An Odyssey of one’s own

A director’s three-year journey to producing ‘The Odyssey’ for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival


Think about the homecoming that is taking place right now — slowly — across the globe. We are all, in some way, returning. To grocery stores, to local restaurants, to family reunions. We are leaving our masks at home. We are finding our footing as we say yes to going out, yes to our old lives. 

But, like the final juncture in the hero’s journey — a plot structure popularized by Joseph Campbell in 1949 — we are very much changed. We have weathered the past year; we have learned and cried and been sick and stayed healthy. And so we return, this summer, as a different group of humans, with a little more resilience, a little more gratitude. 

Campbell was inspired by The Odyssey, a collection of 24 epic poems originally performed orally but eventually written down by the Greek poet Homer in the seventh or eighth century BCE. 

The poem’s 12,109 lines revolve around the Greek hero Odysseus as he ventures home from the Trojan War to Ithaca, where he is — or was — king. The non-chronological story starts in the middle, filling in the gaps in time through Odysseus’s retelling. Much like the last year and a half, time shrinks and expands. 

While the first half of the poem covers roughly 20 years, the second half of the poem centers on just the six weeks after Odysseus returns home to Ithaca. The final stage of the hero’s journey is exactly this: returning home — often to the world where the adventure first began. Only at this point, the hero has changed. 

The Odyssey is often said to be a story about war, or becoming a “man” (whatever that means), or growing up. I think it’s a story about coming home.

According to Tim Orr, with Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF), The Odyssey is about “almost anything you’re looking for. You can find truth — your own truth — in what you are seeing [performed].” 

This summer, CSF is producing Mary Zimmerman’s stage adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey as directed by Orr, who has been the producing artistic director for CSF since 2013. 

Before that, Orr was an actor until, he says, he talked CSF into hiring him as an associate producer in 2011. As an actor, Orr has appeared in 10 CSF productions. Of this switch from acting to directing, Orr says he always found great satisfaction from being a “part of a team that is creating theater or art.” So, along with acting, he studied arts management. But, he notes, “Getting an MFA in theater is going to be about 1% of your training. The rest comes from doing it.” 

Most directors come from the stage, Orr notes, which is “why more roles need to be made for women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) … because actors become directors.”  

In addition, “There is the desire to share space — to give space — to other voices and newer voices. … It allows us to see a diversity of stories and voices on stage.” 

CFS often includes a play not written by Shakespeare, which is where The Odyssey comes in. 

Plus, CSF doesn’t want to “recycle Shakespeare’s plays as quickly as you have to when you’re producing five shows a year,” Orr says.  

Zimmerman’s adaptation, titled The Odyssey: A Play, debuted in 1990 at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, where Zimmerman is an ensemble member. 

The play was originally planned for the 2020 CSF season, but Orr began prepping in 2018. “It’s been my own odyssey,” he says with a laugh. Of this upcoming season, Orr says he’s most excited for the simple things: “To be in a room with humans … talking about a play that I have been working on now for three years.” 

Orr first saw the adaptation at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and was “crushed by it.” 

“You have to go on a walk [after you see it] because you’re not ready to talk about it. You have to go process it,” he says.  

As Orr watched the Oregon actors perform, he thought about the power of staging it in the outdoor theater space in Boulder, “where there are stars and … rain and the elements.”

An outdoor production is an incredible experience — especially for plays that are actually based out of doors, such as the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the ocean voyage in The Odyssey

Orr sees the power of the outdoors in another light, since almost all of CSF’s performances begin at 7 p.m. 

“The sun is going down, and it’s becoming more theatrical every minute, but imperceptibly to the audience,” he says.  

And against the darkening sky, there’s “the unpredictability of the space … of birds and dragonflies — [it] adds so much to your [individual] psychological experience.” 

Experiencing an epic poem outdoors is nothing new. The Odyssey was originally performed orally, passed from generation to generation. It was used as a teaching tool, to warn younger people about the danger and beauty of war and adventure. 

Since then, The Odyssey has been written down, edited and translated into myriad languages. (In 2017, Emily Wilson became the first woman to translate the epic poem into English.) It inspired films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou? The tale also influenced James Joyce’s Ulysses and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, among others. It’s where we get the phrase “caught between a rock and a hard place,” which is based on a scene when Odysseus is stuck between Charybdis, a horrendous whirlpool, and Scylla, a man-eating monster. There’s a Marvel comic book version of The Odyssey, and there’s Ithaca, New York — the list goes on and on. 

But Zimmerman’s adaptation encourages audience members to use their imagination to create special effects. Orr describes it as Zimmerman encouraging us to “play make believe.” 

“We’re all in the illusion together and we’re all playing, like we used to, as kids,” Orr says. “And that’s when something magical happens.”  

On the bill: ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer, adapted by Mary Zimmerman. July 9-Aug. 14 at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival/ Performances are sold out, but there is a waitlist: