The March (theatre) marathon…

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 barbares at 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.

A Day in Rouen

 

IMG_1846

 

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.

IMG_1837IMG_1845

 

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.

 

IMG_1838IMG_1847IMG_1851

 

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.

IMG_1840

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.

IMG_1843

 

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.

IMG_1849

 

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??).

IMG_1869IMG_1871

 

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.

 

IMG_1836

 

  • 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.

IMG_1855IMG_1854

 

And thus ends the musings on the mini-vacation to Rouen.

2ABEE27A-DFF8-40FD-8969-7974262F6618
Yay!

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).

 

Oh, and before I go, one last bit of nonsense:

 

IMG_1870
This is terrifying.

Some more thoughts about the act of looking…

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Much A-Dau about…something.

See that pun? Yeah, I’m pretty proud of it.

 

 

Anyway, DAU.

 

 

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:

 

 

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jan/26/inside-the-stalinist-truman-show-dau-i-had-absolute-freedom-until-the-kgb-grabbed-me

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Anyway…

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the act of viewing

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

 

 

Sigh…

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

I think one of the things I still struggle a bit with sometimes is the whole idea that no one (or, well, very few people) is every going to really read my dissertation…probably.

 

 

 

 

Because on the one hand, almost no one is going to read it (so that takes some of the pressure away…but only a fraction of it)…

 

 

 

 

…but on the other hand, if this thing is just going to collect dust somewhere, what am I doing it for?

 

 

 

I do wonder sometimes if the work I’m doing is “necessary”, if it can maybe help people in some way. Sometimes I find myself thinking that I’m not sure the world really needs another person yapping about theatre for 200+ pages right now, and other times I think that my loving the theatre so much to want to devote my time writing about it (all while still wondering if I am even contributing anything new to the conversation…but what arts/humanities PhD doesn’t constantly ask themselves this?) is enough. Who knows? I would like something else to come out of all this though…something beyond the final dissertation. I’m just not sure what that is yet.

 

 

 

Teaching high school has, I think, had a larger effect on the development of my state of mind and my relationship with my project than I had originally anticipated, I think. Maybe it’s because every time I leave the school for the day, I always ask myself if I have really given anything to my students, if I’ve managed to get them to think outside the confines of their own bubble at all. I have some doubts about this. But then again, I’m always thinking I should be giving more, that I can give more. I just want to be useful somehow, like I’m contributing something other than noise (or worse) a repetition of something someone else has already said.

 

 

 

 

For now, though, I’ll limit my usefulness to providing you lovely reader(s) with some comments on Angélica Liddell’s The Scarlet Letter at La Colline, a show that brought me back to some very familiar aesthetic territory, but also made me a bit angry.

 

 

 

To preface, despite the title, this play is not a direct adaptation of Hawthorne’s novel, but rather only inspired by it. Yes, Hester Prynn (played by Liddell) and Arthur Dimsdale are present as figures in the production. Yes, there is a scarlet letter A sewn onto Hester’s dress, and yes, female sexuality is thematically thrust front and center. Overall, however, the production was concerned more with sexuality, morality/moral hypocrisy and the act of transgression than it was with linear narrative.

 

 

It was the morality thing, above all else, that eventually irked me.

 

 

 

 

 

In her director’s note, Liddell begins by quoting the following from the opening of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter:

 

 

 

“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

 

 

 

From here, she, I would say correctly, highlights a link between the sacred or the hallowed–can’t forget that even for the Puritans, cemeteries and proper burials were reserved for only certain members of the population–and the abject, or the rejected (that which has been deemed as going against the established order and must consequently be excluded). She links this back to art by proposing the hypothesis that art cannot exist without the act of moralizing, that, indeed, art is born from the disdain and rejection poured out by audiences/consumers toward the work in question for either its refusal to adhere to a certain moral code, or the lengths to which it pushes it. She continues by likening the process of art-making to taking a scalpel and draining a pus-filled plague sore, not necessarily to cleanse her body, but to drain and expose the toxicity of the bodies of her audience. It is, then, an exposure of that which many may well wish to keep hidden away. In order for this ‘drainage’ to work, however, she needs us–the audience–to be there, us with our potential for scorn and ridicule and disgust. I’ve copied the relevant excerpts from the text below for reference (and for anyone who can read French and is curious):

 

 

 

“En exposant sa propre pourriture, l’artiste, le fou, l’immoral agit tel un scalpel sur les bubons pestilentiels de ses maîtres : il les draine. Sans juges, la punition n’existerait pas. Et sans lettre écarlate, l’art n’existerait pas. Sans moralisme, l’art n’existerait pas. Sans hypocrisie, l’art n’existerait pas.”

 

 

As she says later…there could not have been a Mary without an Eve.

 

 

 

Honestly, if this show was in production back when I was writing my first Master’s thesis on masochistic theatricality in Genet, I would have been alllll over it because even this short excerpt by itself is so incredibly aligned with what I was writing on back then. Hell, the Genet parallels are even stronger earlier in the text when Liddell makes an open ‘confession’ to her criminality–something she later vocally repeats on the stage:

 

 

“Alors laissez-moi être une criminelle. Celle qui vous parle tue, vole, pervertit.” [“So let me be a criminal. She who now speaks to you kills, rapes, perverts.”]

 

 

 

 

 

This isn’t the only Genet parallel to be found here–a later bit sees the troupe of eight nude men clasping bouquet’s of flowers between their legs so that they seem to burst out of their behinds in an image recalling not just Genet’s Un Chant d’amour, but also one Pier Paolo Passolini–, but the criminal element did stick out to me precisely because of the allusion to a personal past. See, when Genet called himself a criminal in his works, there was a ring of truth to it precisely because before he became known as a writer he was a thief and a prostitute, two occupations that go against what may be described as ‘orderly’ or  ‘moral’ behavior by the dominant ‘powers that be’. Liddell, from what I can gather, is neither a murderer nor a rapist, but she does have quite the penchant for perversion, so I will give her that.

 

 

 

 

The majority of the close to two-hour performance is a mix of theatre, dance and performance art that sees Liddell–wearing a black silk dress and hoop skirt, with, as it is revealed later, nothing underneath–sharing the stage with the aforementioned troupe of eight nude men, as well as one figure in red cloak and matching face veil (Arthur Dimsdale), and a black dancer, dressed at first in a light blue tunic. In one of her first monologues (there are three), Liddell loudly proclaims that she hates living in a world where women hate men.

