For those who are unaware, there is currently a rather annoying heatwave sweeping through large swaths of Europe at the moment, including France (well, not all of France; Brittany was spared). Now, I’m normally someone who actually quite likes the heat, but there is just something about the lack of open water, as well as the whole living on the top floor of a non-air-conditioned building (as well as the skylight that has no curtain or way of covering it, making any attempts to shut out light during the day useless), and the absolute ‘fun’ of those moments when you absolutely have to take the metro to get anywhere that is starting to test my patience a little…
Bref, I’m ready for my holiday.
I haven’t felt much impulse to write lately, mostly because I have sort of stopped seeing things this last month. The season has, of course, wound down, but I think I also may have come very close to suffering from show-fatigue. Besides, I think I said in another post that I wanted to focus more on writing my other, more relevant stuff.
Speaking of which, I’ve advanced a good amount, but what with end of the year exams and grading–as well as a decision I made myself, which I am ultimately glad I did–I missed an end of May deadline to turn in new pages to my advisor. I have yet to hear anything regarding this from her part, however, so I’m just going to go ahead and assume all is well.
Well, hopefully it will be well enough to send literally all the things by my own personal deadline of July 10th. I’m planning on using a good amount of my vacation time to try and tackle the bits of my dissertation that aren’t show-critique related (aka: the bits that make it all make sense). I’m still trying to figure out what point–if any–I’m trying to make with this otherwise rather sizable collection of somewhat disconnected pieces. The heterogeneity of the theatre space? Probably something like that. Everything existing in multitudes? Also maybe. There’s the whole cultural politics thing to consider in this too, and how it relates back to the idea of a public, government-subsidized theatre. What is the role of a theatre in such a system? There is something to be said about how, given the current system of governance in France, the theatre has returned to somewhat of a ‘moralistic’ role: theatrical programming is designed in such a way to impart values, perhaps, or support certain ideals (‘le vivre ensemble‘ has been on my mind quite a bit lately), and while the content can vary (there is no overt propagandizing, if that’s what you’re thinking I’m getting at), there is, to some degree, a lack of questioning of a certain set of [neoliberal / universalist] values that are often taken as a default.
A better theatre, for me, would be one that recognizes disagreement, the possibility for disaccord or the opening of new avenues or systems of thinking, and, while doing so, shatters the very universality it is otherwise said to stand in for. It’s the question of autonomy and emancipation as it relates both to the work and to the spectator, but it ends up focusing more precisely on the latter, in particular, through recognition of a capacity for singular thought as well as the validity of the choice in whether to engage or not. I’ve seen this kind of theatre here a few times, though funnily enough, none of the productions were from French companies.
And anyway, I’m not sure if the above makes any sense or it’s just rambling. To tell the truth, I’m only writing here now to kill a bit more time before I venture out into the outside world where the temperature reads 93ºF but feels as though it’s 101ºF (of all the things I have accustomed myself to, the only one that is still giving me trouble is switching to reading temperature in Celsius). I had been reading for most of the day, then thought I’d get back to writing, but, wouldn’t you know it…writer’s block. My brain is tired.
Otherwise? I’m feeling…reasonably confident about this. I say a lot that I just want it to be done, but I also want it to be good, and be certain in myself that I have something to say, and am not just regurgitating what others have already said before me. The problem is that sometimes, to me, what I write feels so…obvious…but, then again, maybe that’s how one’s own work (particularly work of this kind) feels all the time. Subjectivity and whatnot.
It’s hard to get the narrative in your own head to change sometimes.
In better news, though, I think I may start frequenting a workout class once a week, depending on what my schedule is like come September. ClassPass has finally arrived here, and the HIIT course I tested today left me feeling absolutely exhausted but also amazing. The home workouts are still fine, don’t get me wrong, but I was starting to miss the thrill of the challenge after a while, as well as the chance to really test my limits.
And I think I’m starting to legitimately go stir-crazy, so I may just bite the bullet now, pack up my things, and march out the door. Normally a walk would suit me just fine in moments like this where I can’t seem to get out of my own head. We’ll see how long that lasts…
I don’t think it really occurred to me how much—or rather, how little—coffee I drink on a daily basis until my most recent trip to Sweden this past weekend.
Granted, I should not have been surprised by the uptick in my coffee intake, given that the same thing happened during my last visit. In my defense, however, that last visit was six years ago. It was also in March—aka “still kind of wintertime”—so the constant coffee consumption was also a very convenient way to keep the cozy factor high and fight off the chill.
This time though, I was incredibly lucky in that all the threats of rain that were showing up on my weather app in the days leading up to my departure turned out to be unfounded, and whatever sun I was missing in Paris seemed to follow me up there. I’m pretty sure I didn’t drink as much coffee as I did the last time I was here overall, but it was still enough to notice a change in my overall temperament. I was, in short, peppy.
Though that may have had something to do with seeing and hanging with old friends again as well.
I arrived pretty late on Thursday night to my friend’s apartment in Uppsala (thankfully, even though our departure out of Charles de Gaulle was delayed a bit because some genius left their iPad in the departure lounge, I managed to catch the last direct bus from Stockholm-Arlanda to Uppsala central station for the night), but I think being pretty much dead on arrival kind of helped. I would need a decent amount of sleep to be ready for a somewhat early start the next day.
Friday morning started with breakfast and the first two coffees of the day before we headed off to my friend’s uni to support one of her cohorts during his 90% thesis seminar (and yes, before anyone asks, the presentation was in English). I always find it fascinating to compare doctoral programs not just across different departments in the same school, but between different countries as well. And frankly, I find the Swedish system of structuring thesis work/defenses rather intriguing. Basically, when you are 10%, 50% and 90% done with your dissertation, your department organizes a seminar where you will present your work in the presence of your committee, your classmates/cohort, and, most importantly, an opponent (generally someone in the field/a closely related field, but who may not necessarily be part of the department faculty/affiliated with the university itself). Given that sociology of education is not quite my field, there were a number of times where I tuned out a bit, but I found a lot of value in this process of periodic questioning/examination of one’s work by an outside perspective. If nothing else, it can point out things that the student/their committee may have not noticed or glossed over for various reasons, and in the end, result in (hopefully) a better and slightly more accessible thesis. As far as Harvard goes, although they do offer optional writing workshops (which I cannot attend for…obvious reasons), I think trying to integrate something mandatory like this could be very beneficial (if nothing else, it could at least keep everyone up to date on what their fellow PhD candidates are doing).
After the seminar ended, it was time for lunch, and perhaps the most “Swedish” of the main meals I had during my trip. A café near the train station had a very affordable lunch menu on offer, so we opted for that (the large terrace was also a big plus). For my main course, I chose a lightly battered and fried fillet of fish served over potatoes with sliced apple, diced carrots and celery and a mustard sauce. This came with a small salad and a choice of coffee or tea (I chose to shake things up a bit with a green tea):
Bellies full, it was time to begin my (re)exploration of Uppsala, which included stopping by several sites, including
The Uppsala Castle, home to a free art gallery, showcasing art that at times inspires more questions than answers
(for real though, there were also some more typically aesthetically pleasing images on view)
Then it was off to the Uppsala Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Uppsala, last resting place of King Gustav Vasa (among others):
The cathedral also features this startlingly realistic wax mannequin gazing adoringly at the tomb of King Gustav and his consorts
Up next was the Upplands Museum, a museum dedicated to the history of this particular region of Sweden. Along with artifacts depicting the daily lives of various civilizations who inhabited the area throughout history, there was also a special exhibit dedicated to famous sweaters (yes, sweaters), hence the décor out front.
My friend’s husband ended up getting off of work in time to join us on this visit. Luckily, the weather was still holding up very nicely, so when the idea to grab some soft serve was proposed, it didn’t take much persuading from any of us. This also gave me an opportunity to try something new: black licorice sprinkles on vanilla soft serve. Not gonna lie, I was hesitant at first, but I think this may have ended up being one of my favorite things that I tried this trip.
Our dinner reservation not being until 19h, we pretty much just ended up killing time the rest of the afternoon with, you guessed it, more walking.
And this brings us to dinner. Now, when I finally confirmed with my friend that I was indeed coming to visit her, I already somewhat knew what place I wanted to eat at. No, it was not a Swedish restaurant. It was, in fact, a Chinese restaurant: Jappi. ‘But Effie,’ you are probably wondering, ‘why would you want to go to a Chinese restaurant in Sweden?’ Good question. In brief, it’s because she had talked about it many times during several of our conversations, and so I of course had to see what it was all about! Verdict: it was actually pretty darn good (and spicy)! We ordered some eggplant, sliced fish soup, and grilled tofu along with some Tsing Tao beers, and quite frankly, I knew I was in for a great time when the soup came out and I saw all those chilis and Sichuan peppercorns floating on the surface.
Then it was back home for a quick nightcap and more sleep to rest our legs for the next day’s adventure: Stockholm!
The morning started bright and early with coffee and a trip to Güntherska bakery for some cinnamon buns (honestly, other than Jappi, this was my one absolute food-must for my trip. I love Swedish cinnamon buns). A quick train ride later and we had arrived in Stockholm, conveniently just in time for lunch.
Apparently, burgers are just a big a deal in Sweden as they are in Paris, and this one from Vigarda didn’t disappoint. The jalapeño slices were a nice touch too.
We only visited one museum during this outing, The National Gallery. Apparently, it had been under renovation until recently, but luckily enough time had passed between its reopening and our visit that there was no crowd smushed up at the entrance to get in. Another perk of this museum: it’s free (though there are paid tours on offer as well).
The work here is more typical to that which you’d find in an average fine arts museum, though I was surprised to stumble upon the portrait of a certain queen…
Apparently, the artist who painted this was Swedish. So…there’s a fun fact I learned.
Following our visit, we walked along the water a bit to get our appetites up in anticipation of some coffee and cake (also known as fika). Our search for an open café lead us to a somewhat random hole in the wall run by an older woman who came from a family of Finnish opera singers (and who may have been a performer herself…there were some glamour shots on the walls of a woman who looked a lot like a younger version of the café owner, though we never confirmed with her if our guesses were correct or not).
Dinner that night continued in the tradition of ‘not Swedish’ with some yummy chicken bo-bun at a Vietnamese place in Ostermalm:
It was at this point that the light rain that had been threatening to fall the entire afternoon actually made good on its promise, though it only lasted about a minute (and thankfully started after we had all finished our meals). In any case, at that point all there was left to do was leisurely walk back to the train station (making sure to stop off at a candy store for some provisions on the way, of course)
Yeah, there are definitely a decent amount of licorice-based candies in that bag. Funny how taste buds change.
And speaking of new tastes, I of course couldn’t leave on Sunday morning without one last bun and coffee, though this time I opted for cardamom rather than the usual cinnamon:
And then it was off to the airport and back home, where a train issue meant I was stuck in the rain waiting for a bus for far longer than I expected to be (namely, thirty minutes versus no time at all). As incredibly relaxing and fun as this weekend was, I’m kind of glad I’ll be staying put for the foreseeable future (at least until I head to Greece in mid-July). All that traveling back and forth was starting to get to me a bit, especially the whole having to unpack/repack my backpack thing.
But I think I made the right choice in taking this trip before heading into the final stretch of the school year/into another heavy round of dissertation research/writing. I just need to keep telling myself I’ll get over the writer’s block hump that’s been bugging me for the last few days/week.
I’ve been thinking a bit about cycles recently. This is partially due to the shows I’m going to write about in this post (more on those in a bit), but also to cycles in my writing process.
In short, I’m dealing with writer’s block again (what else is new…I haven’t written anything new in months because research was happening, and then I, like a dummy, assigned a whole bunch of assignments to my students because…reasons), and I’m starting to see blogging as a weird way of both avoiding staring at a blank word document and getting my flow back. Productive procrastination? Maybe. Then again, writing something is better than writing absolutely nothing, right? Right.
And if I’m being honest, part of this is also due to the fact that it’s getting even more real that the deadline I set for myself to finish/defend this thing is slightly less than a year away. The thought that this time next year I will no longer be able to call myself a ‘student’ in any sense of the word is still rather jarring, considering that moniker has been part of my identity in one way or another since I was 5.
What a thought.
I’ve decided to go back to blogging a bit about some theatre I saw recently, not because I’m planning on including these pieces in my dissertation (not sure if I’ve mentioned this already, but I’ve pretty much made my choices on that regard and don’t much feel like changing them), but more because they both address the question of cyclicality, something that is very likely to get brought up in one section of my work.
Also, because one of them is pretty much a demonstration of an auteur suffering from M. Night Shyamalan syndrome. Yes, that judgement is reductive and a bit simplistic, but seriously there are only so many twists and turns and surprise revelations you can shove into a piece before the effect, the ‘punch’ wears off. The best tragedies—and this piece skewed more towards tragedy/melodrama than comedy—work mostly because the turn hangs on one moment. It’s that one Jenga piece chosen after several rounds of play that, once removed, sends the entire tower toppling. Part of the anticipation, the rush of that moment comes from the fact that it was preceded by gradually increased unsteadiness, wobbling of blocks that look as though they are hanging on by a hair yet somehow still hold fast, giving you a false sense of security as to the structural integrity of the whole thing. Having the Jenga tower fall—repeatedly—after only one or two rounds of play deprives the game of said anticipation, of the temptation to make increasingly risky, yet also confident, decisions that prove that you will somehow outsmart physics and gravity.
That said, let’s move on to the first play of this post:
Fauves, written and directed by Wajdi Mouawad, Théâtre de la Colline, May 12, 2019
I’m going to start with something I actually really enjoyed about this piece: the set. Given how…malleable…the form of this piece is with concerns to timelines, the choice to have a moveable set comprised mostly of sets of walls on wheels that could be rotated/displaced/fit together like Tetris pieces was particularly effective, especially with regards to perspective.
In general, the piece is constructed around a series of flashbacks/flashforwards, though several of these scenes are replayed and revisted several times, sometimes played exactly as they were before, sometimes going on for a couple more lines where they left off, and most significantly, sometimes being played again but from a physically different angle, showing us something that—primarily through the staging—remained slightly or entirely out of view until the walls shifted.
