Orpheus: What a 1925 Play By Jean Cocteau Can Tell 21st Century Filmmakers About Creating Life-and-Death One-of-a-Kind Experiences

There is a prologue to Jean Cocteau’s 1925 play, Orpheus, where the actor who will play the title role appears - only half in makeup and costume - in front of the curtain to say:

“Ladies and gentlemen, this prologue is not in the script. Doubtless the author, if he’s here tonight, will be surprised to see me in front of the curtain. But I have a request to make. This tragedy he has given us to perform is a ticklish affair, and so I’m asking that you wait until the very end to express any objections to the way we play it. You see, we’ll be performing very high with no net to catch us if we fall. The slightest distraction from the house might make us lose our balance. That means death for me and my fellow actors.”

In Cocteau's play about life and death, the audience (even before the "performance" has begun) is reminded of their role in keeping the illusion alive.

The actor playing Orpheus is ready to risk everything to create a work of art - but he won't be walking on that tightrope alone. 

This shared sense of responsibility and risk permeates the traditional story of Orpheus.

And, in retelling the tragic Greek myth of Orpheus and his lover Eurydice, Cocteau examines how all our lives (spiritually, artistically and sexually) are intertwined. 

In Cocteau's play (and the original myth), one false step - even just an ill-timed glance by someone we trust - can lead to loss and separation.

Cocteau seems to be saying that to appreciate the sweetness of theater, and of love and life, we need some experience of death. (There is even the possibility - rooted in the Orphic tradition that predates Christianity - that the soul cannot truly be freed until it has died.) In Cocteau's artistic mind, death seems inextricably linked to the act of creation. Certainly there is, every time the curtain rises or a screenwriter types fade in, a risk of spiritual death. And performing artists must, it seems, repeatedly take great risks - relying on an audience to enact, appreciate and give meaning to their creative rituals.

21st century filmmakers may profit from considering how Cocteau binds the audience into a consciousness of their own life-giving importance in public storytelling. For example, Cocteau's original text for Orpheus also requires that, at a key moment, a watch should be borrowed from someone in the audience - a "real" watch from a "real" person that will figure in the life or death of an onstage figure.

Notice how, 85 years before Punchdrunk's Sleep No More became an interactive sensation in NY and London, Cocteau nudged the passive spectators at every performance of Orpheus into active participation. 

It starts even before Cocteau's play begins. First the actor playing Orpheus reminds the assembled crowd of their special role in making this particular performance a success. But then the mystery deepens. It is not just our patience and attention that are required. As the evening progresses (and remember, the evening always begins with a lie that contains a fundamental truth about this particular group's unique importance), one of the assembled crowd must become an accomplice in the drama of Eurydice's life or death.  

So here are some questions for filmmakers... 

When you make a film, are you directing actors playing characters whose feelings (in the case of a character like Orpheus: desire, self-indulgence, impatience, etc.) are being examined? 

Or are you creating an opportunity for users to examine their own feelings? 

And if the latter is even partially true, why aren't you exploring the participatory opportunities?

As 21st century tools enhance the ways that users can participate, what is their role in (the making, spreading, life or death, etc. of) your work? 

Before the curtain rises, the actor playing Orpheus is instructed by Cocteau to build a relationship with the audience. Before your film is in theaters or online, can you (the New World filmmaker) build a relationship with your potential fans?

This isn't just about ticket sales and marketing... In the tangled web of emotions that promote loyalty and advocacy for our work, aren't we filmmakers connected to the attention of our fans just as Eurydice is dependent on Orpheus? 

In the New World, it isn't enough to love making films: To survive as filmmakers we need our fans to participate in ways that didn't exist just 10 years ago. New tools and behaviors are changing 100 years of filmmaking paradigms (e.g., how films are funded, discovered, circulate and are monetized). The most successful New World filmmakers may be those who understand how the relationship between film and "audience" is changing. 

When potential fans discover you, how will that experience acknowledge the importance of their attention and participation? As poet Margaret Atwood explains to the title character in her poem Eurydice“This love of his is not something he can do if you aren’t there...” 

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