 

 

 

Yeah, that’s right…there is some anti #metoo stuff here, all in the name of speaking against what Liddell identifies as new forms of puritanism. Is it provocative? Yeah, I guess you could say it is, in a way, since it definitely provoked a somewhat visceral reaction in me. But, I would also argue that it comes from a misreading of the entire point of the #metoo movement, instead drawing on the hysteric comments from its detractors.

 

 

 

 

 

To illustrate my point, let me jump ahead a bit to the middle of the production, during which Liddell addresses her sexuality explicitly, not just as a woman, but as a woman over 50 (conveniently, this comes shortly after author Yann Moix offered his…opinions…on the sexual desirability of women over a certain age). She begins by commenting on the relationship between the attractiveness and ‘beauty’/ ‘purity’ of younger women and the male gaze/male consumption. Men desire this youth, this nubility, the unmarked skin that can be sullied when they touch it (or penetrate it…again and again). What remains hidden–the lines, wrinkles, sweat, cellulite, mucus, piss, etc–begins to appear as age takes hold, and now the woman, no longer conforming exactly to the desires of men becomes ‘ugly’. But she craves, she wants, this ‘ugliness’ that is projected out of her is a result of years of being gazed upon as a desired object, and now that that ‘status’ is forbidden, essentially, to her, she can free her lechery. Liddell, who is 52 herself, uses the stage to perform out her desire for men, for their bodies. At one point, the men of her entourage form two lines, facing inward. As she walks down the center of these two lines, she stops between each pair, briefly taking one penis in each hand before continuing down. At the final pair, she kneels down and very briefly takes one of them into her mouth.

 

 

 

Here’s the thing about that: on the whole, desiring somebody is normal. Women’s desire and sexuality has been repressed continuously in all manner of societies–this is true. At least as far as I am concerned, there is nothing wrong with fantasizing, and indeed, #metoo does not call for a blind stamping out of “impure thoughts” or desire in general–at least that’s not how I see it. I mean, really, anyone is pretty much free to have whatever dirty fantasies they like. The problem, however, is not just when that fantasy transcends into reality, but when that act of doing so involves the nonconsensual negation of another person’s (usually a woman’s) autonomy.

 

 

 

 

Really, though, it isn’t too much to ask to not be groped at work, or have a boss or coworker make suggestive comments (or worse bribe you into performing sexual favors for the sake of maintaining/advancing your career). The reason it probably feels to some people as though it is a ‘witch hunt’ is not because everyone is making all this up out of thin air–to do so would be a disservice for victims anyway–it’s because now we have the platforms to, loudly, say what maaaaaaany people have been saying for generations. Hell, #metoo was started by a woman of color in the 1990s. The internet just makes it easier to be more open about it now.

 

 

Anyway, all this is to say that I think Liddell may have contradicted herself in her own speech (though who knows, maybe I am entirely off base).

 

 

 

 

 

I was going to try and jot down some other reflections on the design of the show (so much red), but I’m feeling myself get a bit worked up, and I have to rush back to teach my final class of the day.

 

 

 

We’re reading Into the Wild in my 11th grade class. I never thought I’d be encountering that book in a classroom again after a writing class freshman year of college. At least this time it was my choice to include it in my curriculum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something for 2019

I was joking around with my family this year that if I had to pick any resolution to stick to, it would be to resolve myself every year to get a little bit closer to becoming a millionaire.

 

 

See, that works because it is incredibly vague to the point that even if I ended the year with 1 cent more in my bank account than what I started with, at least I still accomplished my goal.

 

 

 

All this is basically to say that I kind of want to throw New Year’s resolutions out the window. I’ve already got enough concrete goals and deadlines to meet.

 

 

 

Speaking of which, I actually managed to write a little over 16 pages while on holiday, so at least I don’t have as large a mountain of work waiting for me to finish when I get back to Paris. The February deadline to apply for completion funding for next year (yeah, I am incredibly ready to be done with this project) is just shy of a month away, but meeting the requirements for it no longer seems as impossible as it once did (to a certain person who I am sure is reading this right now…yes, yes, you were right; getting this done wasn’t quite as impossible as I told myself it would be).

 

 

 

But anyway, in spite of my sometimes aversion to making New Year’s resolutions/the whole new year/clean slate thing, I figured why not try and think of a succinct way to sum up the year that was.

 

 

 

This year was…hard. Well, the last few months of it at least. Sometimes I still go back in my head and think about things I could have done or wish I had done differently, but it doesn’t do to dwell on that for too long. Besides, there were quite a few good things that outweighed the bad. In no particular order, some highlights:

  • Getting back into physical theatre, and meeting some of the best people I can now count amongst my friends (and also relishing in the power of female bonding)
  • Writing and successfully submitting my dissertation prospectus
  • Writing a chapter draft (still hate it, but at least I did it)
  • Going on my first solo trip/crossing another country off my list
  • Surviving a year of teaching three different class levels
  • Successfully installing a washing machine
  • Getting to show old friends around the city
  • HAMILTON
  • Walking the entire length of the city of Paris multiple times and never getting sick of it.
  • Allowing myself to open up to someone again, putting myself in a much more vulnerable position than what I’m used to. This is probably the thing I’m most proud of, but it’s also the hardest to grapple with. What I mean by this is that I’m not sure if or when I’m going to be ready to do it again, and part of what I’ve been ruminating over in my head is the fact that I can be okay with this. I kind of want to just focus my attention on the people I’ve let in to my life already for the time being, on cultivating those relationships, and making more memories in 2019 through them.

 

 

Actually, come to think of it, maybe this will be a resolution for 2019: be more present for  people. There were a number of moments this year where I reached out and someone was there to help, and I want to give that back. I want to tap into my strength again and use it to boost those I care about up, as I’ve been doing with myself (I’ve gotten better at not criticizing myself as harshly for one thing). I want to be more selfless, say I love/appreciate/care about the people in my life more.

 

 

 

 

I didn’t get the coin in the vassilopita this year, for once. To be honest, I’m not that mad about it. That thing has brought me quite a bit of nonsense the last few times I got it, so maybe it’ll be good to take a break from it for a while.

 

 

 

Other than that, I think we can all agree that, personal issues aside, this was a bit of a dumpster-fire of a year for the world in general. I will say, however, that checking my email to find another New York Times alert about a new indictment coming through–patience does pay off sometimes–did bring me quite a bit of joy.

 

 

 

As to my time in California, well, I ate a lot, slept a lot, and wrote a decent amount. I would call that a success.

 

 

Now to get through an 11hr flight, 3hr layover, 1hr flight and a hopefully not-nonsensical RER ride before I am back in my undoubtedly freezing apartment (thank goodness for the insulating curtains I have up though…literally saving my life).