Without giving too much away, the primary story involves a man, Hippolyte (yes, yes, I know), who, while in the middle of trying to finish work on his latest film, gets word that his mother has been hit by a truck. Following her funeral, a meeting with her solicitor reveals that the man he thought was his father was not actually his father, his birth father was living in Canada (Hippolyte, meanwhile, grew up in France), and his mother had never actually his birth father, meaning she had been technically committing bigamy for the entirety of Hippolyte’s life. On the lawyer’s advice, Hippolyte heads to Canada to meet the man who fathered him and convince him to sign an act of divorce from his mother.
Those familiar with Mouawad’s work would perhaps not be surprised to hear that, since all the above took place within the first 15minutes of a 3-hour play, this initial surprise concerning Hippolyte’s parentage was not the first (nor the last…) to shake up the lives of not just Hippolyte, but also those of his two children (a son, Lazare, who is set to join the ISS, and a daughter, Vive, who is ostensibly in Syria working with refugees, but from whom no one in the family has had any news in a long while), and a half-brother he never knew existed. Much like with the Greek tragedies Mouawad often draws inspiration from, the trauma in this piece, the violence that propels these characters to let forth the more animalistic sides of themselves (hence the title), stretch back generations, back to an initial act that is at once a betrayal as well as a case of mistaken placement of blame. In order to ‘purge’ the evil, to cleanse the familial line, as it were, a rather dubious choice is made involving the switching of babies, and a resolve to keep the violence a secret in the hopes that not talking about it will cause it to die out.
This latter point is later evoked towards the end of the piece, in a speech made by Lazare prior to his ascent into space (side note: there is a spacewalk sequence in this play), as a means of tying this idea of the damage done of trying to hide violence/danger/tragedy to the discourse surrounding our approach to climate change, in particular how, up until recently, the very real dangers facing our planet have been downplayed. Although the truth can be very hard to swallow, sometimes hiding it can backfire and cause more damage than just ripping the band-aid off—being open about what is really going on, about the ugly that is bubbling under the surface—could do in the short term.
The problem, though, is that although the link makes logical sense, its impact is lost because of how much other ‘heavy’ stuff is also dropped during the course of this piece—especially in the rather loaded first act. I mean once you also throw incest into the mix (and this comes up in two separate instances, though one turns out to be a case of mistaken incest…yeah…process that), I wonder how much more you could do.
And more than the internal cyclical structure of the piece—which actually read more like a film given how much it ‘rewound’ scenes as well as restaged and replayed them—I had cycles on the brain after seeing this because all the themes here are ones that Mouawad has addressed before (and to be honest, last year’s Tous les oiseauxwas more successful in that regard, primarily because it all rested around one crucial, tragic twist instead of…too many). Is there a limit as to how many times you can replay this saga of hidden family traumas based on either a mistake in identity or someone deliberately hiding a part of their/their child’s identity before it becomes…redundant? Perhaps that word is a bit too harsh. It’s a shame too because had the tragedy hinged on one revelation instead of several, the continued replaying/set switching could have merited the urgency with which it was progressing, like a rocket hurtling towards its target.
There was actually a moment when that did come very close to happening. To be honest, if the scene order was reworked a bit to put the crux back onto the one revelation that had a concrete impact precisely because it resulted in one character taking a drastic action based on an assumption that turned out to be both wrong and the most direct consequence of the whole “maybe you should actually talk about things instead of hiding them under the guise of ‘protection’” thing, the amassing of revelations could have worked. The anticipation could have been built up. As such it was just…a lot.
Contes Immoraux – Partie 1 : Maison Mère, concept by Phia Ménard, Nanterre-Amandiers, May 13, 2019.
This second piece is less a play and more a work of performance art, though one centered around a Sisyphean gesture.
Entering the studio theatre at Nanterre, one saw a large piece of cardboard lying flat on the center of the space, with Ménard crouched in the upper stage right corner, looking like a punk rocker circa the 1980s. Once everyone was seated, she got up, grabbed one of several long hooks set up in a bucket nearby, and began to pierce out certain pieces of the large cardboard shape, tossing them off stage right. When all the extra pieces had been dispensed with, it became clear that the cardboard was actually meant to be folded together into a model of sorts (revealed at the end to be a freestanding model of the Parthenon). To accomplish her task, Ménard had at her disposal several support poles of varying sizes (cardboard sometimes does not want to stand like you would like it to…), a generous supply of tape to stick the walls together as they were built up, as well as to pull the whole thing and flip it right side up, and a chainsaw to cut out some slats and create columns.
Now, the thought of watching a woman trying to build a Parthenon out of cardboard and tape for 90minutes might not sound terribly exciting, but honestly, I cannot remember the last time I experienced sitting in an audience as engaged in what was happening as this one. Many of us leaned forward when she started rotating the structure around, gasped when some tape came undone (which happened several times), and let out audible sighs of relief—and giggles—when the thing actually behaved as it was meant to. We, like Ménard, were in those moments united in desiring a similar goal. There was a moment when an entire wall came detached and flopped down in such a way that righting it—again—was going to be incredibly inconvenient. And yet, she persisted. She kept at it. And finally, the thing was up, standing, and she—the punk Athena—sat down to admire her handiwork.
And then a set of sprinklers above the structure went off, drowning it in water, almost comically destroying the thing so much effort was expended on to create. Nothing, the image suggests, matters if the world is about to go to shit because of continued inaction towards climate change.
There is a commentary in this piece about the image of Europe, of the current identity crisis the EU is having, and the difficult (yet still possible) task of working to build it up again. But the greater problem is that none of the work will ultimately matter if we don’t address the greater problem.
At the same time, I do wonder how ecological a show like this—which ran for a few nights at Nanterre—is, given how much water is needed before the structure finally collapses. Is it recycled water? Where does it come from, and what happens to it after? Will the cardboard be recycled? Thankfully, cardboard is a natural material, but was the cardboard used in this piece itself recycled, or was it made ‘new’ (so to speak)?
Plus, just imagining her every night the show is on, starting over, with a ‘blank’ slate. It’s one of the few times I think that I’ve left a show thinking less about its ending and more about the reality that it will ‘begin again’, replay again—though not quite the same way as before. A distinctly more material-heavy return than the previous show’s thematic one.
I think I’m going to leave this as is for now, and close the post here. I’ve got some thoughts on my recent weekend trip to Sweden I’m in the process of organizing, but that deserves its own post more than being tacked on at the end of this one.
Until then, hopefully my funk abates soon. I need to get back to some intense writing (unless, of course, this thesis decides to magically pop out of my brain fully written on its own…not gonna lie, wouldn’t really complain if that happened…)
I feel like April this year was one of those months that snuck right up and right past me. Did I see shows? Yeah, several actually. But I’ve also come to the realization that I may have mentally finalized my ‘performance corpus’, to the point that I am just attending things for my own amusement now (still at the same theatres though). It’s not that I have completely closed myself off to the possibility of a late addition, but needless to say, I haven’t felt as much urgency to blog about the shows I’ve seen than I used to.
Besides, now that I have finally received confirmation that I will have completion funding next year, I am feeling a greater urgency to write on the things I already have on deck than adding even more…stuff. Part of the dissertation is, after all, knowing when to stop, recognizing the fact that it is simply not possible to include every single thing (otherwise I’d be doing this for another ten years which…I’m not particularly keen on).
What I have been doing recently, however, is traveling.
One of the bonuses about teaching in this country are the numerous 2-week breaks interspersed throughout the school year (basically it’s 6 weeks of instruction, 2 weeks break…it’s lovely). I’m currently in the middle of the second of my two weeks of spring holidays, and unlike with the February holidays, this time I took full advantage of the break to travel a bit.
The first trip was relatively local, as well as to a city I had been to before, though not in the springtime. Several weeks ago, a friend and I decided to plan a short weekend trip, as I was about to start my break, and she had a 4-day weekend. Of course, this being the week of the 20th(aka, Easter), our last-minute train bookings somewhat limited our options (the original idea of spending the weekend in Bruges was verrrrry quickly abandoned). Thankfully, tickets to Strasbourg were still very affordable (especially on the slow line), and as she had never been there, the final decision was almost made for us.
Honestly, though, I think we ended up really lucking out with this trip, if only for how absolutely gorgeous the weather was. Right up to the day we left, the weather apps were predicting at least a bit of rain on the Sunday of our trip (a day we planned to spend walking around the nearby small city of Colmar), but in the end, all we had was sun and maybe a little bit of wind. And though we had to get up very early to catch our 8h20 train, the 4-hour ride was worth it the minute we stepped off the train and out into the bright sunshine. The air smelled cleaner there. The abundance of wisteria in bloom helped with this.
After we checked into our lovely AirBnb in Petite France, we spent the majority of the afternoon walking around and exploring. Lunch that day was at a little Easter fair in front of the Protestant cathedral, where we had the first of the tartes flambées (basically like an Alsatian flatbread) and beers that would be consumed that weekend.
Our hunger sated, we commenced a more thorough walking adventure of the historical part of the city, stopping off at the Modern Art Museum to kill some time before heading back to the AirBnb to freshen up before grabbing dinner.
As my only other experiences in Strasbourg were primarily centered around eating my way through Christmas markets, I didn’t have too much in my arsenal in terms of restaurants to visit. Luckily, another friend of mine who used to live in the city was more than happy to provide several recommendations, one of them being Fink’Stuebel.
One thing to note about food in Alsace is that many of the traditional dishes—choucroute, spaetzel, baeckeoffe—are much more well-adapted to the cold winters the region is known for than to the warmer days of spring and summer. However, we still wanted to make sure we took advantage of the opportunity to eat some regional dishes that are not as easily available in Paris, so even though the weather was rather warm, we pretty much said ‘Screw it’ and feasted anyway (it was vacation after all).
I opted for a pork knuckle with a side of German potato salad, while my friend chose to try the (incredibly generous/this can’t possibly just be for one person) choucroute garnie—a pile of sauerkraut topped with various pork products. The cozy interior of the restaurant—think dark wood walls, wooden chairs, mismatched water glasses—certainly helped set the atmosphere for the meal, with the carafe of Riesling we chose as an accompaniment only further adding to the enjoyment of the evening. We were lucky enough to book a table on the last day they were open before closing up for the Easter holiday, and clearly the place was very popular because several parties had to be turned away for lack of a reservation. In terms of more traditional Alsatian restaurants, I would highly recommend this one, especially for its location at the edge of Petite France, as well as the quality (and quantity!) of the food that is a far cry from stereotypical ‘tourist traps’.
A long day of traveling, coupled with a very copious dinner, meant we didn’t really stay out too late that night, which ended up being not so much of a terrible thing, considering all the walking we did on Easter Sunday. That morning was another early wakeup for us, as well as a short 30-minute train ride to Colmar. Unlike with Strasbourg, this was both of our first times in this small city, and I personally was very giddy about it. I mean, just a quick Google image search will show pictures of what looks like the most adorable fairytale town, and, after my visit, I can confirm that those photos are all incredibly accurate. Colmar is a gem. We spent pretty much all our time making several circles around the old town, and I honestly could have made a couple more, had we not had a train to catch back to Strasbourg.
There were a couple of spring markets on around the city—possibly to drum up tourism in times that are…not Christmas—and along with the usual food and crafts, there were also some opportunities to meet some farm animals! Because what says spring more than a bunch of baby goats munching on hay (or some particularly—terrifyingly—gigantic pigeons):
It probably also won’t surprise anyone if I said that this town is rumored to have been the inspiration behind Belle’s hometown in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast(I mean, really all that’s missing from that opening scene are a couple of kougelhopfs and maybe some pretzels and it’s pretty much set). I think I would like to come back again later in the year to see the city at Christmas, because I can only imagine how quaint all those little houses would look under the glow of some fairy lights (though the very real possibility of the immense crowds that would have to be dealt with is…less than ideal).
At least we got this little Easter sheep for a (momentary) souvenir (honestly though, this looks a lot better than it tasted…there’s a reason these are meant to be eaten with tea or coffee):
Lunch in Colmar was relatively light (tarte flambée and beer again hehe), so we were more than ready for another big meal once we got back to Strasbourg. Not having made any reservations, we simply scoured Trip Advisor/Yelp looking for places that a) would be open and b) served the dish my friend was really keen on trying: baeckeoffe.
In brief, baeckeoffe is a sort of casserole, traditionally composed of potatoes, onions, mutton, beef, pork, carrots, leeks and Alsatian white wine baked together in a ceramic dish. Much like with the dishes we had tried the night before, this one is definitely more ideally suited for colder weather, but thankfully the evening was cool enough that eating it could still be enjoyable.
We ended up choosing the appropriately-named Le Baeckeoffe d’Alsacefor our dinner—a restaurant geared more towards tourists than locals, but which nevertheless provided solid versions of what we were looking for for our evening meal. As with the night before, portions sizes were more than generous, as evidenced by my portion of spaetzel (think mac and cheese, but the cheese is slices of muenster melted directly over the top of the pasta…mmmmm) that could easily have fed three if not four people.
All of this was, of course, washed down with more Riesling.
After a quick nightcap on the terrace of a nearby bar, it was time to rest our feet again before a final day of walking that Monday.
And we really took advantage of the half day we had left in the city to stop off at all the sites we hadn’t visited properly during our first day. We strolled around the cathedral and saw the astronomical clock:
Then checked out the museum of fine arts just across the cathedral plaza.
As the weather was still very nice, we followed our visit to the museum with a quick lunch al fresco (where I had a salad because vegetables are necessary), then headed out of Petite France and to the university to check out the botanical garden, where we encountered some very loud frogs (mating season and whatnot).
A final beer by the river marked the end of the trip, and before we knew it, we were saying goodbye to the wisteria (whose smell I wish I could just bottle up and take with me everywhere), the cleaner air, and the lack of dog poop and those damn Lime scooters in the middle of every sidewalk (seriously, it’s not that difficult to park the damn scooter on the side of the damn sidewalk so people can actually, I don’t know, walk…). The train ride seemed to go by faster this time—as return trips often do—and before I knew it, I was back home again, though not for long.
