Life, theatre, and the pursuit towards a dissertation…in Paris.
PhD candidate in Romance Languages and Literatures (French) at Harvard University, with a focus on contemporary French theatre.
Formerly with Columbia University at Reid Hall, Paris, and the University of Paris IV--La Sorbonne.
Goals: Write my dissertation, stay in Paris
Further goals: find employment, stay relatively sane
Instagram : @effie143
Yes, I know. It’s kind of a lame excuse, but, hey, it’s better than the usual “oops, I just got so busy with things that I forgot to write.”
Though, that bit is true.
This last month has been rather hectic to say the least. Not just with the usual end of term grading binge and holiday prepping, or with the strikes, which somewhat altered my theatergoing plans.
And yes, as an aside, I didn’t go to the theatre as often as I had planned last month, but that’s not to say I have any feelings of resentment over what’s going on. On the contrary, I actually support what’s going on, in large part because it directly affects my line of work (because of course teachers and other public servants are so privileged that our pensions must be snipped away at. Unless, of course, we’re cops…obviously), but also because, to be quite frank, in this general environment of increased neoliberalization, seeing that mass worker mobilizations can still do…something…is slightly encouraging. Slightly, only because who knows if it will actually amount to anything significant. It’s hard to stay optimistic.
In any case, it is also quite hilarious (well, infuriating but also hilarious) to read the news about this and see mostly comments along the lines of “well, yes, we understand why people are striking, but why must it be so disruptive?”. I mean, I suppose that people could just go out into the streets one day for a couple hours, make some little signs, wave them around, say a couple of slogans that could later be printed onto t-shirts or pins to be sold for the low price of X euros and then go home—perform at protest, evoke the idea, the gestures of protest—, but what good would that do?
But this is part of what the general tide has turned towards, perhaps. Going through the motions for a moment of illusory subversion, a quick rush to think “yes, I feel good about myself right now” without daring to take that extra step into more difficult territory.
It’s somewhat similar to what I’ve seen in some pieces over the last few years. It’s what Olivier Neveux categorizes as theatre that is essentially “political” in name only, when in reality, it operates within—and even to some degree, reinforces—existing power structures and dynamics.
So, yes, I’m mentally (and physically) preparing myself for a lot of cold walks in the coming days. So be it.
But beyond that, I was also sent into something of a tailspin regarding my dissertation—well, more precisely, my dissertation defense date—that kind of cracked me in the last few days leading up to the break. Chalk it up to stress, or a general feeling of being so close only to potentially have things collapse from under you, but by the time I was ready to board my flight for San Francisco, the only thing on my mind was that I needed to get out of the city for a bit. Clear my head. Relax.
And I did, relax, actually. In fact, to really hammer that bit home, I did something I had never done before for a flight to California: I upgraded to business class.
To be honest, this was always one of those things I always told myself I would do one day, but never did. Mostly because I never thought I had enough money set aside to do it, as well as just generally feeling guilty about the thought of spending money on a one-time treat like this. Besides, once I saw the “other side”, could I ever go back?
Well, friends, let me tell you: I’ve crossed the Rubicon. Business class is very nice.
And it’s not just the fact that the seat turns into a full-on bed so that I could actually sleep (okay I slept for only two hours but, hey, that’s more than zero), or that I actually had enough personal space that I could get a good amount of work done (yes, I finished grading exams because I am also very responsible when I relax). It was getting a 15-minute facial (and mimosa because I get started on my relaxing early in the morning as well) in the Air France lounge. It was getting a complementary glass of champagne on arrival, a three-course dinner with actual silverware, and then a light lunch before landing, again with actual silverware. It was the amenities kit with a toothbrush/paste, eye mask, ear plugs, and hand creams that was offered after we were all seated. Hell, it was the fucking facial cleanser in the bathroom.
I mean, let’s be honest, in brief, it was just the general feeling of being treated like a human being instead of a mass in a seat.
Now, to be fair, I have had very good experiences on Air France in economy class, so this isn’t so much a dig at them, per-say. It’s more the same general comment about air travel that’s been repeated ad nauseum over the years.
In any case, it was a lovely experience, and a good way to get started on my holiday.
And it was a good holiday too, even if I did spend the majority of it working.
I did, at least, make it out for one solo adventure in San Francisco. My parents had gone down to Orange County to visit my sister, and I elected to stay behind to finish my dissertation draft (which I did…somehow). As a sort of reward to myself, I decided a walk and a visit to the SFMOMA was in order.
And eating, lots of eating.
I started with a croissant and café au lait at Tartine (because I can never leave France behind entirely) before venturing on a stroll around the Mission to kill some time before lunch (aka the reason I came out here in the first place).
I mean, I actually managed to visit the namesake Mission, for once.
But yes, lunch.
Lunch was tacos.
Now, yes, the taco scene in Paris is not too terrible (special shout-out to El Nopal), but let’s be honest, it cannot beat what I can find here. And hell, I’m not even remotely an expert. I just like a good lengua taco now and then to accompany my usual order of carnitas, and also a small salsa bar.
Well, anyway. Taqueria Vallarta more than satisfied all of that. And it filled me up for my trek to the SFMOMA as well.
The museum was lovely, as usual, but nothing stood out to me so much that it left an impression. I think it was more the general feeling of being surrounded by art that made me the most happy, or that just got me out of my head for a moment.
After that, I popped over to Good Mong Kok Bakeryto grab a red bean cake, and then it was off to City Lights Bookstore to see if I could find anything that struck my fancy. Unfortunately, I didn’t this time around, but, then again, I’ve got two rather large books on deck, and my bookshelf is pretty much full at this point. In any case, it was nevertheless a good way to end the adventure, as well as to mark the closing of the year and decade.
Yes, this is going to turn into a slight end of decade post. I say slight because I more or less did this in my birthday post (the perks of having a birthday so close to the end of the year, I guess). But I’ll add a little something here:
The 2010s for me have been, above all, the decade of Paris. Studying abroad in Paris, moving to Paris once and then back again, and spending all my time when not in Paris thinking about how I would get back. The Paris of my 2010s, and consequently my 20s, was a Paris of studying, of dealing with bureaucracy, of my first real job (which consequently, was also my first real teaching job). It was days spent at the BNF that turned into evenings. It was all-nighters (or close to them) being pulled at Reid Hall, seated behind a window in a little attic room, a pile of paper fortune-tellers acting as a testament as to how long I’d been there.
I’ve dealt with the dormitories, the landlord who got into a straight-up argument with me over giving me my security deposit back, the apartment that was too big (yep, figured out that was a thing), and then my spot now.
In short, over the past decade, as back and forth as my time here was, Paris became home.
And at the risk of getting overly sappy, I’ll end it at that. I’d say here’s to an excellent 2020, but the idiot-in-chief may or may not have just started WWIII so….eh?
I’m not sure if this has more to do with the fact that I’ve just not had as much time to write here as I like, or that I’ve just not been out to see as many things as usual (blame time, of course, but also maybe the fact that this fall has been more dance-heavy in terms of programming at my usual haunts compared with the last couple years), but as we head towards winter, I’m getting the impression that this fall season has not left as much of a mark on me as previous ones.
This isn’t necessarily to say that everything has been terrible—The Way She Dies was, as expected, a highlight of the rentrée—, but more that I haven’t been “marked” by what I’ve seen to the same degree as I have previously. Maybe I’ve just become more discerning (read: picky haha). Maybe it’s just mental fatigue from the fact that right now the finish line for my dissertation is right within my reach and I just don’t have the capacity to open myself to much more (and anyway, the rest of my mental energy goes towards dealing with my teaching).
Or maybe it’s quite simply because a number of things I’ve seen so far have just been…eh.
This isn’t to say that none of them tried to go outside the box at all. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I went out to Nanterre-Amandiers to check out Pillow Talk, an immersive experience that involved transforming the main stage of the Amandiers into a sort of futuristic lounge space, with pillowed pods set up for individuals to lay down in. The general idea was that you would talk to an AI for about an hour, the position of the microphones on the pillows designed in a way that, in order for the AI’s voice to be heard, one would have to arrange one’s body in such a way that it would mimic cuddling.
Listen, as someone who really thrives in (and ok, maybe really craves right now) that kind of intimacy, let me confirm to you that there is nothing that will shove you into the uncanny valley faster than listening to an AI whisper a joke in your ear and then “laugh”. Ok, maybe it asking you to sing “Killing Me Softly With His Song” with it comes a close second.
And yes, I get the whole thing about using this medium to question our own perspectives on interpersonal connectivity, but it’s also become such an obvious approach, I wonder if it even makes sense to do it anymore.
Anyway, enough of that. That’s not what I actually want to talk about today. No, today what I want to do is tackle a question that has been asked many times, yet nevertheless still remains relevant.
Why the hell are we still crafting redemption stories for asshole men?
Now granted, the asshole in question here is a character who, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t do anything particularly egregious other than just generally be a dick to other people (especially the women in his life). Compared to some other real-life less-than-savory individuals out there, this dude is almost inoffensive. Almost. Because at the end of the day, the everyday, small-scale nonsense of his that his friends and colleagues are convinced to forgive in order to help him have a moment of revelatory introspection is the kind of thing that, once it starts building up, contributes to the larger toxicity that not only keeps a certain hierarchical power structure in place, but also, and to varying degrees, silences those (read: anyone who is not a straight white cis-gendered man) who are not at the top of said hierarchy.
Anyway, let’s get to it.
Mort prématurée d’un chanteur populaire dans la force de l’âge. Written by Wajdi Mouawad with Arthur H. Dir. Wajdi Mouawad, La Colline, November 17, 2019
Of course, this also just happened to be the first show I saw as a 30-year-old. Eh, can only go up from here though, right? Right.
Actually, I almost ended up missing this show entirely as I was still…recovering…from the festivities the night before. Somehow though, I managed to shower, eat something, and make myself look just presentable enough to make it out the door in time.
It’s the small successes in life that count.
Much like the other of Mouawad’s pieces I’ve seen recently, this one (other than the aforementioned character problem…which I’ll get to in a moment) suffers from a certain imbalance. More precisely, similarly to Notre Innocence in spring 2018, its first half is much stronger than its second.
The piece opens at the end of a concert given by the singer mentioned in the title. Alice (yes, that is his name; no, it’s not for “Alice Cooper”) is an aging former punk rocker who, like many others before him, is contending with the discrepancy between his past and his present reality as, well, a “sell-out”. No longer outside the system, he is now part of it. And he’s sick of it. Literally. I mean the first thing he does when he enters the backstage area (the set design is such that the concert that opens the film sees Alice upstage, facing away from the audience, with the backstage area set up downstage) is shut himself in a toilet and take a very long, very vocal, shit. And then he complains about his stomach hurting and needing to shit more. And then eventually he shits himself during a photo session.
Clearly, something is rotten on his insides.
I should also mention that this first half is very clearly a satire, as based on not only the rapid-fire jokes and “second degree” humor flying around, but also because the characters themselves that are featured here can be reduced down to certain tropes:
-The aging, cranky rocker
-The overworked manager (who Alice always refers to by a nickname rather than her—yes her—actual name, at least until she has a breakdown over it in Act II)
-The critical journalist who, with one brutally honest article, sets our protagonist on a downward spiral that ultimately contributes to his decision to do something very stupid (though also very silly)
-The former manager with questionable judgement and a nostalgia for the “good old days”
-The girlfriend who is an established artist in her own right, but who is nevertheless still second to the whims of her partner.
-The newcomer who has travelled over from the other side of the world (in this case, Canada) and, though she may not know the other characters well, nevertheless becomes the key to them rebuilding their relationships (and themselves), after a crisis. Oh, and she also does this using a mysterious ritual (that, yes, is made-up, but it relies on tropes and stereotypes of First Nations culture).
And honestly, if the tone did not shift so drastically between Act I and II, this could have ended up being a decently entertaining piece. Alas.
