“Someone yelled, ‘jump!’ And if they hadn’t, it wouldn’t have occurred to me.” Jumping saved Steven Sater’s life, an intimate crowd learned in the Adams House Lower Common Room on Thursday, February 24. In a conversation and question-and-answer session with Ryan McKittrick, Dramaturg for the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.), Sater described the flames that engulfed his apartment when he was a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis. He ran to his balcony to escape the blaze, but the glass from the French doors blasted towards him, setting fire to his bathrobe. He finally took off his robe and—with encouragement from an unknown bystander —jumped. He landed on the concrete, shattering or fracturing 14 vertebrae and breaking his arms and wrists.
Sater recounts the accident without an ounce of self-pity. Once a victim of trauma, now a Tony and Grammy Award-winning playwright and lyricist, he cites his hospital bed as the beginning of his career. “I taught myself Ancient Greek, while I lay there,” he said. Rehabilitating for months, Sater learned about Greek philosophy, culture, and literature, inspiring him to translate Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” from the original German and reinterpret it as a modern-day Greek tragedy. Sater’s visit was part of the “Learning from Performers” program organized by the Office for the Arts at Harvard. The program allows students to learn from artists of all professions through informal discussions and workshops. The event was co-sponsored by the A.R.T., which is staging Sater’s musical interpretation of “Prometheus Bound” at the OBERON beginning March 4.
Sater’s musical collaborator for “Prometheus Bound” is Serj Tankian, the Grammy Award-winning frontman of System of A Down. Sater is known for rebellious rock ballads, a ways removed from System of A Down’s heavy metal sound. When asked about the unusual combination, Sater explained, “I felt that from the beginning, that the Prometheus story required a real outcry of the spirit and a wail of pain. And rock music has always seemed to me like a kind of cry against the deaf heavens—which seems so appropriate to the Prometheus story. And Serj sets my lyrics in a way I’ve never heard before. He sets them as a real scream, anguish from the soul.”
When Sater translated Aeschylus’ original text about Prometheus, the Titan, he envisioned the production as a political piece. Drawing inspiration from the Iraq War, he explained that there is something fundamentally wrong with democracy when private interest begins to steer the course of justice. Sater’s passion about these issues was especially evident when he spoke about the Armenian genocide. Tankian, Sater’s musical partner, is an Armenian immigrant as well as political activist with a focus on social justice and close ties to human rights non-profit Amnesty International.
Amnesty is a partner of “Prometheus Bound,” with each week’s performances dedicated to a different prisoner of conscience—a term coined by Amnesty International to describe a non-violent person who is imprisoned for their beliefs. The story of “Prometheus Bound” interprets Prometheus as the first prisoner of conscience, withstanding the torture of a tyrant, Zeus, as punishment for revealing the god’s plan to eradicate humanity. Sater sees Prometheus as “a charismatic leader of a revolution, like José Martí or Che Guevara—one of those inspired heroes of the people.”
An active Buddhist, Sater is part of the Soka Gakkai movement, which seeks to contribute to peace, culture, and education for the happiness of humanity. When asked how Sater sees his art relating to that message, he explained that he views it “as a weapon for peace.” He described Prometheus as a messenger, explaining that as the giver of fire, language, and culture, Prometheus enabled mankind to better itself. The message of “Prometheus Bound” reflects this idea of art as social justice, which Sater so thoroughly supports.
Sater’s art attempts to communicate messages of peace and equality. In the wake of the Columbine tragedy, Sater used the sexuality and violence in “Spring Awakening” as a way to express that “we don’t listen to what young people are saying.” He does the same with the idea of Prometheus as a prisoner of conscience in “Prometheus Bound.” Sater believes that art can effectively convey these ideas. “Art feeds and nurtures the spirit and enables us to recognize that there’s something larger than ourselves that is within ourselves,” he said. “That we are not bound by either the frame of our five-foot bodies or the contours of our mind, but there’s something we participate in as a common humanity—that we’re all connected to one another.”