To be quite honest, I am almost in a state of disbelief still that I managed to submit the thing when I did (March 13, and thank goodness the due date got pushed up). For one thing, this project has been in my mind in one form or another for the past six years. I lived with it, planned my life around it, grew with it, struggled with it…and now, it’s done.
And I almost feel adrift, as if I am not quite sure where to go from here.
To be honest, the current state of things isn’t quite helping matters. I want to celebrate this moment, but then I feel guilty for even thinking that because there is something incredibly more pressing happening in the world right now which should 100% take precedence over my feelings. I will not lie though, it is very, very, difficult to go from a somewhat egotistical place of thinking that soon you’ll get your moment to be the center of attention as people gather to hear about your research accomplishments to a place of selflessness. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that I’ve been having an easy time transitioning back into the latter, shoving the dissertation to the side and prioritizing what I could do right now to make the coming weeks (and likely months) easier for others. I want to scream and stamp my feet and throw a tantrum and make this whole thing stop for just a while, be selfish and insist that I get that final moment that’s “owed” to me.
And I am very likely not the only graduate student set to finish/defend this year who is thinking this. But I think the fact that this final step was, for me, the culmination of years of schooling, the last step before leaving the role of “student” for good has made the urge to write this all out here more pressing.
I know that all this will pass…eventually…and that things will get back to something resembling normalcy soon. But that latter part also scares me because, if history tells us anything, we will have put this all out of mind by the time normalcy comes back again. There’s a reason why hubris is such a common theme to treat in tragedy.
In the meantime, I am now a PhD candidate with a submitted dissertation. I still think it can be improved upon, but honestly, the moment that I typed the last keystroke and that I finally (finally) figured out how to deal with the whole pagination thing on Word (took way longer than necessary), I felt at once light and…a heavy emptiness. I had to take a few minutes to look at my title page and process everything after I had converted the document to a PDF just to be sure it was real. Scrolling through all the pages brought back so many memories of writing sessions at home, in Greece, at the BNF, in California, and at La Fontaine de Belleville, times when I didn’t think that this day would ever happen, when the thought of writing near 300 (yeah, not counting the front/back matter, it’s about 269 pages) pages on theatre critiques seemed impossible, never mind that I had come very close to that before during my first masters (and that one was in French, too).
But then I felt this weight hit me when I remembered that there was nothing more left to do. I had no more great project that needed dealing with in the immediate future. Of course, others will come along, but in the present moment, it’s hard to envision that far ahead.
And I also could not help but laugh at the cruel irony of the situation. It’s a shame, really, that the current pandemic had to happen this year instead of last. Social distancing and self-imposed (but INCREDIBLY necessary) isolation are, after all, the perfect times to hunker down and write something like a dissertation.
I mean, Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague, Boccaccio used a quarantine during the Black Death as a frame story for the Decameron, likewise for Chaucer with The Canterbury Tales.
Meanwhile, I wrote a dissertation.
Yeah. The bar is a bit high.
So what am I doing at this point? Well, other than trying to keep thoughts about the inevitable cancelling of Commencement at the end of May (still keeping my fingers crossed that it ends up happening, but then I remember who is in charge in the US right now) out of my head, I have some grading to catch up on, puzzles to do, shows to watch, and, eventually, an apartment to deep clean.
Because I might as well make my living environment look nice for the foreseeable future.
And in the spirit of the great writers of the past–and also because I would like something more creative to do–, I am going to make a point of writing in here daily. One can think of it as a social distancing journal…but public. Who knows, maybe something interesting will come out of it (though this may have to wait until the second week of this, if not earlier). Hell, given how my job is going to be organized these next few weeks, this may just end up being a review of what it’s like to teach on Zoom (spoiler alert: I am both curious about and dreading this).
In the meantime, I have a small pile of essays from my 10th graders that is calling my attention. One of them used the word “boobies”. I have lost all hope.
That’s all that stands between me and my dissertation defense.
It’s odd being at this point, to be quite honest. On the one hand, I am almost in shock that it’s so close, given how much time I have spent thinking about this thing. On the other hand, I have this little nagging voice in my head that’s almost poking at me to push it back. It’s not because I don’t think I’m ready (I mean, it’s pretty much a universal truth that a PhD student is never fully happy with their dissertation because there is always more than can be done). It’s more that I’m somewhat…terrified.
Because this is it. This is the last degree program I will do, the last time I will be able to call myself a “student” in an official capacity (barring, of course, a second PhD, which…no). I mean, I haven’t left school since I started kindergarten in 1995. It’s been a while.
And with all these deadlines come sacrifices in other things. I’ve been seeing quite a bit of theatre since coming back from the Christmas holidays, but I honestly haven’t really felt the urgency to sit down and write about anything as much as I did last year (or even earlier this year). That’s the problem with having too much other stuff on your plate.
Full disclosure: that “other stuff” isn’t entirely dissertation related. For those (many) who haven’t been keeping up with what’s going on politically in France, there are certain major (and incredibly unequal/ill thought-out/nonsensical/etc.) changes being implemented this year that directly affect my line of work as a high school teacher (especially because the school I’m at is private but nevertheless under contract with the State to follow the national curriculum). Dealing with this mess—the strikes, the long conversations with my colleagues over what the f**k the Ministry of Education is thinking, if they’re thinking at all, and, yes, the sideline participation in some marches—has taken up a lot more of my free energy than anticipated. The dissertation, of course, is still priority number 1, but this mess has taken a close second.
Honestly, one thing that still keeps me going job-wise is the fact that I am teaching a literature course again. I always make sure I “show up” for my students, but getting to introduce a new crop to basic literary theory and comparative analysis and all the other things that make me love what I do (and which facilitate a kind of critical thinking that is becoming increasingly endangered, especially under the new educational reforms…again, I have some very choice words for the Minister of Education about this) taps into a part of my brain that always lights up in these situations, and inevitably gives me that extra oomph I need to carry on.
Then again, maybe messiness is part of the whole journey of the end of the PhD. In any case, it does match pretty well with what’s going on inside my head so…there’s that…?
It hasn’t all been nonsense, though. This past week, my sister flew over for a quick visit, and though the beginning of the week was a bit annoying because I had to work, by Thursday—my last day of work before another 2 week (yes!) holiday—, we were able to fully relax and, yes, eat so much yummy food.