To get this out of the way early: yes, this was kind of another impulse-buy trip. As with my birthday trip to Budapest, this one came about partially from an itch to see something new, and partially from the general overall ‘blegh’ feeling one gets after being stuck in a place for a while (and also from the mental toll that teaching + the stress of dissertation-related nonsense + personal stuck in a rut/feeling like everything’s coming out only half-baked can have on one’s personal outlook). In short, I was in need of a shake-up.
Around the time I was thinking of booking something, I was also spending my library lunch breaks scrolling through the NY Times Travel section, in particular the 52 Places to Travel to feature. One of the cities listed was Tallinn, which is where I got the idea to center my search on the Baltics in the first place. After getting some tips from friends who had visited the region (special shout-out to Caitlin for her excellent recommendations), as well as a quick search on Kayak, I settled on Riga as my destination, mostly because, at the time of my search, flights to there from Paris were cheaper than flights to Tallinn (otherwise, everything else came out pretty equal).
I think I’m also noticing a slight pattern in the destinations I’m being drawn to for my short solo-travel excursions in the sense that I’ve been drawn to cities where there exists a dichotomy (and I would say, at least based on my impressions of Riga, a spatial/aesthetical tension) between the country’s pre-USSR and USSR histories—especially with regards to how the latter is still very present, like a shadow, even as the country itself tries to move forward from it. Traces of Riga’s troubled history—and I’ll take a minute here to stress the fact that not just Riga but the Baltics in general went through quite a bit during both WWII and the Soviet occupation—can be seen almost everywhere, most evidently once one leaves the very charming—though quite touristy—Old Town. Honestly, sometimes it was an observation as simple as noticing the state of a sidewalk or the landscape planning of a park that conjured up a feeling that there was something weighty in the air, if that makes sense. If nothing else, what I did end up leaving the city with was a very strong desire to visit the other two Baltic capitals in future travel excursions, even if I feel like I’ve closed the book on Riga…for now.
Don’t mistake that last sentence though. I actually had a very lovely time there. That statement comes more from a feeling of…completeness…I had upon leaving, one that spoke more to a desire to explore outwards, in other parts of the region, than back into that particular city itself.
Would I recommend visiting Riga? 100% (and not just because it was crazy affordable).
See, the food there is also pretty excellent (and may be another reason why I felt more compelled to try and plan trips to Tallinn or Vilnius afterwards than return right away…because if I ate so well in Riga…surely there would be other equally as delightful gastronomical adventures awaiting me in other parts of the region). Of course, it helped that I did some research (of course) before going—as well as booked a tasting tour of the central market—but just based on the number of restaurants on my list that I didn’t manage to try (because one can’t make it to everything in a weekend), I would be rather confident in saying that it is rather easy to have an affordable, seasonal, quality, meal in Riga.
That being said, let’s get down to the details.
Friday (Day 1).
I arrived in Riga late on Thursday night, around 22h. Prior to leaving Paris, I had arranged with the hostel I was staying at to have a cab meet me at the airport, as I wasn’t sure I would be able to make the last bus into the city center, and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of navigating a new city at night after having travelled all day (left Paris in the early afternoon, then had a layover in Stockholm). I wasn’t necessarily worried about anything happening to me, per say—and Riga is a pretty safe city, at least from my personal impressions—but I did want to at least make sure I knew exactly where my hostel was so I wouldn’t waste time navigating. The trip from the airport took about 30minutes and cost 15 euros (pro tip: have cash on you…I did not know this, but thankfully there was an ATM right around the corner from the hostel). Before I knew it, I was flopped down on my bed in my private dorm in Central Hostel, ready for a good night’s sleep (yeah, no, I’m done with hostel dorms).
The next day, I was up bright and early to do a bit of visiting before joining in one of the two free walking tours I would end up doing on my trip (in addition to the aforementioned food tour). I started my morning off with a black coffee and vegan (yes, vegan) waffles with berries at MiiT Coffee, and trust that I am not exaggerating when I say that the coffee scene in Riga is quite good.
The coffee that I chose was roasted locally, as well as brewed to order, something that you don’t find very often, especially for the price they charged (around 3 euros). That plus the waffles came out to about 8euros total. Not bad at all.
After filling up on breakfast, I made my way to the Latvian National Museum of Art just in time for its opening, and just in time to see the entire permanent collection before having to speed over to the Old Town to catch the tour. Entry to the main collection is only 3euros, with the option of adding a visit to the temporary exhibition halls as well for an additional 3euros. Honestly, I was fine with just sticking to the main exhibition spaces, especially as they spanned about three floors and covered works by Latvian artists from the 18thcentury to the present. I’ve posted some of my favorite works below (Madonna with a machine gunis especially eye-catching):
My visit finished, I quickly power walked across the small park in front of the museum and headed into Old Town, just in time to catch the 2.5hr Alternative Riga Walking Tour. This is one of two free tours run year-round by local guides (they offer bike tours for a fee as well, but only from May – September), the second—and shorter—one meeting at 10h and focusing solely on the Old Town. As this one’s name implies, we would be getting a different view of Riga than the usual tourist hot-spots, one that focused more on the sociopolitical history of the country, rather than on the historical architecture of some of the buildings.
While we did spend some time in the Old Town (around 10 – 15min), we left the area pretty quickly to check out other nearby areas of the city, some of which see less tourist traffic, but nonetheless merit a visit. I think my favorite site was the very imposing Academy of Sciences, also known as Stalin’s birthday cake. See, the idea was to build the thing and present it as a gift to Stalin during one of his visits to the city. Construction started in 1951. Stalin died in 1953. Oops.
The building houses mostly offices now, but there’s also a viewing platform at the top that is open to visitors for a small fee (I didn’t end up going up though).
It was during this tour that I also—thanks to my eavesdropping—became acquainted with three other solo female travelers: one from Germany, another from Japan, and the third from Taiwan. This was a very pleasant surprise in my visit, not going to lie, especially as one of the things I still struggle with sometimes is actually getting up the nerve to talk to people. Taking the plunge and introducing myself paid off, however, as we all ended up having a late (and very filling) lunch after the tour was over, as well as meeting up again a couple times throughout the weekend.
Speaking of lunch, this was had at Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, a sort of tavern (in a basement), serving Latvian foods and beers at incredibly affordable prices. For my meal, I had beef shank in dark beer with a cauliflower purée and salad (yay!), along with a half pint of local, unfiltered beer (tasted very similar to some German-style beers I’ve tried):
And because we weren’t full enough already, we also stopped off at Gelato Italiafor some ice cream and espresso:
We all went our separate ways for a bit after that, agreeing to meet later that evening for cocktails, and I used my time to stroll around the Old Town a bit and take some photos before the rain that had decided to make a quick stopover while we were indoors having lunch returned again (otherwise the weather was absolutely fantastic).
It was when I went back to my hostel room to rest my feet and freshen up a bit that I ended up getting one of the best emails I have gotten in a long time…
My funding for next year is confirmed.
Considering how much stress this whole “will I/won’t I” have funding (as well as, in the case of the latter, how the hell am I supposed to scrounge up $25,000 to hand over to Harvard…oh yeah, you all read that correctly) had been weighing on me these past few months, seeing that message almost made me want to bounce off the walls. I was that happy. Needless to say, cocktails that evening at the Skyline Baratop the Radisson Blu hotel took on, at least for me, a rather celebratory tone. I normally don’t go for cocktail bars like this—or for particularly sweet or flowery cocktails—but I figured, why the hell not.
Plus, the view from the 26th floor was pretty fantastic.
Saturday (Day 2).
It was another day of walking (and eating…so much eating) on Saturday, this time with a quick breakfast of barley porridge with jam and a latté at Rocket Bean Roastery, another local coffee roaster. The hearty porridge proved to be a good choice for the morning as well, and not just because I had two tours to look forward to that day.
I started with the 10h00 Old Town walking tour, one I had not originally planned on doing, but was ultimately convinced based on what the other girls I had met had said about it. And honestly, I had no idea what I would have done otherwise, so I ultimately made a good choice. This time, our guide was someone who had a background in history and urban planning, which proved especially advantageous when discussing some of the…controversies…around some well-known sites in the area (his complaint about how the inscription on the House of the Blackheads should read ‘replica’ instead of ‘restoration’, considering the whole building was pretty much destroyed in WWII and later by the Soviets was both amusing and also…real).
Going on this tour also proved useful in another way, mostly in how it determined how I would end up spending my time between this (which ended at 11h30) and my Central Market tour at 14h00. The guide was taking questions as the tour wrapped up, during which time someone asked about shopping. I had been looking for places to find some souvenirs (especially locally-made jewelry, since I’ve decided that’s my thing now), but had had no real luck so far. It being Saturday, our guide suggested anyone interested should cross the river and head to the small, but vibrant, Kalnciema Street Market (held only on Saturdays). The walk was about 45 minutes long, but hey, I had time to kill, and figured it would be good to see a different, more local (and yeah, more hipster….ha) part of the city while I had time.
As mentioned, the market was rather small, but there were plenty of vendors packed into the space—a sort of courtyard surrounded by small wooden houses/buildings—, most of whom were selling food. If I didn’t have more eating in my near future, I probably would have bought my lunch right then (or hell, maybe even an ice cream cone…it was pretty warm out), given how tempting all the smoked meats, cheeses, cold salads/dips and pastries looked.
Luckily, there were a number of crafts vendors around who caught my eye as well, and I ended up walking away with two new pairs of earrings.
By this point, as you can probably imagine, I was feeling very hungry. Thankfully, after another 45minute walk back to the other side of the river, I didn’t have long to wait until my food tour started.
As with my food tour in Budapest, this time I was the only person in the group who was traveling solo. Unlike that time, however, this time the group consisted not of me and an older British couple but of me and a group of 8 Swiss-German men out on their yearly guys’ trip. Don’t get me wrong, they were all very nice…I just found the situation hilarious. 8 tall dudes and one tiny me.
I’m going to apologize in advance here for the quality of the photos, since the lighting in the market halls wasn’t exactly the greatest, but here’s a basic rundown of everything we tried:
The one thing I do wish was that there were some opportunities to taste some local beers or other beverages along with this tour, but as with the bike tours mentioned earlier, those tours don’t really kick off until the start of the tourist season in May. I did, however, end up having enough room to have a quick half-pint of IPA (of course) at Alkimikisbrewery, which also happened to be on my way back to the hostel.
Dinner that night was with two of the three girls I had met the day before at a restaurant recommended by our tour guide from the Alternative Riga Tour. Mildawas slightly more upscale than the other restaurants/eateries I had visited thus far, but still incredibly affordable for the quality of food served. The specialty here is Baltic cuisine, albeit with a slightly more refined/modernized aesthetic. We were served a complimentary starter of chicken liver mousse before our main courses arrived.
For my main course, I opted for the whole trout with a whipped sour cream served over slices of baked potatoes and beets. I don’t eat fish incredibly often, since when cooking at home, I like to make dishes that will last me for several days, and ordering fish at a restaurant can be rather expensive, but this locally-caught trout only cost 14euros (and no way was I going to pass that up).
The fish was delicious. Fresh, light, perfectly cooked, the garlic in the sauce drizzled inside it perfectly complementing the tangy sour cream. For dessert, I chose to try the Latvian rye bread pudding with dried fruits, honey, whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Our tour guide from the day before had mentioned this dessert, although his description (mix rye bread with a bunch of water and sugar until you make a paste and then eat it) left something to be desired. This version though was quite nice, especially in how the honey, spices and dried fruits mixed with the slightly more peppery rye.
Of course, all this was washed down with more beer.
After a quick nightcap of blackcurrant-flavored black balsam (the local liqueur, basically vodka and a bunch of herbs mixed together that are meant to have “health benefits”. The original is quite…special. This one is slightly better) at a nearby bar, it was time to say goodbye to the Old Town and the new travel friends I made and head back to the hostel to catch a tiny bit of sleep before my very early flight the next day. Overall, I feel incredibly fortunate that I was able to take two weekend trips during the spring school holidays (even if that cut into my dissertation work time a tad). It’s nice to be able to treat oneself once in a while.
As to upcoming theatre-related things, I’ve got a number of shows on deck that hopefully will inspire an urge to write some commentary (if not include them in my final dissertation). Other than that, there is yet another trip also coming up mid-month, though this time it’s to a place I have been before (albeit about 6 years ago) to visit some pretty legit people.
Until then, here’s to blackcurrant black balsam (and last-minute frantic lesson planning):
Going to start things off with some more (very quick, I promise) musings on dissertation-writing today before moving on to other theatre-related things. Don’t worry though. This time I’m going to actually be positive(ish) about things…for once.
I had a meeting with my thesis director about a week ago, the first since our last extensive one-on-one in early July before the summer holidays officially kicked off. Was I freaking out that there would be a lot of skeptical, questioning remarks about what I’d hacked out? Yes. Did I end up having to worry about that? No…as these things usually go, apparently (convenient how the mind tends to forget this when one is ‘in the thick of it’…).
Other than planning out my next steps (which I am kind of excited about because they involve diving back into theory), one thing that was brought up was all the things I had apparently ‘done’ or illuminated in my drafts, things that, in part challenged some other established critiques of audience/spectacle relationships (and I won’t get into it here because it is a bit complicated, and this is not the space for that sort of thing…also I’m on a time crunch). These comments both come as a rather pleasant little surprise, as well as inspire some fear. Because, of course, I had no conscious intention of challenging anything when I was writing my stuff, but as those who write (dissertations or not) probably know, sometimes you just get in the zone and things come out and you don’t really stop to think about the implications of it all.
What I’m saying is, I think I might have to get into some critical analysis of my own work after this is all done, so I don’t look like a fish with its mouth gaping open during my dissertation defense a year (holy shit) from now. Writing is a funny thing sometimes.
At the end of the session, she also threw out, on a whim, a suggestion that I think I’m going to officially adopt as my title :
Contemporary French Theatre: Spatial Effects
I’m not one who easily comes up with short, not terribly wordy titles (or titles in general) for my writing projects anyway, so having this now is definitely something I don’t mind adding to my little list of ‘dissertation wins’. Also, I like puns.
