Phil Watson performs An Iliad
Phil Watson performs An Iliad

The War Artist

Senior Phil Watson battles his way to distinction
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April 28, 2014

“Nine years,” the Poet begins intensely, in media res. “Fighting on and off, fighting to the wall and back. Greeks win one day, Trojans win the next, like a game of tug-of-war.” He pulls at a black rope hung ominously from a scaffold. “And nothing to show for it but exhaustion, poverty, and loneliness,” he says, articulating each word with a maniacal kick to the air.

Barefoot in jeans and an army green shirt, the Poet roams the stage, haunted by ancient memories and multiple voices. His company includes a wooden table, a forlorn chair, and a meager scatter of props. Surrounding the stage on rising tiers, the audience watches on in silence, like captivated onlookers at a Greek arena.

Tonight is Phil Watson’s solo debut in An Iliad, a dramatic staging of Homer’s epic poem. Set during the tenth year of the Trojan War, the story delves into themes of wrath, glory, friendship, and prophecy. Although Watson, a double-major in theater and classics, had never performed alone before, he was hell-bent on using An Iliad for his senior distinction project. “You have to do things that scare you, or you’ll stagnate,” he reasons.

Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Watson loved to play the trumpet. He was especially drawn to the unscripted melodies of jazz. At Duke, he played in the orchestra for student musical productions. One evening, Watson looked up from the pit to the stage and thought, “I could do that.” So began his personal odyssey to a new form of improvisation.

At his first tryout, he didn’t get a callback. He tried again, and this time he got a part. He went on to act in half a dozen plays at Duke, including Uncle Vanya and The Metamorphoses, and he later codirected Machinal. Through one of his advisers, he learned about the teachings of Jerzy Grotowski, a twentieth-century Polish theater director and pioneer of physical theater. Tugging further on this experimental thread, Watson attended an intensive workshop with SITI Company in New York last summer.

Meanwhile, actor and director Kevin Poole ’98 had recently returned to Durham from Boulder, Colorado. In Boulder, he had earned an M.F.A. in theater and contemporary performance at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired institution defined by contemplative education. Like Watson, Poole was a former student of SITI and a disciple of experimental theater.

Jody McAuliffe, chair of theater studies, thought Watson and Poole would make a strong team. Poole, however, initially wondered about the ambitious scale of the project. He knew a show like An Iliad is usually performed by more seasoned actors. “It’s hard enough to do a one-person show, but to do a one-person show for an hour and forty-five, using a classical text, about battle and war…now, that’s an epic challenge.”

In the end, Watson’s zeal was so contagious Poole agreed to direct him.

Phil Watson deals with the pieces of war.

Days before the show, Watson is dashing around in a tempest of mystical gymnastics. Arms fling, feet stomp, elbows jab. As though possessed by spirits, he whoops in shades of glee, fury, and triumph. While I see the plain black box of the Bryan Center’s Schaefer Theater, Watson reacts to a jungle of imagined obstacles. He swats a swarm of bees, wiggles under a barbed wire fence, and pummels a foe. He is obviously fighting, though who or what is unclear.

The heathen dance is a physical theater technique called plastiques. “The whole point behind physical theater is that the mind is weak but the flesh is willing,” he explains afterward, breath heaving, his puckish energy almost palpable. “Basically you get so exhausted that your body has no choice but to just become this unfiltered set of impulses.”

For months, Watson trained for An Iliad under Poole’s direction. They drew on psychophysical, spatial, and vocal elements from Polish and Japanese theater, along with meditation techniques that Poole picked up at Naropa. As Watson learned to command his body and mind, he became what he terms an “acrobat of the heart.” He describes the process as hanging in midair over the side of a cliff, held back from total ruin by a single belt loop.

Sometimes, he dove too far into the abyss. One day after practice, he discovered that by making a simple stabbing motion, a strange feeling struck him square in the chest. It was pure, smoldering rage: the kind that forces Achilles to desecrate the corpse of Hector or that plunges Patroclus into a murderous spree. Panicking, he fled the theater and ran outside to lie on the cold ground. He felt like he was losing his mind.

“You can only kill so many people in your imagination before you start to go a little crazy.”

Watson’s spiraling was not confined to theater practice. After applying to and being rejected by several M.F.A. programs, he confronted the reality that certain programs prefer applicants with “real-world experience.” With graduate school delayed, he worried about taking a year off, about the uncertainty and lack of structure. What would he do instead? Would he fall behind and not be able to catch up?

Meanwhile, eighteen-hour days of classwork and rehearsals were beginning to fray his sanity. Word by word, he wrestled with a forty-five-page script composed of both modern English and Homeric verse. He was sleeping too little and exercising too much. He began losing weight, an unwelcome result given his already slender build. The stress began to manifest in frequent panic attacks. He felt like he had to fight just to relax—enough to read a book, to breathe.

“You can only kill so many people in your imagination before you start to go a little crazy.”

Sitting in the audience on opening night, I inhale the salty breeze from the gray Aegean Sea. I hear the coughing of plague-stricken soldiers and marvel at the brilliant shield forged by Hephaestus, the crippled fire god. And I share Achilles' overwhelming sorrow and guilt at the death of his best friend.

Watson writhes around the stage with a rucksack over his head.

Following the Grotowskian concept of “poor theater”—limited use of scenery, costumes, and props—Watson summons the drama through words and movement. He also plays fourteen characters, each with a distinct accent, identity, and destiny.

In one scene, he conjures a boisterous crowd of deities on Mount Olympus, cheering and meddling from the tabletop. Later, he jumps back and forth from a worried wife cradling her baby to a proud husband donning his heavy helmet. Watson shape-shifts from peacekeeper to warmonger; from assailant to victim; from haughty Helen to mischievous Hermes. Human, god, muse—a mythical Greek chorus springing from a single human source.

While rehearsing, Watson says he learned to appreciate the ageless trauma of war that continues to afflict today’s soldiers. “I got the faintest glimmer of what it takes to kill another person, what it takes to live every day in a kill or be killed, flight or fight mode. The thought of living in those circumstances for the length of a tour of duty…” he trails off. “It’s no wonder people are coming back disturbed. I could barely take it for two hours, and that was the tiniest approximation of what they experience daily.”

A week after the performance, I find Watson in the Bryan Center. He’s unshaven and pale, as though he’s seen a ghost—or maybe several. “The struggle doesn’t end,” he tells me. The story of An Iliad—and the work to prepare and perform it—still plays through his mind. He seems empathetic to, and slightly burdened by, the universe of individuals struggling through life around him.

But he also exudes a certain calm. In training for the show, Watson says he became a “weird pseudo-yogi character.” Whereas before the play, certain disappointments could send him “seething for days,” now he tries to embody an ethos of acceptance. “I can’t change what’s happened; all I can do is let it influence me for the better,” he says. Perhaps the change is due to the soothing breathing rituals he learned from Poole, the body-mind control from Grotowski, or the ability to recover one’s humanity from Achilles.

At the end of An Iliad, in the wake of ungodly acts of transgression, Achilles returns Hector’s corpse to his father and redeems himself. Spirits shaken, defenses rattled, Watson broke into fourteen fragments and forged himself anew.

“There’s something to be gained by going to a place that’s completely foreign, or disarming, or terrifying to you,” he says. “Half of the work is about getting there, and half of the work is about getting back in one piece.”

 

Watch Phil Watson's full performance here.

 

  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.