I mean, I finally managed to go eat at La Cave de Belleville, a feat in itself considering that it is just over 5 minutes from my house, yet I have never managed to do anything but get a bottle of wine from there because I always forget to reserve a table.
The wine we chose that night was a very earthy red from the Jura. Upon making our selection, our server had to take a minute to double check that this was actually what we wanted, but the enthusiastic “Yes!” that Isabella (who joined us) and I answered with when she asked if we liked biodynamic wines seemed to convince her. And yes, it was indeed rather “dynamic”. The slight fizzy effervescence helped.
My sister also got to experience her first raclette dinner thanks to the machine I acquired during the winter sales (a necessary investment, as far as I’m concerned, as I have already used it three times this season).
And we made plenty of time for museum and expo-hopping, including the exhibit on the history of shoes at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, wherein I learned that, yes, there is such a thing as a too-high platform.
Moving forward, I promise I will try and get back to including some theatre reviews/commentary on here again (since I assume there are some people who miss it). That all might depend on how many edits (and re-edits, and re-re-edits) I will have to do between now and March 27, aka, D-Day for turning in my finalized dissertation.
Speaking of which: does anyone have any info on how to generate a table of contents on Word (or on other software)? If so, I may know someone (me) who is looking for advice.
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 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’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…)
Going to start things off with some more (very quick, I promise) musings on dissertation-writing today before moving on to other theatre-related things. Don’t worry though. This time I’m going to actually be positive(ish) about things…for once.
I had a meeting with my thesis director about a week ago, the first since our last extensive one-on-one in early July before the summer holidays officially kicked off. Was I freaking out that there would be a lot of skeptical, questioning remarks about what I’d hacked out? Yes. Did I end up having to worry about that? No…as these things usually go, apparently (convenient how the mind tends to forget this when one is ‘in the thick of it’…).
Other than planning out my next steps (which I am kind of excited about because they involve diving back into theory), one thing that was brought up was all the things I had apparently ‘done’ or illuminated in my drafts, things that, in part challenged some other established critiques of audience/spectacle relationships (and I won’t get into it here because it is a bit complicated, and this is not the space for that sort of thing…also I’m on a time crunch). These comments both come as a rather pleasant little surprise, as well as inspire some fear. Because, of course, I had no conscious intention of challenging anything when I was writing my stuff, but as those who write (dissertations or not) probably know, sometimes you just get in the zone and things come out and you don’t really stop to think about the implications of it all.
What I’m saying is, I think I might have to get into some critical analysis of my own work after this is all done, so I don’t look like a fish with its mouth gaping open during my dissertation defense a year (holy shit) from now. Writing is a funny thing sometimes.
At the end of the session, she also threw out, on a whim, a suggestion that I think I’m going to officially adopt as my title :
Contemporary French Theatre: Spatial Effects
I’m not one who easily comes up with short, not terribly wordy titles (or titles in general) for my writing projects anyway, so having this now is definitely something I don’t mind adding to my little list of ‘dissertation wins’. Also, I like puns.
Anyway, moving on to what else I’ve been up to…
I tried an egg-centric (hehe) dish a week ago at brunch with a friend at Salatim, an Isreali restaurant in the 2nd arrondissement. The set brunch menu is priced at 21eur (though some add-ons, such as challah bread, will bump the price up a tiny bit…though…you kind of need bread for this meal so…yeah), and includes
a hot drink (coffee/tea)
juice (orange or house lemonade)
a generous serving of various salads and mezze topped with a portion of the dish of the day (that day the specials were something with salmon and confit lamb. We went with the lamb…because of course)
Shakshouka to share (yep)
A selection of desserts to share (including a very yummy chocolate babka)
When the waiter was explaining the brunch menu, the issue of me hating eggs came up, but I decided–because I guess I was feeling adventurous that day or something–to say to hell with it and said to put two eggs in the pan because hey, who knows?
In the end, I am glad we made that choice because the sauce the shakshouka was served in was really incredible (adding some harissa on it wasn’t such a bad choice either hehe). I did end up mixing in some of the egg white in with the sauce as I scooped it up with the (not included but really should be) challah bread, but I ended up leaving the yolk to the side. Mixing the egg whites in with the sauce was pretty alright. There was definitely a limit to how far I could tilt the egg/sauce ratio to the former but, at least I tried.
This does not, however, change my opinion on other egg-related breakfast dishes, so don’t even think of suggesting I try an omelette or poached egg or a breakfast burrito anytime soon.
Speaking of other food-related things, the day before said brunch I also met up with a friend to check out what I think is going to be one of my new favorite semi-annual events: the Salon des vins des vignerons indépendants (The Independent winemakers expo).
This event takes place two times a year, once in the fall (around November, I believe), and once in early spring. While the fall expo is held at the much larger venue at Porte de Versailles, in the southern edge of the city, this one took place at the slightly smaller–but no less lively, according to my friend who has attended several of these–Porte de Champerret. Basically, how it works is after you buy your entry ticket (normally 6eur, but I managed to snag a free pass), you check in, receive your complementary wine glass, and then proceed to roam up and down the aisles stopping at any tables that seem interesting. Rather than organize the wines by region–that is, one section for Bordeaux, one for the Loire Valley, one for Provence, etc–all the regions are kind of mixed together, allowing for, at least I think, some more spontaneous exploring or venturing out to try something new. Thankfully, for those on the hunt for a particular region, the signage above each table was color-coded, something I at least found rather helpful as the afternoon went on and I became increasingly determined to get my hands on some nice Rhône reds.
I ended up with four bottles in my ‘haul’ (honestly, my little wine cabinet thing could not fit any more than that), including an interesting white wine from the Jura region I would probably have never tried otherwise. I’ll be excited to break that one out eventually (another reason I didn’t get more wines, I don’t actually drink that much wine at home, living alone and whatnot).
And finally, before the ‘fun’ theatre commentary starts, I’m going to toot my own horn for a second and mention that about two weeks ago, I popped back over to Reid Hall to be part of a panel of former MA students, now PhDs, on how to carry out a research project, as well as speak about our own work to the current MA students. Having a rather untraditional–by comparison, at least, considering that the other two panelists were PhD candidates in history–project and trajectory did get my nerves going a bit at the beginning, but I think my choice to sort of dispense with the fact that, given the ephemerality of my corpus, I had no archives/powerpoint to show right away and move on to general advice ended up paying off. There was a nice little discussion afterwards as well, and I think that, having been in the position those students are in now six(!) years ago, hopefully we were all able to give them at least some helpful direction as they navigate the nonsense of a giant research project for the first time.