Anyway, the short version of the story is that Alice, in a rather low point after being skewered in an article (worse still: he was replaced on the magazine’s cover by a new, up-and-coming musician), reconnects with his old manager with whom he had parted ways with after he started becoming successful. The two commiserate a bit about what their lives once were, what they used to stand for before money, marketing, and success got in the way, when the latter of the two comes up with a plan. A last “f**k you” to the system, if you will. Simply, Alice would fake his death. The moment was perfect. Yes, he was just taken down a notch in the press, but he was also in the middle of a successful tour, and there was no indication he would need to be slowing down any time soon. There would, of course, be a period of mourning. And then, after the initial grief had died down a bit, the manager would release a “recently-discovered” (in reality: recorded in his in-house studio while he was making the necessary press calls) album of unpublished recordings. People would go crazy for it: I mean, it would truly be the last new music they would ever get from Alice, and really, given how hot posthumous records sales have been in recent years following the loss of several high-profile artists, huge profits were almost a sure-thing.
In the meantime, Alice would go lie low in Ukraine (yes, Ukraine). For added security, a sham funeral/cremation ceremony would be organized so that there would be no doubt as to how really dead he was. After a year in hiding, he would return to France, triumphant, a middle finger in the face of all those who bought into the ruse, a true condemnation of our consumerist society.
Of course, one thing that Alice and his manager did not count on was the former’s girlfriend. See, in order for the more essential part of their plan to work (read: the cremation and funeral), they would have to have had a closed-casket funeral. The girlfriend, on the other hand, insisted that the ceremony not only be open casket, but that she and those close to Alice be present up until the final closing of the casket and the final shove into the fire.
Anyway, to get around this, some associates of Alice’s manager gave him some drugs that made him fall stone asleep as if dead. This worked to fool the doctor who came in to sign the death certificate (no autopsy though?), but the dosage needed to be upped if they wished to keep the illusion going through a full-on funeral (getting Alice out of the coffin in time would come later). As expected, however, the dosage wore off a bit early. More precisely, it was during the funeral when Alice’s girlfriend was in the middle of singing a song he loved to hear her sing.
Anyway, it’s not like he got off easy. Other than terrifying literally everyone, Alice also ended up blinded by the drugs. Classic punishment.
So ends Act I.
Act II largely involves the fallout from all the above, with Alice’s girlfriend dumping him for the trauma he put her through (as well as for his general selfishness), his current manager standing up for herself and refusing to represent him any longer, the press eviscerating him even more than they had previously for his nonsense, and Alice having to attempt to navigate the world without the use of his sight (instead of going to see a doctor like literally everyone was telling him to).
It’s in this period of loneliness that Alice reconnects with a superfan of his who had come all the way from Canada to follow his tour, and who he had first met outside his stage door following the concert that opened the show. Her name was Nancy. He signed a condom wrapper for her because it was the only thing he had in his pocket.
Nancy had expressed to Alice during their first meeting how grateful she was to him for how much his music had helped her through some difficult times, and now, seeing him in this state, she decides to take it upon herself to give back some of the help he had given her. This is where this piece truly started to lose me. Nancy kind of helps Alice navigate around for a couple of days, but then she ultimately takes it upon herself to call all of Alice’s former friends together. She had a plan to help Alice rid himself of the demons, of the bad thoughts inside him, but she needed their help.
They, of course, wanted nothing to do with any of it, and with good reason. This is where I want to go back to what I mentioned earlier about why the stories some people create still feature men like Alice getting a full redemption arc in which the burden of the work is not placed on them but on those they have wronged “getting over themselves” first before banding together to pull the asshole in question back “into the light”, so to speak.
And this could have played as a satire as well, except Mouawad had written and directed it with incredibly evident sincerity that it was impossible to interpret it otherwise.
Anyway, as Nancy points out as a means of convincing the others to put aside their anger, it wasn’t like Alice had done anything incredibly terrible like kill someone, or start a call for genocide. He just happened to put his friends through a short period of an incredibly stressful Hell, and that, plus the fact that he was an artist whose music had helped others like herself, meant that he deserved a second chance.
But what she doesn’t bring up—and conversely what the other two women in the room do—is the lasting damage his regular behavior has caused. His manager has sacrificed not only time with her daughter, but also ended up suffering a miscarriage because of the constant stress he put her under, what with his steadily bad humor, his erratic behavior, and his preferred manner of addressing others by yelling at them. His girlfriend, meanwhile, brings up her feelings of not just betrayal at what he did, but also her general frustrations at their relationship, at the imbalance felt when it became clear that one of them was investing in it slightly more than the other.
But we can put that aside now.
And in any case, as a sort of Hail-Mary, Nancy mentions that she is ill, that this trip to France was a sort of last hurrah for her before she begins treatment.
Ultimately, what Nancy’s plan consists of is her leading Alice out into the woods under the assumption that once there, he would encounter a shaman who would perform a ritual to cleanse him. Nancy—who mentions she is part First Nation, though the actress playing her is white-passing—will of course play the shaman. Alice’s friends, meanwhile, would dress up in bird costumes (there is literally no purpose for this other than the fact that this is happening in a theatre, as Alice wouldn’t be able to see them since he is still blind), and at the appropriate moment, swoop in and “peck” at him, thereby removing all the bad things inside his spirit.
There is a lot of sage. Nancy at one point starts banging a drum.
And ultimately it works. The final scene of the piece opens on a hospital waiting room in Quebec where Alice has come to visit Nancy, after having discovered she was ill via his friends…with whom he is back in contact with.
He mentions to her during their last conversation that her ritual managed to push him not only to see a doctor (miraculously, he can see again…because “clarity”…), but also to take the difficult step in reaching out and apologizing.
And you know what, yes, that isn’t really an easy thing to do. But it’s also something that 1) only happened as a result of an initial effort of forgiveness on the part of the hurt parties and 2) occurs offstage. His act of apology, of taking the necessary steps to interrogate himself and engage in a process of self-assessment are, to a degree, secondary to his friends momentarily ignoring his bullshit to see the goodness in him. There are times when, perhaps, such a stance could be justified, but one could argue that those moments generally follow events that are out of the person’s control. This situation, on the other hand, along with everything preceding it, is, on the other hand, a direct result of Alice’s conscious behaviors.
Yeah, it’s true that he didn’t kill anyone. But to minimize his past actions for the sake of advancing the question of his supposed “goodness” (that we have had little evidence of, other than Nancy’s comments on his music) is, for lack of a better word, lazy. We can do better. Our stories can do better. No one should have felt the need to forgive him. The choice to not forgive, to step away for the sake of one’s own mental/physical health is also a justified one, yet here the sacrifices are continually made by those who have performed that gesture time and time again.
But, then again, this also all fits in with Mouawad’s greater ethos on the spirituality of theatre. It goes back to his affinity for the classics (especially the Greeks). Maybe I’ll address it here in another post.
For now though, I have a dinner to get to.
Here’s to the end of fall (and hopefully a more inspiring winter theatre season).
So, I’m actually writing this while balancing my laptop atop two large rolls of paper towels, minding the first layer of a carrot cake I’ve got baking in my oven. This is the first time I’ve actually made my own birthday cake (because why not), and of course I’ve decided to be ambitious(…ish).
But more on that in a minute.
After a (very) quiet October, my theatre-going has ramped up again, with, as a little bonus, a return to a writer (and a play) that not only largely defined a large part of my graduate work from my first masters all the way to—and even through practically the first half of—my PhD.
Les Bonnes by Jean Genet, directed by Robyn Orlin, Théâtre de la Bastille, November 9, 2019
I find it almost amusing that, despite having written a good part of my first masters’ thesis on productions of this play, I had never—until this performance—seen it live. Despite that, and just based on the sheer number of recordings of live productions I’ve watched, I went into this half-expecting it to fall into a trap that is not necessarily present in all of Genet’s pieces, but, I would argue, is very much a factor here: pacing.
Generally, when first getting introduced to Genet, one of the first things that comes up is his pointedly ritualistic aesthetic. While this is of course very evident in his writing—and this goes for his novels as well as his plays, what with their constant repetitions of gestures/phrases, circular structures, and evocations of the divine or a process of ascension towards a moment of transcendence in the lowest, most abject of settings—, what it has also led to is a tendency to almost always literally translate that to the staging. Les Bonnes (The Maids) is only one act long but is often stretched to close to 2 hours or more, in part because of the tendency to really “amp up” the ritualistic aspect.
I mean, I can remember at a certain point during my research, after watching the I-can’t-remember-which-number version of the piece, thinking ‘We get it. It’s meant to be precise and de-li-ber-ate. But is there really only one way to evoke this…?’
Thankfully, this version did not fall into that trap.
It also—and this is a rarity for this piece, despite it actually corresponding more closely with Genet’s original intentions—featured an all-male cast.
Yeah, funny how this need to emphasize ritual makes exceptions for certain things. Then again, this piece did originally premier in 1947, and back then the biggest issue was people not believing that their maids would ever speak of them in the way Claire and Solange—the maids of the title—do of their mistress (who is only ever referred to as Madame).
What may have partially contributed to this piece’s divergence from the “standard” aesthetic was Orlin’s background as a choreographer. That, and the fact that she grew up in South Africa. With the dancing, the influence was seen in, of course, the way the performers moved and carried themselves, but more significantly (for me, at least) was its effect on the overall rhythm of the piece. Namely: it actually had one.
This isn’t to say that the piece was sped through, but more that there was both a sense of reverence AND a sense of urgency in play (often tricky things to try and strike a balance between, but also elements that underscore a number of Genet’s dramatic works). Honestly, it was almost like seeing the piece with fresh eyes.
As to Orlin’s origins, these, according to her director’s note, had a more direct influence in her approach on the casting. Though her version still highlights the commentaries on class division and the sometimes ambiguous dynamics of dominant/submissive relationships, Orlin (who is white) chose to integrate an additional element through her casting of two black actors in the roles of Claire and Solange and a white actor in the role of Madame. It’s a move that evokes the apartheid-era South Africa Orlin grew up in, as well as the very much still-present racial disparities not just in South Africa, but in much of the West as well (including France).
And the way she has the public confront these disparities is rather fascinating, in that it is based in a way of consuming media and information that is both familiar and yet, when it is transposed to a theatre setting, rather destabilizing.
The stage at the Bastille was rather bare, save for a clothing rack stage right, two stools upstage center with a small camera propped on a tripod in between them, and a DJ booth stage left. A video screen on the back wall played scenes from a 1970s film version of the piece, first as a sort of way to set up everything that happened before the opening scene (mainly the arrest of Madame’s husband, the appropriately-named Monsieur, based on a false tip letter sent by Claire to the police, which is brought up several times in the course of the piece), and then, through the use of freeze frames, as a sort of virtual scenic design.
As for the camera, the actors—especially in scenes featuring only Solange and Claire—spend a good chunk of their time when on stage playing to it rather than facing out and playing to the audience. What this meant was that, physically, their backs were facing us, yet at the same time, the projection of their faces on the screen—and therefore in the environment of the ‘virtual space’—meant that they were still performing to us. Yet, this manner of performing, and more precisely of consuming performance, through a video screen (as though on a Youtube channel, or, perhaps more relevant here, through camming) is both isolating and voyeuristic. Isolating in that it evokes private moments at home when one streams a new video from a Youtube content creator or adult cam performer. Voyeuristic in that there is the sensation that we are not meant to be seeing this. Indeed, we can’t be seeing this because if Solange and Claire’s roleplay sessions as Madame in the latter’s absence become exposed, the two are, for lack of a better word, fucked.
But then, when Madame does eventually make her entrance, she pulls out an iPhone and, after filming Solange and Claire in close to extreme close-up, turns the camera on the audience commenting on some pieces certain patrons were wearing. It was a moment very much anchored in camp—Madame’s coat made up of a bunch of child-size pink puffer jackets attached together added delightfully to this effect—with an added palpable threat. Madame could loosely slap Solange or Claire’s visors (worn as part of their uniforms) to the sides of their faces, sometimes swiping at their dreadlocked hair in the process, without even the hint of a potential rebuttal. She, in the end, is more powerful than perhaps anyone wants to let on.