 

 

 

I have to be at the airport at 06h00 tomorrow…

Hello from the official start of my two weeks of vacation from teaching but not working! Not gonna lie, it’s pretty fantastic to be here.

 

 
First things first, I am in a much better place than I was when I last posted. I think all the stress was starting to get to me a lot more than I wanted to admit to myself, but writing it all out felt very cathartic.

 

 
And then, following my post, I ended up having a string of back-to-back hangout commitments, pushing me to get out of the house to do something other than go to the theatre on my own.

 

 

 
There was a raclette night (including an attempt to grill some sausages on the top of the raclette machine which…was not the greatest idea), which, since it fell just after the last day of Hanukkah, also included latkes and applesauce, and an absolutely decadent chocolate-caramel bûche de Noël from Blé Sucré. And then came the 100th edition of Saturday afternoon jazz at La Fontaine de Belleville, where I met up with an old friend and their parents (their mom even made friends with the gentleman at the table next to us, leading to said gentleman buying a bottle of wine and some charcuterie for the table…because why not).

 

D85612EC-3009-46F4-9F90-FD4D62E04EC1

 
I saw a friend perform in a short play festival at Cité U, grabbed drinks (and stayed out far later than expected) with another, and had a very copious brunch at La Fontaine the next day with a third. And through all of this, I’ve been frantically trying to rid myself of my remaining tickets resto for the year (which, to be honest, I’m debating applying for next year, since I barely go out for lunch, and it’s never certain that an establishment will ‘bend the rules’ and accept these vouchers during dinner service), trying out different places, most of them old stand-bys, but I did get a couple of new ones in as well (the photo below is from my lunch at Bol Porridge Bar):

 

B8CD3C23-4312-4272-8493-1C56EA6871A8

 

FYI: I managed to get rid of all of them, save one. So close…

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, I’ve got an episode of my new obsession, 90 Day Fiancé (or actually, Before the 90 Days, season 2, episode 6) on in the corner of my screen and a list of show notes to get to so…let’s get right to it.

 

 

 
Show 1: Rêve et Folie, directed by Claude Régy, based on a poem by Georg Trakl, Nanterre-Amandiers

 

 

 

 

Before I get into this one, one thing I’ve started to realize is that I’m subconsciously making decisions about which shows I’m pretty sure I’m going to end up writing on, and which ones will be blips.

 

 

 
This one, I have a feeling, will be one of the latter.

 

 

 
It’s not due to anything personal; I’ve just come to the point where I know I’ll need to be more discerning about which pieces to devote my energy to. If I’m not still thinking on it the day after—and especially if my notes don’t really jog my memory—I’m probably just going to end up filing that particular show away into my memories. At least I’ll still have the program and my notes to look at, should I ever want to (attempt to) revisit the thing.

 

 

 

 

Also, not gonna lie, I was not in the most energetic mood when I saw this one, and, seeing as it was a deliberately quiet, very dark (think just enough light where it is almost dreamlike, where when the actor finally appears you’ve got to take a minute to assure yourself that he’s actually there), solo show, it took a bit of energy for me to keep my eyes open.

 

 

 

The set design, however, was pretty cool in its minimalism. Think a large conical structure, where the tip of the cone narrows upstage to a degree that it looks almost as though it could go on forever, into infinity. This is where the actor emerges from, eventually, moving and gesticulating about the space slowly, striking a certain set of poses, eyes shut the entire time. Yeah, that’s right. His eyes were shut right up until he came out for his bow.

 

 

 

If you want disconnect, you pretty much have it right here.

 

 

 

Show 2: Macadam Animal, created by Eryck Abecassis and Olivia Rosenthal, MC93

 

 

 

 
Here’s a question for you all: at what point do animals become pests? And to whom? And if/when they do become pests, what do we do with them? Do we leave them be? If so, there is a very high likelihood that some populations will be affected more than others.

 

 

 

 

This was a performance of sound and image/projection more than anything, with the artists in question taking, as their subjects, the animals that inhabit the city with us, yet who we’d prefer to ignore: pigeons, crows, rats, termites, bees, stray dogs…Each one had its own segment, complete with a little foley set-up that complemented the images projected onto the screen behind the two performers.

 

 

 

 

 
A couple segments stood out more than the others, the first of which I will mention is the one on stray dogs (which also flowed into a segment on bees). During this segment, a video was projected on the screen showing footage of residents of Bobigny first walking towards the MC93, and then filming an interview inside in which they discussed any encounters they had with the animal in question. Of course, when a group of kids came on the screen—local kids, made obvious by the fact that they at times referenced very specific areas of the neighborhood with a certain level of ease that comes with not having to think too much about pinpointing and claiming your surroundings—the audience visibly perked up a little. I mean, it’s almost a universal maxim: tiny children talking over each other because each one insists that they have the most important thing to say is pretty adorable.

 

 

 

 

But the localizing, the precise localizing of this production within the environs of the theatre (building) itself was pretty unique in its execution. And, given how the rest of the piece plays out following this moment, establishing a network of inter-connectivity that was easily comprehensible on a human scale (if that makes sense) acted as a rather effective gateway into understanding the thematics of urban networks (visible and invisible) that would be continued to be explored later.

 

 

 

 

This…very peripherally…brings me to a second segment: the one on the soft-shell crabs that, through no deliberate intention of their own, ended up making a transatlantic crossing into France. These are non-native crabs. They do not belong here, lest they disturb the local ecosystems.

 

 

 

 

 

Interesting, the show posits, that we think of this now when, during the period of colonization of North and South America (and let’s be honest, even beyond that), ships from the Atlantic were bringing incredibly invasive species into the ‘New World’ that all but destroyed several established ecosystems.

 

 

 

 
So, again, at what point, and for whom, does an animal become a pest?

 

 

 

Show 3: Saison 1, Florence Minder, Théâtre de la Bastille

 

 

 

Another show at the Théâtre de la Bastille that is about the theatricality of theatre.

 

 

 

I love this place so much.

 

 

 

 

And this one was not just a show—or rather, a storytelling session—on theatricality, but theatricality using the codes of television series. Hence the title.

 

 

 

 
There were three “episodes”. I think for the sake of clarity, I’m just going to give a detailed summary of what happened in this one because it was…something. In the best of ways.

 

 

 

 

 
Here we go…

 

 

 

When we enter the space, we see a woman (Florence Minder) sitting at a table, a laptop and a microphone in front of her. She bids us good evening. It’s as though we are here for a conference or a pitch meeting.