One thing that really irked me though, there was a gentleman in the audience who, the minute I went up to the podium, got up and started rifling through his bags rather loudly, as well as walking back and forth between the refreshments table and his seat. A side note: I was the second of the three presenters. He didn’t do this for any of the other two. I know it shouldn’t have, but it definitely took me aback for a minute, especially considering that I was doing this presentation after finishing a day of teaching. Honestly, if there is one thing I absolutely cannot stand, it’s when I have the floor and people are disruptive or chatty or in general, taking away my time. There was plenty of time between myself and the person who spoke before me to get up, stretch a bit, and then sit back down. Did it have something to do with the fact that I was the only woman speaking? Who knows. I’m leaning towards no, and just chalking this up to general rudeness, but holy hell my dude.
Common courtesy is a thing. Anyway…
Qui a tué mon père, written by Édouard Louis, dir. Stanislas Nordey, La Colline, March 24.
I’ll get this out of the way now: the answer to the question posed in the title (‘Who killed my father’, in English) is several people, or ‘the system’ in general. But this didn’t get fully addressed until towards the end of the production. The rest of the time was devoted to the solo actor–an avatar of sorts for Louis, considering the very autobiographical nature of this piece–detailing the history of his relationship with his father, a working-class man from the (formerly industrialized, recently deindustrialized) north of France, whose previous conservative and far-right leanings clashed with his son’s own politics as well as his person (Louis, like the solo character in the show, is openly gay). The end of the piece suggests that the father, in his older age, and now out of work due to a back injury, has started to come back around to the left, not only in terms of social issues, but also as a worker in the sense that, until recently, the left had been the side pictured as fighting for workers’ rights. (Xenophobia, homophobia, racism, discrimination, etc. are just some of the divisions the far-right has stoked in order to falsely paint itself as the party for the working man…unfortunately with some success).
As mentioned before, this show–which runs just shy of two hours–is performed by a solo actor, though he is not necessarily alone on stage. When the curtain rises, for instance, it sees him seated at a table facing what one assumes to be his father. The figure seated across from him, however, is not another actor, but a very realistic model (not gonna lie, it took me a while to realize that, partially because I was seated a bit further back in the room). This model has his downstage arm propped up on the table, the hand cradling his face so that it is hidden from view, and presumably, to suggest a lack of ‘connected gaze’. This image of visual disconnect (perhaps reflective of the metaphorical disconnect between father and son) carries on through the production as, during the blackouts that punctuate moments of the long monologue, other models of the same figure appear on stage, all of home facing either upstage, or purposefully away from where the actor is standing.
It’s only towards the end of the piece that the actor actually begins interacting with the models on the stage. At this point, there is a light snowfall bathing the space–or at least the square playing space on the middle of the stage–in white. One by one, the actor picks up the models–by this point, he has recounted the story behind his father’s work-related injury, as well as the bureaucratic difficulties involved with worker’s comp and getting back into/finding work at all–and gently placing them off the playing space. Once said center square is free of all objects, he begins his last, very pointed and very specific series of accusations.
Starting with the presidency of Jacques Chirac and concluding with Macron, the actor one by one names first, the sitting president, and then his Minister of Health and/or of Work. He doesn’t just recite the names either, but rather tilts his head up and cries the name into the sky, into the falling snow, slowly, deliberately, slightly pausing just before his declamation to make sure the focus shifts onto the names themselves before he continues on to recount the misdeeds of the persons behind said names. In general, the discours concerns the gradual eroding of the French social net, especially as far as the working class is concerned. The goal, as the text itself states, in presenting these grievances in such a way is to immortalize, via theatre, the names of the persons responsible for the increasingly-precarious living situations of the working class in the same way that theatre has–again, the comparison is given in the text–immortalized Richard III. The text closes by evoking the fact that the political means something very different for those in a position like the narrator’s (and by extension Louis’s) father, who are more quickly and more directly impacted by even five-euro budget increases or decreases than those of us (and this definitely includes most everyone sitting in the theatre that afternoon, including myself) for whom such fluctuations do not cause as much of a disruption.
And at the end, the son recounts a final conversation he had with his father, one in which the father concluded by saying it was about time for another revolution, for something to happen. Given the ongoing Gilets Jaunes demonstrations (a movement that still, in my opinion, needs to contend with the far-right presence, however small or not, in its ranks, despite the left’s attempts to retake control of the narrative), the timing of this was rather perfect.
Those who know me, though, will probably not be surprised at the fact that, while I agreed with much of what was being said during that final discours, I remained skeptical as to its efficacy in theatrical form (especially how very close to didactic it became, what with the reminder to audience members of France’s recent past). This is, however, based on an assumption that said discours would at least inspire reflection, if nothing else, on the part of the audience members, but how far can reflection go if it cannot then be translated into action?
I mean, in the end, the show is being performed in a venu located in a neighborhood that was historically very working-class but has recently undergone several years of change and the beginnings of a gentrification that is seeing the former working-class residents at risk of being priced out. It’s also a National Theatre. Normal ticket prices are around 30eur. For my American readers, this might not seem like a lot, given the average theatre ticket prices in many major cities, but here, that is up there. (Thankfully, I am still under 30, and even if I wasn’t, the membership card I have for this season greatly reduces the price per ticket).
Speaking of more political theatre…
Gymnase Platon: Lakhès, dir. Grégoire Ingold, MC93, March 28
So, here’s a question: if someone proposed to you to go attend a performance the first part of which consisted of a staging of one of Plato’s dialogues, would you go? A conversation on the themes addressed in the dialogue would of course follow, this evening in the presence of a professor of Classical Philosophy. As to the dialogue, other than being performed in French, as opposed to recited in Ancient Greek (thank god), there would be little done in terms of taking it from its historical moment to ours, trusting at least that the themes themselves would carry over just fine.
