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Sunday, March 22, 2020
https://www.angelfire.com/de/palma/dionysuspremieread.jpg50 years ago today, Dionysus In '69 had its premiere at Kips Bay Theater in New York. Credited alphabetically as a film by Brian De Palma, Robert Fiore, and Bruce Rubin, it's a split-screen document of Richard Schechner's avant-garde play of the same name, which Schechner based on Euripides The Bacchae. Dionysus In '69 was staged in a New York City garage by Schechner's Performance Group as a work of in-the-round environmental theatre. Feeling strongly that it was an important work that "should be preserved on some level," De Palma approached Schechner and The Group about filming it, and they all liked the idea. De Palma put up a lot of his own money from savings, and with Fiore and Rubin (the latter recording the sound), filmed two performances in June and July of 1968.

"I was very strongly affected by the play when I saw it," De Palma told Cinefantastique's David Bartholomew in 1975. "Bill Finley had been playing Dionysus with The Group for some time. I came to see him and said, 'God, this is incredible,' environmental theatre, the way it affects the audience and draws them into the piece itself. This was the most exciting thing I'd seen on stage in years. So I began to try and figure out a way to capture it on film. I came up with the idea of split-screen, to be able to show the actual audience involvement, to trace the life of the audience and that of the play as they merge in and out of each other. I wanted to get the very stylized dramatic life of the play juxtaposed to what was really going down in that room at that time. I was floored by the emotional power of it. I shot one of the cameras and Bob Fiore the other. The editing took about a year, because I wanted to play with the different ways to use split-screen. I learned a lot and also about the kind of documentary realism that I would use later in Hi, Mom! and even in Phantom Of The Paradise."

Rubin talked about Dionysus In '69 in Justin Humphreys' book Interviews Too Shocking To Print! (2014)...

Brian called me and said, 'You've got to go see this play, Dionysus In '69,' which Richard Schechner had done down at the Performing Garage. I'd heard about it and I'd heard that Bill was in it and I found that really kind of fascinating because I heard that people kind of took their clothes off... And I went, 'That's not Bill! Bill's not going to take his clothes off in front of people!' The Bill Finley I knew was modest beyond belief and Brian kept saying, 'He's changed. He's really changed.' I was really more intrigued by that than anything else, that Bill would have changed so much. Not only did he take his clothes off, but he was buff... This guy never exercised, I thought, in his entire life, but he had turned everything around. And I think the transformation from the Bill Finley I knew prior to Dionysus and the Performance Garage to the Schechner years was one of the most profound transformations of any person I've ever known. He just became a different person: He was self-possessed in a way that I had never seen before; he was mature in a whole new way; his childlike sensibility was still there, but it had been grafted onto a person who had become really articulate, knowledgeable-- an incredible performer, audacious and daring in front of people, and bigger than life. The change was unbelievable to me. I had never witnessed that. I don't knwo if he and I ever talked about it-- I can't remember sitting down and having a conversation about it but I know we all sat and talked because we decided that we wanted to make a movie. Brian thought this would be great. Fiore would be another cameraman, I would be the sound man and editor, which was the way we looked at it. And we were going to do this idea that Brian had, which has become a signature for all of his films, which is a double-screen [split-screen], because Brian is a total voyeur, absolute voyeur, to this day, and he wanted the camera watching all the stuff that was goiong on away from the main stage-- the seductions that were going on. He really got off on it.

Bill was the one who kind of brought us all in to Schechner, and Schechner, of course, loved the idea of this preservation of a piece of work that he did. Most plays are never preserved and for him that was really remarkable. And Brian had a little bit of notoriety and Bill had the notoriety of Woton... The film, once it got made, Brian really got it to a big distributor-- a group called Sigma 3-- it was a small part of a much bigger company, sort of the art wing.

The day after the film premiered at Kips Bay Theater, the New York Times ran a review by Roger Greenspun:
RICHARD SCHECHNER'S "Dionysus in 69" played during 1968 and 1969 in a converted garage on Wooster Street. Brian De Palma made his movie version in the course of just two actual performances. It opened yesterday at the Kips Bay Theater.