 

 

 
When everyone is sitting, she begins by welcoming us all to this reading of this ‘serialized’ play commissioned especially for the Avignon Theatre Festival, 2034 edition, through a generous donation by the theatre arts commission (this comment elicited quite a bit of giggles…because no such thing exists, and how silly to think that people would care enough to bring such an association into existence). She then explains that she will be presenting (reading) for us episode 1. The episode would end when she closed the laptop and stepped out from behind the table.

 

 

 
And of course, like in situations where you start watching an episode of a thing on Netflix and say to yourself you will just stick to one when you know perfectly well you will not, I did not want the ‘episodes’ to end (especially the last one because how it ended was both rude but also absolutely perfect).

 

 

 
Onto the episodes…(fyi it does get a bit graphic at parts). Also full disclosure, for the sake of time, I just copy/pasted everything below from a text conversation I had while I was walking home from the theatre (when everything was still very fresh in my mind).

 

 

 

Episode 1

 

 

 

 

Just her at a table, with a laptop and a mic reading the script (as a sort of omniscient narrator). The episode opens on a hostage situation. Our lead character, Irene (a dental hygienist) is on a trip in South America, but her tour bus got hijacked in the Amazon by a group of rebels

 

 

 
Irene gets taken into the back room by one of them and while the dude is raping her (in the ass…this bit was specific), she tricks him, grabs a bit of mirror, plunges it into his neck, grabs his ak-47 and goes on a shooting spree killing everyone (including the other hostages…oops)

 

 
The episode closes with her in the jungle, some bullet shells in her ass and a bad yeast infection

 

 

 

Then episode 2 starts

 

 

 
The table is moved offstage, she keeps the mic. Starts again as the narrator and gives us a quick recap (which also turns into a little flashback about Irene’s life). Then the actress ducks under a sheet, then uncovers it to reveal another table with a mic, and also the fact that she has changed costumes

 

 

 
She is now Irene in a bloody shirt and camo pants

 

 

 
Another actress enters…she is the wife of the homme de ménage at the hotel. She serves coffee and talks incredibly quickly

 

 

 
She is also a hallucination

 

 

 

 

Now we have Irene and her subconscious interacting with one another mostly about how Irene could survive in the jungle with bullets in her ass and a yeast infection and no survival skills (it’s graphic but also hilarious)

 

 

 

The question of survival comes down to how much calorie reserves she has stored in her which are later divided into how many more lines the two have left to speak before they ‘die’ (in the theatrical sense, as in, the character ceases to exist)

 

 

 

 

 

Irene ends up besting her hallucination, and the latter has a pretty epic death scene (as all actors like to have), before coming back on stage to bow and whatnot, taking a rather exaggerated time to do so (mostly to allow for some last adjustments before episode 3)

 

 

 

 
Episode 3

 

 

 

 

 
The lead actress as narrator informs us that Irene has escaped the narrative designed for her. She has instead inscribed herself in one in which she lives, in which life takes precedence, in which the unexpected happens

 

 

 

 
A man comes down center stage. She joins him. They have a moment where they stare at each other awkwardly. The man is a dancer…it’s a thing about human connection. It doesn’t really matter if we don’t comprehend exactly what his movements are supposed to mean because he has constructed something for himself based on his observations and perceptions of his own personal fiction he’s created called ‘reality’

 

 

 

 

They move together for a bit. Then he kind of breaks the vibe, the lights come on slightly. He asks her to tell a joke

 

 

 

 
To describe the feeling of this moment…imagine being at the point of climax and then your partner asks you if you wouldn’t mind grabbing some milk from the supermarket or something equally as banal/unexpected

 

 

 

 

So anyway…she’s like ok fine, comes downstage, peeps to tell her joke…the opening words come out and then

 

 

 

 
Blackout

 

 

 

 
End of show

 

 

 

 

It was strange, weird, and familiar at the same time. It was an evolution in the act of storytelling, blending the codes of two forms that, at times, people like to consider as incompatible, as polar opposites, as though one were in the process of devouring the other.

 

 

 

 
It helped too that it was a woman at the helm of it all.

 

 

 

 
Shows 4&5: Les Tourments (Au Desert and Construire un Feu, both preceded by Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le hasard), created by Sylvain Creuzevault, MC93

 

 

 

 

I’m putting these shows together because even though I saw Au Desert and Construire un Feu (this one, by the way, adapted from Jack London’s To Build a Fire), the two pieces are both part of the greater Les Tourments project, and both begin with a performance of Mallarme’s famous poem.

 

 

 

So let’s start with Un Coup de Dés… then.

 

 

 

 

I’d highly recommend, for those who are not familiar with the text, to look it up online just to get a sense of how the words flow on the page, and just the extent to which it is deconstructed. That will probably make the next bit make more sense…kind of.

 

 

 

 

The performance was basically a setting of the text to music, with a lone soprano taking on the task of vocalizing the text. As she sang, the words were projected on a series of scrims hanging down from the ceiling. The way the projections worked made it look as though the words were being projected onto a series of mirrors, the copies of the copies, images of the images, repeated in such a way that it extended the space backwards, once again into an (almost) infinity. As the projected text also mirrored the way the poem was originally transcribed, following the words along as the soprano sang them required a jumping back and forth of the gaze across the scrims, much like one would jump back and forth across the page while reading the text itself.

 

 

 

 
At times, there were a couple of other actors who joined the soprano on the stage, but they mostly remained silent, save one who broke the fourth wall to directly address the audience. He, as he explained to us, was Hamlet, or the figure of ‘Hamlet’.

 

 

 

 

Hamlet is, supposedly, ‘summoned’ by the writer situated stage left and engaged in the act of writing. A woman in white crosses the stage dragging along a clear container in which a feather is suspended. Hamlet—whose face is hidden under a few layers of a black mesh veil so that it cannot be seen—affixes the feather to his hat, then comes out to address the public.

 

 

 
‘We can all agree that we are experiencing a singular moment,’ he says. He then launches into the beginning of a discours on the critical implications of the poem—the rupture with the Alexendrin, the signaling of the arrival of free verse—emphasizing, among other things, the fact that it, like him, is stuck in a position in between the act of making a decision or not. It is at a point of suspension, the precarious position where anything can happen.

 

 

 

 

So the question now is, why put this piece as an opener to two small playlets, both of which are not only relatively silent in terms of vocalized speech, but also are primarily concerned with the natural world? I would argue it is the notion of chance, or rather, of omnipresent unpredictability that links them. Nature has no ‘structure’, as much as one has been attempted to be imposed upon it. Man in nature is, much like with a certain facet of Mallarmé’s poem, a clash between a being that functions within a system of some kind of order and an environment that is the antithesis to it. The result is messy, brutal, disordered, yet orderly, chaos. The setbacks faced and affronted are a surprise, yet at the same time not entirely unexpected if one were to make a list of potential difficulties one would expect to arrive at any point during a particular kind of excursion into the wild (or the desert).