The idea of this production (or series of productions. There were actually three stagings of three different dialogues proposed, the first of which I missed, the second being this one, and the third being Plato’s dialogue on justice which I supposed to attend this past Saturday but didn’t because of…well…this piece) was to recreate the environment of the ancient Agora, a space of interaction, of sharing ideas, of thinking and speaking liberally. The problem with this idea, before we get into anything else, is that it is almost doomed to fall short from the start. For one thing, the fact that this production is staged–that is, that there is a text that is meant to be followed–means that the room for improvisation, for tangents, for interruption and other twists and turns of spontaneous discours is gone. There is, rather, a single group in this case–the actors–who retains vocal and ‘narrative’ dominance. Though at one point early on in the dialogue the audience is asked to vote on which of the two sides they agree with (and this is before Socrates comes in and complicates things), other than that, our participation, our presence was regulated to that of what is ‘expected’ of a contemporary theatre audience.
Quiet, attentive, responding but silently until the signal is given that we may applaud.
Interestingly, the night I went there was also a group of high school students in attendance, one of whom was dealing with a rather nasty cough (yay changing of the seasons). At one point, his teacher asked him to step out so that his coughing wouldn’t be so distracting, but I honestly almost wished he hadn’t done that because this was supposed to be an Agora after all, right.
Also, again, a reminder, in Ancient Greece there was no rule about not talking at the theatre. People only shut up if they thought what was being performed was worth listening and paying attention to. So…yeah.
Second problem: this was something the philosophy professor in attendance pointed out, but there is the question of why stage Plato now while at the same time not try and shift the context of the dialogue, in some way, from his historical moment to ours. The question at the center of this one was that of the nature of ‘virtue’, but one thing that was not addressed in the written program (nor in the staging prior to the professor’s commentary) was the fact that the metrics by which this is measured by are incredibly different now from what they were in Plato’s day. Plato, in other words, would very likely not recognize virtue as we see it, least of which because, unlike in his day, we don’t necessarily measure worth by military victories/prowess anymore.
And quite frankly, I would have been very happy to just have a conversation/seminar session with that professor. He was an older gentleman, but he had a very pleasant voice and a very engaging manner, and he tried his best to make sure we were following his train of thought. In fact, one of the young high schoolers was particularly engaged with what this man was saying, and was very eager to pose him questions (unfortunately, he only had time to ask one of his questions before we all had to clear the space, but I saw him walk over to the professor as everyone was beginning to file out, no doubt ready to ask him the second question he had in mind right when the announcement that we had to clear out was made).
But, yeah, I’m not sure how productive as a work of theatre this was. The tri-frontal seating arrangement (later turned quadri-frontal after the actors ceded the right to speak to the professor) could, I imagine, have given an air of an environment set for exchange of ideas but…the stage/spectator power structures of who can and cannot speak and when were still there. Anyway, in brief, I wasn’t really keen on seeing this happen again on Saturday, hence why I decided to skip out on the next performance.
Evel Knievel contre Macbeth, dir. Rodrigo Garcia, Nanterre, March 29
Yeah, I honestly have no idea how to even begin with this.
Actually, no, here’s how: in Swiss Army Man, before the screen cuts to black, a character, taking in the bizarre nonsense of everything that has just happened in front of her, takes a minute and then clearly lets forth the final line of the film
“What the fuck?”
Some key words for this piece
Yep. I’m going to just…let this one marinate somewhere else for right now.
I will say though that the sound design was cool
Dying Together, dir. Lotte Van Den Berg, Nanterre, March 31
Participatory theatre. Creating community around death.
The one thing I will say about this is that they asked for audience members’ consent each and every time a new scenario or a new person to represent was proposed to them. That’s excellent. More people should do that.
Moving on though, the idea with this piece was, in brief, to approach the notion of death as a communal, constellation-creating (yes, constellations, as in stars, as in things that are connected not physically but by our perception of links or patterns in the spaces between them) phenomena rather than a solo one. To do this, three scenarios were proposed (the 2015 Germanwings crash, the 2013 sinking of a migrant caravan boat near Lampedusa and the 2015 attacks in Paris, specifically at the Bataclan) during which members of the audience were asked to represent, via their physical, not vocal, presence, various persons connected with said events. Said persons could have been victims, perpetrators of the attacks, relatives of victims/attackers, or people who may have been peripherally if not directly involved in the event itself. If, during each scenario, we agreed to represent the person (note: none of these people were named; for those whose identities were more or less known, all we were given was very basic information including sex, age, and perhaps an occupation or a tidbit of info on the person’s background), we were led to a part of the space and told to stand in a certain way and look in a particular direction. This would be our starting position, and from there, when the constellation would start shifting, we could move around a bit to explore the space, our connection to it/the person we were representing, and our inter-personal connections to each other.
Movements stayed relatively slow and consisted mostly of walking or variations of sitting/laying down and standing up. This one is still a bit fresh in my mind since I just came from seeing it, but it did make me think of some general thoughts I have about this kind of improvisational (ish) experimental theatre, especially as it relates to the question of audience integration. It is no secret that I myself love physical theatre. Viewpoints (of which this experience definitely reminded me, especially as we all started moving about the space) changed my life and appreciation for theatre when I was in college, but one thing I’ve found is that, in terms of actually doing it, the best results are produced in intimate, more private spaces, amongst a small group of people who have spent several weeks (or better, months) working together in order to be fully comfortable with the level of physical vulnerability and liberty in experimentation that is often asked of performers in these situations. In short, in my experience, integrating an audience, or transposing these experiences into a much larger–and much more temporary group–is always a risk, and never quite seems to go anywhere. I personally did not feel any connection to any of the persons I was asked to represent. What I did do, however, was spend the majority of my time watching how other people navigated around each other. Dynamic spatial relationships, yo.
Also it should probably not come as a surprise to anyone but when it came time to ask for representatives for the attacks at the Bataclan, it took a couple tries before they found the first person who consented to represent one of the three shooters. This production was first staged in Rotterdam, I believe with the same three scenarios, but there is something about bringing that particular one back to Paris (and only 3.5 years after the attacks) that made the initial refusals or hesitations of participating not terribly surprising.
Anyway, my skepticism towards the efficacy of participation/’immersion’ theatre still holds for now.
And now, I am going to take a lozenge and head to sleep. Stupid seasonal (and time) changes throwing off my immune system…
I’ve been thinking a bit about biases recently, especially in regards to they can affect my own approaches to a critique of something I’ve seen. Those types of situations don’t come up terribly often, but when they do, they generally arise from stagings that tackle certain themes or discourses that, at least from my point of view as an American (and more specifically, as a very left-leaning, educated American) should have been covered already.