Anyway, moving on to what else I’ve been up to…
I tried an egg-centric (hehe) dish a week ago at brunch with a friend at Salatim, an Isreali restaurant in the 2nd arrondissement. The set brunch menu is priced at 21eur (though some add-ons, such as challah bread, will bump the price up a tiny bit…though…you kind of need bread for this meal so…yeah), and includes
a hot drink (coffee/tea)
juice (orange or house lemonade)
a generous serving of various salads and mezze topped with a portion of the dish of the day (that day the specials were something with salmon and confit lamb. We went with the lamb…because of course)
Shakshouka to share (yep)
A selection of desserts to share (including a very yummy chocolate babka)
When the waiter was explaining the brunch menu, the issue of me hating eggs came up, but I decided–because I guess I was feeling adventurous that day or something–to say to hell with it and said to put two eggs in the pan because hey, who knows?
In the end, I am glad we made that choice because the sauce the shakshouka was served in was really incredible (adding some harissa on it wasn’t such a bad choice either hehe). I did end up mixing in some of the egg white in with the sauce as I scooped it up with the (not included but really should be) challah bread, but I ended up leaving the yolk to the side. Mixing the egg whites in with the sauce was pretty alright. There was definitely a limit to how far I could tilt the egg/sauce ratio to the former but, at least I tried.
This does not, however, change my opinion on other egg-related breakfast dishes, so don’t even think of suggesting I try an omelette or poached egg or a breakfast burrito anytime soon.
Speaking of other food-related things, the day before said brunch I also met up with a friend to check out what I think is going to be one of my new favorite semi-annual events: the Salon des vins des vignerons indépendants (The Independent winemakers expo).
This event takes place two times a year, once in the fall (around November, I believe), and once in early spring. While the fall expo is held at the much larger venue at Porte de Versailles, in the southern edge of the city, this one took place at the slightly smaller–but no less lively, according to my friend who has attended several of these–Porte de Champerret. Basically, how it works is after you buy your entry ticket (normally 6eur, but I managed to snag a free pass), you check in, receive your complementary wine glass, and then proceed to roam up and down the aisles stopping at any tables that seem interesting. Rather than organize the wines by region–that is, one section for Bordeaux, one for the Loire Valley, one for Provence, etc–all the regions are kind of mixed together, allowing for, at least I think, some more spontaneous exploring or venturing out to try something new. Thankfully, for those on the hunt for a particular region, the signage above each table was color-coded, something I at least found rather helpful as the afternoon went on and I became increasingly determined to get my hands on some nice Rhône reds.
I ended up with four bottles in my ‘haul’ (honestly, my little wine cabinet thing could not fit any more than that), including an interesting white wine from the Jura region I would probably have never tried otherwise. I’ll be excited to break that one out eventually (another reason I didn’t get more wines, I don’t actually drink that much wine at home, living alone and whatnot).
And finally, before the ‘fun’ theatre commentary starts, I’m going to toot my own horn for a second and mention that about two weeks ago, I popped back over to Reid Hall to be part of a panel of former MA students, now PhDs, on how to carry out a research project, as well as speak about our own work to the current MA students. Having a rather untraditional–by comparison, at least, considering that the other two panelists were PhD candidates in history–project and trajectory did get my nerves going a bit at the beginning, but I think my choice to sort of dispense with the fact that, given the ephemerality of my corpus, I had no archives/powerpoint to show right away and move on to general advice ended up paying off. There was a nice little discussion afterwards as well, and I think that, having been in the position those students are in now six(!) years ago, hopefully we were all able to give them at least some helpful direction as they navigate the nonsense of a giant research project for the first time.
One thing that really irked me though, there was a gentleman in the audience who, the minute I went up to the podium, got up and started rifling through his bags rather loudly, as well as walking back and forth between the refreshments table and his seat. A side note: I was the second of the three presenters. He didn’t do this for any of the other two. I know it shouldn’t have, but it definitely took me aback for a minute, especially considering that I was doing this presentation after finishing a day of teaching. Honestly, if there is one thing I absolutely cannot stand, it’s when I have the floor and people are disruptive or chatty or in general, taking away my time. There was plenty of time between myself and the person who spoke before me to get up, stretch a bit, and then sit back down. Did it have something to do with the fact that I was the only woman speaking? Who knows. I’m leaning towards no, and just chalking this up to general rudeness, but holy hell my dude.
Common courtesy is a thing. Anyway…
Qui a tué mon père, written by Édouard Louis, dir. Stanislas Nordey, La Colline, March 24.
I’ll get this out of the way now: the answer to the question posed in the title (‘Who killed my father’, in English) is several people, or ‘the system’ in general. But this didn’t get fully addressed until towards the end of the production. The rest of the time was devoted to the solo actor–an avatar of sorts for Louis, considering the very autobiographical nature of this piece–detailing the history of his relationship with his father, a working-class man from the (formerly industrialized, recently deindustrialized) north of France, whose previous conservative and far-right leanings clashed with his son’s own politics as well as his person (Louis, like the solo character in the show, is openly gay). The end of the piece suggests that the father, in his older age, and now out of work due to a back injury, has started to come back around to the left, not only in terms of social issues, but also as a worker in the sense that, until recently, the left had been the side pictured as fighting for workers’ rights. (Xenophobia, homophobia, racism, discrimination, etc. are just some of the divisions the far-right has stoked in order to falsely paint itself as the party for the working man…unfortunately with some success).
As mentioned before, this show–which runs just shy of two hours–is performed by a solo actor, though he is not necessarily alone on stage. When the curtain rises, for instance, it sees him seated at a table facing what one assumes to be his father. The figure seated across from him, however, is not another actor, but a very realistic model (not gonna lie, it took me a while to realize that, partially because I was seated a bit further back in the room). This model has his downstage arm propped up on the table, the hand cradling his face so that it is hidden from view, and presumably, to suggest a lack of ‘connected gaze’. This image of visual disconnect (perhaps reflective of the metaphorical disconnect between father and son) carries on through the production as, during the blackouts that punctuate moments of the long monologue, other models of the same figure appear on stage, all of home facing either upstage, or purposefully away from where the actor is standing.
It’s only towards the end of the piece that the actor actually begins interacting with the models on the stage. At this point, there is a light snowfall bathing the space–or at least the square playing space on the middle of the stage–in white. One by one, the actor picks up the models–by this point, he has recounted the story behind his father’s work-related injury, as well as the bureaucratic difficulties involved with worker’s comp and getting back into/finding work at all–and gently placing them off the playing space. Once said center square is free of all objects, he begins his last, very pointed and very specific series of accusations.
Starting with the presidency of Jacques Chirac and concluding with Macron, the actor one by one names first, the sitting president, and then his Minister of Health and/or of Work. He doesn’t just recite the names either, but rather tilts his head up and cries the name into the sky, into the falling snow, slowly, deliberately, slightly pausing just before his declamation to make sure the focus shifts onto the names themselves before he continues on to recount the misdeeds of the persons behind said names. In general, the discours concerns the gradual eroding of the French social net, especially as far as the working class is concerned. The goal, as the text itself states, in presenting these grievances in such a way is to immortalize, via theatre, the names of the persons responsible for the increasingly-precarious living situations of the working class in the same way that theatre has–again, the comparison is given in the text–immortalized Richard III. The text closes by evoking the fact that the political means something very different for those in a position like the narrator’s (and by extension Louis’s) father, who are more quickly and more directly impacted by even five-euro budget increases or decreases than those of us (and this definitely includes most everyone sitting in the theatre that afternoon, including myself) for whom such fluctuations do not cause as much of a disruption.
And at the end, the son recounts a final conversation he had with his father, one in which the father concluded by saying it was about time for another revolution, for something to happen. Given the ongoing Gilets Jaunes demonstrations (a movement that still, in my opinion, needs to contend with the far-right presence, however small or not, in its ranks, despite the left’s attempts to retake control of the narrative), the timing of this was rather perfect.
Those who know me, though, will probably not be surprised at the fact that, while I agreed with much of what was being said during that final discours, I remained skeptical as to its efficacy in theatrical form (especially how very close to didactic it became, what with the reminder to audience members of France’s recent past). This is, however, based on an assumption that said discours would at least inspire reflection, if nothing else, on the part of the audience members, but how far can reflection go if it cannot then be translated into action?
I mean, in the end, the show is being performed in a venu located in a neighborhood that was historically very working-class but has recently undergone several years of change and the beginnings of a gentrification that is seeing the former working-class residents at risk of being priced out. It’s also a National Theatre. Normal ticket prices are around 30eur. For my American readers, this might not seem like a lot, given the average theatre ticket prices in many major cities, but here, that is up there. (Thankfully, I am still under 30, and even if I wasn’t, the membership card I have for this season greatly reduces the price per ticket).
Speaking of more political theatre…
Gymnase Platon: Lakhès, dir. Grégoire Ingold, MC93, March 28
So, here’s a question: if someone proposed to you to go attend a performance the first part of which consisted of a staging of one of Plato’s dialogues, would you go? A conversation on the themes addressed in the dialogue would of course follow, this evening in the presence of a professor of Classical Philosophy. As to the dialogue, other than being performed in French, as opposed to recited in Ancient Greek (thank god), there would be little done in terms of taking it from its historical moment to ours, trusting at least that the themes themselves would carry over just fine.
The idea of this production (or series of productions. There were actually three stagings of three different dialogues proposed, the first of which I missed, the second being this one, and the third being Plato’s dialogue on justice which I supposed to attend this past Saturday but didn’t because of…well…this piece) was to recreate the environment of the ancient Agora, a space of interaction, of sharing ideas, of thinking and speaking liberally. The problem with this idea, before we get into anything else, is that it is almost doomed to fall short from the start. For one thing, the fact that this production is staged–that is, that there is a text that is meant to be followed–means that the room for improvisation, for tangents, for interruption and other twists and turns of spontaneous discours is gone. There is, rather, a single group in this case–the actors–who retains vocal and ‘narrative’ dominance. Though at one point early on in the dialogue the audience is asked to vote on which of the two sides they agree with (and this is before Socrates comes in and complicates things), other than that, our participation, our presence was regulated to that of what is ‘expected’ of a contemporary theatre audience.
Quiet, attentive, responding but silently until the signal is given that we may applaud.
Interestingly, the night I went there was also a group of high school students in attendance, one of whom was dealing with a rather nasty cough (yay changing of the seasons). At one point, his teacher asked him to step out so that his coughing wouldn’t be so distracting, but I honestly almost wished he hadn’t done that because this was supposed to be an Agora after all, right.
Also, again, a reminder, in Ancient Greece there was no rule about not talking at the theatre. People only shut up if they thought what was being performed was worth listening and paying attention to. So…yeah.
Second problem: this was something the philosophy professor in attendance pointed out, but there is the question of why stage Plato now while at the same time not try and shift the context of the dialogue, in some way, from his historical moment to ours. The question at the center of this one was that of the nature of ‘virtue’, but one thing that was not addressed in the written program (nor in the staging prior to the professor’s commentary) was the fact that the metrics by which this is measured by are incredibly different now from what they were in Plato’s day. Plato, in other words, would very likely not recognize virtue as we see it, least of which because, unlike in his day, we don’t necessarily measure worth by military victories/prowess anymore.
And quite frankly, I would have been very happy to just have a conversation/seminar session with that professor. He was an older gentleman, but he had a very pleasant voice and a very engaging manner, and he tried his best to make sure we were following his train of thought. In fact, one of the young high schoolers was particularly engaged with what this man was saying, and was very eager to pose him questions (unfortunately, he only had time to ask one of his questions before we all had to clear the space, but I saw him walk over to the professor as everyone was beginning to file out, no doubt ready to ask him the second question he had in mind right when the announcement that we had to clear out was made).
But, yeah, I’m not sure how productive as a work of theatre this was. The tri-frontal seating arrangement (later turned quadri-frontal after the actors ceded the right to speak to the professor) could, I imagine, have given an air of an environment set for exchange of ideas but…the stage/spectator power structures of who can and cannot speak and when were still there. Anyway, in brief, I wasn’t really keen on seeing this happen again on Saturday, hence why I decided to skip out on the next performance.
Evel Knievel contre Macbeth, dir. Rodrigo Garcia, Nanterre, March 29
Yeah, I honestly have no idea how to even begin with this.
Actually, no, here’s how: in Swiss Army Man, before the screen cuts to black, a character, taking in the bizarre nonsense of everything that has just happened in front of her, takes a minute and then clearly lets forth the final line of the film
“What the fuck?”
Some key words for this piece
Yep. I’m going to just…let this one marinate somewhere else for right now.
I will say though that the sound design was cool
Dying Together, dir. Lotte Van Den Berg, Nanterre, March 31
Participatory theatre. Creating community around death.
The one thing I will say about this is that they asked for audience members’ consent each and every time a new scenario or a new person to represent was proposed to them. That’s excellent. More people should do that.
Moving on though, the idea with this piece was, in brief, to approach the notion of death as a communal, constellation-creating (yes, constellations, as in stars, as in things that are connected not physically but by our perception of links or patterns in the spaces between them) phenomena rather than a solo one. To do this, three scenarios were proposed (the 2015 Germanwings crash, the 2013 sinking of a migrant caravan boat near Lampedusa and the 2015 attacks in Paris, specifically at the Bataclan) during which members of the audience were asked to represent, via their physical, not vocal, presence, various persons connected with said events. Said persons could have been victims, perpetrators of the attacks, relatives of victims/attackers, or people who may have been peripherally if not directly involved in the event itself. If, during each scenario, we agreed to represent the person (note: none of these people were named; for those whose identities were more or less known, all we were given was very basic information including sex, age, and perhaps an occupation or a tidbit of info on the person’s background), we were led to a part of the space and told to stand in a certain way and look in a particular direction. This would be our starting position, and from there, when the constellation would start shifting, we could move around a bit to explore the space, our connection to it/the person we were representing, and our inter-personal connections to each other.