And I think before I move on from this, I just want to say that should Orlin ever decide to stage another of Genet’s pieces, I would be one of the first in line to buy a ticket.
Actually, to be perfectly honest right now, I did not get a good amount of sleep last night (oh hi winter cold and your nonsense), so my brain is having a bit of trouble concentrating/remembering things. Though this could also have something to do with a big milestone that I’m going to be hitting tomorrow, November 16.
Turning 30 is something that, even up to now, seemed both inevitable and so far away. Though I think I’ve been able to avoid most of the absolute ageist nonsense that is often marketed toward women regarding reaching this particular birthday, I have nevertheless spent the past week or so reflecting on the last decade of my life, trying to figure out the best way to summarize it.
Because I went through—and did—a LOT over the last ten years.
I graduated from my undergraduate program, then 2 masters programs, and started my PhD.
I lived in so many different places: Irvine, Paris, Boston, and now back in Paris again.
I visited new countries I’d never seen before, both solo and otherwise:
Czech Republic (Prague)
Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh)
Italy (Rome and Bari)
Sweden (Stockholm and Uppsala)
And I saw more of the countries I call (and called) home, as well as the country I call my homeland.
Speaking of the homeland, I also got my Greek citizenship and with that, a passport that has changed my life in more ways I could imagine.
I ate so many delicious things, discovered my love for red wine, whiskey and bourbon, and upped my tolerance for all things spicy.
But with that I also had to learn (and am still learning) how to cultivate a healthy relationship with my body. Developing an actual love for working out (and discovering HIIT training) when I was 24 helped.
I fell back in love with theatre again. I performed on stage fewer times than I would have liked, but I also saw shows (Hamilton in London, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 in Boston, and Bovary and Sopro in Paris come to mind) that reminded me why I love theatre in the first place.
And with all the moving and show attending and studying and starting over, I found my independence. I learned that, yes, I could do things on my own. I could move to a new country, a new city and figure out my life, deal with apartments that were absolute shit, live in dorms and realize that what mattered there was less the accommodations and more the people I was sharing the space with, and find a sense of determination and stubbornness that would help me deal with almost any “no” that came my way.
And I learned how to advocate for myself.
Hell, I travelled by myself.
And as for love, I felt love—and loved—and knew love in many ways, two of them more significant than the rest. And there was heartbreak. But there is also hope. And there is the feeling of telling someone you care about them, and knowing you’re cared for in return. And there are also those things that still haven’t changed: like getting the courage to open your heart up to someone. But then there’s also that feeling of being held, of feeling someone pull you into them, steady you for a moment, and knowing that maybe being vulnerable wouldn’t be such a bad thing sometimes. That maybe someone will be there to catch you.
I laughed a lot—so many more times than I can even remember. Yes, there were tears too (and oh god with a PhD there are always tears), but it’s the laughter that stays.
I still feel like I barely know what being an adult is, but at the very least, I do have an ever-growing list of recipes to keep me well-fed while I figure that out.
So, with that, farewell to my 20s. You were, in the ups and downs, truly wonderful.
Ah fall. The crispness in the air, leaves changing color, the return to the hearty foods that make the lack of warm weather bearable…
And vacation. Yes, one of the many perks of being a teacher in this country. Just when la rentrée winds down, it’s time for another two-week holiday.
I’m spending most of this holiday at home (because I still have a dissertation to write…joy), but I did plan out some time to get away for a quick weekend.
I guess the first question would be ‘Why Krakow?” and the answer to that would be, well, because Eastern Europe has been a bit of a theme in my travels as of late, and I thought, why break with tradition?
It also has a lot to do with where I went on the morning of my second full day there, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Basically, though, what with it being fall break and all (yay for a little break from teaching), what I ideally wanted was a weekend somewhere that screamed autumn (as in, lovely foliage) and where I could indulge in some food that I only ever get in the mood to eat when it’s nice and crisp outside and my belly needs fuel for warmth.
So, Poland it was. And because Krakow was selected as the European capital of gastronomy for 2019 (yes, that’s a thing and it’s wonderful), the decision was pretty much set. I knew just a bit about Polish food from having been exposed to some of it (read: pierogi, kielbasa and Polish vodka) back in the States, so I was very much looking forward to experiencing more of it.
Spoiler alert: Krakow is a very excellent food city, and may have just topped my (very short, since there are only three items on it) list of food tours I have done. More on that in a bit, though. For now, in order, the things I did.
I arrived at the airport early in the afternoon, meaning there was plenty of time for some early exploring before dinner. After taking a cab into town (I had just missed the train into the city center and the next one wasn’t due for another hour…), I checked into my private room at the Secret Garden Hostel. Actually, “hostel” is a bit of a misnomer. This place was not only incredibly clean, quiet and updated, it also had probably one of the most comfortable beds I had ever slept on in a hostel (or even in a hotel for that matter).
Really though I am not lying when I say I wanted to roll the thing up and transport it here.
The hostel is located in the Kazimierz district, known as the Jewish quarter, as well as the place to go out for dinner/drinks and get a general feel for Krakow’s cultural life for both locals and visitors. Ongoing construction on the main street cutting through the neighborhood made getting around a bit tricky, but other than that, staying there was positively delightful (and delicious).
My first food stop wasn’t in Kazimierz, however. Instead, I walked all the way up to Old Town and over to Gorace Paczki for a traditional Polish donut filled with rose jam. I grabbed a seat on an empty bench in the park nearby and dug into the still-warm pastry. Fluffy, yeasty, with just the right amount of jam filling to be stuffed without exploding everywhere, this treat was the best way to start my trip, and a definite step-up from the last jelly donut I had before this (which I’m pretty sure was from Dunkin Donuts…). The best bit, however, was that it only cost 3.5 zloty, or $0.91.
Oh yeah, for travelers on a budget, Poland is definitely a good place to check out.
After devouring my donut, I had a bit of time to kill before my dinner reservation (for 1, ha!), so I spent it basically walking around the park that encircles the Old Town. I found out on the walking tour I took the next day that the park, designed during the period when Krakow was under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, replaced the walls that formerly surrounded the city, but that evening, my biggest priority was taking pictures of every tree, trying to capture some of that golden color I’ve missed so much.
As mentioned earlier, my dinner that night was a solo endeavor in a sit-down, slightly above casual restaurant, something I have managed to avoid in all my other trips before this one. Don’t get me wrong, I actually have eaten dinner out by myself before, but there is a difference between doing it somewhere I am familiar with (as in, here at either my neighborhood dumpling place, or the slightly less nearby ramen place by the BNF), versus in a place where I have never been and don’t know anyone (or the language, for that matter).
But I wanted something cozy, and Dawno Temu Na Kazimierzu (or Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz) delivered that. Yes, the restaurant is a bit more touristy than what I might otherwise go for, but the food was good, there were candles on the table (a bit of a theme in Krakow and Kazimierz in particular, I soon found out, and one of my favorite little details about the neighborhood I chose to stay in), the décor was just the right amount of kitsch, and there was live music.
For my dinner, I ordered roast duck breast with cranberry sauce, potatoes, and side salad as well as a glass of wine. It cost me less than $20 total, not bad for my “treat yourself” meal! If I hadn’t been so full (seriously, the portion sizes were very generous), I may have even ordered a small dessert.
Instead of heading straight back to the hotel to sleep after dinner, however, I ended up walking a couple of streets over to Eszeweria, a cozy (more candles!) bar on Józefa street. The weather wasn’t quite cold enough to call for it, but I decided to order a mulled beer anyway because why the hell not. And so my night wound down with some reading by candlelight, clearly as good an indicator as any that this weekend was getting started on the right foot.
It was an early wake-up for me this morning (another habit I have during my solo trips), as I wanted to get a good breakfast (and coffee) in before heading out on the first of the two free walking tours I wound up taking while here. For my breakfast, I walked about a half hour north of my hostel, towards Krakow’s main train station, to check outWesola Café, a spot that had come up in my research into the local coffee scene. The café was pretty packed when I got there, but I managed to snag a spot by the window to enjoy my filling breakfast of warm, spiced millet with fresh fruit accompanied by a very much needed flat white.
After polishing off my breakfast, I walked the short distance over to the former gate into the Old Town to meet up with my walking tour (organized with Walkative). Our two hour excursion took us through several sites, such as:
The aforementioned Barbicon gate:
The central market square, featuring (in order) Saint Mary’s Basilica, Cloth Hall, and the lone remaining tower of what was once Krakow’s town hall
Poland’s first university (founded by King Casimir the Great)
Before finally ending at Wawel castle
As far as free tours go, I would recommend this one, but I was not exactly the biggest fan of the guide who was a bit more brief in his explanations of things than I would have liked (this is personal preference though). That’s kind of par for the course when it comes to these things, and I will say that I had a much better experience with the guide on the second tour (moral of the story: try and go for current/former history students). Plus, it did kill about two hours of the day, which was good since I didn’t have anything else planned until much later in the afternoon.
Still, it was only just after noon when the tour let out, so there was a little question about what to do in the meantime. This issue was promptly resolved with a brisk walk across the river and to the Krakow Museum of Contemporary Art. Now, those of you who look up the museum on Google Maps will notice that it is located just next door to Oskar Schindler’s former factory (now a museum with a permanent exhibition on WWII and the Holocaust). I ended up not going to visit the factory on this trip, instead opting for the decidedly less crowded art museum, which at the moment was also hosting several exhibitions on or around the Holocaust.
I managed to kill another couple of hours browsing around here, leaving me plenty of time to walk back to my room, rest up for a quick minute, and then head out again to my next activity (and the reason why I skipped lunch that day).
Yes, everyone, it was time for my food tour.
Unlike the other two tours I have taken on my solo travels thus far, this one (Delicious Kazimierz operated by Delicious Poland Food Tours) did not center around touring a market but rather on visiting different places in the Kazimierz neighborhood. One of the advantages of this approach is that it puts visitors in contact with locally-run places at the same time as it showcases what the city/Poland have to offer, culinarily-speaking. I can happily say that I ended up adding a couple of places to my mapstr after taking the tour (for when I eventually come back, of course). The group was relatively small (12 total, including the guide), and the overall atmosphere was very convivial, I’d say more so than the other two tours I had been on previously in Budapest and Riga.
Though the beer and vodka may have also helped a bit with that.
And it was definitely a good thing that I came hungry too because I was positively STUFFED afterwards. Here’s a brief rundown of what we tried.
Four different kinds of pierogi, including potato and cheese, mushroom and cabbage, spinach, cheese and garlic, and “sweet” plum with sour cream. Those are the potato/cheese pierogi (also known as Russian-style pierogi) in the photo.
Several different Polish tapas like herring, smoked kielbasa (this is the way it’s traditionally eaten here, so a big difference from the kielbasa in the States), grilled mountain cheese with cranberry sauce, pickles, and sliced Cracowian bagels topped with mushrooms or apples and thin slices of lard. These were also accompanied by a tasting of two different vodkas: the famous bison-grass vodka that is usually taken as a shot (and pairs very well with the herring) and then a digestif vodka flavored with quince that is meant to be sipped.
Zapiekanka, a sort of Polish pizza made from a baguette topped with cheese, mushroom, ketchup (yes, this was invented around the 80s, so there’s an explanation for everything) and chives. The nosh of choice for folks here after a night out (though kebab is starting to make some inroads).
Two different craft beers locally brewed by an organization who uses the proceeds from their sales to fund bear conservation in the mountains where the beer is made. If you’re ever in Krakow, I recommend checking Ursa Maior out for yourself.
Then it was on to dinner which featured two soups (sourdough soup and beetroot soup with meat dumplings) followed by a variety of mains: potato pancakes with Polish-style goulash and sour cream to top them with, hunter’s stew (sort of like a choucroute garnie in that its main components are cabbage and pork products), and cabbage stuffed with beef/veal and rice and topped with tomato sauce.