More often than not, what these pieces deal with–in one way or another–is the topic of race, and specifically the intersection between this and questions of national identity and the (completely nonsense) notion of colorblindness.
Unlike the United States–which, let’s be clear, still has a very long way to go on this regard–where discussions of race/racism/white privilege/structural inequalities/etc have been going on for several years now, and have solid footing outside academic circles, France has only started tackling these questions relatively recently, and to put it briefly, such discourse has had some difficulty sticking here. This isn’t because it is unfounded–it absolutely isn’t, and to those who think racial and ethnic bias doesn’t or cannot exist in this country, I invite you to take this little pin I’m going to hand you and burst the bubble you’re currently ensconced in. I don’t have time to get into this too much now, but in brief, I would argue it has more to do with the fundamental set of ‘universal’ values the country is founded on. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, yes, but we should also add Laïcité in there, as that one in particular has led to the greatest amount of nonsense. You can see its effects in the 2004 law to ban the wearing of the hijab/veil in schools/government jobs, as well as in the backlash over the birkhini a few years ago. Those laws very clearly and disproportionately targeted Muslim women (hell, with the latter one, that point was made even more obvious when some people rightly started pointing out that nuns had been visiting the beach in their habits for years, and no one gave a damn then), yet of course that was repeatedly brushed under the rug in the favor of maintaining a certain image of ‘unity’ of ‘laicity’, of ‘we are all equal citizens even though daily occurrences prove almost embarrassingly that this isn’t even remotely true’.
All this is to say that the time is ripe for France to have a reckoning with itself.
Said reckoning was very much at the center of the first of the three plays (more precisely, two plays and one operetta) that I saw this weekend, Myriam Marzouki’s Que viennent les barbaresat the MC93 on Thursday evening. The title is in reference to the poem “Waiting for the barbarians” by Greek poet Constantin Cavafy, and, much like the poem, the piece tackles the question of an imagined ‘other’, and more specifically, the necessity of this ‘other’s’ existence in order for the dominant group to maintain its power. Interestingly, the piece also frames this question within the context of American discourses on race–and more specifically, discourses following the the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the end of the 1960s. This begins early on with a scene in which an actor playing James Baldwin speaks to a French reporter about his views on race relations in the United States, as well as addresses her (incredibly naive) line of questioning that stems from a thought of ‘but the movement’s over, what more could/do you want?’. He fires back a question at her about the situation in Algeria–and France’s treatment of Algerians pre- and post- Independence–and thus the discursive link between the United States and France is established. Contrary to popular imagination, the racism, othering, discrimination thought to only have occurred ‘over there’ (the United States) was also happening at home, that it wasn’t as ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’ a comportment as previously thought.
A similar link is made in a later scene featuring another actor in the role of Muhammed Ali giving his own interview to another French journalist–and to be quite frank, I’m not entirely sure if the repetitive nature of this scene really did much other than emphasize the didactic nature of the piece overall–, and it was at this moment I started to question my own biases as a spectator. Everything that was being said seemed obvious to me. Of course structural inequalities still existed. Of course black Americans had the right to create their own safe spaces away from white Americans, of course the parallels with France had been and still are there. But, I am not a French spectator; in other words, I am not who this piece was made for. What seemed didactic or expected to me may very well have been brand new information to any of the number of people in the room with me. I’m still wondering how to grapple with this. I’m still wondering if the didactic approach, of speaking and explaining the metaphors, the connections, the lessons relatively clearly rather than allowing more space for the spectator’s critical capacities to make those connections themselves was the best way to go, even for unfamiliar territory. At one point, during a scene in a sort of immigration processing office, a woman enters from upstage in a cloud of mist, the French flag draped over her in a way echoing that one Shepard Fairey poster featuring a Muslim woman in a hijab made of the American flag. She didn’t say anything. She appeared, came downstage, paused, then slowly exited.
Don’t get me wrong though; there absolutely needs to be more theatre, more art, more articles, more…everything written in France/accessible in French that allows for the inciting of a dialogue around these issues. I’m just starting to ask myself to what degree I should be writing about them at this particular stage in my own journey as an American-educated academic.
Anyway, onto the next thing.
Le Direktor(d’après le film de Lars von Trier) dir. Oscar Gómez Mata, Théâtre de la Bastille, March 15
Full disclosure: Lars von Trier isn’t really a director whose films I know particularly well (hell, I think I’ve only managed to watch Antichrist all the way through…tried with Melancholia, ended up falling asleep and not bothering afterwords…meh). But, the promo photos made this seem like a good time, and so I went into this hoping for some high energy to counteract the vast majority of things I’ve been seeing this year.
And oh man was I right.
This piece is silly. Very silly. Absurdly silly. And I like absurdly silly, especially when it involves poking fun at theatre, at the pretentiousness that the form gets sometimes, and at its conventions–especially the whole ‘suspension of disbelief/these actors are in their own little universe separate from the one we in the audience occupy’ thing.
The basic premise: a man (Ravn) is the head of an IT firm with a staff of 5 other employees who are nice but…incredibly naive and possibly incompetent. But they mean well. He, on the other hand, had gotten in the habit over the course of his ten years at the company of saying that all his unpopular decisions came from a hereto unseen ‘head director’, thus successfully managing to shift blame from himself and staying relatively popular. When the play opens, Ravn has the opportunity to sell the company for a very hefty sum, but to do so, the contract must be signed by the company Director, which, as far as literally everyone else knows, he is not. So, he hires an actor to play him, one who is very ‘into his craft’, so to speak (god the number of people I could recognize in that portrayal just made the whole thing soooo much better). Naturally, hijinks ensue, especially as the actor finds himself integrated even further into the company.
What I loved about this piece, however, were the amount of overt references to the ‘play’ part of acting that were integrated into the text. Often, Ravn and his hired actor would spring from the edge of the white flooring that indicated the limits of the office space to the edge of the stage, left bare and black, a kind of non-space, an in-between space, a space where they could also play with us sitting in front of them, with our knowledge of their fakery, of how they go about producing it. This kind of thing can get a bit kitsch at times, but the tongue-and-cheek of it all here–especially coupled with the very clipped rhythm the show moved in–kept things more or less fresh. Of course, all this was later related back to the whole business of management as well (there was a short interlude that discussed an actor’s capacity to elicit certain emotions/emotional responses from spectators through acts of manipulation that seemed to contain easy to spot links to the whole notion of running a business), but honestly, I was just too busy letting loose and laughing a bit (dear god comedy is such a hard thing to get right, especially absurdist/satirical comedy) to really care about the greater thematics that evening.