Although rough in a few technical details, it is a film of extraordinary grace and power. With exceptional imagination and intelligence, De Palma has managed both to preserve the complex immediacies of Schechner's dramatic event (based on "The Bacchae" of Euripides) and to work those immediacies into the passionate and formal properties of his own creation.

Schechner approached "The Bacchae" not so much to re-interpret the play as to re-experience some of the impulses surrounding and informing it—to which end Euripides's lines were sometimes useful, and sometimes not. Schechner's troupe, the Performance Group, would by turns chant, or dance, make love, plot murder, whisper to the audience, or among themselves hold group therapy sessions.

With its nudity (partial in the actual production I saw; total in the film), its audience-participation orgies (timid and embarrassing in the production; sensual and enthusiastic in the film) and its range of theatrical invention, "Dionysus in 69" strives for a degree of sensuous presence that, paradoxically, I think it best achieves as filtered through the film.

De Palma uses a split screen, and he uses it in a variety of ways. Both sides of the screen always record the same moment in the production. But sometimes they will show different parts of the arena (the Performing Garage was a kind of multi-level theater in the round, with cast and audience often sharing spaces). Sometimes they will develop different points of view toward a single action. Sometimes they will place an apparently random event in formal perspective, and at the same time isolate important detail.

The sequences in which the chorus of Bacchantes in effect give birth to Pentheus (William Shephard) and Dionysus (William Finley, in a fine performance) is so treated, and it makes a kind of patterned energetic sense on film that it did not, for me, make in production.

And yet the film is a record of the production, slightly cut (the group therapy, blessedly, is gone), and not an attempt to extend the boundaries of theater through "cinema." Partly for this reason it is exciting as a movie, approaching its material with great brilliance and ingenuity, but never trying to supersede the material.

Between the two principal personalities involved (I'll except Euripides, who really deserves most of the credit—but in a different kind of review) a mutually enriching tension seems to exist. For if Richard Schechner's power looks the greater for being framed within Brian De Palma's cameras, so De Palma, a witty, elegant, understated young director (for example, "Greetings") seems to have found new ease and vigor and a taste for risks in meeting the challenge of this film.

The Cast

DIONYSUS IN 69, a film by Brian De Palma, Robert Flore and Bruce Rubin; directed for the stage by Richard Schechner; portions of the text adapted from "The Bacchae" of Euripides as translated by William Arrowsmith; released by Sigma III. At the Kips Bay Theater, Second Avenue and 31st Street. Running time: 86 minutes. (The Motion Picture Association of America's Production Code and Rating Administration classifies this film: X—no one under 17 admitted.)

Members of the performance group taking part in this film are: Remi Barclay, Samuel Blazer, John Bosseau, Richard Dic, William Finley, Joan MacIntosh, Vicki May, Patrick McDermott, Margaret Ryan, Richard Schechner, William Shephard and Ciel Smith.

Posted by Geoff at 9:11 PM CDT
Updated: Saturday, March 28, 2020 8:43 AM CDT
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Friday, July 28, 2017

Bread & Water Theatre in Rochester, New York, is producing a modern take on The Performance Group's Dionysus In '69, called Dionysus In '17, continuing through August 6th. The theatre's website description reads: "In 1969 [actually, it was 1968], the Performance Group took to the stage and performed their seminal production based on Euripides' classic play The Bacchae. Called Dionysus in 69 this production captured a moment in time and made a classic play relevant to a world in turmoil. In 2017, Bread & Water Theatre will be producing a unique adaptation of The Bacchae as a mirror to our turbulent times."

Rochester City Newspaper's Daniel J. Kushner reviewed last Friday's performance:

Perhaps the less you know going into a performance of Bread and Water Theatre's "Dionysus in '17," the better. Written and staged by the company's artistic director, J.R. Teeter, it should at least be said that the performance art-driven play is a modern update of "The Bacchae," by the Greek tragedian Euripides, filtered through The Performance Group's important, experimental production "Dionysus in '69." Director Brian De Palma also filmed that production for a 1970 movie.

