I don't often have an excuse to wear my jersey for the Greek national football team, but today as I headed to the LA Central Library downtown for a marathon public reading of Homer's great epic poem, The Odyssey, I was definitely in the tank for Team Ελλάδα.
This fantastic event was just one in a series of Odyssey-related activities around LA this October organized by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. The Odyssey Project has included lectures, shadow puppet shows, readings by living poets and a modern Greek-style vase by Peter Shire that's traveling the County. It was jointly sponsored by the library, the Library Foundation and an organization called Readers of Homer. They organize these giant participatory readings of The Iliad and The Odyssey all across the country.
Turns out, they're onto something. More than 200 people signed up to participate in LA. The reading ran from 10 a.m. until 5:30 (or so) p.m., with people coming and going throughout the day to read their assigned segment, or just sit in the audience and listen. The room was ringed with white curtains and the lights turned down low. Images of old maps, roiling seas and ships were projected onto the walls, changing from time to time to match the story. A low, droning, haunting music played in the background. The text appeared in superscript above the readers' heads.
I was reader #80. Backstage in the green room I ran into David Kipen of Libros Schmibros, who launched The Big Read when he was at the National Endowment for the Arts. He was reader #77, and we giddily whispered to each other about how exciting this event was. While reading his section, he briefly donned a glittery gorgon hat. Reader #79 read her lines in Spanish, and played a recording of a song as part of her segment. Reader #81 read her first few lines in ancient Greek. That's the kind of enthusiasm I'm talking about.
As I rehearsed my own lines and listened to others reading theirs, it was the emotions that really struck me. In the brief 33 lines I read on stage, Odysseus was, by turns, bombastic, sarcastic, arrogant and brave. I've read The Odyssey at least twice before, but never really felt the story or the character of Odysseus quite so clearly.
That's what public engagement in the arts is all about, and we literary people know how to do it right.
Photos by Melissa Wall
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