The last piece I saw this weekend, however, was decidedly less ludic, but this had more to do with certain imageries and juxtapositions in the staging than the piece itself.
La Chauve-Souris(Die Fledermaus) de Johann Strauss, dir. Célie Pauthe, MC93, March 16, 2019
I know what you all may be thinking: ‘Opera? Really?’. Yes, really.
This show is actually being put on in partnership with the Academie de l’Opéra de Paris, and simply put, I quite like the idea of taking opera and moving it out of the city and into the suburbs for a bit (and for much lower prices too!). Makes it more accessible, if nothing else.
Anyway, the operetta. The piece itself can be summed up as a farce involving a man who is meant to turn himself into prison where has been sentenced to an 8-day stint, deciding to skip out on that to go to a party with his friend, his wife (in disguise) and the chambermaid showing up to the party as well, and everything just being silly. Act II closes with an ode to champagne. Silly.
No, what’s more interesting about this piece is that during her research, the director discovered that it was performed by prisoners at a concentration camp not far from Auschwitz. This camp was known for housing artists and creative types–basically anyone whose absence would have potentially caused a slight media stir–, and as such, often the prisoners were forced to perform for the guards. I don’t know what or how much can be said about the particular kind of torture that this represents that isn’t stinking of a cliché, but what cannot be denied is the fact that at times, performance became both an act of survival as well as a sort of act of resistance.
This connection was reflected very openly in the stage design, which consisted of a set of walls, bare except for the lower stage left corner on which was printed an image of one of the interior corridors of the camp (I was a bit too far away to confirm, but there is a chance that the photo itself may have been taken following liberation in 1945). Periodically, video footage of the director’s 2018 visit to the camp would be projected on the walls as one of the characters performed a solo, the lights dimming down from their usual warm glow to signal the presence of this ‘memory’ in the show’s history. Costume and prop design also nodded to the late 1930s/early 1940s, the lack of overt ‘opulence’ in the décor and objects further harkening back to the tragedy the piece is intertwined with.
This production also contained a sort of aside that broke the fourth wall, so to speak, with this one further functioning as a means through which the connection between the play and the Holocaust would be more pointedly thrust forward. At the start of Act III, just as everyone had settled back into their seats following intermission and the house lights turned off, the stage lit to focus on a man sitting on a table center stage, with a small screen behind him. What ended up getting projected on this screen was a propaganda video made by the Nazis of prisoners in the camp living what appeared to be a blissful life in nature, with leisure activities, excellent medical care, food, cultural programs, etc. Of course, this was all completely fabricated, and the actor on the stage made that point very clear several times. What is striking, of course, about this footage is the knowledge of the horrific tragedy and torture looming over it. There is a sort of weighted, heavy presence hanging over the–to us, who know what really happened in those camps–supposed bliss and joy on people’s faces.
It is easy to see the connection between this and a piece whose main plot centers around a party, around good fun, silliness, but which was performed under circumstances of incredible duress.
I’m not sure if I’m going to end up writing about any of these pieces in further detail for my dissertation, at this point, I have a meeting on Friday with my advisor (finally!) to talk about things and maybe even lay out a game plan for where I go from…wherever I am right now. But where February was relatively quiet theatre-wise, March is going to be absolutely packed. Let’s hope my fingers (and my brain) will be able to withstand all the typing.
I’m sort of starting to come to the realization that, as I get closer to hacking out this thing that will eventually become my dissertation (or a mess that slightly resembles one), I’m not entirely sure how realistic it’s going to be to write up detailed descriptions of every single show I see on this blog. This isn’t really so much to do with a general feeling of laziness–even though I should admit I’ve taken a slight writing break again to focus on some grading I absolutely needed to get done these past few days–, but rather more to what I’ve started to use this blog for on a personal level.
If my Instagram, where I post a program photo every night I see a play, serves as a sort of personal show archive, this thing has become something of a place where my first drafts start to take shape. I honestly almost find it hilarious that, as I was writing up some show critiques that would eventually be integrated into the larger work, I was referencing back to here more often than to any of my (many…oh god so many) notebooks. So with that in mind, I think from here on out I’m probably only going to do more detailed posts on shows that stuck with me, shows that I want to go back to, that I have thoughts on.
But before getting into that, a small update on my current state of being: I’ve been feeling slightly guilty about my present ‘lazy’ streak. I think one trap that I (and I’m guessing a lot of other PhDs) fell into was looking up how often I should be working on this thing, or whether my productivity/rest periods were ‘normal’. In short, whether I was doing enough. It is incredibly disheartening sometimes at 1am, right before bed, to stumble upon articles or blog posts that say that if you’re not working on your thesis at least 15 hours a week then you’re doing it wrong. But then I just have to remind myself that, at least for me, sometimes taking my time is how I am the most effective (although, yeah I fall into patterns of procrastination that sort of start a cycle of feeling as if I’m just cutting corners, cheating my way through this, and thus have no idea what I’m talking about). I absolutely hate the whole ‘productivity’/’work output’ narrative, and I don’t think it really does anyone any favors, especially when it comes to a kind of work where you’re stuck in your own head for the most part.
I mean, hell, I managed to write around 70 pages in about 2.5 months, and this is with working about 15hrs/week on top of that (not including lesson planning and grading).
And I know that, logically, there is no magic or “right” way to be doing this. It’s just hard not to fall into that trap when Google is right at your fingertips.
Anyway, enough with that. On to today’s two write-ups, the second of which is…well…let’s just say I have some THOUGHTS on it.
Doreen (d’après Lettre à D. d’André Gorz), directed by David Geselson, Théâtre de la Bastille, January 21
I’m not usually the biggest fan of hyper-realistic theatre, mostly because I’ve found that the closer a design attempts to approach the ‘real’, the easier it becomes to spot the artifice. The exceptions to this are usually productions that sort of use that knowledge to their advantage, or at least try and interrogate it somehow. This, I would say, is one of those exceptions.