And because we weren’t already almost full to the brim, there were also apple fritters with a sour cream and red fruits dipping sauce.
You’d think I would have just rolled myself back to my room after this (the hostel was only two minutes away), but instead I decided to have a nightcap at Alchemia, a local bar with an underground venue that happened to be hosting a series of jazz concerts that weekend.
I won’t say too much about this other than it was very experimental jazz. Like, incredibly so. If I could post sound clips on here, I would, but for now, just imagine a dude playing a guitar with a teacup, and you’ll get what I mean.
It was an overall early night though because the next day I had to get up incredibly early (well, actually earlier than even I had originally anticipated, since a headache that had been ‘nagging’ me all day decided to kick into high gear that night…joy).
I started my early (as in out of the hostel by 06h15 early) morning by marching over to the only 24hr pharmacy I could find within a reasonable vicinity, picking up some ibuprofen, grabbing a coffee and apple muffin from one of the only bakeries open that early that was also on my planned route, and then hopping on a charter bus. The bus was part of the other reason for my deciding to spend the weekend in Krakow. Rather than touring more of the city, I was going to spend the morning on a guided visit of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Coming to visit this site has been on my mind for a number of years now, but it gained a sense of urgency with the current state of things in the world. I have no immediate connection to the site. Going was, instead, more about furthering my own education. Prior to this, I had never visited a site of a once-active concentration camp. I had, however, visited several museums and exhibits dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust, the most affecting of these having been the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. I was fourteen then, and it was while on a trip with my Girl Scout troop. I don’t remember much about that visit, except I think it’s highly likely that my eventual decision to want to visit Auschwitz in person originated there. I think it may have felt something like a responsibility I owed to those who were slaughtered or the comparative few who survived there that someone of my generation go.
Honestly, it’s a somewhat similar reasoning to one I would give if someone were to ask me if I ever would want to visit a plantation. For the record, I have (in New Orleans), but what was notable about this one, and where I as a visitor ended up spending the most time, was in the former slave quarters where a new exhibit was just getting off the ground, documenting the reality of life in and around that ornament of a house. The younger generation owes it to the past to acknowledge and directly confront moments like this, and then learn from them, even though such a process may be difficult.
With Auschwitz-Birkenau, however, one thing that I had not really counted on as much as I should have was how much “notoriety” it as a memorial/tourist site has built up. Yes, I was very much aware before going on the controversies surrounding the taking of selfies or staged “insta-worthy” photos along the tracks leading to the main gates of Birkenau. Thankfully, I didn’t see any of this on my visit. No, what ended up standing out more during this visit was the number of people who were there in the first place.
The question of mass tourism is one that gets brought about often with regards to cities (see: Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik and even many areas of Paris), and I think soon it will have to be reckoned with in regards to sites like this one. On the one hand, more people visiting and educating themselves on the history of the place is good for the spreading of knowledge. On the other hand, sites like this one are not quite the same as ancient ruins or big cities. Sites like this were designed (especially in the case of Birkenau) to torture and kill en masse, and as such, demand a different approach on the part of the visitor.
I’m not saying everyone must go in expecting a profound, life-changing experience. That would be fetishizing the space on a somewhat different level (and commodifying it even further than it already is, in a way). What I will say though is that pushing and shoving (more so from some individual visitors than guided groups as a whole), snapping a photo and moving on without regard for others in the (relatively small) exhibition rooms is a bit much. Of course not everyone will want to linger on everything, but when your guide (who was otherwise very informative) starts getting exasperated and cutting some bits of her lecture short, it tends to put a different perspective on things.
The sites can be visited independently or with a licensed guide (what I ended up doing). If I had to do it again, I would have likely tried to find a way to get there myself and done an independent visit. The site at Auschwitz overall is very well-curated, and there are brochures/guidebooks available in several different languages to accompany the already-displayed plaques, should visitors want more information. Due to the difference in building material (bricks here, versus primarily wood in Birkenau), the bunkers here that formerly housed prisoners have been transformed as exhibit spaces and archival storage. Our guide took us through most of the spaces dedicated to specific aspects of the history of the place, but there were several others that, due to time, we were unable to visit as a group. These included former barracks now dedicated to exhibits curated by the different countries prisoners were taken from. It is, in short, a site that demands a few hours of visitation should one want the time to truly engage with everything there (and one should take the time…really).
Birkenau, on the other hand, was a bit different. Birkenau (at least for me) was when the scope of everything in that space hit the strongest. I don’t know if I can properly explain in words what walking down the central pathway by the train tracks was like, looking out onto a great, open expanse of rows of what were once wooden bunkers, the rows neatly planned out, straight lines, each bunker equidistant from the other. There’s a line of trees at the back, beyond the barbed wire, just behind the memorial, pictured above. And it’s quiet there. And you are very exposed.
We were able to walk there on our own a little bit more before we had to be back on the bus. The time for reflection was welcome, in my case.
After getting back to Krakow, I grabbed a small sandwich for lunch (I hadn’t eaten since the morning, and it was already 14h15), before heading to Cloth Hall in the main square for some souvenir shopping (earrings, of course). After making my purchase, I popped upstairs for a quick peek at the 19th Century Polish Art Gallery, a branch of the National Museum of Krakow.
And I found a little slice of home there. Honestly, I didn’t even have to read the accompanying placard to know exactly what this painting was depicting.
While I was walking around the gallery, I decided that I still had it in me (and my legs) to do one last walking tour. A visit in Kazimierz centered around the history of the Jewish community in the city before and after the war (there was another tour focused on the War/the Holocaust, but that was starting in the neighborhood where the former ghetto was located, and a bit too far from where I was) was going to be starting a couple of hours later, giving me plenty of time to grab a little something sweet beforehand.
The Polish-style almond cheesecake from Ciastkarnia Vanilla hit just the spot, considering, again, how very little I had eaten that day.
As alluded to earlier, this second tour was provided by the same group as the first, though this time with a different (and more engaging) guide. We started our visit at the Old Synagogue
Before moving on to hit some other sites
Of course, a stop in the courtyard where they filmed some scenes from Schindler’s List was also included (several others in the group seemed rather excited about this bit).
And by the time the tour ended, it was dark, and I was starting to feel the first rumblings of hunger for my dinner. So, after a quick stop back into Eszeweria for a cozy glass of wine in a very comfy armchair (and the candles, I still could not get enough of them), I was heading back to the Old Town for one last dinner.
To say that U Babci Maliny is a bit tricky to find is an understatement. I mean, there is a sign above the building whose courtyard (well, courtyard basement) it is housed in indicating that you’ve come to the right place, but when the door to the building seems to lead to a library, it tends to inspire confusion rather than confidence.
Luckily a group of (French, of course, they follow me everywhere) tourists was about to walk in as well so…I followed them in. Once you cross the main hall and enter the courtyard, there is another little sign with the restaurant’s logo, only this time, it’s above the actual entrance.
The name of the place roughly translates to Grandma Raspberry. Staying on theme, immediately to the left of the entryway was an older woman, dressed not unlike the woman in the logo, knitting and pointing patrons in the direction of the dining room. Once inside, it’s pretty casual. You go to the counter, order your food off their (rather extensive) menu, they give you a number, you grab a seat and wait for it to be called out.
I went for some mushroom and cabbage pierogi (boiled, of course, as the food guide from the day before mentioned they should be) with a red cabbage salad on the side, so thankfully my food didn’t take too long to come.
And with that, it was back to the hostel, and back to sleep. The next day, I woke up just early enough to make it to Wesola for one final breakfast right when it opened (and before the crowds descended) before hopping on the bus to the airport and flying home.
Overall, I am very happy with how this trip went. Honestly, Krakow might just beat out Budapest for my favorite of my solo destinations (at least so far). At the very least, I can honestly say that, as with Budapest, I left Krakow feeling as though I needed to come back and see more of it.
I find it funny (though not very surprising, to be honest) that even though I am technically done with the “researching live shows” part of my dissertation, I still feel a tiny hint of a panic when I haven’t managed to do a write-up almost immediately following a thing I have seen.
Then again, this could also have something to do with the fact that I saw three shows this weekend (Thursday, Saturday and Sunday).
As usual, I will likely devote a lot more time to one of these (hint: the third one) than the others, but that is only because that one involved not only a return to my favorite theatre in the city (one whose somewhat problematic aspects I also need to reckon with somewhere…here a bit first perhaps, then maybe my dissertation conclusion…there is something coming together in my head as to how I am going to attempt to tie everything I am doing together to form a semi-coherent piece of work, though its potential influence and contribution to the field will remain…unknown…uncertain…anyway) but also a collaboration between one of my favorite playwrights working today and a theatre troupe that I have also come to admire since moving back here.
But before I get to all that, a quick round-up of the other two things I saw this weekend.
Thursday, September 19: Farm Fatale, dir. Philippe Quesne, Nanterre-Amandiers
I’ve written a couple of times on the particularities of Quesne’s theatre here on this blog, on its diorama-esq esthetic, where clear narrative is more or less eschewed for observation of human (or non-human, see La Nuit des taupes) interactions in a set circumstance. His newest piece for the Amandiers largely keeps with the focus on the nature of communion/community-making, though here the thematic and narrative purposes are a bit more explicit.
In short, Farm Fatale is a play about ecology, its message summed up rather succinctly in a sign carried in by one of the characters (whose text has also been transformed into a hashtag for the show’s publicity campaign): No Nature, No Future.
The main characters here are a group of five scarecrows, four of whom run a sort of pirate radio out of what was once their farm, and the fifth who joins them after his farmers—who also used to transport him to protests—died by suicide.
Yes, that is a bit dark, but to be honest, the show as a whole was a lot more lighthearted than that—even if that lightness came with an obvious warning as to the fragility of it all.
As noted in the program—and as becomes incredibly evident very quickly—nothing on the stage is, materially-speaking, natural. The hay bales the fifth scarecrow carries in with him, and that the others use to set up a sound stage, are made of synthetic material, the birdsong that opens the show is pointedly noted as coming from a tape recorder, a bird flying in the studio is plastic, its wings fashioned out of delicate crepe paper, and the scarecrows themselves approach an almost terrifying (and yes, before they started speaking, it could have gone either way) medium between the Uncanny Valley and Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre with the grotesque, exaggerated masks they wore over their faces and the lumpy bodysuits under their costumes suggesting being stuffed up with hay. It is, in brief, a notable separation from nature, with the synthetic there as a reminder, an image, a sign, of what once was, but that has become so removed from its own cycles and so reappropriated/modified into our own that it has lost the sense of what it was before we (humanity) started irreversibly messing with it. Funnily, the scarecrows, objects “not of nature” created by humans for the sake of protecting the crops from that which could harm them become, here, those same crops’ only visible advocates (the only “human” presence is an offstage character whose farm neighbors that of the scarecrows, and who the latter spot spraying chemicals on his crops. Their first solution: they should kill him…their second: they should scare him through the art of music, namely a very clean/could show up on a kids’ program but still vaguely intimidating rap song).
But the very evident social/political message aside (and yes, it is very obvious what the piece advocates for), what is touching here is how…not shitty these scarecrows were to each other. Everyone just kind of worked together and took to each other with an ease you don’t really see on stage anymore (or in too much media outside perhaps of child-centric programs). When the newcomer enters the stage and asks to join the group—he mentions he is a fan of their radio—the others let him in willingly, giving him something to do almost right away and teaching him how to get on in his new surroundings without being overly nasty. I’ll be honest, I’m not a very big proponent of the whole “kindness is the answer” schtick—and to go further, if something like this were to try and be implemented in the real world, there are several intersecting issues that would have to be contended with first before this vision of equal understanding can even begin to be conceived of—but I think maybe it was something about the mix of childlike curiosity with the very adult subject (there were a couple of jokes involving bees mating that made it very clear that this might not be for children) that made this utopian vision almost, temporarily work. No nature means no future for all, when one gets down to it.
