had moved from acting to the key “behind-the-curtain” role of adaptor.

So, off I went to Synetic for a chat with Paata Tsikurishvili, Synetic Theater’s Founding Artistic Director, who directed Titus Andronicus, and Emily Whitworth.

First, some quick facts about Whitworth. She is 23, and began her career with Synetic in 2011 as a member of its Teen Company. Since then, Whitworth has appeared in Synetic mainstage productions including The Tempest and Sleeping Beauty. She is a May 2017 graduate of American University with a public relations major.

David Siegel: Why did you ask Emily Whitworth to adapt Titus Andronicus?

Paata Tsikurishivili: Basically, I wanted to allow our longtime company members like Emily a chance to grow and evolve. She started off in our Teen Program, several years ago, and I’ve watched her develop as a performer and artist since then. She has performed in several main stage productions such as The Tempest. She has some great instincts, and was very much interested in learning the process from “the other side of the table,” so to speak. She came to me with some great ideas, and I loved it. I wanted to give her a new opportunity and teach her how to adapt the play for Physical Theater. She performed outstanding work as an adaptor of Titus Andronicus. Bravo. What a start!

How did you go about selecting what scenes from Shakespeare’s Titus to include and those not to include in the adaptation?

Emily Whitworth. Photo courtesy of Emily Whitworth.
Emily Whitworth. Photo courtesy of Emily Whitworth.

Emily Whitworth: We look for the most necessary scenes to tell the story. What are the key plot points we need to hit? What are the absolutely necessary images needed to convey a mood, a character, or a concept? These are the questions we asked when building the backbone of the story.

How does Titus as a written play lend itself to the Synetic “silent” physical theater approach?

Titus is inherently visual – it was written by a young playwright testing his skill for the first time (it’s Shakespeare’s first tragedy). The show is known for its gore, not its prose. However, Titus also lays the groundwork for Shakespeare’s later works, and in it are powerful themes that Synetic can explore visually in ways that elevate the story beyond blood.

How did you work to develop the final script?

It’s a highly collaborative, iterative process. The story is as much Paata’s [Tsikurishvili] and Ira’s [Tsikurishvili] as it is the actors’, the creative team’s, Shakespeare’s, and mine. In terms of Titus‘s process, Ira took two weeks at the beginning of rehearsals for our signature “mess around” period, where she took our outline of the story and developed a physical language for the show. After those two weeks, Paata began molding the piece while I, with Titus‘s creative assistants, Tori Bertocci and Nathan Weinberger, helped reinforce storytelling aspects.

What were some of your challenges?

One of the biggest challenges – both as an adaptor and a performer – is what Paata likes to call “killing your darlings.” For every Synetic show, there is an entire show’s worth of content that is cut from the final product. Scenes that I held near and dear as an adaptor had to be chopped for the purpose of this production’s story flow. The Titus that audiences will see is vastly different than the show any of us had in mind at the beginning of production, and the process to get there was exciting, challenging, and sometimes sad.

What are you most proud of?

The little moments in the show that make the world of Titus real: the calculated movements of our incredible ensemble, the glances between characters, the little touches and flickers of light that come from the actors living truthfully in this dark, twisted world. (I had very little hand in these moments, but they are riveting!)

If you could invite audiences to Titus, especially those who may not know Synetic, what would you say to them?

Free yourself from expectation.

Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.

Titus Andronicus plays through May 27, 2018, at Synetic Theater – 1800 South Bell Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or go online.