Beyond that, however, prior knowledge of Euripides's plot details or the erotically charged 1969 version may prove to be a distraction from the immersive world to which Teeter and company beckon you.

In Bread and Water Theatre's intimate black box space, the likelihood of interacting with the cast is high. A bacchant, or worshipper of Dionysus, may warn you of the god's impending arrival before inviting you to honor him by joining the ritualistic dance. Or you may be seduced into worship by Dionysus himself.

But just who is this particular Dionysus? From the outset, the line between abstracted, classical Greek myth and real-life, flesh-and-blood Andreas Gabriel Woerner -- the actor playing the chaos-causing Dionysus -- was intentionally unclear. According to Woerner, he discovered he was the god incarnate when an obese man told him so while traveling on the airplane that brought him to America.

While telling this fascinatingly dubious origin story, the Woerner settled into the role of Dionysus with smoldering intensity and vain swagger. Woerner stalked around the theater with the dangerous charisma of a cult leader. Promising freedom, his Dionysus was fittingly fickle, demanding, and hot-headed.

Fully committed, the spirited ensemble cast responded with free-flowing sensuality and latent violence, as evidenced by the tragic end of Pentheus (played by Xavier Hucks), who acted in defiance of Dionysus. As Agave, Pentheus's mother, Nicole Iaquinto gave one of the more impressive performances in the play, communicating with earnest passion the unbridled agony and desperation that are at the heart of Euripides's original tragedy.

In a somewhat disjointed turn toward the end of the play, Teeter ripped the action from safe, distant confines and transplanted them into our frightening contemporary American political landscape. Woerner suddenly began to appropriate the language of our current president, becoming increasingly unhinged as he accused audience members of worshipping him insufficiently -- a lack of loyalty, if you will -- encouraged his followers to punch people in the face, spat out venomous charges of "loser" and "crooked Agave," and talked of pussy-grabbing.

This channeling of Donald Trump was much more overt than William Finley's original evocation of Richard Nixon in 1969. But in 2017, the parallels between Trump and Dionysus are decidedly more striking -- both figures inspire a kind of blind, crazed fealty in his supporters, while promising a paradigm shift that, in some cases, enable bizarre and unstable behavior. An odd comparison, for sure, but it worked.

"Dionysus in '17" follows the swiftly paced structural framework, fundamental plot devices, and avant-garde affectations of "Dionysus in '69," but with updated language (read: plenty of f-bombs) and comparatively tamer sexual elements. This is absolutely not a play meant for children, but it may be an excellent way to start a conversation with your mature-minded teenagers about the intersections of art, politics, and sex. Teeter and his band of actors have created a highly engaging, no-frills production that succeeds in saying something the 1969 version could not.

Posted by Geoff at 3:48 AM CDT
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Friday, March 10, 2017
Conrad Brunstrom, literary scholar and blogger, posted today about Dionysus In '69:
Many years ago, I read a book by Bill Shepherd about the experience of preparing for and performing Dionysus in 69. Shepherd describes the process of rehearsing for Dionysus as something akin to cult membership – [an] exhausting and all demanding process that lasted many months. This kind of “living theatre” has a tendency to treat the performance as a mere symptom of a process rather than as the defining end product.

I recall that Shepherd describes how Richard Schechner created and sustained The Performance Group in that garage that wasn’t really a garage. At one point, he reported to the cast that Jerzy Grotowski (no less) had seen an early production and complained that the partial nudity looked a bit tacky. On Grotowski’s second-hand authority therefore, Schechner persuades the cast to get the rest of their kit off.

The name Dionysus in 69 does a number of things in the context of a 1968 production. 69 is a rude number – which helps. It’s also “next year” – an imminent revolution. And of course, there is the important context of the 1968 US election, in which the Vietnam War is a decisive issue. [Finley]-Dionysos is the candidate to become President in 69.