Saturday, September 21: Trust/Shakespeare/Alléluia dir. Dieudonné Niangouna, MC93
I am going to preface this one by saying that I spent my entire afternoon prior to heading out to see this show at a picnic, and because of that, I was a bit exhausted during the first half. Thankfully, I got some coffee in me during the short intermission before completely succumbing to sleep, and honestly, better to have been awake during the second half of this show (which was much stronger than the first).
In short, the piece is very loosely structured around seven “vignettes”, though each one flows into the other to the point that the clear distinction between where one starts and another begins can be a bit hard to spot. At the center of each vignette is a character taken from Shakespeare, though in name only, as the language they speak is decidedly modern. They have been transposed (and transformed in some cases…for instance, Hamlet is now a revenant admonishing over his failed relationships – and not just with Ophelia) into this ‘non-space’ to talk – or rather, exorcise their inner demons. There is a notable voodoo influence on the part of some of the staging, with chorus members who are not currently incarnating characters taking on the role of “witches” (as noted on the cast list), and a performer in the role of Puck acting as the conductor or master of ceremonies.
There is also a psychiatrist, a Dr. Serge. He, supposedly, is there to “cure” our characters, to make them “better”. He also has the personality and zeal of a cheesy gameshow host.
With the modern linguistic transposition, however, came also a situational one, as each character was also, to a degree, taken out of his (first half) or her (second half) original Shakespearean setting. This is perhaps where, for me, some of the divide between the first and second half started, as the women (whose narratives were largely centered after the first half) seemed to have more defined settings (as well as characteristics in general) to “carry” their pieces. The exception for the men, in my opinion, was director Niangouna himself playing King Lear as a wanderer in a metro station. Somehow the situational juxtaposition seemed very right in that case.
And again, who knows, maybe if I hadn’t been so tired, I would have been a bit more alert and my opinions would have been different. In any case, there is something to be said here about the act of (re)interpreting classic and/or “established” texts or characters, which will bring me to my final bit of show commentary for this post:
Sunday, September 22: The Way She Dies, written by Tiago Rodrigues in collaboration with TG Stan, Théâtre de la Bastille.
Oh, it was so good to come back here again.
I’ll be honest, I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be able to get tickets for this show, considering who was involved in it, and considering I had waited until August before buying my ticket (it sounds early, but for this collaboration, I was definitely pushing it). Thankfully, I managed to snag a place before the whole run sold out, and thank goodness I did because any chance I can get to see anything Tiago Rodrigues is doing I will 100% take it.
I mean, almost two years ago, a piece of his reminded me why it was that I loved theatre so much at a time when I was starting to doubt everything I was doing (this was right before I definitively wrote my prospectus and finalized the direction my project would take).
And him working in collaboration with TG Stan (a Belgian troupe who I also discovered at the Bastille) is almost as perfect a thing as one can get, as far as the current theatre scene is concerned.
The piece itself is an adaptation of sorts of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but not necessarily a direct book-to-stage one. The text itself (in the literal, physical form) figures quite prominently in the staging, and those who have read it (or are at all familiar with the plot) will recognize the parallels between its central plot and the intrigues happening on stage rather early on, yet as a whole, this is more a piece about language, communication, about the individual relationship one has (or can have) with a text—and consequently with a piece of theatre itself, what with the whole emancipation of the spectator thing to consider—than anything else. The Way She Dies refers not only to Anna’s final act of (spoiler?) throwing herself in front of a train, but the different possibilities of narrating, describing, or communicating the process leading up to and including this act, especially when taking into consideration the act of translation that has to happen first before the act of communicating can even begin.
I have read both Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and one of the things I distinctly remember about the process of acquiring the books themselves was how much time I spent researching translations. There is quite a vibrant conversation—at least in the English-speaking world, though I’m sure it’s also reflected elsewhere—around the history of translations of Tolstoy’s works, and especially the, we can call it, acceptance of Constance Garnett’s translations as definitive (which, look translation is incredibly difficult but omitting a word or phrase because you can’t quite understand it? Really?). It’s a conversation worth having, however, because the work of a translator (and indeed, their point of view/interpretive perspective) can have a significant impact on the way the work itself is read by this target audience. There is, as Rodrigues points out in his program notes, a difference between “the candle is put out” and “the lights go out” when confronted with a phrase that evokes a general idea of a removal of light.
And the question of translation is taken even further when one considers the differing origins of both Rodrigues (who is Portuguese) and the troupe (who hail from the Flanders region of Belgium). Given how Rodrigues often does not work on a script until after rehearsals have begun (though the germ of an idea can be there), as well as how TG Stan often works from a written text, the need for some common ground, linguistically, was needed. Both parties, however, spoke French (TG Stan often performs in French). As for why Anna Karenina was chosen as a central text from which to work, the idea, as summarized from the show program, came about when considering literary works that left a mark, so to speak, that lingered. Acknowledging the fact that Tolstoy’s novel came later, Rodrigues also referred back to his previous work adapting Madame Bovary (the resulting show, Bovary, is still one of my favorites I have seen since I’ve moved back), another work of literature (written by a man…and one who likes to moralize a bit) about a woman who attempts an existence beyond that which her station/her time period/etc. has doled out for her. Anna, he imagined, would be the kind of character that Emma Bovary would have loved to read about.
Of course, Anna Karenina was not originally written in French (even though French figures somewhat prominently in Tolstoy, given its status, at the time, as the language of the aristocracy), meaning that the text that centers in the staging is one that, as a translation, is already one degree removed from the “source” in terms of interpretation. The question of the potential and consequences of transforming text through language has begun even before the play has officially started. The Anna Karenina here is not the ‘original’, but a version that has been filtered through one interpretive lens (and will continue to be filtered through others).
Indeed, a majority of the intrigue—which centers around 2 couples, one in Portugal in the late 1960s, the other in Anvers, Belgium in the modern day—centers around the act of taking a text and reinterpreting it in a way that creates a map of signification decipherable almost exclusively to ourselves. Going further, there is also the question of use of a text that has been visibly previously read and interacted with by someone (so for those like me who often write in their books, your underlines and margin notes are now a maze leading into yourself…maybe…if anyone can decipher them) in order not to extract meaning from a text, but rather to extract the significance attributed to certain passages of a text in order to try and understand the former reader as well as current happenings in one’s own life. But even in this last instance, the text itself goes through a further transformation, becoming a container not of its own significance, but also a roadmap, a means of deciphering (or translating) someone outside of itself.
If that makes sense.
Essentially, what this piece does in its constant playing with the process of individual choices in appropriation of a text (whether it be, as above, in its use as a window into someone else, or, in another case, in its use as a means by which to improve one’s language skills, the act of underlining passages here equally speaking to the poetry of the words as they are read by the non-native speaker than the sense of the phrase itself) is demonstrate what the other two of Rodrigues’s pieces I’ve seen imply (or cause) through action: the fracturing, the multiplying of the very idea of ‘meaning’. There is no singular “way” of dying. How Anna “dies” depends on not just the language we read her in, but the context of the reading, our own “why” in why we engaged in the act. In other words, instead of the emancipation of the spectator (which Bovary and last year’s Sopro deal with more openly), here we have something more akin to the emancipation of the reader, a focus on the malleability of the text, of its ability to change (even in competing translations in a single language). There is a moment at the end when all four actors in the piece stand in a line downstage and one by one – first in French, then switching to Portuguese and Flemish with the French translation in surtitles—begin to recount the final passages of the novel, from Anna’s arrival at the train station to her decision to jump and the split moment right before impact when she wonders at what she’s done. The slight shifts and discrepancies in the various retellings are, of course, evident in French when one actor repeats almost the same thing as another, only changing one or two words that alter not so much the general sense of what is being said, but more the image or the metaphor behind the phrase (the candle vs light debate evoked earlier), but they still hold when the actors pass to their native languages, beginning also to more noticeably talk over each other, emphasizing the polyphonic quality of this final speech moment. There is no single voice, no definitive version. There are many.
And it is here that I want to come back briefly to something I said earlier about needing to eventually contend with something slightly problematic about this theatre. Again, I love this space. I love that it is independent and has a clear vision for the kinds of theatre it wants to produce. I love its emphasis on the plural, the multiple, the fractured when it comes to questions of meaning. It is something that is not, from my experience, easily or regularly found elsewhere. Yet, this access to a theatre that brings the focus back to the individual as an autonomous entity via the kinds of shows it programs comes at a price. Because it is independent, and thus does not benefit from full or significant State funding (though at the same time, its independence is the reason why its artistic director has been in place for thirty years and why it has the artistic identity that it has), the Bastille is not exactly accessible from a financial point of view. Tickets are still nowhere near as expensive as theatre tickets are in the States, nor are they quite at the levels of ticket prices for private venues, but the fact that the theatre does not have the kind of financial backing necessary in order to be able to offer a more inclusive subscription package (they have a decent one where one can order tickets for 5 shows at a reduced price, but one must pick the shows and dates in advance which, while this is something that I can do, is not necessarily feasible for everyone) means that it has, perhaps in spite of its artistic mission, become somewhat closed off and exclusive.
The other problem—and this goes back to the question of exclusion, but of another kind—is that the majority of things programmed here are from white artists. Now, granted the Bastille doesn’t program as much as, say, the MC93, but this is something of an oversight that merits being looked at (especially considering the venues own stance of the theatre being a place of dialogue—not necessarily a mirror—with the environment that is around it).
So, what does one do about this?
To be clear, I actually like the concept of significant State funding for the arts. But, like anything, it may need fixing. In a perfect world, I would say we should just throw money at (almost) all things artistic instead of spending it on enriching the military industrial complex, but…we are not in that world. A healthy State arts funding program would be, then, one that would allow for the contract-based public theatres to continue to exist while making it possible for the independent theatres to increase their spectator accessibility.
Because the kind of artistic expression that allows space for and validates the point of view, the intelligence, the approaches and experiences of each individual spectator is one that should be open to all.
I think if I ever (finally…eventually…at some point maybe) found the time to write a play—something I’d been thinking about doing for a while—I’d probably start with a rewrite of the story of my namesake. It’s not that I have a personal grudge against every version of Iphigeniain existence—Euripedes, for instance, gets a bit of a pass, if only because he extended the story enough to warrant a sequel, and also because I just prefer his work over that of his classical compatriots—, it’s just that it gets a bit dull after a while to have a name that, for a certain (though not insignificant) segment of the population, is synonymous with someone who was just there to be sacrificed because her warmongering father couldn’t follow a simple directive to NOT hunt somewhere.
Never mind that I am also named after my grandmother. The first thing that comes to mind is a body that is there as the object of a sacrifice. Not a character with a hint of agency; an object. Even in versions of the story where she does give herself up to be taken to the sacrificial altar, her speeches preceding this moment have never quite convinced me.
Ah, so you’re telling me I was lured here under false pretenses (aka: a supposed wedding between myself and Achilles, who was also mysteriously unaware this was happening), then told I was going to die (surprise!) so that Artemis can bring the wind back to push your boats across the sea to go fight a war because someone’s property wife was stolen (note the passive voice), and you and your bros made a pact to defend this person’s honor after drawing lots to determine “ownership” of said property wife? Right, sounds excellent. Altar is that way? Good, good. Yes, must do what’s best for the country after all. My thoughts on this? Oh no, I haven’t any thoughts. I am merely a plot device here to enable you to carry on your phallic-driven nonsense. Shame that great-great-grandad had to go and bake his son into a pie and curse our house, but, eh, such is life. Anyway, here’s my neck.
This was flashing through my head last night as I sat watching the first show of the new theatre season (which might soon overthrow Christmas as the most wonderful time of the year…for me): Milo Rau’s Oreste à Mossoul. As the name suggests, this is a reworking of sorts of the Orestes myth—this time drawing from Aeschylus’s Oresteia—with the setting moved from Mycenae to Mosul, Iraq. As per the show program, originally, Rau and his creative team had gone to the city of Sinjar, near the Syrian border, in 2016 with the aim of creating a piece around the subject of migration, only this time tracing the pathway in reverse. Not long after their arrival, however, the city of Mosul, once the seat of the caliphate, was liberated from under ISIS control. The team decided to set up shop there instead.