Movements stayed relatively slow and consisted mostly of walking or variations of sitting/laying down and standing up. This one is still a bit fresh in my mind since I just came from seeing it, but it did make me think of some general thoughts I have about this kind of improvisational (ish) experimental theatre, especially as it relates to the question of audience integration. It is no secret that I myself love physical theatre. Viewpoints (of which this experience definitely reminded me, especially as we all started moving about the space) changed my life and appreciation for theatre when I was in college, but one thing I’ve found is that, in terms of actually doing it, the best results are produced in intimate, more private spaces, amongst a small group of people who have spent several weeks (or better, months) working together in order to be fully comfortable with the level of physical vulnerability and liberty in experimentation that is often asked of performers in these situations. In short, in my experience, integrating an audience, or transposing these experiences into a much larger–and much more temporary group–is always a risk, and never quite seems to go anywhere. I personally did not feel any connection to any of the persons I was asked to represent. What I did do, however, was spend the majority of my time watching how other people navigated around each other. Dynamic spatial relationships, yo.
Also it should probably not come as a surprise to anyone but when it came time to ask for representatives for the attacks at the Bataclan, it took a couple tries before they found the first person who consented to represent one of the three shooters. This production was first staged in Rotterdam, I believe with the same three scenarios, but there is something about bringing that particular one back to Paris (and only 3.5 years after the attacks) that made the initial refusals or hesitations of participating not terribly surprising.
Anyway, my skepticism towards the efficacy of participation/’immersion’ theatre still holds for now.
And now, I am going to take a lozenge and head to sleep. Stupid seasonal (and time) changes throwing off my immune system…
I’ve been thinking a bit about biases recently, especially in regards to they can affect my own approaches to a critique of something I’ve seen. Those types of situations don’t come up terribly often, but when they do, they generally arise from stagings that tackle certain themes or discourses that, at least from my point of view as an American (and more specifically, as a very left-leaning, educated American) should have been covered already.
More often than not, what these pieces deal with–in one way or another–is the topic of race, and specifically the intersection between this and questions of national identity and the (completely nonsense) notion of colorblindness.
Unlike the United States–which, let’s be clear, still has a very long way to go on this regard–where discussions of race/racism/white privilege/structural inequalities/etc have been going on for several years now, and have solid footing outside academic circles, France has only started tackling these questions relatively recently, and to put it briefly, such discourse has had some difficulty sticking here. This isn’t because it is unfounded–it absolutely isn’t, and to those who think racial and ethnic bias doesn’t or cannot exist in this country, I invite you to take this little pin I’m going to hand you and burst the bubble you’re currently ensconced in. I don’t have time to get into this too much now, but in brief, I would argue it has more to do with the fundamental set of ‘universal’ values the country is founded on. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, yes, but we should also add Laïcité in there, as that one in particular has led to the greatest amount of nonsense. You can see its effects in the 2004 law to ban the wearing of the hijab/veil in schools/government jobs, as well as in the backlash over the birkhini a few years ago. Those laws very clearly and disproportionately targeted Muslim women (hell, with the latter one, that point was made even more obvious when some people rightly started pointing out that nuns had been visiting the beach in their habits for years, and no one gave a damn then), yet of course that was repeatedly brushed under the rug in the favor of maintaining a certain image of ‘unity’ of ‘laicity’, of ‘we are all equal citizens even though daily occurrences prove almost embarrassingly that this isn’t even remotely true’.
All this is to say that the time is ripe for France to have a reckoning with itself.
Said reckoning was very much at the center of the first of the three plays (more precisely, two plays and one operetta) that I saw this weekend, Myriam Marzouki’s Que viennent les barbaresat the MC93 on Thursday evening. The title is in reference to the poem “Waiting for the barbarians” by Greek poet Constantin Cavafy, and, much like the poem, the piece tackles the question of an imagined ‘other’, and more specifically, the necessity of this ‘other’s’ existence in order for the dominant group to maintain its power. Interestingly, the piece also frames this question within the context of American discourses on race–and more specifically, discourses following the the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the end of the 1960s. This begins early on with a scene in which an actor playing James Baldwin speaks to a French reporter about his views on race relations in the United States, as well as addresses her (incredibly naive) line of questioning that stems from a thought of ‘but the movement’s over, what more could/do you want?’. He fires back a question at her about the situation in Algeria–and France’s treatment of Algerians pre- and post- Independence–and thus the discursive link between the United States and France is established. Contrary to popular imagination, the racism, othering, discrimination thought to only have occurred ‘over there’ (the United States) was also happening at home, that it wasn’t as ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’ a comportment as previously thought.
A similar link is made in a later scene featuring another actor in the role of Muhammed Ali giving his own interview to another French journalist–and to be quite frank, I’m not entirely sure if the repetitive nature of this scene really did much other than emphasize the didactic nature of the piece overall–, and it was at this moment I started to question my own biases as a spectator. Everything that was being said seemed obvious to me. Of course structural inequalities still existed. Of course black Americans had the right to create their own safe spaces away from white Americans, of course the parallels with France had been and still are there. But, I am not a French spectator; in other words, I am not who this piece was made for. What seemed didactic or expected to me may very well have been brand new information to any of the number of people in the room with me. I’m still wondering how to grapple with this. I’m still wondering if the didactic approach, of speaking and explaining the metaphors, the connections, the lessons relatively clearly rather than allowing more space for the spectator’s critical capacities to make those connections themselves was the best way to go, even for unfamiliar territory. At one point, during a scene in a sort of immigration processing office, a woman enters from upstage in a cloud of mist, the French flag draped over her in a way echoing that one Shepard Fairey poster featuring a Muslim woman in a hijab made of the American flag. She didn’t say anything. She appeared, came downstage, paused, then slowly exited.
Don’t get me wrong though; there absolutely needs to be more theatre, more art, more articles, more…everything written in France/accessible in French that allows for the inciting of a dialogue around these issues. I’m just starting to ask myself to what degree I should be writing about them at this particular stage in my own journey as an American-educated academic.
Anyway, onto the next thing.
Le Direktor(d’après le film de Lars von Trier) dir. Oscar Gómez Mata, Théâtre de la Bastille, March 15
Full disclosure: Lars von Trier isn’t really a director whose films I know particularly well (hell, I think I’ve only managed to watch Antichrist all the way through…tried with Melancholia, ended up falling asleep and not bothering afterwords…meh). But, the promo photos made this seem like a good time, and so I went into this hoping for some high energy to counteract the vast majority of things I’ve been seeing this year.
And oh man was I right.
This piece is silly. Very silly. Absurdly silly. And I like absurdly silly, especially when it involves poking fun at theatre, at the pretentiousness that the form gets sometimes, and at its conventions–especially the whole ‘suspension of disbelief/these actors are in their own little universe separate from the one we in the audience occupy’ thing.
The basic premise: a man (Ravn) is the head of an IT firm with a staff of 5 other employees who are nice but…incredibly naive and possibly incompetent. But they mean well. He, on the other hand, had gotten in the habit over the course of his ten years at the company of saying that all his unpopular decisions came from a hereto unseen ‘head director’, thus successfully managing to shift blame from himself and staying relatively popular. When the play opens, Ravn has the opportunity to sell the company for a very hefty sum, but to do so, the contract must be signed by the company Director, which, as far as literally everyone else knows, he is not. So, he hires an actor to play him, one who is very ‘into his craft’, so to speak (god the number of people I could recognize in that portrayal just made the whole thing soooo much better). Naturally, hijinks ensue, especially as the actor finds himself integrated even further into the company.
What I loved about this piece, however, were the amount of overt references to the ‘play’ part of acting that were integrated into the text. Often, Ravn and his hired actor would spring from the edge of the white flooring that indicated the limits of the office space to the edge of the stage, left bare and black, a kind of non-space, an in-between space, a space where they could also play with us sitting in front of them, with our knowledge of their fakery, of how they go about producing it. This kind of thing can get a bit kitsch at times, but the tongue-and-cheek of it all here–especially coupled with the very clipped rhythm the show moved in–kept things more or less fresh. Of course, all this was later related back to the whole business of management as well (there was a short interlude that discussed an actor’s capacity to elicit certain emotions/emotional responses from spectators through acts of manipulation that seemed to contain easy to spot links to the whole notion of running a business), but honestly, I was just too busy letting loose and laughing a bit (dear god comedy is such a hard thing to get right, especially absurdist/satirical comedy) to really care about the greater thematics that evening.
The last piece I saw this weekend, however, was decidedly less ludic, but this had more to do with certain imageries and juxtapositions in the staging than the piece itself.
La Chauve-Souris(Die Fledermaus) de Johann Strauss, dir. Célie Pauthe, MC93, March 16, 2019
I know what you all may be thinking: ‘Opera? Really?’. Yes, really.
This show is actually being put on in partnership with the Academie de l’Opéra de Paris, and simply put, I quite like the idea of taking opera and moving it out of the city and into the suburbs for a bit (and for much lower prices too!). Makes it more accessible, if nothing else.
Anyway, the operetta. The piece itself can be summed up as a farce involving a man who is meant to turn himself into prison where has been sentenced to an 8-day stint, deciding to skip out on that to go to a party with his friend, his wife (in disguise) and the chambermaid showing up to the party as well, and everything just being silly. Act II closes with an ode to champagne. Silly.
No, what’s more interesting about this piece is that during her research, the director discovered that it was performed by prisoners at a concentration camp not far from Auschwitz. This camp was known for housing artists and creative types–basically anyone whose absence would have potentially caused a slight media stir–, and as such, often the prisoners were forced to perform for the guards. I don’t know what or how much can be said about the particular kind of torture that this represents that isn’t stinking of a cliché, but what cannot be denied is the fact that at times, performance became both an act of survival as well as a sort of act of resistance.
This connection was reflected very openly in the stage design, which consisted of a set of walls, bare except for the lower stage left corner on which was printed an image of one of the interior corridors of the camp (I was a bit too far away to confirm, but there is a chance that the photo itself may have been taken following liberation in 1945). Periodically, video footage of the director’s 2018 visit to the camp would be projected on the walls as one of the characters performed a solo, the lights dimming down from their usual warm glow to signal the presence of this ‘memory’ in the show’s history. Costume and prop design also nodded to the late 1930s/early 1940s, the lack of overt ‘opulence’ in the décor and objects further harkening back to the tragedy the piece is intertwined with.
This production also contained a sort of aside that broke the fourth wall, so to speak, with this one further functioning as a means through which the connection between the play and the Holocaust would be more pointedly thrust forward. At the start of Act III, just as everyone had settled back into their seats following intermission and the house lights turned off, the stage lit to focus on a man sitting on a table center stage, with a small screen behind him. What ended up getting projected on this screen was a propaganda video made by the Nazis of prisoners in the camp living what appeared to be a blissful life in nature, with leisure activities, excellent medical care, food, cultural programs, etc. Of course, this was all completely fabricated, and the actor on the stage made that point very clear several times. What is striking, of course, about this footage is the knowledge of the horrific tragedy and torture looming over it. There is a sort of weighted, heavy presence hanging over the–to us, who know what really happened in those camps–supposed bliss and joy on people’s faces.
It is easy to see the connection between this and a piece whose main plot centers around a party, around good fun, silliness, but which was performed under circumstances of incredible duress.
I’m not sure if I’m going to end up writing about any of these pieces in further detail for my dissertation, at this point, I have a meeting on Friday with my advisor (finally!) to talk about things and maybe even lay out a game plan for where I go from…wherever I am right now. But where February was relatively quiet theatre-wise, March is going to be absolutely packed. Let’s hope my fingers (and my brain) will be able to withstand all the typing.
It should be a truth universally acknowledged that any teacher with a sizable pile of papers to grade (and a dissertation to continue writing) must be in want of a vacation.
Conveniently, I just so happen to be in the middle of the second of my two week work holiday (because, yes, a two week winter/ski break between the Christmas holidays and spring beak is a thing…a very wonderful thing), so even if I hadn’t ended up going anywhere, I would have at least gotten in a bit more rest than usual. Fortunately, though, trains exist, and Paris just so happens to be incredibly well-connected.
I had been pondering over the idea to take a day trip somewhere for a while, even before the holidays started, and to be frank, the unseasonably (and incredibly concerning) warm weather we had leading up and into last week only made that urge stronger. Faced with a desire to get the hell out of the city for a bit, but with absolutely no idea as to where I wanted to go, I sought out the advice of friends, one of whom recommended Rouen, a city about 1.5 hours outside of Paris. With tickets being only 20eur for a roundtrip, the choice to go was pretty much made for me. Even better: I managed to convince another friend to venture out with me.
Rouen is the capital of the Normandy region, and was also one of the most thriving and prosperous cities during the Middle Ages (this may explain why there are so. Many. Cathedrals…or not. I don’t know; I’m not a historian). It was also the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, and yes, before you ask, the city does lean into that a bit. She may have been the “Virgin of Orléans”, but she died in Rouen, goddamnit.
And no, before anyone asks, we did not visit any Joan of Arc-related sites or attractions.
Other than Joan, Rouen can also lay claim as a birthplace or residency of several other notable figures: dramatist/tragedian Pierre Corneille (whose Médée is still one of the few neoclassical French adaptations of a Greek tragedy that I actually like), novelist Gustave Flaubert (Rouen also plays a pivotal role in Madame Bovary), and artist Marcel Duchamp. Monet also spent a considerable amount of time in the city, painting, among other things, a well-known series of the Rouen Cathedral. The city’s Musée des Beaux-Arts is also quite well regarded (and conveniently free for anyone who wishes to visit the permanent collections).
There are several trains leaving from Saint Lazare that head out in that direction daily, some with a final stop in Rouen (the rest usually will continue on to Le Havre). Regardless, the TGV ride is swift and calm, and before you know it, you will have arrived at Rouen’s central train station.