The casual use of “real” names alongside Euripidean roles has a genuinely unsettling effect in the production. The audience wonders whether they are watching a staged or a real argument, a play or a group therapy session.

Does it all work? Is the blood and the nudity and the dicing with mental health all justified in the name of art? Well…. yeah… I think so. I was worried that the production would seem desperately ponderous and self important. In fact, the wit of the production is what shines through. Euripides is a disturbingly funny playwright, and enough of the Arrowsmith translation is integrated into this theatre work to demonstrate the joyous absurdity of religious conflict. And William [Finley] is a remarkable Dionysos – calm, comical, terrifying and seductive. The scene where he demands oral sex from Pentheus and/or Bill Shepherd is as careful and exquisitely delivered as anything I’ve ever seen on stage or in a film, or in a film that’s also a stage or a stage that’s also a film. Yes, it’s heavy on sex and death and liturgy – but there is a constant playfulness on show here as well. It’s consistently entertaining.

Brian De Palma uses a split screen technique to show the audience and the cast simultaneously. It’s a technique he would use in more famous films like Carrie and Dressed to Kill. On the one hand, this reminds us that everything we see is designed for a live audience. On the other hand, this “division” of the screen is precisely the division that is continually being violated by the Performance Group. It is increasingly impossible to separate cast from audience – and not just when they’re all groping one another. Apparently, this film joins together two separate productions. I for one, cannot see the join.

The one barrier that can’t be transcended of course is the essential “pastness” of film itself. The cast transgress every conceivable barrier between actors and audience, between cast names and “real names” and finally, with the triumphant bursting forth into the streets – between theatrical reality and the so-called “outside world”. The final gimmick that De Palma might have added might be a smashing through a cinema screen to terrify a theatre full of complacent movie goers. And then we’d be able to extrapolate and imagine Dionysos and company bursting out of our smaller screens to invade our dull and safe little worlds.

Posted by Geoff at 9:21 PM CST
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Sunday, November 20, 2016
Dionysus In '69 was the first film ever screened at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, and now it will be included in next week's six-day program, celebrating Zeitgeist's 30th anniversary. Brian De Palma's split-screen documentary, filmed with Robert Fiore and Bruce Rubin, will screen at 5:30 pm on Tuesday, November 29th. The description of the screening at the Zeitgeist website claims that there are two more Performance Group productions that were filmed by De Palma: Makbeth, which they did in 1969, and The Tooth Of Crime, a Sam Shepard play they staged in 1972. The site states that Richard Schechner brought 16mm prints of all three films to be screened at a Zeitgeist fundraiser for its production of Schechner's Commune there in 1989. Here's the full Zeitgeist description:
An experimental theater film by Brian De Palma, Robert Fiore and Bruce Rubin; directed for the stage by Richard Schechner; portions of the text adapted from "The Bacchae" of Euripides as performed by The Performance Group. Schechner approached "The Bacchae" not so much to re-interpret the play as to re-experience some of the impulses surrounding and informing it—to which end Euripides's lines were sometimes useful, and sometimes not. Schechner's troupe, The Performance Group, would by turns chant, or dance, make love, plot murder, whisper to the audience, or among themselves hold group therapy sessions. With its full nudity, its audience-participation orgies and its range of theatrical invention, "Dionysus in 69" strives for a degree of sensuous presence. De Palma uses a split screen, and he uses it in a variety of ways. Both sides of the screen always record the same moment in the production. But sometimes they show different parts of the arena (the Performing Garage was a kind of multi-level theater in the round, with cast and audience often sharing spaces). Sometimes they develop different points of view toward a single action. Sometimes they place an apparently random event in formal perspective, and at the same time isolate important detail.