The choice to bring in the Oresteiato this context is an easy one. Mosul is an old city—one of, if not the, oldest continually inhabited cities in the world—, yet for the better part of a century, it has also been a site of continued cycles of violence: the British invasion after the discovery of oil, the brief period of democracy shattered with the rise of Saddam Hussein, the American invasions in 1990 and 2003, the power vacuum when they left in 2011, and most recently, ISIS and the coordinated attacks against them. To look at it now, one would almost say the city has all but been destroyed.
Yet, as with the Oresteiawhich ends with Orestes facing a tribunal in Athens following his double murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the central question being whether to execute him or to pardon him and end the cycles of violence, the notion of “justice” weighs heavily. Should the ISIS fighters be pardoned or executed, a final debate asks. Those participating in the debate—local residents who signed on to participate in the project and whose words were transmitted to us via a pre-recorded video—remained undecided. Many spoke of the hope of establishing a just, unbiased court system to hear the cases and pass judgement democratically, but when the time came to vote on execution or pardon, no one raised their hand for either option.
ISIS left its marks on the city. They are felt in the fact that a group of musicians has set up to play, publicly, outside the former school of Fine Arts (bombed out during the Allied attacks) when before they had to hide themselves in basements to keep up their practice. They are felt in the fact that the choice to mix live performance with filmed segments is to a degree derived from the fact that getting visas for the local performers to come tour in Europe would be next to impossible, as movement in and out of the country has become heavily restricted. And—to return back to the subject that I opened this with—they are felt in the staging, in the way that characters die.
When the piece opens, the actor who eventually goes on to play Agamemnon (one from Rau’s team) comes down center stage to speak directly to the audience about some of the background behind the performance. One thing he mentions early on was the fact that, as part of his own research, a journalist friend of his had sent him videos of executions. There was, he said, a particular style to it. A shot in the back of the neck. Some women were strangled. You never forget, he added, how long it takes to strangle someone to death.
The scene then shifts. A carpet is rolled out. The actor who eventually plays Cassandra—born in Belgium but of Iraqi descent—comes downstage, turns, and faces upward toward the video screen. Another woman’s face appears on screen in close-up. The fact that they are both to a degree there, on the stage, was a sort of taboo when the piece was developed and then later workshopped/performed in Mosul: women were not normally seen on stage, even before the arrival of ISIS.
But the piece needed its Iphigenia. Would she, the woman on stage asked the one whose image was on the screen, like to play the role of Iphigenia? The woman on screen said yes, she would like that.
The scene shifts. On the stage there is not much happening, but on the screen, we see the woman from before standing in front of a line of men dressed in grey smocks—the chorus—the actor playing Agamemnon standing beside her. The latter also wears a red and off-white striped tunic, which his onstage, physically present counterpart, has also changed into. It is another one of the early signs of bridging the temporal and geographical gap between what is physically present on stage and what once was present but now ‘preserved’ on video, not just in terms of the sets of performers, but between the varying temporal strata on the stage and the one encompassing those in the house. The visual cue of the actor seated off downstage left of the video screen dressed in the same way as his recorded counterpart (though not, as would be the case later for several of the performers, simultaneously performing the recorded one’s actions) is enough of a hint to suggest the plural, or even fragmented, nature of his presence. He both is and is not in two places at once. The change into a matching costume is a reminder of sorts that the person on the screen is him—or rather, was him. It is a version of him that is suspended within the temporal moment of the recording, yet not quite ‘present’ within our own. Suspension and preservation in time carries with it the lack of forward propulsion into the unknown and unpredictable that comes with being in the ‘now’. Time can be rewound back in a recording.
And then comes the strangulation.
Unlike in most retellings of the myth where she is essentially stabbed, here Iphigenia is strangled to death with a cord wrapped around her neck and being pulled not by a ‘priest’ but by “Agamemnon” himself. And, as he had warned, the actor was right: it does take a seemingly long while to strangle someone to death. The realism evoked by the way the scene was choreographed was striking in and of itself, but what carried this moment even further into another instance of geographical/temporal bridging was what was going on with the camera. Simply put, it did not move. Set up a few feet away so that one got a full view of everyone in the room for the scene, the camera functioned more as an eyewitness, or a window, rather than a medium through which to transmit a piece of narrative through the use of a particular—to it—kind of language. There were no close ups, no cuts or changes in visual point of view, nothing to suggest the ‘camera-ness’ of the camera other than the fact that it was set up to record the act for the purposes of transmitting it back here. As such, one sees the act played out from beginning to end: from “Iphigenia” being pushed to kneel down, to the rope being wrapped around her neck, to “Agamemnon” pulling and her sharp, then gurgled gasps for air. There is an expected end result of this—her finally collapsing down, ceasing to breath, and being declared dead—, and the fact that the anticipation of this result is shared by both those in the audience as well as by “Agamemnon” who must continue performing the act of strangulation so long as his victim still shows signs of life results in something rather unique: a momentary shared experience of a unique passage of time between those on screen, those on stage, and those in the house. Everyone, in other words, is beholden to a single temporal progression. The creeping seconds start to become almost palpable.
And then, after what seems like an eternity, Iphigenia is dead, her purpose served. The metaphorical ‘closing of the temporal gap’ is repeated several times over, arguably strengthened somewhat by the shared moment of progression early on. One could call it, in a sense, an attempt to bring those of us in the house to Mosul as much as it was to bring those in Mosul who do not have the right to travel to us into the room, into our ‘presence’.
At the same time, however, there is a limit to how far this can go. Despite speaking openly about the extent of the destruction under ISIS (as well as previous periods of conflict), the current state of Mosul and its inhabitants and the hopes for democracy and justice in forms of direct, plain-speaking address free of almost all metaphor, that sometimes bordered on the didactic, one thing that could not be changed was the fact that, in the end, the recordings would shut off, the actors on stage would bow, those of us in the audience would go home, and…then what? There is no predicting the extent to which a piece can affect everyone in its audience—indeed, for a piece to operate on the assumption that it will have some kind of marking, lasting, change-inducing effect is almost a set up for failure (though as with every rule, there are exceptions). And in a way, Rau’s piece acknowledges its own potential limitations when, towards the end, the actor playing “Orestes”, while seated on a bench downstage, mentions that a contact of his had sent him and the rest of the Europe-based team a video of the aftermath of a car bomb that went off near the Arts school not long after they had all left. No one involved in the project was hurt, but what was most striking was what he said while the audio of the recording played from his phone (no images were shown). He could watch these videos, see this destruction of places that he knew, places where he was, and almost become desensitized.
And he didn’t say this, but I’d venture to say that it has something to do with the fact that he had the power in his hands to make the recording stop. To remove the violence from his reality. To not let it affect him as constantly.
And that’s essentially what those of us living in places far away from these sites of violence, those of us who have the privilege to have the means and a passport that lets us move freely away from these sites of violence, possess. We can talk about and consume it as a metaphysical thing, as something that is not physically, threateningly present to the same degree as it is for many of those who appeared in the video. We can leave it.
And maybe that was the whole point.
A note before going: this blog is likely going to transition soon from a dissertation-related blog (though at this point, given how I still have yet to get any feedback after…a very long while…who knows) to a more theatre-critique focused blog. Hilariously, my choice in theatres that I will visit has not changed. Old habits die hard, I suppose. In any case, I am excited about this, to write more freely without the pressure of making something “look good” for an academic setting.
It feels good to be able to acknowledge that I am at this point.
I find it almost fitting that my first post back from an unintentional hiatus arrives on the official day of la rentrée, which also happens to coincide with Labor Day back in the US, and, since today’s only dedicated to the students’ orientation, I just so happen to not be working. That, of course, will change tomorrow, but until then, I’m going to take advantage of these last few free hours available to me to remember what feeling moderately relaxed is like.
I say “moderately” because while this summer was, by and large, wonderful in terms of getting away from things for a while (more on that in a bit), I did nevertheless dedicate a large chunk of it to writing—just not on this blog.
For those who want to know, at this point, the status of my dissertation is that I have first drafts completed of every single chapter exceptmy introduction (and conclusion, though what form that thing is going to take is up in the air right now). Arriving to this point was one of my primary goals for the summer (though it remains to be seen as to how goodor usableany of the things I produced/added will end up being…the joys of writing never end), and a good bit of that was completed in the course of lazy afternoons in my family’s beach house in Greece as well as at my mom’s village. Everything has pretty much been sent off for looking over; the only thing left now is to wait for feedback. To be honest, the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to realize that thisis perhaps the primary source of my anxiety with regards to this whole endeavor: the waiting.
But enough of that. Time for a quick summer recap.
I’m going to focus on my time in Greece this year for most of this—as I did spend about a month there—, but before then, a quick shout-out to the quick pre-holiday holiday I took to Valbonnais, a small mountain village a couple hours outside of Grenoble. A good friend had invited me to her family’s house there for a sort of “writing/working weekend”, and I’d say that the fact that I managed to churn out about 10 new pages while editing old stuff—all without an internet connection—is evidence enough that, as far as working weekends go, this one was pretty successful.
As usual, however, the majority of my vacation was spent in Greece, and honestly, at this point, to notspend a good amount of my summer there would feel almost wrong. It was just my parents and I this time around (the joy of having a sister who has just started her medical residency and is too busy literally saving lives to come and hang out at the beach…so rude… /s), but though this holiday wasn’t exactly party-crazy, we still had a quite lovely time. I would like to think that this is in large part due to the decision—on my recommendation, based on the advice of some friends—to start our trip with a couple of days on the island of Sifnos.
Like the majority of the Cycladic islands, the terrain here is more rocky than lush, but unlike some of its sister islands (looking at you, Santorini and Mykonos), Sifnos hasn’t been completely overrun to the point of getting nonsensically expensive—yet. While we all wait for that inevitable chain of events to take place, I would just like to say, in full confidence of the fact that the readership here is low enough that the effects of my pronouncement will be more or less inconsequential, that everyone who has the means to should go to Sifnos.
You want quiet but then a chill, not super crazy/insane nightlife? Sifnos has that.
You want clean beaches, including an organized beach at the port which is surprisingly impeccable, given its location? Sifnos has that.
You want cute little towns with whitewashed houses, but without the nonsense of Santorini? Sifnos has that.
But most importantly, you want to eat damn well and not have to clean out your bank account to do so? Sifnos definitely has that.
Sifnos has been something of a culinary destination for a while, given that there are several Greek chefs who were either from there or have worked there, in particular, Nikolaos Tselementes, a native of the island who, in the early 1930s, published the first complete cookbook in Greek. The island’s reputation for quality, but also simple, not terribly fussy food is more than well-deserved, and successfully highlights the things I love most about Greek food: fresh fish, an abundance of seasonal vegetables and legumes (I think I’ve said this before in another post, but to reiterate, Greek food is traditionally much more vegetable-oriented than all the gyro stands one sees Stateside and elsewhere would have you believe), and a focus on highlighting the products being used rather than trying to mask them. In short, I ate incredibly well in Sifnos, from the grilled red porgy at the fish taverna near our hotel (where, and this is a rarity, the people running the taverna are also the ones who get up at 5am to go out in their boats to catch the day’s offerings), to the amigdalopita—almond cake soaked in syrup—with almond ice cream from a café/patisserie that also offered Paris-Brests that were literally the size of a bicycle wheel rather than the mere suggestion of one, to, last but certainly not least, the creamy revithada—chickpea stew—one of the island’s signature dishes, and the source of my newfound appreciation for chickpeas. It’s not that my love for them was ever waning, but something about having them in this format, where they were the literal stars of the show rather than just a base for a soup or curry, shifted things a bit. Suffice it to say, I will most definitely be making this come later this fall/winter, thanks to my newly acquired clay pot (yeah, Sifnos is also known for its ceramics).