Now, despite the fact that it was once a former commercial hub, Rouen today is noticeably more calm and quiet (and more sparsely populated) than Paris. It is also much smaller than Paris, the historical center in particular, meaning that it is relatively easy to walk where one wants to go and see pretty much all the sites in one day (though I’m sure there is more to be explored…perhaps on another visit!). The historical center is absolutely breathtaking, not just in the incredibly well-preserved medieval architecture, but in the variety of colors on the building façades (think pinks, mint green, blue, basically almost any deviation from the usual ‘white walls/brown timber’ combo, though there were plenty of those as well). I, however, being a bit of a dummy, did not take photos of very many of said buildings, so…yeah. Just imagine it yourself.
Arguably, one of Rouen’s biggest draws is its cathedral, made famous both by Monet’s paintings as well as the fact that it suffered considerable damage following an Allied bombardment in WWII (in one of their operations leading up to the D-Day landings). Unfortunately, a few of the stained-glass windows were damaged beyond repair, but the loss of a couple of windows is more than made up for by the intricate details on the front of the building.
Inside the cathedral there is a self-guided (though, given that it is still actively used as a church, religiously-bent) tour on the building’s history, including some panels detailing the various periods during which the 800+ year old building had to undergo some kind of maintenance. There are also a number of tombs inside, whose inscriptions gave my friend and I an opportunity to test our skills in Latin (spoiler: we were only middlingly successful). Overall, though, I’d say that was a good way to spend the morning.
On our way to lunch, we also popped over to admire the large clock that almost every blog/travel guide post I looked up about Rouen prior to my visit had a photo of. It was very impressive.
I’ll get to what we ate in the end, but before I do, some shots of what ended up being our primary afternoon activity: a visit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts (did I mention it was free??).
I don’t think there were any temporary exhibits on, or if there were, they weren’t ticketing them because we were able to get in to see everything (or pretty much everything…we may have inadvertently skipped one or two rooms). The museum is not particularly large, so seeing everything isn’t exactly a Louvre-sized feat. What I was most excited for, however, was the small impressionist collection. As far as art movements go, impressionism still ranks up there as one of my favorites, mostly because of how much the landscapes/environments/colors it favors contrast with my own life. If cubism–as much as I also like and admire it–inspires almost overwhelming feelings of dread knowing that WWI was just around the corner (and having a feeling that maybe the art was anticipating the violence a bit as well), impressionism brings calm, openness, a feeling of being able to breathe again. I can still recall the last time I was in Giverny close to six (!) years ago and I went to hike a bit on the hills behind the village, away from the tour groups. It was a clear day, and from where I stood, I could see all the way out to where the Seine, much wider and more peaceful than in Paris, stretched along a green valley. Insects buzzed. There was a breeze. If I perked up my ears a bit, I could hear the soft grunts of the horses roaming around in a nearby pasture. It’s easy, from a perch like that, to understand why someone would want to build a house and create art here.
Anyway, back to the museum. The collection may not be as impressive, say, as the one in the Orsay, but the advantage here, again, is that there are fewer people to deal with.
As we did not have a ton of time ahead of us after leaving the museum, the remainder of our little trip was spent walking along the river, enjoying the sunshine (even though, again, that should absolutely not have been a thing in February).
For those who want to know where (and what) we ate:
First stop was coffee at Citizen Coffee. Yes, I did look up coffee shops before going because that is a thing I do now (really though it’s because I do not like to take chances that early in the morning when I’m not even properly awake). They use Café Lomi beans there, so the quality is pretty much guaranteed. I, for instance, can confidently say that I was very happy with my flat white.
Lunch (our only full meal in the city) was at L’Espiguette, a recommendation from the friend who suggested I visit Rouen in the first place. A lunch formule of a first and main course runs at around 14eur. I opted to have a glass of wine with my meal, which brought my total to 19eur. For a starter, I opted for leeks vinaigrette (my friend got a slice of rabbit terrine), and then a steak (with a copious serving of fries) for my main. The fact that I still felt super full when I finally arrived back home (even after all the walking we did post-lunch) is a testament to what a good (and delicious) value this place was.
And thus ends the musings on the mini-vacation to Rouen.
Other than that, my vacation has pretty much consisted of me writing (and reading…yes, because the theoretical research never ends) and trying to push the looming thoughts of lesson planning and grading out of my mind (they’re creeping back in now, unfortunately). Thankfully, this last trimestre goes by insanely quickly, what with another two weeks off in April and May being…a weird month (a lot of random national holidays). It still never ceases to amaze me how quickly this year has been going by, especially considering all the ups and downs (and dear god were there some mental downs) that accompanied my first period of furious, financially-motivated writing.
These next couple of days are going to be slightly emotionally tricky, to be honest. In sum, a very good friend is moving away early next week. I’m not particularly good at goodbyes, especially when it concerns people I have become rather close to (and when the leaving also implies the further shrinking of my rather small social circle). This, of course, is one of the things that comes with being an expat, getting accustomed to the flux of people coming and going (and hell, I was one of those people coming and going once). I’m trying to make more of an effort of going to more things other than plays on my own though, if nothing else than to just be around people. Feed off their energy a bit, try to find other communities I might want to try and be a part of (the nice thing about being an expat, especially in a country I have no familial ties to: I can constantly readjust and reinvent myself as I see fit).
I honestly cannot remember the last time I managed to sit down and blog two days in a row.
Hell, other than the very first blog I started waaaaay back in January 2011 (which…holy shit was eight years ago) when I first moved out to Paris for a semester abroad, I cannot remember when was the last time I made a concerted effort to blog something, even a small thing, every single day for a duration of several months. Given how DAU-centric my last post was (and how much earlier I really should have published it…), I figured I’d give the show I saw yesterday afternoon its own space, if for no other reason that to give my thoughts some room to breathe.
Before that though, some updates:
1. I submitted my application for completion funding for the 2019/2020 academic year last Friday (Feb. 8). I honestly still cannot believe I managed to make it to that point–and let’s be real, if you had told me back in September that I would have been ready to submit this thing on time, I would have very likely thought you were crazy–, but, somehow the mess managed to pull itself together. At least now I can continue writing in (relative) tranquility without the whole ‘financial stability’ thing hanging over my head.
2. Somewhat related to the above, I’m going to be meeting with one of my committee members on Wednesday to finally get some feedback on the…gems…I submitted in the guise of chapter drafts. I’ve pretty much just accepted the fact that the whole ‘imposter syndrome’ thing is just going to keep following me around for as long as I’m doing this, so there really is no point in pretending that I am not internally kind of stressing about how that conversation is going to go. It’s not that I don’t like critiques of my work, I actually appreciate them a great deal. It’s more that there is always the risk of being told that I have no idea what I’m talking about/what I’m doing. I’ve learned to manage that kind of stress better as I’ve trudged along on this ‘journey of writing a thing that like…five people might read’, so at least there’s that :).
3. I took myself out on a solo movie date on Friday after the application had been officially submitted. I’ve been getting slightly more comfortable with doing some things on my own again and not feeling isolated about it (the joys of adulthood: scheduling time with other people is sometimes nowhere near as easy as it used to be in uni). Case in point: I’ve also signed up to this services that organizes live music events around the city, and uses a kind of lottery system to determine who gets one of the (somewhat limited) spots on a given night. I went to my first one of these at the end of last month; going to be heading to another in 2 weeks. Making efforts to get out of the house, even when I have to fight against myself a bit, have proven to be a good thing for my overall sanity (if anything, it’s a nice distraction from the constant thinking).
Anyway, enough of that. On to what I saw yesterday…
So those who read here somewhat regularly (hello all…five of you) might remember a couple of posts back I wrote about a show I had seen at the MC93, entitled Ils n’avaient pas prévu qu’on allait gagner. As a refresher, the show centered around a group of foster kids in a group home, and one of my main critiques concerned the fact that the text, rather than being composed of transcribed conversations the production team actually had during their respective times spent volunteering at one such location–or otherwise words that, even if fictional, came directly from the kids in such a way that it allowed them to carry some agency in the communicating of the particularities/nuances of their situation–was written by a someone who occupies a status of societal privilege. In addition, the staging, coupled with the manner in which the piece was composed, centered–purposefully or not–the privileged gaze in its narrative. It would be difficult to say, in other words, that given the aesthetics of the production, the goal was to question or destabilize that particular gaze, and not, as I would argue, leave it intact for the sake of ‘presenting’ a ‘problem’ to a supposedly somewhat ‘ignorant’ audience.
It would be perhaps good to keep the above in mind as I lay out my thoughts on the piece I saw last night, one that also centered a marginalized group, but in a way that I would say was ultimately more successful in destabilizing established structures (in particular, those revolving around the act of looking or gazing). This, I would argue, is in large part due to the fact that, in this instance, those marginalized were given greater autonomy with regards to their storytelling.
Didier Ruiz’s Trans (Més Enllà), as the title suggests, centers on the stories of transgender individuals–seven, in this case–, not only in terms of their personal histories, but how they themselves relate or interpret the question of ‘gender’ and the ‘gender binary’. The seven performers–four trans women and three trans men, ranging in age from 22 to early 60s–are not professionals. Instead, much like with a previous project centered on life while in prison, Ruiz set out to meet with different folks in the trans community in Spain (and more precisely Barcelona), ultimately forming a small troupe with the seven that ultimately appear in the show. The stories they tell are all theirs, though they are not necessarily chronological.
The stage itself–this, by the way, was at the Théâtre de la Bastille–was relatively bare, save for two gauzy screens that curved upstage where they somewhat overlapped to create a sort of hallway from which the performers would enter and exit (exceptions being a few instances where the performers entered/exited by coming around the side extremities of either one of said screens). While the performers were speaking, the screens remained bare, save for the French subtitles that were projected onto them (the piece was in both Spanish and Catalan, depending on what language the speaker was more comfortable with). The exceptions to this were a couple of transitional moments during which kaleidoscopic animations were projected onto them, a burst of color on an otherwise white stage.
The fact that there was no set script, and that the performers had a little bit of leeway in their storytelling meant that there was reasonable potential for the subtitles to not be word-for-word precise, or for things to get slightly deviated. This, however, was acknowledged in an opening subtitle text that was projected at the opening of the show, before the first performer began his speech, and, in a sense, it also acted as the first indication as to the degree of performative/speech agency that was granted to the speakers. Even while needing to maintain some sort of degree of precision or consistency, the words remained theirs.
Generally, the performance structure went as follows: one (or several) performer(s) would be on stage. They would look out at the audience for a beat before beginning their narration (one by one, in cases in which multiple performers were on stage at once). Everything was done in direct address, and though there were times in which, when multiple performers were on stage, the gazes of the non-speaking members would veer towards the person who ‘had the floor’ in that moment, the frontal, binary spectacle/spectator relationship remained relatively dominant. Whenever a performer would finish speaking, a few beats of silence would follow, during which the former speaker would fix their gaze outward, scanning the audience a bit before either they left the stage or another performer began speaking.
As I mentioned previously, one of the concepts interrogated in this production is that of the gender binary–and to go further, the notion of ‘transitioning’, of which surgeries, if any, one has done, whether one ‘passes’ or even, the inherent problems of continuing to adhere to this sort of idea, and finally, the degree, if any, to which an individual wants to distance themselves from their former identity–, and to that end, the decision to keep things starkly frontal, I would say, worked rather well in the destabilization of said binary, especially in the intimacy of the Théâtre de la Bastille.
Said destabilization mostly, I would argue, occurred in the silences. Now, I’m still kind of processing through my thoughts on how this worked, so you may all have to just bear with me for a minute as I try to organize things here. Anyway, as a prelude to this, one of the things Ruiz mentioned in his director’s note was the hope that eventually, the conversations around being trans would move beyond what does (or does not) exist between one’s legs. Namely, leaving the gender binary would involve moving past the assumption that there is a sort of endgame of ‘really’ or ‘fully’ transitioning, that one absolutely needs to have a certain set of ‘parts’ in order to be considered a ‘real’ man or woman. Never mind that this essentially erases the experiences of intersex or gender nonconforming folks, it also can pose problems to trans folks who maybe don’t want to undergo surgery, or who perhaps would like to someday but cannot afford it, or rather, cannot find a medical professional to perform it. There are several trans (and intersex and gender non-conforming) folks who have written or talked about their personal decisions to undergo or forego surgery, and if nothing else, it drives the point home (once again) that there is no one absolute way to ‘be’ a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’, that gender, much like sexuality, exists on a spectrum. Hell, the binary can be harmful to cis-folks too, but it has become so normalized, so ingrained in our society, that it is still, at least for me, somewhat difficult to imagine that we will ever fully divest ourselves from it (though I really hope I’m wrong on this).
I mean, even looking at some of the conversations surrounding legislation concerning transgender folks betrays the continued dominance of a rather invasive cis-centered discourse. I’m going to focus on how this applies in recent US legislation because that’s what I’m most familiar with but…the bathroom bills, the transgender military ban…to a certain extent those cases are based on a discourse that concerns itself primarily with what lies between an individual’s legs. And this carries forward into the way that individual may be perceived by others. This is the kind of perspective that fosters a gaze that looks for signs of ‘passing’–or inversely, signs that would ‘betray’ an individual’s ‘hidden’ gender identity (please note here, as above, the use of quotes). It retains the privilege of the cis gaze while also ensuring that the binary remains relatively untouched.
It is also precisely the kind of gaze that is called into question during the pauses in Trans….
When a performer appears on stage, even before they begin to speak, they take a moment to look out, to take in the spectators, and allow them to do the same. There is, in this, something of an acknowledgement of the fact that, at least for each performer’s first appearance, the audience’s gaze will very likely be, to a certain degree, that of a ‘sizing up’. We know that all seven of the performers are trans, but we do not know at what stage they are in their transitions, nor how they choose to identify themselves. The first silence, then, is that moment when those first gazes, those that conform to the notion of the ‘binary’ can happen. The fact that the pauses keep happening, however, especially as we learn more of each individual’s story–and though there are some common themes shared between a few, no two experiences are exactly alike–implies, in a sense, that the gaze has to change as well. That those looking must look differently, that repetitive pauses and moments of ‘looking’ bring attention to the act itself, and the positioning of those performing said act.