A bit of background first: the piece itself is liberally inspired by–and at times quotes directly from–André Gorz’s Lettre à D, an ode he wrote to his wife, Dorine, who at the time of writing (2006) was dying from an unspecified illness likely caused by some injections she had received decades earlier on a routine visit to have some x-rays done. The two had been married for close to sixty years at that point, and the text itself reflects that, particularly in the pang of realization of the possibility that soon one of them may have to try and live without the other.
In real life, Gorz and his wife both committed suicide in 2007, preferring to die together on their terms than risking being separated. As for Doreen, the show program makes no secret of the final endgame–and indeed, those familiar with the real story have already been ‘spoiled’ on that account–, but at the same time, it, and the production, prefer not to linger on that and focus instead on the long ‘moment before’. How do you sum up or capture a life of nearly sixty years together in close to an hour and a half?
The answer, it seems, is to host a dinner party.
As far as gestures of hospitality are concerned, eating together, sharing or offering food to others is perhaps one of the most intimate. There is an act of camaraderie in the passing around of dishes, in pouring out glasses of wine from the same bottle, in dipping hands together into one bowl of chips to grab some to nibble on (all while making sure to leave some for the next person). When the doors to the Bastille’s black box/little theatre opened, what we were greeted with when we walked in was a sort of living room set decorated in a distinctly mid-century modern style (carpeted, and lots of beige/browns…you know that almost comforting yet also somewhat overwhelming scent of old dusty books? It looked like that, if that makes sense). Chairs were set up around 3 sides of the rectangular perimeter, with the back wall being taken up by a set of his/hers desks. Patrons could thus choose to sit either incredibly close to, or even somewhat on the set (as I did), or a few rows back on slightly more traditional raked seating.
The most prominent thing in the room, however, was the dining table set (assuming we are looking at the stage front-on) at a diagonal on the upper stage right quadrant. On this table were several serving platters with cheeses, charcuterie, cherry tomatoes (because this is Paris, and there are some stereotypes that will never cease to be so hilariously true), nuts and dried fruits, and crackers, as well as several bottles of wine, some carafes of water and juice, napkins, toothpicks, and drinking glasses.
The two actors, our André and Doreen, were pretty much in host-mode right from the start, inviting us to help ourselves to what was on offer (it took a minute for someone to get up the courage to be the first at the table, but not as long as I would have predicted). The minute someone approached the table to not just look at but actually serve themselves, the energy of the room just shifted to move over there. People claimed seats first, of course, and what I found particularly endearing here was the fact that several times “André” and “Doreen” actually helped some older patrons to find more comfortable seats, engaging directly with these individuals. It’s a small but not insignificant thing. Showing direct concern for another’s needs or well-being is a step towards fostering a connection of trust, of a friendly intimacy.
There was no real announcement that the show was about to “officially” begin–though, let’s be honest, it started from the moment the doors opened–, but naturally after the house doors had been closed, everyone made their way back to their seats. The house lights remained on, keeping us ensconced (for the moment) within the world on the stage, and with this André and Doreen launched into an initial summary of their story together.
Now the expected thing in a situation like this would be to have either one of the two take the lead in the storytelling–thus establishing themselves as a sort of ‘primary narrator’–, or if not to have the two play off of one another in a sort of storytelling volley. In other words, the staging would be such that one voice takes precedence over the other, in order for the audience to be able to clearly follow what was being said.
Instead, what happened here was that both “André” and “Doreen” began to speak at the exact same time. Furthermore, rather than being identical, their speeches had almost nothing to do with one another, other than the fact that they centered on some aspect of the couple’s relationship. While “Doreen” centered her speech more on the couple’s personal history–how they met, and so forth–, “André” focused more on the relationship in conjunction to his writing career, and more specifically on the final book he had just finished writing. As the two actors were seated either upstage right (“Doreen”) or down center stage, literally in the front row of seats (“André”), it was not entirely impossible, from an audience perspective, to drown out one voice for the sake of concentrating on the other, provided, of course, that one was seated relatively closer to one of the actors than the other. For those situated in between them–as I was–the choice or act of listening was a bit trickier. I ended up listening in more on “Doreen”, as the higher pitch in her voice carried more clearly, but there were also moments where I attempted to ignore her in an attempt to “eavesdrop”, as it were, on “André’s” conversation. The problem with doing that–as well as the general conundrum of being stuck in the middle–, however, was that it required playing catch-up to try and pick up the thread of conversation, while at the same time acknowledging that one could be missing something being said by the other partner. This idea of remaining in a certain state of ignorance, of not being given full access to every single bit of information, happens anyway for those who happened to be sitting considerably closer to one actor than the other. But the question of having a choice, of actively choosing to not listen or at the very least choosing which voice to give preference to is one that really only becomes apparent for those who just so happened to choose a seat that just so happened to not be near enough to either of the actors to make the decision-making process easier for them.
At the same time, these initial simultaneous speeches are also the first indication that, though the living room set, the invitations to partake and share in the food and drink, and the initial chitchat between the actors and some audience members suggested that the latter were being fully invited “in” to the world on the stage, a full immersion or ‘world-sharing’ was only illusory. In other words, there were going to be gaps, parts we could not see, parts of the story we, the observers, were perhaps never meant to be privy to. Some of the instances where this became evident were relatively innocuous–as the duo reflected back on their lives, memories came up not in any chronological order, but were rather triggered by something one member of the duo said/did, transitions following a pattern or code unknown to those ‘outside’ the couple–, but there was one moment where the cutting off of avenues to understanding became rather explicit. Towards the final tail of the piece, the duo gets into an argument, triggered in part by how to tackle the question of “Doreen’s” illness, as well as “André’s” work schedule. At this moment, the house lights are more or less off, with the living room lighting dimmed to suggest an evening glow. There is a sound of rain, light at first–so light, in fact, that I at least almost thought it wasn’t part of the sound design, but was rather the actual rain that was scheduled to fall that night–but then progressively escalating to a full-blown storm (complete with thunder and lighting sounds). As the sound increases, so does the intensity of the argument between the two characters. Eventually, the duo finds themselves at the center of the stage, still yelling at one another, but at that point the sound of the rain had grown so loud that it all but completely drowned out everything else. At times, one of the voices would cut through the rain–proof that the actors were still actually speaking rather than miming an argument–, but it was not enough to make out distinct words or phrases. By the time the storm died, the argument was over. No resolution to that moment was given, at least it was not given to the members of the audience.