Beyond that, the rest of the vacation went more or less the way these things usually do. My mornings started at the beach at 09h00 when there was literally no one, then came a late lunch, then work (yay), dinner, sleep, repeat. In between, there was also an excursion out to Epidavros to see Ivo van Hov’s Éléctre/Oreste—which also marked the first time that the Comédie-Française performed in that venue—, some quick evening trips out to Spetses, and figs. So many figs. Thankfully, we actually managed to make jam with them this year (and I got to take a jar home with me) instead of just staring at the ever-growing pile of collected figs toppling over the sides of what we assumed would be an appropriately large enough bowl to hold them, wondering how in the hell we were going to manage to eat these.
Yes, everything was lovely. I even had a little victory moment on the balcony at the house in my mom’s village when, after an entire day of writing like a maniac, I managed what I thought was impossible and met my writing goal. I felt good. All I had left to do at that point was plan my lessons for my classes this year (which I did after I got back). The rentrée and the end of summer were approaching, but I was feeling pretty good.
And then, in Athens, the afternoon before I was to leave, I got a call from my landlord.
I thought this was a bit strange, since usually we are only in contact once every six months or so when I relay the water meter readings to her. As, however, our building was in the process of getting new electric meters installed in every apartment, I figured this may have had something to do with that (I had already called the service in charge of that and rescheduled to have someone come by when, you know, I was actually there to let them in, but one never knows in France…). Oh, how very wrong I was.
Now, fortunately, this post is not going to end with me finding out I’m getting evicted or anything. No, instead, we will end by commemorating my new induction to a club I never really wanted to be a member of. Yes, everyone, as of August 21, 2019, I have now joined the ranks of Paris residents who have to deal with the nonsense of a water leak.
Thankfully, nothing exploded or anything (dear god, the situation would have been sososososo much worse if that had happened). No, what happened was that the glue on one of the connecting pipes out of my water heater had worn off, and so the water—which I had neglected to turn off, since I don’t have the habit of doing that anywhere except in Greece since when I leave there, it’s with the understanding that I won’t be back for another year—had just been slowly dripping down on my counter. For about a month, would be my guess. Long story short, my downstairs neighbor (who as it turns out, is an incredibly nice and understanding human…thank goodness) noticed water stains on his bathroom walls, deduced—rightly—that it was coming from my place, relayed that info to our building’s guardienne, who called my landlord, who called me.
So, needless to say, me coming home was a bit of a stressful situation. Thankfully, renter’s insurance is mandatory here, and given the cause of the damage, I do not have to do or pay anything. My bathroom is going to have to undergo a bit of work (side note: who thinks it’s ever a good idea to put hardwood floors in a bathroom?), but hopefully that won’t take an insanely long time. In the meantime, the source of the leak has been fixed, and the fruit flies that also decided to invade my momentarily moist house have also been mostly destroyed.
In the meantime, I’ll be back on here soon enough blogging about shows, even though I have pretty much set my show critiques for my dissertation. In other words, the writing might become more unhinged/carefree than usual. I’ve got this last year left before I (hopefully) hand in/defend this beast of a thing in the spring.
For those who are unaware, there is currently a rather annoying heatwave sweeping through large swaths of Europe at the moment, including France (well, not all of France; Brittany was spared). Now, I’m normally someone who actually quite likes the heat, but there is just something about the lack of open water, as well as the whole living on the top floor of a non-air-conditioned building (as well as the skylight that has no curtain or way of covering it, making any attempts to shut out light during the day useless), and the absolute ‘fun’ of those moments when you absolutely have to take the metro to get anywhere that is starting to test my patience a little…
Bref, I’m ready for my holiday.
I haven’t felt much impulse to write lately, mostly because I have sort of stopped seeing things this last month. The season has, of course, wound down, but I think I also may have come very close to suffering from show-fatigue. Besides, I think I said in another post that I wanted to focus more on writing my other, more relevant stuff.
Speaking of which, I’ve advanced a good amount, but what with end of the year exams and grading–as well as a decision I made myself, which I am ultimately glad I did–I missed an end of May deadline to turn in new pages to my advisor. I have yet to hear anything regarding this from her part, however, so I’m just going to go ahead and assume all is well.
Well, hopefully it will be well enough to send literally all the things by my own personal deadline of July 10th. I’m planning on using a good amount of my vacation time to try and tackle the bits of my dissertation that aren’t show-critique related (aka: the bits that make it all make sense). I’m still trying to figure out what point–if any–I’m trying to make with this otherwise rather sizable collection of somewhat disconnected pieces. The heterogeneity of the theatre space? Probably something like that. Everything existing in multitudes? Also maybe. There’s the whole cultural politics thing to consider in this too, and how it relates back to the idea of a public, government-subsidized theatre. What is the role of a theatre in such a system? There is something to be said about how, given the current system of governance in France, the theatre has returned to somewhat of a ‘moralistic’ role: theatrical programming is designed in such a way to impart values, perhaps, or support certain ideals (‘le vivre ensemble‘ has been on my mind quite a bit lately), and while the content can vary (there is no overt propagandizing, if that’s what you’re thinking I’m getting at), there is, to some degree, a lack of questioning of a certain set of [neoliberal / universalist] values that are often taken as a default.
A better theatre, for me, would be one that recognizes disagreement, the possibility for disaccord or the opening of new avenues or systems of thinking, and, while doing so, shatters the very universality it is otherwise said to stand in for. It’s the question of autonomy and emancipation as it relates both to the work and to the spectator, but it ends up focusing more precisely on the latter, in particular, through recognition of a capacity for singular thought as well as the validity of the choice in whether to engage or not. I’ve seen this kind of theatre here a few times, though funnily enough, none of the productions were from French companies.
And anyway, I’m not sure if the above makes any sense or it’s just rambling. To tell the truth, I’m only writing here now to kill a bit more time before I venture out into the outside world where the temperature reads 93ºF but feels as though it’s 101ºF (of all the things I have accustomed myself to, the only one that is still giving me trouble is switching to reading temperature in Celsius). I had been reading for most of the day, then thought I’d get back to writing, but, wouldn’t you know it…writer’s block. My brain is tired.
Otherwise? I’m feeling…reasonably confident about this. I say a lot that I just want it to be done, but I also want it to be good, and be certain in myself that I have something to say, and am not just regurgitating what others have already said before me. The problem is that sometimes, to me, what I write feels so…obvious…but, then again, maybe that’s how one’s own work (particularly work of this kind) feels all the time. Subjectivity and whatnot.
It’s hard to get the narrative in your own head to change sometimes.
In better news, though, I think I may start frequenting a workout class once a week, depending on what my schedule is like come September. ClassPass has finally arrived here, and the HIIT course I tested today left me feeling absolutely exhausted but also amazing. The home workouts are still fine, don’t get me wrong, but I was starting to miss the thrill of the challenge after a while, as well as the chance to really test my limits.
And I think I’m starting to legitimately go stir-crazy, so I may just bite the bullet now, pack up my things, and march out the door. Normally a walk would suit me just fine in moments like this where I can’t seem to get out of my own head. We’ll see how long that lasts…
I don’t think it really occurred to me how much—or rather, how little—coffee I drink on a daily basis until my most recent trip to Sweden this past weekend.
Granted, I should not have been surprised by the uptick in my coffee intake, given that the same thing happened during my last visit. In my defense, however, that last visit was six years ago. It was also in March—aka “still kind of wintertime”—so the constant coffee consumption was also a very convenient way to keep the cozy factor high and fight off the chill.
This time though, I was incredibly lucky in that all the threats of rain that were showing up on my weather app in the days leading up to my departure turned out to be unfounded, and whatever sun I was missing in Paris seemed to follow me up there. I’m pretty sure I didn’t drink as much coffee as I did the last time I was here overall, but it was still enough to notice a change in my overall temperament. I was, in short, peppy.
Though that may have had something to do with seeing and hanging with old friends again as well.
I arrived pretty late on Thursday night to my friend’s apartment in Uppsala (thankfully, even though our departure out of Charles de Gaulle was delayed a bit because some genius left their iPad in the departure lounge, I managed to catch the last direct bus from Stockholm-Arlanda to Uppsala central station for the night), but I think being pretty much dead on arrival kind of helped. I would need a decent amount of sleep to be ready for a somewhat early start the next day.
Friday morning started with breakfast and the first two coffees of the day before we headed off to my friend’s uni to support one of her cohorts during his 90% thesis seminar (and yes, before anyone asks, the presentation was in English). I always find it fascinating to compare doctoral programs not just across different departments in the same school, but between different countries as well. And frankly, I find the Swedish system of structuring thesis work/defenses rather intriguing. Basically, when you are 10%, 50% and 90% done with your dissertation, your department organizes a seminar where you will present your work in the presence of your committee, your classmates/cohort, and, most importantly, an opponent (generally someone in the field/a closely related field, but who may not necessarily be part of the department faculty/affiliated with the university itself). Given that sociology of education is not quite my field, there were a number of times where I tuned out a bit, but I found a lot of value in this process of periodic questioning/examination of one’s work by an outside perspective. If nothing else, it can point out things that the student/their committee may have not noticed or glossed over for various reasons, and in the end, result in (hopefully) a better and slightly more accessible thesis. As far as Harvard goes, although they do offer optional writing workshops (which I cannot attend for…obvious reasons), I think trying to integrate something mandatory like this could be very beneficial (if nothing else, it could at least keep everyone up to date on what their fellow PhD candidates are doing).
After the seminar ended, it was time for lunch, and perhaps the most “Swedish” of the main meals I had during my trip. A café near the train station had a very affordable lunch menu on offer, so we opted for that (the large terrace was also a big plus). For my main course, I chose a lightly battered and fried fillet of fish served over potatoes with sliced apple, diced carrots and celery and a mustard sauce. This came with a small salad and a choice of coffee or tea (I chose to shake things up a bit with a green tea):
Bellies full, it was time to begin my (re)exploration of Uppsala, which included stopping by several sites, including
The Uppsala Castle, home to a free art gallery, showcasing art that at times inspires more questions than answers
(for real though, there were also some more typically aesthetically pleasing images on view)
Then it was off to the Uppsala Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Uppsala, last resting place of King Gustav Vasa (among others):
The cathedral also features this startlingly realistic wax mannequin gazing adoringly at the tomb of King Gustav and his consorts
Up next was the Upplands Museum, a museum dedicated to the history of this particular region of Sweden. Along with artifacts depicting the daily lives of various civilizations who inhabited the area throughout history, there was also a special exhibit dedicated to famous sweaters (yes, sweaters), hence the décor out front.
My friend’s husband ended up getting off of work in time to join us on this visit. Luckily, the weather was still holding up very nicely, so when the idea to grab some soft serve was proposed, it didn’t take much persuading from any of us. This also gave me an opportunity to try something new: black licorice sprinkles on vanilla soft serve. Not gonna lie, I was hesitant at first, but I think this may have ended up being one of my favorite things that I tried this trip.
Our dinner reservation not being until 19h, we pretty much just ended up killing time the rest of the afternoon with, you guessed it, more walking.
And this brings us to dinner. Now, when I finally confirmed with my friend that I was indeed coming to visit her, I already somewhat knew what place I wanted to eat at. No, it was not a Swedish restaurant. It was, in fact, a Chinese restaurant: Jappi. ‘But Effie,’ you are probably wondering, ‘why would you want to go to a Chinese restaurant in Sweden?’ Good question. In brief, it’s because she had talked about it many times during several of our conversations, and so I of course had to see what it was all about! Verdict: it was actually pretty darn good (and spicy)! We ordered some eggplant, sliced fish soup, and grilled tofu along with some Tsing Tao beers, and quite frankly, I knew I was in for a great time when the soup came out and I saw all those chilis and Sichuan peppercorns floating on the surface.
Then it was back home for a quick nightcap and more sleep to rest our legs for the next day’s adventure: Stockholm!