In 1989 Zeitgeist Theatre Experiments, inc (our original name) staged a large scale theatrical production at X ART GALLERY, at 333 Girod St. in the CBD (a cutting edge space run by the late-great Clinton Peltier, an early partner and patron of Zeitgeist and all things ahead of their time) of COMMUNE (aka White Exorcism), an environmental theater piece by Richard Schechner and the Performance Group. In Commune, actors and volunteers from the audience restaged the “Pattern of butcheries in American History from the point of view of the Manson Family as a justification of their actions”. One night we even got a pregnant biker chick in the audience to play Sharon Tate as the actors brutally killed her as she screamed for them to spare her babies life. Although the production was savaged in the local press, the production was a huge success and ran for three weeks.

Richard Dodds in the Times Picayune said “Call me a reactionary pig but…” and proceeded to attack the production “under the fascistoidal direction of Rene Broussard” claiming that cast members “soiled, stretched and scuffed his 180 loafers when they wore them on their filthy feet to reenact the murders”. So for the remainder of the production cast members wore tie-dyed t-shirts saying “Richard Dodds Is A Reactionary Pig”.

As a fundraiser for the production as well as to afford bringing in Richard Schechner for the opening of the play Richard loaned us 16mm prints of Dionysus in 69, Makbeth and Tooth Of Crime (three films of Performance Group productions filmed by then NYU student Brian DePalma). DIONYSUS in 69 was the very first film Zeitgeist ever screened. So please enjoy this very rare look back at Zeitgeist’ history.

The Times-Picayune's Mike Scott provides a nice set-up for next week's Zeitgeist program, with background information, in an article posted Saturday:

It started with a protest of sorts. Which, in this particular case, is fitting to the point of bordering on poetic.

It was 1986 and Rene Broussard, then a student at the University of New Orleans, was directing a stage production of the giddily depraved "Blood on the Cat's Neck." It was a production chock-a-block with sex, violence, necrophilia, human bondage and other such provocations that so tend to tickle and titillate undergrads.

Then, days before the first performance, the department head dropped in on one of the final dress rehearsals. He was neither tickled nor titillated. He was, however, provoked.

"He was shocked by the graphic violence and nudity and said, 'You can't do this at UNO!,'" Broussard recalls. "... And so the production got canceled and I ended up taking it off-campus and running it on Bourbon Street as a benefit for Artists Against AIDS. It ran for three weeks. That became the first Zeitgeist experiment."

Thirty years later, Broussard's Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center is still going, and still working hard to provoke, regularly delivering or the promise of its guiding principle: "Something for and against everybody."

On Friday (Nov. 25), Zeitgeist will kick off a week of special programming marking its first three decades in operation. Highlights include Brian De Palma's "Dionysus in 69," which was the first film Zeitgeist ever screened; Broussard's own autobiographical triptych "The Fatboy Chronicles"; the music documentary "Liquid Land," which was filmed at Zeitgeist; and other selections intended both to highlight and celebrate the theater's history.

Posted by Geoff at 11:57 PM CST
Updated: Monday, November 21, 2016 12:32 AM CST
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Saturday, February 6, 2016
Today at Every '70s Movie, Peter Hanson looks at Dionysus In '69. "Experimental theater being what it is," Hanson begins, "any document of this offbeat genre is sure to divide audiences. As such, something like Dionysus in ’69 can’t be appraised in only one way. Those with adventurous spirits and an eagerness to see postmodern rethinks of longstanding storytelling conventions will be able to appreciate Dionysus in ’69 as a form of artistic exploration. Concurrently, those who enjoy understanding what the hell they’re watching will lose patience quickly. Even those who seek out Dionysus in ’69 because of Brian De Palma’s involvement are likely to be confounded. The picture has a couple of significant connections to the director’s later work, but he didn’t conceive or singlehandedly helm the piece, [and] the execution is avant-garde in the extreme."

In the concluding paragraph, Hanson focuses on the film's use of split-screen throughout: "De Palma, who shares an 'a film by' credit with fellow NYU students Bruce Joel Rubin (later an Oscar winner for writing the 1990 hit Ghost) and Robert Fiore, employs one of his favorite cinematic devices, split-screen photography. Therefore, the entire 85-minute film comprises two angles of grungy-looking black-and-white images projected side-by-side. As with everything else about Dionysus in ’69, the split-screen effect is as headache-inducing as it is mind-expanding. Incidentally, Dionysus in ’69 received an X-rating during its original release, though its edgiest elements are full-frontal nudity, rough language, and simulated sex."