 

 

 

 

 

 

The torments (Tourmentes) of the title comes from this idea of evoking not only the hardships a person may encounter or must traverse in life, but also the ones a person may inflict or burden upon themselves, willingly or otherwise. The choice to set the depiction of this struggle in nature (in a style the playwright calls a “peinture animée” or a “nature vive” as opposed to a “nature morte” or still-life) could arguably be said to reflect, in a way, the impression of the insurmountability of these struggles, the feeling that, even when one feels close to overcoming or mastering them, this moment of ‘hubris’ is violently squashed (like, say, with a load of snow being dumped on one’s head). The choice to eschew understandable dialogue for barely-discernable murmurs keeps the universality of the piece intact—the connection between the audience and the spectacle being made through recognition within the acts or gestures of those on stage, rather than through discourse. I might go so far to call it a post-linguistic kind of humanism, yet communicating or storytelling through bodily gesture predates language, so I’m not sure that term itself would be just.

 

 

 

 
Minimalism? Economizing energy to focus on exerting it only on functions essential for survival? Who knows.

Another personal post about grad school (oh, and some more plays, too)

I swear, I am trying my hardest to write posts with as little distance between updates as possible. It’s just that work—along with a general level of tiredness I’ve been fighting as of late—has made my procrastination even worse than it usually it.

 

 

 

Fortunately for me, I’m writing this with only two shows on the docket to talk about, instead of the usual 5-6 (or more). Also fortunately for those of you who still (?) read this, the play breakdowns are going to be much more manageable (aka, shorter) this time around.

 

 

 

First up is La Bible, vaste entreprise de colonisation d’une planète habitable, presented at the small, upstairs theatre at the Théâtre de la Bastille. As was the case with Points de Non-Retour at La Colline a couple months ago, this was the first time I had ever been in the smaller upstairs theatre at La Bastille, making this a moment of spatial discovery more than anything.

 

 

 

 

As one could probably guess, the theatre itself is rather small. Small…and deep. There aren’t many rows of seats, but the ones that are there are arranged on a rather steep (by comparison to other theatre spaces I frequent) incline, making it almost inevitable that one will be looking down at the actors rather than up or directly at them. The stage was set up to look like something resembling a giant playground, with climbable structures (one of which was basically a lifeguard chair) flanking either side. The cast—five women, playing the roles of five precocious adolescent boys—were dressed in scouting uniforms, knee-high socks and awkwardly long shorts and all. Some had a little emblem embroidered on their shirt pockets (I’m assuming this is a Catholic thing since it did have something of a crucifix design on it, but I don’t want to go making claims on how official it is…anyway).

 

 

 

The next hour was what could best be described as a frenzy of burlesque-level nonsense and buffoonery (in the best of ways, though…at least for the most part). Fed up with the fact that the earth—god’s own ‘creation’—has been brought to the brink of (environmental) destruction by mankind without punishment from the Great One in the sky, these five kids, fresh out of a catechism class, have decided that the best and only solution would be to build a rocket ship, launch into space, and start everything anew on a distance planet.

 

 

 

Because what better way to build a ‘civilization’ than by using one of the world’s oldest tools for colonial dominance and suppression, the Bible?

 

 

 

What followed was a series of rehashing/retellings of selected Biblical passages, with some cameo appearances by Richard the Lionhearted (decked in a white tunic with a red cross, as is tradition), a robot, Dolly the Sheep, and Philip K. Dick. All of these roles were, of course, played by each of the individual children, who were switching up costumes at the pace of a seven year old who’s just been let loose on the costume box after downing a Red Bull. As a final image, a large ball and white sheet were attached onto a large crucifix-like structure hanging from the center of the ceiling. As this DIY-Jesus was hoisted up into the air, the children gathered round it dressed in either red, green or white capirotes (those pointed hoods that some Catholic brotherhoods wear during Holy Week processions, particularly in Spain…also, yes, the white ones do look a bit like KKK hoods, but this is only a coincidence), singing and dancing in a final ritualistic number.

 

 

 

Honestly, by the time this thing was over—what with all the singing, the costume changes, the running around, and the energy level that started at an 11 and pretty much stayed there—I almost felt I could empathize with the positively worn-out actresses, drenched in about a gallon of sweat. Criticism as to the efficacy of this type of performance aside—there were times when the frenzy became a bit much, and I found myself having to tune out for a minute to take a breather—, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that these performers managed to give it their all 100% for the entire hour.

 

 

 

And the intensity only continued last Sunday with a performance of 4.48 Psychosis (in a French-Canadian translation) at La Villette.

 

 

 

 

This was one of those rare times when I went to see a show because I genuinely wanted to, and not just to fulfill work/research obligations. I couldn’t, in good conscience, pass this one up though. I love Sarah Kane. Even before I spent the better part of a year working on my Master 2 thesis on some of her plays, I was always fascinated by her. It wasn’t until I started said thesis, however, that I began to gain a greater appreciation for her non-explicitly corporeally-violent works, in particular this one, the last play she wrote before committing suicide at age 28.

 

 

 

Some critics—and I think fellow playwright Edward Bond was one of the first to make this statement, though I could be wrong—consequently think of 4.48 Psychosis as a kind of suicide note. I’m hesitant about that interpretation—would not the performance, the constant bringing to life and reinterpretation of this text be the antithesis of a suicide note?—but I would agree that this is probably still one of the better plays around mental health that I’ve ever read or seen in recent memory. Opting to keep it as a solo performance, the actress first starts out behind a microphone on stage, looking something like a stand-up comic. This is our ‘in’: it’s a familiar set-up, never mind that we’re not getting jokes but an insight into the workings of a particular mind, and the people who dismiss it. Eventually, the curtains open, revealing a stage bathed in red light, with movable walls curving back on themselves to create two circular spaces on the stage—though only one of them was actually penetrated into. Whether or not at this point we were meant to be inside the actress’s head was unclear—and I’d argue deliberately—, and really to question that kind of misses the point. Because this shit doesn’t just mess with the inside of a person’s head; it screws with their whole perception of reality.

 

 

 

I think this second piece ended up resonating with me more than the first for several reasons, beyond the personal-academic connection to Sarah Kane. I’m not in a low a place as I was for a large part of summer/fall 2017, but I have been feeling not quite like myself these past several weeks. Maybe it’s the weather—hell, that probably has a little something to do with it—, but in any case, I feel like it’s been a while since I’ve gotten brutally honest and raw about things.