And this is all made even more present by the fact that those performing are speaking their own words, that they are given a voice and a platform from which to directly influence the shifts in perspective that ultimately lead to the aforementioned destabilization of the gender binary. They are granted autonomy, multiplicity; they are not reduced down to a ‘figure’ that has been filtered through a privileged gaze (though perhaps at another time, there could be a conversation as to Ruiz’s role in staging all this, in his choice of selecting the performers that he did, especially given that he is a cis-man).
Anyway, apologies again for any potential incoherence in everything I just hacked out, but I have quite a few thoughts to sort through, and I’m thinking that perhaps a few of them will have to wait to be hashed out in one of my dissertation chapters.
I had originally told myself that I would write about this immediately after attending, but since my procrastination streak shows no real sign of abetting any time soon (sigh), here I am about a week after the fact. Thankfully, however, I have talked about the experience with enough people that the thing hasn’t completely faded from my memory.
First things first, for those who want something of a primer as to what this was, here is a helpful article from The Guardian:
In short, this experience is the result of a years-long ‘workshop’ of sorts, which saw several people from varying walks of life–artists mostly, but also scientists, researchers, and workers–inhabit a block of Soviet-era warehouse style buildings in Ukraine in such a manner that not only did they willingly cut themselves off from the outside world, they also recreated in minute detail, a temporally accelerated version of life in the Soviet-era Eastern bloc from 1938 – 1968. All the while, the inhabitants were constantly being filmed (the article linked above goes into some detail regarding some of the ethical questions surrounding this, notably those involving some of the women who took part in the project), with the final footage edited down into just over a dozen 3-hour films. As individual works, the films are held together by thematic threads more so than a single, constructed narrative. They could, in fact, be said to resemble more ‘reality TV’ footage, as nothing is simulated (you can probably guess where some of the more problematic elements come from based on this), and inter-personal relationships are ostensibly said to have occurred more or less naturally. The DAU project, then, is a way to both show the films as well as recreate the experience of living under the intense surveillance of the Soviet era.
Or, well, at least that’s what it attempted to do.
To get this out of the way early: no, it was not a colossal failure. Though some have come out and made comparisons between this and the Fyre festival, I would be hesitant to do the same. Yes, there were problems (a number of which should have definitely been foreseen by someone on the production team, but I’ll get into that later), and yes the hype around this as being ‘revolutionary’ and ‘the thing that’s finally going to change the art world/art will never be the same after this/etc etc etc’ was premature and obviously overblown. At the same time, I would chalk those problems up to an overambitious (and self-centered) ego, rather than as the result of a blatant scam. Honestly, the reception around this probably would have been a lot better had they not tried to advertise it as an immersive experience.
Keeping all that in mind, let’s get into this.
When I initially came across the advert for the experience on Instagram, I was intrigued by the fact that not only would it be an immersive experience, but it would also be taking place in two theaters that are currently undergoing extensive construction and renovation work (the Théâtre de la Ville and the Théâtre du Châtelet). As I had yet to set foot in either of those theaters, I figured, why not do it now, when possibilities for spatial dynamics and exploration are so open?
Instead of tickets, those who wished to attend had to apply for a “visa”, of which there were three options: 6-hours, 24hrs, and unlimited access. For the first type, all one had to do was put in one’s payment info, submit a photo, and then select the date and hour they wished for their visa to ‘start’ (the expo is open non-stop throughout the duration of its run, so possibilities for entry times are…pretty much endless).
As to the 24hr and unlimited access visa, in order to acquire those, one had to agree to fill out a very personal questionnaire, the results of which would be used to generate a personal itinerary. Theoretically, those visa holders would also be granted access to an electronic device (yeah, in the spirit of the event, all phones had to be stored away in lockers before entering), that would orient them on where to go, as well as the next steps in their itinerary.
I, being a curious person (and admittedly a bit wine-happy that night), opted for the 24hr option. When I got to the questionnaire (this must be filled out before one can proceed to payment), and saw just how personal the things being asked were (think questions about your moral compass, but also, and more problematic, questions about your personal intimate relationships), I decided to lie a bit in my answers. I gave myself the profile of someone who may have possibly experienced some kind of past trauma, if only for the sake of (hopefully) testing the limits of this. Knowing what I had marked down, would that mean that the itinerary would orient me towards potentially triggering content? Would there be adequate staff or support on hand should a patron end up unexpectedly confronting a past trauma? Was I, in essence, consenting to potentially being rendered unsafe?
Unfortunately, I never got my answers to those questions because one of the things that ended up not happening was the whole ‘personal itinerary’ thing. Something about having access to our data, and how that’s a privacy issue….hmmmmmmmm…. Yeah.
Knowing that the personal itinerary thing was scrapped, I still decided to go anyway because maybe the rest of the ‘experience’ would still be worth it. Also, there were no refunds and I had already thrown down a LOT more money than I had ever thought I would for a performance in this city (thanks, wine).
Before I get into the nonsense, a couple of things I actually did like:
In the mezzanine hall of the Théâtre de la Ville, an area was set up with a series of small booths, covered in a heavy, metallic curtain. Inside these booths were ‘listeners’, people from different walks of life who had volunteered their time to the DAU project to sit in these booths as, one by one, visitors would come in and discuss whatever it was they wanted. I was curious about this, so I decided to put my name down at a moment when there seemed to be a lull in the wait time (oh yeah, it was pretty crowded the afternoon/evening I was there). I ended up in a booth with a nice older woman, and after the initial awkwardness was pushed out of the way–I have never put myself in a situation like this, so I literally had no idea what to say–, I, like any ‘good’ grad student, started talking about my dissertation. And the exchange was nice. Not the most incredibly, intimately personal of topics, but it was fun to flow back and forth with someone else for a bit…to bounce off my thoughts on them (because I still feel like I’m floundering and have no idea what I’m doing sometimes…figures). Originally, the idea was for all these sessions to be recorded, and, following their conclusion, for each visitor to be given the choice as to whether to erase or keep their video. Erase, and not only would that particular video be deleted from DAU’s recorded archives, but the visitor would be denied access from watching any other ‘confessions’. Keep, and the video would remain accessible to DAU and other visitors, and the individual in question would also be granted access to watch whatever other confessions they would have liked.
I think it’s pretty easy to understand why that would have caused problems, and why the whole recording thing ended up not happening (not sure if this was due more to technical issues, or to data and privacy protection laws in the EU…which, you know, someone should have looked into). For the record, just based on the nature of the conversation I happened to have, I would have probably been okay with its recording being stored in some kind of database, but I’m not sure how I would have felt about the whole ‘watch other people pour out their secrets’ thing. Besides, there would always have existed the possibility of someone consenting in error to having their data stored, but who knows how well DAU would have handled that scenario.
My absolute favorite thing though was getting to watch a piano concerto in the still-unfinished main theatre of the Théâtre de la Ville. Walking in and seeing nothing but concrete steps that mark out the rows of seats (and that are usually covered by carpeting) was enough to bring me back to when I saw a show at the Bouffes du Nord (a theatre that is purposefully kept more or less in the state it was reduced to following a fire), but what really sealed the deal for my love for this precise moment of the experience was what they did to the area where the stage would normally have been. As the space is still under heavy construction, the actual stage floor had not been laid yet, meaning that though the ‘skeleton’ of the proscenium was still there, there was a very large and deep pit that, in a ‘finished’ theatre would normally remain hidden. Those who have ever had the opportunity to poke around behind the scenes in large theatre houses are probably aware of the fact that below those stages–even further below any orchestra pits–is a network of scaffolding, hallways and nooks and crannies, sometimes used for storing props or equipment, other times used for facilitating anything involving trap doors. Here, though, the pit was bare, save for the pianist. So that those in the audience could watch, and not just listen, him play, a very large mirror was set up at an angle from the proscenium arch, reflecting the image of the pianist below, and giving the spectators a sort of bird’s-eye view. We, as the words painted on the walls in the pit suggested, were almost like gods by virtue of our positioning. All that aside, sitting in there, witnessing this exposure of a new kind of verticality, of a new potentiality for the use and design of the theatre space, was probably the only time I did not think about how much time was passing. I think just the simple fact of being in that space with it laid out in such a way that I knew would no longer be possible after the experienced closed and the theatre was ‘fixed up’ was enough. It was, in effect, a use of art as an opening of spatial/architectural possibilities; unfortunately, this was, as far as I could tell, the only instance where such a use occurred.
And now, on to the rest:
The spaces themselves were divided and organized thematically through the painting of words on the walls. At the Théâtre de la Ville, one could pass from ‘Motherhood’ to ‘Inheritance’, then ‘Brain’, ‘Futures’, or the aforementioned ‘Gods’. The thematic labels at the Théâtre du Châtelet were quite a bit more provocative–examples include ‘Sadism’, ‘Sex’, ‘War’, ‘Lust’, ‘Orgy’, etc–, but quite frankly did not really live up to any of the images they conjured, unless of course those images included the incredible banality of concrete. A bar in each of the two theaters served food and drink–which I did not partake in, even though a vodka or a whiskey would only have set me back 2eur, and who knows, maybe would have changed my perspective on this whole thing–and conveniently, there was also a gift shop front and center at the entrance of the Théâtre de la Ville. Yes, dear Patron Comrade, you too can complete your DAU experience with the purchase of an exhibition catalogue, a postcard, or even a delightful tin mug and/or bowl such as those that were used at the canteen.
Capitalism is fun.
By and large, the rest of the experience saw the majority of available spaces either outfitted as screening rooms to show the various films, or filled with even more of those metallic ‘confession booths’ described earlier (only this time, they were just…empty). An exception to this was the top floor of the Théâtre de la Ville–labeled ‘Communism’ on the handy maps that all visitors were given upon entry–which was transformed into a group of meticulously recreated Soviet-style apartments for the occasion. Think furnishings, knickknacks, photographs, clothes, basically anything to give the impression that the space had been and still was ‘lived in’. As the apartments were set up in what I am assuming normally function as administrative offices, one could peer into them from the windows that lined the hallway connecting all the apartments together. In other words, once again, any illusion of privacy, of a right to true personal space, was promptly done away with. Here one would also be very likely to encounter performers/artists who had either lived in the DAU complex in Ukraine and signed on to continue ‘playing’ their roles, or had been hired to play at being residents solely for the purpose of these exhibitions (after finishing here in Paris, DAU is set to move to London with the same concept). Visitors could engage these performers in conversation if they wished, though at times it was very possible that the latter would only speak Russian and have little to no knowledge of English or French. Verisimilitude and whatnot…or something.
One incident stood out from this portion of the experience: at the back of the hallway was a large apartment that seemed to belong to a group of traveling Romani shamans. It just so happened that when I and some other visitors wandered in, a few of them were preparing for a seance. The performers seemed to be ignoring us–though, when they spoke to one another, it was not in a language I understood, so I’m not entirely sure how our presence, or even the fact that we had the freedom to wander in and out as we pleased, factored in to their present routine–, and this sort of mutual lack of direct acknowledgement would have likely continued were it not for the fact that a fellow visitor at one point asked one of the performers if it would be alright if we stayed and watched.
It’s funny, I think in any other situation this would have been the correct way to go. We do not know if we are welcome, if we have been invited in, therefore it is only right that we ask. The tricky thing about this situation, however, is the fact that by virtue of the layout of the space, and the fact that our Visas grant us leave of exploration, this gesture of asking permission for access rings false. It doesn’t matter, really, if the performers answer that actually, yes, they’d prefer this to be a closed session. The window into the hallway ensures that there will always be eyes–the visitors’ eyes, our eyes, the eyes of the outsiders–looking in. We have the power of observation, of surveillance, of accessing almost whatever we want while in this area of the exhibit (though, at the same time, we watch knowing fully well that we are also under surveillance from those working the experience, for instance, ready to catch anyone who may have tried breaking the no-cell phone rule). Hell, those planning on trying to stick out the night could even theoretically sleep on one of the beds if they liked (though at that point, they themselves would also run the risk of being watched, of sacrificing their privacy and their power as an observer).
As to the films themselves, I managed to catch some snippets of some, but to be quite honest, I do not think I could sit through a full three hours of one. That takes a kind of willpower that I, quite frankly, have little time or patience for. Maybe it’s just me, but stark, loosely thematically connected, documentary/anthropological cinema isn’t something that can really hold my attention for that long. This becomes especially more evident when babies or small children are involved and you remember that there was no script writing or planning really involved in these, and you can’t help but think what kind of advocacy (if any) these kids had while essentially ‘working’ on this project. Nothing too egregious happened with the children on screen as far as I could tell–though there was one sequence involving babies being brought into a medical laboratory straight out of the late 40s/early 50s and being strapped to some equipment that made me uncomfortable, even though it didn’t appear as though any actual/permanent harm was done to them. The problem, though, is that all of that does raise questions about responsible artistic practices and the question of consent from minors or otherwise almost (if not entirely) voiceless persons.
In all though, even one week after the fact, I still cannot see the reason why all this had to happen in precisely those theaters, in those spaces ‘under construction’–spaces in transition, spaces that are not quite what they are supposedly labeled as–if the majority of the project consisted of screening films. Why call it an immersive experience? Yes, it was a bit odd having to surrender my phone, while at the same time seeing other workers/volunteers using their phones or other similar electronic devices (to do what…spy on us? Keep track of scheduled performances/screenings? Post updates on Instagram because yeah, you gotta keep the public interested after all?), and yes there were some flashes of realism/immersion with the apartment recreation, but overall, this could all have very well also taken place at a rented out movie theatre.
But who knows, maybe they’ll iron out the kinks by the time they get to London, at which point they may actually end up recreating a surveillance space as they had originally wanted.
I’m sort of starting to come to the realization that, as I get closer to hacking out this thing that will eventually become my dissertation (or a mess that slightly resembles one), I’m not entirely sure how realistic it’s going to be to write up detailed descriptions of every single show I see on this blog. This isn’t really so much to do with a general feeling of laziness–even though I should admit I’ve taken a slight writing break again to focus on some grading I absolutely needed to get done these past few days–, but rather more to what I’ve started to use this blog for on a personal level.