Posted by Geoff at 5:44 PM CST
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Tuesday, November 6, 2012
New York Live Arts presents a reconstruction of the Performance Group's Dionysus In '69 (a re-imagining of The Bacchae) beginning with a preview tonight, and continuing through Saturday. The production is by Rude Mechs, the Austin-based theatre collective which first staged a painstaking recreation of the original 1968 production in Austin in 2009. Not only did the group use Brian De Palma's film of the play as a key source material, but they even got Richard Schechner himself, who staged and directed the 1968 production, to lead some of the early rehearsals. They now bring Dionysus In '69 back to New York City, 44 years after its premiere there, notes the Live Arts website. Schechner will join a discussion following Friday night's 7:30 performance.

Posted by Geoff at 12:34 AM CST
Updated: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 12:36 AM CST
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Sunday, April 1, 2012
The Hidden Noise gallery, located in Glasgow, Scotland, is currently hosting an exhibition by New York artist Rose Kallal. Kallal is presenting Implicate, Explicate, a 16mm film installation "created especially for The Hidden Noise with a soundtrack produced in collaboration with Mark Pilkington," according to the gallery's web site. "The overlapping projections appropriate footage from sources as diverse as Brian De Palma’s Dionysus to contemporary 3D simulations of fractals, as well as her own original footage." The exhibition, which includes works by Anni Albers, Josef Albers, and Victoria Morton, runs through April 14th.

Posted by Geoff at 10:27 PM CDT
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Wednesday, June 29, 2011
UbuWeb, the independent resource that posts materials for noncommercial and educational purposes, has uploaded Dionysus In '69, the split-screen documentary of Richard Schechner's play filmed by Brian De Palma, Robert Fiore, and Bruce Rubin that was released in 1970. Back in March, UbuWeb uploaded De Palma's documentary The Responsive Eye.

Posted by Geoff at 12:15 AM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, June 29, 2011 12:16 AM CDT
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Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Another early Brian De Palma documentary is getting attention this week, this time at the San Francisco Musuem Of Modern Art, which has been running an exhibition titled "How Wine Became Modern." Pop-Up Magazine, a quarterly live-on-stage format "magazine" that exists for only one night, in one place, debuts a new "Sidebar" series Thursday at SFMOMA to tie in with the wine theme. As part of the evening, Dionysus In '69 (a film produced, directed, shot, and edited by De Palma, Robert Fiore, and Bruce Rubin) will screen at 7pm. The film documents in split-screen the Richard Schechner-directed restaging of The Bacchae by the Performance Group. The evening kicks off at 6pm with a wine and food tasting curated by Meatpaper magazine and Blue Bottle Coffee, and then following the film screening, the Pop-Up Magazine Sidebar will commence with various artists, authors, and filmmakers tackling "the politics, humor, history, art, science and craft of California's favorite drink," according to the Pop-Up website.

Posted by Geoff at 2:38 AM CDT
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Above is video of Richard Schechner discussing the filming of his play Dionysus In '69, following a screening of the Brian De Palma-directed film this past Sunday at Austin's Alamo theater. Schechner said that just as when he adapts a play and makes it his own, he felt strongly that the film was De Palma's, and that he could (and should) make it any way he wanted to. He said that De Palma rearranged some of the chronology of the performances via editing, so that the film (in De Palma's view) would play better dramatically. Schechner revealed that he and De Palma decided to make cameos at the beginning of the film: Schechner is a "kind of chubby moustached guy at the door," while De Palma walks in as a "sleek-looking young mafioso in a suit," according to Schechner. Schechner also confirmed that a gong heard on the soundtrack was added for effect during editing. The video here comes courtesy of the Austin Film Society's P.o.V. journal-- see more videos at their site.

Posted by Geoff at 6:50 PM CST
Updated: Friday, December 11, 2009 12:21 AM CST
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