 

 

So here goes:

 

 

 

Going to shows by myself—constantly—is incredibly isolating. As much as I want to keep hyping myself up for getting out there and going to see things (yeah, yeah, it’s for the dissertation, but still), constantly being surrounded by people in pairs or groups really drives the point home that I am here in this purportedly social space by myself. Honestly, this feeling is the reason why I’ve tried to stop going to things on Saturday nights because who, on one of the more social nights of the week, wants to really be reminded of the fact that they have no one to talk to but their own thoughts…again?

 

 

 

I don’t want pity for this. I have people here. I don’t see them as often as I would like (I won’t make any comments on their end), and it’s not for lack of trying. But there are certain things about being a grad student in the humanities that no one really talks about, and this is one of them.

 

 

 

To really drive it home: some days, other than a brief exchange of words with a shopkeeper or person at a ticket counter (which last a total of about 5 seconds), my only in-person interactions are with my high-schoolers. Hell, sometimes, I can go a few stretches without even the latter. But, this is what happens when you have a deadline looming over your head that could spell the difference between a final dissertation-writing year in (relative) financial security, or a fucked up tuition bill and maybe more sleep sacrificed for the sake of editing a paper to earn a bit more cash. Because maybe someone will call, or maybe someone will pick up the phone…and you want to go out, see people, do things with them…you deserve that, right?

 

 

 

 

I take the time that I see people that I like very seriously, maybe more seriously now than I used to. That’s a thing that comes with time and experience, right? Learning how to value other people?

 

 

 

So yeah, sometimes when I leave a theatre late at night after a show, I get a bit sad because I want to talk about it and share my thoughts with someone. But then I go home and write a little bit, and remind myself that all of this will be worth it. Don’t ask me for an unbiased opinion on my thesis—those who know me well know the one thing I am incredibly self-critical about is my writing—, but I am getting closer to something. Slowly. And it’s my thing.

 

 

 

 

With that being said, this past week I did end up getting a chance to reconnect with perhaps one of my oldest friends (as in, we’ve been friends since kindergarten and now our parents hang out) who was visiting the city for the first time with her mom. Another opportunity for me to play tour guide—and to expand my repertoire of restaurant recs to now include more vegan-friendly options for her and her mom—, and a chance to show off a place that, despite this new bout of personal nonsense, I am so incredibly happy to live in.

 

EDIT: I forgot to mention this one thing…

So, living in a slightly older apartment has many charms, but one of them is definitely not impeccably insulated windows. Translation: things were getting a bit drafty.

 

 

Not anymore though! Why? Because I was gifted insulating curtains for my birthday.

 

 

Black, light-blocking, insulating curtains.

 

 

My excitement over these should not be taken as an exaggeration. These are literally saving my mornings/evenings (and my wallet). Yay!

5 play post? 5 play post

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately on the nature of theatre in general—what it is, why it’s still around, what the point of it is—and particularly in conjunction with the kind of theater I’ve been finding myself more and more drawn to as of late.
Not surprisingly, the more one goes to the theatre—the more variety of shows one sees—the more one gets a sense of what one likes, and even more so, what one does not like.

I’m not entirely sure if this general feeling of jadedness I’ve been immersed in as of late has more to do with what I’ve been seeing or with the slight floundering feeling that comes from sending off one chapter draft—oh yes, I did that last week—and knowing full well that another one needs to be started (like…now) even though exactly how that one is going to look like remains more or less a mystery. In any case, with the exception of a very bright spot courtesy of what is still my favorite theatre in the city as well as someone who I can confirm to be one of my favorite playwrights in general, the last couple of weeks have been very…meh…theatre wise.

This isn’t for lack of variety, though. What I can definitively say is that no show that I saw has been quite like any of the others, itself a testament as to the variety of things (easily) available and accessible to see in this city. On the other hand, what this also means is that not everything is going to be supremely excellent, but then again…at least the trap of monotony is avoided.
Anyway, enough of the rambling…on to more important things. Namely, the shows I’ve seen since my last post (and prepare yourselves…there are several of them).
1. Dans le pays d’hiver at the MC93 Bobigny

 

I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of a show being called “geometric”, but given the aesthetic of this piece—which recalls, among other things, classical aestheticism and imagery—could stand in as the poster child for it. To be quite honest, given that I saw this piece the same day that I returned from Budapest, I wasn’t in the most active state of mind to be able to sit through a highly stylized/ritualized performance done entirely in Italian, meaning I’d have to read subtitles if I ever had any hope of understanding what was going on. So, yes, I nodded off a bit.

In short, the piece is an adaptation of certain segments of Dialogues with Leuco, written by Cesare Pavese between 1945 and 1947. The dialogues address different topics, all with a decidedly existential tint (the nature of mankind, man in relation to animal, the gods, the flood, etc), that are here undertaken by two actresses—one of whom being the playwright, Silvia Costa, herself—of similar appearance. A third actress—this one blonde in contrast to the other two brunettes—supplements the text with choreography.
As one could probably imagine, the whole thing was incredibly stylized to the point that almost rather than give pause for reflection as to the nature of humanity—or rather the humanity of those on the stage at that time—, it essentially stripped away the human element to favor instead a representation of the ‘sur’-human. Or of the god(s). And so, given that, what is it that we in the audience who are sitting there facing this, are meant to do with it all, other than take in and process the philosophy lesson that was just given to us?
Aesthetically-speaking, however, given my penchant for all things symmetrical, I will say I did quite like the geometry of the space, the clean lines that characterized the set pieces that, even when moved, at times gave the impression of looking into a prism.

 

2. Sopro at the Théâtre de la Bastille

 

I’m going to go ahead and say this now: this was my favorite play of the past few weeks.

 

Tiago Rodrigues is also quite possibly one of my favorite playwrights working now.

 

Pity he writes in Portuguese, otherwise I would just study him.
Anyway, Sopro, the title of the piece, is a reference to what used to be known as “prompters” (though the original Portuguese, as well as the French “souffleur” are, in my opinion, a bit more metaphorically fitting as titles). Somewhat of an ‘endangered’ role at this point, prompters used to have a steady—if not entirely visible—presence in the theatre, whether it was hiding in the prompter’s box downstage, or tucked away in the wings or behind a set piece, following along with the script, there to save the day should an actor drop a line.