If my Instagram, where I post a program photo every night I see a play, serves as a sort of personal show archive, this thing has become something of a place where my first drafts start to take shape. I honestly almost find it hilarious that, as I was writing up some show critiques that would eventually be integrated into the larger work, I was referencing back to here more often than to any of my (many…oh god so many) notebooks. So with that in mind, I think from here on out I’m probably only going to do more detailed posts on shows that stuck with me, shows that I want to go back to, that I have thoughts on.
But before getting into that, a small update on my current state of being: I’ve been feeling slightly guilty about my present ‘lazy’ streak. I think one trap that I (and I’m guessing a lot of other PhDs) fell into was looking up how often I should be working on this thing, or whether my productivity/rest periods were ‘normal’. In short, whether I was doing enough. It is incredibly disheartening sometimes at 1am, right before bed, to stumble upon articles or blog posts that say that if you’re not working on your thesis at least 15 hours a week then you’re doing it wrong. But then I just have to remind myself that, at least for me, sometimes taking my time is how I am the most effective (although, yeah I fall into patterns of procrastination that sort of start a cycle of feeling as if I’m just cutting corners, cheating my way through this, and thus have no idea what I’m talking about). I absolutely hate the whole ‘productivity’/’work output’ narrative, and I don’t think it really does anyone any favors, especially when it comes to a kind of work where you’re stuck in your own head for the most part.
I mean, hell, I managed to write around 70 pages in about 2.5 months, and this is with working about 15hrs/week on top of that (not including lesson planning and grading).
And I know that, logically, there is no magic or “right” way to be doing this. It’s just hard not to fall into that trap when Google is right at your fingertips.
Anyway, enough with that. On to today’s two write-ups, the second of which is…well…let’s just say I have some THOUGHTS on it.
Doreen (d’après Lettre à D. d’André Gorz), directed by David Geselson, Théâtre de la Bastille, January 21
I’m not usually the biggest fan of hyper-realistic theatre, mostly because I’ve found that the closer a design attempts to approach the ‘real’, the easier it becomes to spot the artifice. The exceptions to this are usually productions that sort of use that knowledge to their advantage, or at least try and interrogate it somehow. This, I would say, is one of those exceptions.
A bit of background first: the piece itself is liberally inspired by–and at times quotes directly from–André Gorz’s Lettre à D, an ode he wrote to his wife, Dorine, who at the time of writing (2006) was dying from an unspecified illness likely caused by some injections she had received decades earlier on a routine visit to have some x-rays done. The two had been married for close to sixty years at that point, and the text itself reflects that, particularly in the pang of realization of the possibility that soon one of them may have to try and live without the other.
In real life, Gorz and his wife both committed suicide in 2007, preferring to die together on their terms than risking being separated. As for Doreen, the show program makes no secret of the final endgame–and indeed, those familiar with the real story have already been ‘spoiled’ on that account–, but at the same time, it, and the production, prefer not to linger on that and focus instead on the long ‘moment before’. How do you sum up or capture a life of nearly sixty years together in close to an hour and a half?
The answer, it seems, is to host a dinner party.
As far as gestures of hospitality are concerned, eating together, sharing or offering food to others is perhaps one of the most intimate. There is an act of camaraderie in the passing around of dishes, in pouring out glasses of wine from the same bottle, in dipping hands together into one bowl of chips to grab some to nibble on (all while making sure to leave some for the next person). When the doors to the Bastille’s black box/little theatre opened, what we were greeted with when we walked in was a sort of living room set decorated in a distinctly mid-century modern style (carpeted, and lots of beige/browns…you know that almost comforting yet also somewhat overwhelming scent of old dusty books? It looked like that, if that makes sense). Chairs were set up around 3 sides of the rectangular perimeter, with the back wall being taken up by a set of his/hers desks. Patrons could thus choose to sit either incredibly close to, or even somewhat on the set (as I did), or a few rows back on slightly more traditional raked seating.
The most prominent thing in the room, however, was the dining table set (assuming we are looking at the stage front-on) at a diagonal on the upper stage right quadrant. On this table were several serving platters with cheeses, charcuterie, cherry tomatoes (because this is Paris, and there are some stereotypes that will never cease to be so hilariously true), nuts and dried fruits, and crackers, as well as several bottles of wine, some carafes of water and juice, napkins, toothpicks, and drinking glasses.
The two actors, our André and Doreen, were pretty much in host-mode right from the start, inviting us to help ourselves to what was on offer (it took a minute for someone to get up the courage to be the first at the table, but not as long as I would have predicted). The minute someone approached the table to not just look at but actually serve themselves, the energy of the room just shifted to move over there. People claimed seats first, of course, and what I found particularly endearing here was the fact that several times “André” and “Doreen” actually helped some older patrons to find more comfortable seats, engaging directly with these individuals. It’s a small but not insignificant thing. Showing direct concern for another’s needs or well-being is a step towards fostering a connection of trust, of a friendly intimacy.
There was no real announcement that the show was about to “officially” begin–though, let’s be honest, it started from the moment the doors opened–, but naturally after the house doors had been closed, everyone made their way back to their seats. The house lights remained on, keeping us ensconced (for the moment) within the world on the stage, and with this André and Doreen launched into an initial summary of their story together.
Now the expected thing in a situation like this would be to have either one of the two take the lead in the storytelling–thus establishing themselves as a sort of ‘primary narrator’–, or if not to have the two play off of one another in a sort of storytelling volley. In other words, the staging would be such that one voice takes precedence over the other, in order for the audience to be able to clearly follow what was being said.
Instead, what happened here was that both “André” and “Doreen” began to speak at the exact same time. Furthermore, rather than being identical, their speeches had almost nothing to do with one another, other than the fact that they centered on some aspect of the couple’s relationship. While “Doreen” centered her speech more on the couple’s personal history–how they met, and so forth–, “André” focused more on the relationship in conjunction to his writing career, and more specifically on the final book he had just finished writing. As the two actors were seated either upstage right (“Doreen”) or down center stage, literally in the front row of seats (“André”), it was not entirely impossible, from an audience perspective, to drown out one voice for the sake of concentrating on the other, provided, of course, that one was seated relatively closer to one of the actors than the other. For those situated in between them–as I was–the choice or act of listening was a bit trickier. I ended up listening in more on “Doreen”, as the higher pitch in her voice carried more clearly, but there were also moments where I attempted to ignore her in an attempt to “eavesdrop”, as it were, on “André’s” conversation. The problem with doing that–as well as the general conundrum of being stuck in the middle–, however, was that it required playing catch-up to try and pick up the thread of conversation, while at the same time acknowledging that one could be missing something being said by the other partner. This idea of remaining in a certain state of ignorance, of not being given full access to every single bit of information, happens anyway for those who happened to be sitting considerably closer to one actor than the other. But the question of having a choice, of actively choosing to not listen or at the very least choosing which voice to give preference to is one that really only becomes apparent for those who just so happened to choose a seat that just so happened to not be near enough to either of the actors to make the decision-making process easier for them.
At the same time, these initial simultaneous speeches are also the first indication that, though the living room set, the invitations to partake and share in the food and drink, and the initial chitchat between the actors and some audience members suggested that the latter were being fully invited “in” to the world on the stage, a full immersion or ‘world-sharing’ was only illusory. In other words, there were going to be gaps, parts we could not see, parts of the story we, the observers, were perhaps never meant to be privy to. Some of the instances where this became evident were relatively innocuous–as the duo reflected back on their lives, memories came up not in any chronological order, but were rather triggered by something one member of the duo said/did, transitions following a pattern or code unknown to those ‘outside’ the couple–, but there was one moment where the cutting off of avenues to understanding became rather explicit. Towards the final tail of the piece, the duo gets into an argument, triggered in part by how to tackle the question of “Doreen’s” illness, as well as “André’s” work schedule. At this moment, the house lights are more or less off, with the living room lighting dimmed to suggest an evening glow. There is a sound of rain, light at first–so light, in fact, that I at least almost thought it wasn’t part of the sound design, but was rather the actual rain that was scheduled to fall that night–but then progressively escalating to a full-blown storm (complete with thunder and lighting sounds). As the sound increases, so does the intensity of the argument between the two characters. Eventually, the duo finds themselves at the center of the stage, still yelling at one another, but at that point the sound of the rain had grown so loud that it all but completely drowned out everything else. At times, one of the voices would cut through the rain–proof that the actors were still actually speaking rather than miming an argument–, but it was not enough to make out distinct words or phrases. By the time the storm died, the argument was over. No resolution to that moment was given, at least it was not given to the members of the audience.
It’s enough to make one wonder whether or not we were “owed” one, and if so, why? On what grounds? Were we even supposed to be there, watching this, anyway? The intimacy of the situation is almost suffocating here not just because of how limited it is, but of the shift from welcome guest to voyeur that this moment in particular results in. It’s funny, I think, whenever a production unexpectedly makes you question your act of “watching” like that.
Ils n’avaient pas prévu qu’on allait gagner, written by Christine Citti, directed by Jean-Louis Martinelli, MC93, January 24
Ok buckle in kids because I have some THOUGHTS on this one.
Before I get to them though, a little preface: for those who are familiar with the show Orange is the New Black, remember how the show creators/writers characterized Piper early on as being kind of a “Trojan horse” that would bring viewers–and let’s be honest, when they say viewers, they mean white viewers–into the world of the mostly WOC-populated prison? Yeah, let’s keep that in mind for a minute.
This play doesn’t take place in a prison but rather in a group home for kids who, for one reason or another, are part of the French foster care system. The piece itself was inspired by time that both writer Citti (who appears in the piece as a fictionalized version of not necessarily herself, but of the role/position she had) and director Martinelli spent visiting and working with the kids and staff in one such home. The latter had originally gone to try and see if it would be possible to organize some theatre classes, but when that didn’t pan out (logistics and whatnot), he and Citti entered into a sort of loose collaboration to see if they could create something. The result is a piece that largely centers on a group of teenagers in a home in Saint-Denis (a suburb just outside Paris), but contrary to what one might think, this is not a piece of documentary theatre. Rather than taking direct stories or testimony from the kids they met/worked with and creating something out of that, the resulting script was written using those stories and experiences as inspiration. The production team is very open about this, insisting to not take the focus off the fact that this is a constructed piece of theatre. Further drawing attention to the theatrical construction of this whole piece is the fact that all of the kids are played by actors who are very obviously in their mid to late-twenties (“Hollywood” teens, in other words). What does not get touched on is the fact that, once again, here we have a piece of theatre that focuses primarily on the experiences of disenfranchised minority groups written by a white author.
Yes, pretty much all of the kids in the piece are POC, though there are a couple of white kids from low-income families in the mix as well. Thankfully, despite the piece starting with Citti’s character coming in for her first afternoon volunteering at the home and the resulting back-and-forth that pairs her earnestness (but not naiveté, thank goodness) with the kids’ suspicion, this is not a “white person comes in and saves the poor POC kids from themselves by teaching them to believe in their dreams and blah blah blah”. Rather, Citti remains more or less silent, with the majority of the piece reserved for the kids (their interactions with one another and the staff, moments where they tell their stories or reveal a bit more about their home lives, etc). Citti does have a couple of scenes in which she has a short dialogue with one or more of them, as well as some instances in which she directly addresses the audience, summarizing events to signal the passage of time. Most of the time, however, she is seated–usually far stage right–with a notebook in front of her (even if she’s not writing in it, it’s there). She, then, is “our” — and by “our” I mean the mostly white audience, including myself, and especially those of us who have been privileged enough to not know what it is like to live in group home — in, our Trojan horse into the world.
Of course, the fact that she remains on stage as an observer, as a sometimes notetaker, gives her something of an air of an ethnographer, though I have a slight suspicion this may not have been intentional. Regardless, I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that though this piece is primarily dominated by the voices of performers of color, that the words they speak and the narrative being played out is inspired by the experiences of POC, the words themselves are filtered through a white lens by virtue of Citti’s act of writing.
I also kind of sometimes wonder whether my American-ness is having too much of an effect on my perception of this, considering that these sorts of conversations very rarely happen in France (outside of some anti-racist circles). Then again, North America is still very far from perfect in how it addresses these same questions so…there you go.
In any case, the staging of Citti as an observer did also end up tying her closer to those of us in the audience by virtue of her act of watching. She essentially does the same things we do. She sits, mostly quiet, watches, reflects, but in the end, her presence there doesn’t result in a life changing moment or a revolution for the kids she has put herself in close proximity with. Granted, to think that theatre itself (especially theatre about explicitly politically and emotionally charged topics such as this one) can directly lead to large-scale structural change is a bit foolhardy. A play can make someone think, but it’s not going to change the world on its own. But for a situation like this, why is it, exactly that an audience needs to be here? Is it for the exposure of these stories, so that they can reach a space outside the walls of the group home? If so, why did it need to happen in this medium, with this writer and director?
At a certain point in the production, all the kids gather in a plexiglass “box” in the center of the stage, earlier established to be the program director’s office. Earlier, one of the home’s residents–a Vietnamese kid who doesn’t speak, as he does not speak French, but rather moves slowly about the space, silently interacting with his fellow residents–had taken a white marker and written the names of all the kids, as well as those of the staff and of the character Citti plays, on the front of the box. When the kids gather inside, they stand facing outward, directly towards those observing them, and it is almost impossible to not conjure up images of a zoo, of animals on display, their names letting visitors know who (or what) they are. It is a powerful image, directly playing to the implications of the gazes of those in the audience.
It is also irresponsible, I think, to stage an image like that without taking the time to interrogate the origins of the play of which it is part.
So there you have it. My thoughts on this last one are perhaps somewhat incoherent, but its a piece that, either intentionally or not, unearths quite a lot of complexities.
In other news, this weekend I am headed to this new immersive experience called DAU that, in brief, is inspired by living conditions in the Soviet Union (think ultra-high surveillance and whatnot). My expectations are…low-ish…but mostly because so many people were trying to characterize it as this new life-changing/art-changing thing, and that kind of talk makes me both curious and suspicious. In any case, I am prepared for anything with this, including hilarity and nonsense, and I have a feeling that, no matter what ends up happening, I am very much going to enjoy writing about it.