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.

 

 

 

 

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