 

Rodrigues, in his director notes, likened them to the lifeline of a play, that which saves the whole thing from drowning in the weight of an imposing reality that starts to flood in the moment a line is dropped and the already-precarious fiction in the process of construction on stage is thrown even further off balance. They, to paraphrase his words, occupy a space that is neither in the fiction of that being crafted on the stage itself, nor entirely outside it. They are the go-between and the barrier that keeps an already porous spatiotemporal dynamic from completely ripping apart.

 

And, as of now, they are in danger of being forgotten.

 

So when Rodrigues announced to the prompter of the National Theater of Lisbon—where he currently has artistic residency—that he wanted to write a play about her, her reaction was, unsurprisingly, a bit incredulous. A prompter, she states—and just a quick note, a lot of this is gleaned from the performance itself—, does their job well precisely by staying invisible. If people recognize or see their presence, they have undoubtedly failed. Besides, she loved the theatre, but she had no intention of ever performing in a play about herself.

 

The solution, then? She was onstage—yes, this is the actual prompter from the National Theatre in Lisbon—, script in hand. One by one, on a stage that looked more like a site of a theatre in decay with plants bursting through the floor boards than an active, working theatre, the actors would file in, and be directed to their positions. And then, standing behind them, the prompter, Cristina Vidal, spectacles on and index finger following along in the text, would whisper their lines to them, her voice barely audible. Some of the lines were recreations of her words, her conversations with Rodrigues or her memories of starting out in the theatre; others were those of her former theatre director, actors she worked with, roles she had to prompt for (I’m pretty sure some Shakespeare showed up in there, but…French translations of the Bard are not exactly recognizable to me…yet). She, however, remained quiet, yet present in her silence. She was the originator of the words, but the actors were the ones who gave them life.

 

Yet, as much as I love plays that are about the theatre as a whole—kind of like how Hollywood loves movies about themselves, except for me, the more clichéd versions of this have tended to make me cringe—what drew me into this one in particular was its honesty, and in particular, how it depicted the familial relationship that develops between not just actors but the entire theatre team. It’s hard to show the kind of support and love that comes from that without succumbing to the usual “oh my god we’re just like a big family, let’s hold hands and sing around a campfire I love all of you I found myself, etc etc etc etc”.
Yeah…anyway.

 

One thing I remember really responding well to when I saw Rodrigues’s production of Bovary at Bastille last year was the clever mastery of subtlety in his writing (and by extension, his direction) to communicate with his audience. A similar case of subtle yet effective communication occurred in this piece as well, only this time it rested more on communication through silence than spoken word. Towards the end of the play, the actors—still being prompted by Cristina—comment on how difficult a time the playwright (Rodrigues…yes, we can forgive the meta-ness here I think) has with finishing his works. After musing over, and acting out, a couple different possible endings, they settle on the one that finally, fittingly works, one that at last sees Cristina at the center of her own story.

 

For a large portion of the narrative preceding this, Cristina talked at length about the woman who directed the National Theatre of Lisbon when she first started on as a prompter there. This woman had, coincidentally, also been working as an actress/director there the first time Cristina attended a show there as a child, and Cristina even credits her with igniting her love of theatre. Over the years, the two worked very closely together and struck up a deep friendship that went beyond the mentor-mentee relationship they started with. Unfortunately, some years later, the director fell ill and, against the wishes of her doctor who counseled her on undergoing surgery (to remove a tumor, I believe), decides to continue on with her performance schedule, just until the end of the season. It was during one of these performances that she collapsed in the middle of the final monologue, never getting to finish her lines and close out the show properly.

 
So, when asked what she would do if she ever found herself alone on a stage in front of an audience, Cristina (or ‘Cristina’, as it is an actress speaking for her) responds that she would finish that unfinished monologue.

 

And so, one by one, the actors started to leave the stage, all save Cristina who instead slowly made her way towards center. But before they left, they all shot a quick glance back at her, and if you have ever worked in theatre, you might know the kind of glance I mean. It’s the one that, without the need for words, sends out support, encouragement, love, whatever you want to call it. It’s that thing that is difficult to pin down, but it’s also the thing that has kept me coming back to theatre because I cannot find it anywhere else. And normally it’s a hidden thing, a backstage thing. We—the audience—cannot be exposed to it, lest it expose us to the fact that these people have a history that extends beyond the bounds of the theatre space, one that requires a bit more reality—‘our’ spatiotemporal reality—to seep in than is maybe ideal. But it was there, and then Cristina finally spoke and the lights went out. How fitting.
3. The Veldt (La Savane) at Nanterre-Amandiers
Right…sometimes the best thing to say about something is nothing at all.

 

I mean, look, if you want to go and play loud, not that excellent, techno music while projecting surtitles on a screen that talk about how some neglectful parents gave their kids a VR room and are now surprised that the kids have just full-on escaped into that room, fine. Go ahead. Honestly though, I’m not really sure I saw the point of all this other than, yeah, maybe don’t just buy your kids’ happiness and also, I don’t really care that you got eaten by a virtual lion (or was it a real lion…who knows).

 
This one was done in the salle transformable at Nanterre. The whole floor was covered in thin foil. Gives it that whole futuristic look. The titular ‘savana’ was suggested through the use of installation pieces that evoked natural objects—namely, a tree…or rather, a dead tree—, as well as a robot…thing.

 

Ok I’m going to stop this now before I really start to hate myself.
Moving on!
4. L’inflammation du verbe vivre at La Colline

 

I feel as though my relationship with Mouawad’s work has become rather…unsteady as of late. On the one hand, his early plays along with his novels (here’s another shout-out to Anima, for its poetic, cathartic violence) are rather brilliant in their reworking (and at times subverting) of classical dramatic tropes. On the other hand, where, for instance, Rodrigues is light and subtle, Mouawad is almost unnervingly heavy-handed. This could partially be attributed to the fact that a lot of his theatre deals with trauma—in particular his own, what with growing up in Lebanon during the Civil War and having to flee the country as a young child—but sometimes I wonder if the weight of his poetics has more to do with the dramaturgical history he has tied himself to, the writers whose recorded adaptations of even older orally-passed stories he both sends up and pays homage to. I had a slight inkling of this last year when I saw Tous des oiseaux (which, coincidentally, is being revived at La Colline in December, though I don’t think I’m in the mood for another four hour session of that right now). That feeling grew stronger with Notre Innocence. I can pretty much cement it now with this piece.

 

The production is billed as a sort of cinematographic theatre, and given how much time was spent staring at a screen—probably the most frontal position an audience can find itself in—I’d be more inclined to describe it as a film during which sometimes the main character pops out of the screen to talk to us.