The morning started bright and early with coffee and a trip to Güntherska bakery for some cinnamon buns (honestly, other than Jappi, this was my one absolute food-must for my trip. I love Swedish cinnamon buns). A quick train ride later and we had arrived in Stockholm, conveniently just in time for lunch.
Apparently, burgers are just a big a deal in Sweden as they are in Paris, and this one from Vigarda didn’t disappoint. The jalapeño slices were a nice touch too.
We only visited one museum during this outing, The National Gallery. Apparently, it had been under renovation until recently, but luckily enough time had passed between its reopening and our visit that there was no crowd smushed up at the entrance to get in. Another perk of this museum: it’s free (though there are paid tours on offer as well).
The work here is more typical to that which you’d find in an average fine arts museum, though I was surprised to stumble upon the portrait of a certain queen…
Apparently, the artist who painted this was Swedish. So…there’s a fun fact I learned.
Following our visit, we walked along the water a bit to get our appetites up in anticipation of some coffee and cake (also known as fika). Our search for an open café lead us to a somewhat random hole in the wall run by an older woman who came from a family of Finnish opera singers (and who may have been a performer herself…there were some glamour shots on the walls of a woman who looked a lot like a younger version of the café owner, though we never confirmed with her if our guesses were correct or not).
Dinner that night continued in the tradition of ‘not Swedish’ with some yummy chicken bo-bun at a Vietnamese place in Ostermalm:
It was at this point that the light rain that had been threatening to fall the entire afternoon actually made good on its promise, though it only lasted about a minute (and thankfully started after we had all finished our meals). In any case, at that point all there was left to do was leisurely walk back to the train station (making sure to stop off at a candy store for some provisions on the way, of course)
Yeah, there are definitely a decent amount of licorice-based candies in that bag. Funny how taste buds change.
And speaking of new tastes, I of course couldn’t leave on Sunday morning without one last bun and coffee, though this time I opted for cardamom rather than the usual cinnamon:
And then it was off to the airport and back home, where a train issue meant I was stuck in the rain waiting for a bus for far longer than I expected to be (namely, thirty minutes versus no time at all). As incredibly relaxing and fun as this weekend was, I’m kind of glad I’ll be staying put for the foreseeable future (at least until I head to Greece in mid-July). All that traveling back and forth was starting to get to me a bit, especially the whole having to unpack/repack my backpack thing.
But I think I made the right choice in taking this trip before heading into the final stretch of the school year/into another heavy round of dissertation research/writing. I just need to keep telling myself I’ll get over the writer’s block hump that’s been bugging me for the last few days/week.
I’ve been thinking a bit about cycles recently. This is partially due to the shows I’m going to write about in this post (more on those in a bit), but also to cycles in my writing process.
In short, I’m dealing with writer’s block again (what else is new…I haven’t written anything new in months because research was happening, and then I, like a dummy, assigned a whole bunch of assignments to my students because…reasons), and I’m starting to see blogging as a weird way of both avoiding staring at a blank word document and getting my flow back. Productive procrastination? Maybe. Then again, writing something is better than writing absolutely nothing, right? Right.
And if I’m being honest, part of this is also due to the fact that it’s getting even more real that the deadline I set for myself to finish/defend this thing is slightly less than a year away. The thought that this time next year I will no longer be able to call myself a ‘student’ in any sense of the word is still rather jarring, considering that moniker has been part of my identity in one way or another since I was 5.
What a thought.
I’ve decided to go back to blogging a bit about some theatre I saw recently, not because I’m planning on including these pieces in my dissertation (not sure if I’ve mentioned this already, but I’ve pretty much made my choices on that regard and don’t much feel like changing them), but more because they both address the question of cyclicality, something that is very likely to get brought up in one section of my work.
Also, because one of them is pretty much a demonstration of an auteur suffering from M. Night Shyamalan syndrome. Yes, that judgement is reductive and a bit simplistic, but seriously there are only so many twists and turns and surprise revelations you can shove into a piece before the effect, the ‘punch’ wears off. The best tragedies—and this piece skewed more towards tragedy/melodrama than comedy—work mostly because the turn hangs on one moment. It’s that one Jenga piece chosen after several rounds of play that, once removed, sends the entire tower toppling. Part of the anticipation, the rush of that moment comes from the fact that it was preceded by gradually increased unsteadiness, wobbling of blocks that look as though they are hanging on by a hair yet somehow still hold fast, giving you a false sense of security as to the structural integrity of the whole thing. Having the Jenga tower fall—repeatedly—after only one or two rounds of play deprives the game of said anticipation, of the temptation to make increasingly risky, yet also confident, decisions that prove that you will somehow outsmart physics and gravity.
That said, let’s move on to the first play of this post:
Fauves, written and directed by Wajdi Mouawad, Théâtre de la Colline, May 12, 2019
I’m going to start with something I actually really enjoyed about this piece: the set. Given how…malleable…the form of this piece is with concerns to timelines, the choice to have a moveable set comprised mostly of sets of walls on wheels that could be rotated/displaced/fit together like Tetris pieces was particularly effective, especially with regards to perspective.
In general, the piece is constructed around a series of flashbacks/flashforwards, though several of these scenes are replayed and revisted several times, sometimes played exactly as they were before, sometimes going on for a couple more lines where they left off, and most significantly, sometimes being played again but from a physically different angle, showing us something that—primarily through the staging—remained slightly or entirely out of view until the walls shifted.
Without giving too much away, the primary story involves a man, Hippolyte (yes, yes, I know), who, while in the middle of trying to finish work on his latest film, gets word that his mother has been hit by a truck. Following her funeral, a meeting with her solicitor reveals that the man he thought was his father was not actually his father, his birth father was living in Canada (Hippolyte, meanwhile, grew up in France), and his mother had never actually his birth father, meaning she had been technically committing bigamy for the entirety of Hippolyte’s life. On the lawyer’s advice, Hippolyte heads to Canada to meet the man who fathered him and convince him to sign an act of divorce from his mother.
Those familiar with Mouawad’s work would perhaps not be surprised to hear that, since all the above took place within the first 15minutes of a 3-hour play, this initial surprise concerning Hippolyte’s parentage was not the first (nor the last…) to shake up the lives of not just Hippolyte, but also those of his two children (a son, Lazare, who is set to join the ISS, and a daughter, Vive, who is ostensibly in Syria working with refugees, but from whom no one in the family has had any news in a long while), and a half-brother he never knew existed. Much like with the Greek tragedies Mouawad often draws inspiration from, the trauma in this piece, the violence that propels these characters to let forth the more animalistic sides of themselves (hence the title), stretch back generations, back to an initial act that is at once a betrayal as well as a case of mistaken placement of blame. In order to ‘purge’ the evil, to cleanse the familial line, as it were, a rather dubious choice is made involving the switching of babies, and a resolve to keep the violence a secret in the hopes that not talking about it will cause it to die out.
This latter point is later evoked towards the end of the piece, in a speech made by Lazare prior to his ascent into space (side note: there is a spacewalk sequence in this play), as a means of tying this idea of the damage done of trying to hide violence/danger/tragedy to the discourse surrounding our approach to climate change, in particular how, up until recently, the very real dangers facing our planet have been downplayed. Although the truth can be very hard to swallow, sometimes hiding it can backfire and cause more damage than just ripping the band-aid off—being open about what is really going on, about the ugly that is bubbling under the surface—could do in the short term.
The problem, though, is that although the link makes logical sense, its impact is lost because of how much other ‘heavy’ stuff is also dropped during the course of this piece—especially in the rather loaded first act. I mean once you also throw incest into the mix (and this comes up in two separate instances, though one turns out to be a case of mistaken incest…yeah…process that), I wonder how much more you could do.
And more than the internal cyclical structure of the piece—which actually read more like a film given how much it ‘rewound’ scenes as well as restaged and replayed them—I had cycles on the brain after seeing this because all the themes here are ones that Mouawad has addressed before (and to be honest, last year’s Tous les oiseauxwas more successful in that regard, primarily because it all rested around one crucial, tragic twist instead of…too many). Is there a limit as to how many times you can replay this saga of hidden family traumas based on either a mistake in identity or someone deliberately hiding a part of their/their child’s identity before it becomes…redundant? Perhaps that word is a bit too harsh. It’s a shame too because had the tragedy hinged on one revelation instead of several, the continued replaying/set switching could have merited the urgency with which it was progressing, like a rocket hurtling towards its target.
There was actually a moment when that did come very close to happening. To be honest, if the scene order was reworked a bit to put the crux back onto the one revelation that had a concrete impact precisely because it resulted in one character taking a drastic action based on an assumption that turned out to be both wrong and the most direct consequence of the whole “maybe you should actually talk about things instead of hiding them under the guise of ‘protection’” thing, the amassing of revelations could have worked. The anticipation could have been built up. As such it was just…a lot.
Contes Immoraux – Partie 1 : Maison Mère, concept by Phia Ménard, Nanterre-Amandiers, May 13, 2019.
This second piece is less a play and more a work of performance art, though one centered around a Sisyphean gesture.
Entering the studio theatre at Nanterre, one saw a large piece of cardboard lying flat on the center of the space, with Ménard crouched in the upper stage right corner, looking like a punk rocker circa the 1980s. Once everyone was seated, she got up, grabbed one of several long hooks set up in a bucket nearby, and began to pierce out certain pieces of the large cardboard shape, tossing them off stage right. When all the extra pieces had been dispensed with, it became clear that the cardboard was actually meant to be folded together into a model of sorts (revealed at the end to be a freestanding model of the Parthenon). To accomplish her task, Ménard had at her disposal several support poles of varying sizes (cardboard sometimes does not want to stand like you would like it to…), a generous supply of tape to stick the walls together as they were built up, as well as to pull the whole thing and flip it right side up, and a chainsaw to cut out some slats and create columns.
Now, the thought of watching a woman trying to build a Parthenon out of cardboard and tape for 90minutes might not sound terribly exciting, but honestly, I cannot remember the last time I experienced sitting in an audience as engaged in what was happening as this one. Many of us leaned forward when she started rotating the structure around, gasped when some tape came undone (which happened several times), and let out audible sighs of relief—and giggles—when the thing actually behaved as it was meant to. We, like Ménard, were in those moments united in desiring a similar goal. There was a moment when an entire wall came detached and flopped down in such a way that righting it—again—was going to be incredibly inconvenient. And yet, she persisted. She kept at it. And finally, the thing was up, standing, and she—the punk Athena—sat down to admire her handiwork.
And then a set of sprinklers above the structure went off, drowning it in water, almost comically destroying the thing so much effort was expended on to create. Nothing, the image suggests, matters if the world is about to go to shit because of continued inaction towards climate change.
There is a commentary in this piece about the image of Europe, of the current identity crisis the EU is having, and the difficult (yet still possible) task of working to build it up again. But the greater problem is that none of the work will ultimately matter if we don’t address the greater problem.
At the same time, I do wonder how ecological a show like this—which ran for a few nights at Nanterre—is, given how much water is needed before the structure finally collapses. Is it recycled water? Where does it come from, and what happens to it after? Will the cardboard be recycled? Thankfully, cardboard is a natural material, but was the cardboard used in this piece itself recycled, or was it made ‘new’ (so to speak)?
Plus, just imagining her every night the show is on, starting over, with a ‘blank’ slate. It’s one of the few times I think that I’ve left a show thinking less about its ending and more about the reality that it will ‘begin again’, replay again—though not quite the same way as before. A distinctly more material-heavy return than the previous show’s thematic one.
I think I’m going to leave this as is for now, and close the post here. I’ve got some thoughts on my recent weekend trip to Sweden I’m in the process of organizing, but that deserves its own post more than being tacked on at the end of this one.
Until then, hopefully my funk abates soon. I need to get back to some intense writing (unless, of course, this thesis decides to magically pop out of my brain fully written on its own…not gonna lie, wouldn’t really complain if that happened…)