 

The main storyline: Wahid, a playwright of Lebanese origin played by Mouawad himself, is suffering from a combination of writer’s block and lack of inspiration (a little on the nose, right…just wait), following the death of his friend and colleague Robert Davreu. Said friend also happened to be in the middle of translating a complete volume of the works of Sophocles, including one of his least well-known plays, Philoctetes, that Wahid’s company was set to mount in a few months. Unfortunately, given the writer’s temperament towards himself as well as towards the work, things are pretty much at a stand-still.

 
And so Wahid does what everyone else does when they need to find themselves: he embarks on a solo trip to Greece, whereupon, after unsuccessfully trying to visit Philoctetes’s cave (access closed due to rough waves), he decides to throw himself into the sea in an attempt to reach Hades. Because, as we all know, when one truly needs answers to the seemingly unanswerable questions life throws at us, one must seek the counsel of the dead. Hey, if it was good enough for Odysseus (and yes, we are treated to a reading of the passage in the Odyssey that talks of the moment leading to Odysseus’s decision to visit the Underworld), it’s good enough for everyone else.

 

Since our hero is in the Underworld, and has successfully crossed the Styx thanks to a couple of friendly fishermen, he needs a guide. Since we are in Greece—as an aside, a genuinely silly moment was when Wahid stands on a hill looking out at the expanse around him before realizing that, yes, Hades is Athens—, his guide is, what else, a taxi driver. Named Leftheris. (In Greek = freedom). Wahid’s journey takes him to a city dump (where the souls of all those who died, forgotten, at Salamis take on the form of seagulls), then to the home of a pack of stray dogs where he finally comes in contact with his soul (a dog, but not just any dog, a dog that speaks Arabic…the others all speak Greek…there’s actually quite a bit of Greek in this play, surprisingly), followed by an abandoned building where he discusses the bleak state of the world with three Greek teenagers, and finally to a sort of abandoned retirement home, the last residency of poets.

 

All of this, mind you, takes place mostly on screen. Occasionally, Mouawad, as Wahid, slips in and out of slats in between the screen, sometimes to signal a transition from his physical body into the virtual, pre-recorded one, others to disappear completely and thereby let the story move on to whoever, or whatever, was being shown on screen. All the footage was taken from a trip Mouawad took to Greece back in 2013, at the height of the economic crisis.

 

I’m not sure if I’ve talked much on here at all about certain gripes I have with classicists, or lovers of Greek classical theatre in general, but one of them is a certain dismissive attitude I’ve encountered in conversations with some of these people (mostly men, go figure) towards not necessarily modern Greece, but the history of the country following the classical era. On that note, I will say to this that at least for once we don’t have any lengthy poetic lamenting over what happened to get Greece into the state it (still) is in. There is some of that, but during the aforementioned filmed segment with the teens, they are at least given a chance to say their piece, calling out the inherent hypocrisies in the sacrificing of their generation by those that came before.

 

Here’s my problem with the filmed segments though: at one point, Wahid makes a side comment about how a screen is a sort of symbol of enduring presence (as in, being of the present moment). Given how the screen is interacted with in this production, I would be inclined to disagree. Instead of presence, what the constant moving back and forth inside and outside the screen did—especially as doing so, one could see the variations and changes in Mouawad’s appearance more clearly—was act as a constant, heavy reminder of the past, of a thing that was done once and that belongs to that particular moment. Conversely, if there was any presence in this, it was only in the moments when Mouawad himself was physically on stage, interacting with the flat image on screen and physically “being” in real time. But he was on stage so little compared with the amount of time spent watching the previously-recorded film (which, let’s be honest, tried a bit too hard to be deep at times) that his presence almost seemed like a gimmick in the end.

 

Oh and speaking of the end, he ends up getting a hold of a box in which is hidden the key to his happiness, the solution to all of his woes.
It’s a pencil.

 

Of course it’s a fucking pencil.

 

 

5. Crash Park, l’histoire d’une île at Nanterre-Amandiers.
We’re going to end on a slightly lighter note—thank god—with the piece I saw last night at Nanterre, this one created and directed by Philippe Quesne, the current artistic director at Nanterre-Amandiers.

 

I’m going to call this an anthropological/diorama study with a good dose of vaudeville and a dash of cinematic epic-ness à la Spielberg. Part of Quesne’s M.O. is creating works around micro communities, and this one is no different. The basic premise: survivors of an airplane crash find themselves stranded near a mysterious tropical island. The difference, however, between this and other stranded-on-an-island tales is that this group decides, instead of leaving (and, as the program notes suggest, going back to their commercial, monotonous, stressful, lives), to stay and make a home there.

 

There was very little talking in this play. If any talking did happen, it was usually small chit-chat instead of dialogue deliberately written to advance the plot. No, in this case the stage was a microscope and we were peering in to watch the little “ants” try and figure out their lives.

 

There was a funny little dance number involving leaves, a makeshift bar set-up inside a volcano that later turned into a club (oh, and a silly cabaret-style song about the mysteries lying inside a volcano that was made all the more ridiculous by the fact that the man singing it was doing so while wearing a Hawaiian shirt, silly sunglasses, and an airline pilot’s headset), and a ferocious octopus that threatened at the eleventh hour to destroy everything, but thankfully our little community of characters vanquished him easily.

 

The various costumes worn by the characters evoked time periods and settings of other ‘deserted island’ tales from the Hawaiian shirts to the 18th century pirate garb worn during the fight with the octopus. At one point, a character picked up a megaphone to announce that the ‘duty free’ cart was open, offering a selection of books including Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest, Utopia, Lord of the Flies (yes, there is a theme). In the end, the characters went to sleep inside the plastic volcano—whose plasticity and artificiality was increasingly emphasized throughout the production, particularly through the demonstration that it was easy to take apart and ‘convert’ into a new space—to the tune of Sinatra’s “Fly Me To the Moon”. What a quaint way for us researchers in the audience to leave our subjects on.

 
And that’s it for the plays of the past couple of weeks. Other than that, the one other significant event was my hosting of a small Friendsgiving the day after the actual holiday. I grabbed one and a half roast chickens, and whipped up some stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce. Other friends provided veg, cheese, dessert, the much-needed cranberries for the sauce, and wine (of course). It was, perhaps, one of the more cozy of Thanksgivings I’ve had in recent memory (I think crowding around a tiny table to eat helped with this a bit).

8F7D4272-2A9A-4912-8C79-1FAB67353F4631F6295B-FC75-466D-BB54-F911C41C74A63A66D526-CBCC-4191-834D-61F4E42792F2

Until the next (massive) theatre post, my readers!