It’s enough to make one wonder whether or not we were “owed” one, and if so, why? On what grounds? Were we even supposed to be there, watching this, anyway? The intimacy of the situation is almost suffocating here not just because of how limited it is, but of the shift from welcome guest to voyeur that this moment in particular results in. It’s funny, I think, whenever a production unexpectedly makes you question your act of “watching” like that.
Ils n’avaient pas prévu qu’on allait gagner, written by Christine Citti, directed by Jean-Louis Martinelli, MC93, January 24
Ok buckle in kids because I have some THOUGHTS on this one.
Before I get to them though, a little preface: for those who are familiar with the show Orange is the New Black, remember how the show creators/writers characterized Piper early on as being kind of a “Trojan horse” that would bring viewers–and let’s be honest, when they say viewers, they mean white viewers–into the world of the mostly WOC-populated prison? Yeah, let’s keep that in mind for a minute.
This play doesn’t take place in a prison but rather in a group home for kids who, for one reason or another, are part of the French foster care system. The piece itself was inspired by time that both writer Citti (who appears in the piece as a fictionalized version of not necessarily herself, but of the role/position she had) and director Martinelli spent visiting and working with the kids and staff in one such home. The latter had originally gone to try and see if it would be possible to organize some theatre classes, but when that didn’t pan out (logistics and whatnot), he and Citti entered into a sort of loose collaboration to see if they could create something. The result is a piece that largely centers on a group of teenagers in a home in Saint-Denis (a suburb just outside Paris), but contrary to what one might think, this is not a piece of documentary theatre. Rather than taking direct stories or testimony from the kids they met/worked with and creating something out of that, the resulting script was written using those stories and experiences as inspiration. The production team is very open about this, insisting to not take the focus off the fact that this is a constructed piece of theatre. Further drawing attention to the theatrical construction of this whole piece is the fact that all of the kids are played by actors who are very obviously in their mid to late-twenties (“Hollywood” teens, in other words). What does not get touched on is the fact that, once again, here we have a piece of theatre that focuses primarily on the experiences of disenfranchised minority groups written by a white author.
Yes, pretty much all of the kids in the piece are POC, though there are a couple of white kids from low-income families in the mix as well. Thankfully, despite the piece starting with Citti’s character coming in for her first afternoon volunteering at the home and the resulting back-and-forth that pairs her earnestness (but not naiveté, thank goodness) with the kids’ suspicion, this is not a “white person comes in and saves the poor POC kids from themselves by teaching them to believe in their dreams and blah blah blah”. Rather, Citti remains more or less silent, with the majority of the piece reserved for the kids (their interactions with one another and the staff, moments where they tell their stories or reveal a bit more about their home lives, etc). Citti does have a couple of scenes in which she has a short dialogue with one or more of them, as well as some instances in which she directly addresses the audience, summarizing events to signal the passage of time. Most of the time, however, she is seated–usually far stage right–with a notebook in front of her (even if she’s not writing in it, it’s there). She, then, is “our” — and by “our” I mean the mostly white audience, including myself, and especially those of us who have been privileged enough to not know what it is like to live in group home — in, our Trojan horse into the world.
Of course, the fact that she remains on stage as an observer, as a sometimes notetaker, gives her something of an air of an ethnographer, though I have a slight suspicion this may not have been intentional. Regardless, I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that though this piece is primarily dominated by the voices of performers of color, that the words they speak and the narrative being played out is inspired by the experiences of POC, the words themselves are filtered through a white lens by virtue of Citti’s act of writing.
I also kind of sometimes wonder whether my American-ness is having too much of an effect on my perception of this, considering that these sorts of conversations very rarely happen in France (outside of some anti-racist circles). Then again, North America is still very far from perfect in how it addresses these same questions so…there you go.
In any case, the staging of Citti as an observer did also end up tying her closer to those of us in the audience by virtue of her act of watching. She essentially does the same things we do. She sits, mostly quiet, watches, reflects, but in the end, her presence there doesn’t result in a life changing moment or a revolution for the kids she has put herself in close proximity with. Granted, to think that theatre itself (especially theatre about explicitly politically and emotionally charged topics such as this one) can directly lead to large-scale structural change is a bit foolhardy. A play can make someone think, but it’s not going to change the world on its own. But for a situation like this, why is it, exactly that an audience needs to be here? Is it for the exposure of these stories, so that they can reach a space outside the walls of the group home? If so, why did it need to happen in this medium, with this writer and director?
At a certain point in the production, all the kids gather in a plexiglass “box” in the center of the stage, earlier established to be the program director’s office. Earlier, one of the home’s residents–a Vietnamese kid who doesn’t speak, as he does not speak French, but rather moves slowly about the space, silently interacting with his fellow residents–had taken a white marker and written the names of all the kids, as well as those of the staff and of the character Citti plays, on the front of the box. When the kids gather inside, they stand facing outward, directly towards those observing them, and it is almost impossible to not conjure up images of a zoo, of animals on display, their names letting visitors know who (or what) they are. It is a powerful image, directly playing to the implications of the gazes of those in the audience.
It is also irresponsible, I think, to stage an image like that without taking the time to interrogate the origins of the play of which it is part.
So there you have it. My thoughts on this last one are perhaps somewhat incoherent, but its a piece that, either intentionally or not, unearths quite a lot of complexities.
In other news, this weekend I am headed to this new immersive experience called DAU that, in brief, is inspired by living conditions in the Soviet Union (think ultra-high surveillance and whatnot). My expectations are…low-ish…but mostly because so many people were trying to characterize it as this new life-changing/art-changing thing, and that kind of talk makes me both curious and suspicious. In any case, I am prepared for anything with this, including hilarity and nonsense, and I have a feeling that, no matter what ends up happening, I am very much going to enjoy writing about it.
I think one of the things I still struggle a bit with sometimes is the whole idea that no one (or, well, very few people) is every going to really read my dissertation…probably.
Because on the one hand, almost no one is going to read it (so that takes some of the pressure away…but only a fraction of it)…
…but on the other hand, if this thing is just going to collect dust somewhere, what am I doing it for?
I do wonder sometimes if the work I’m doing is “necessary”, if it can maybe help people in some way. Sometimes I find myself thinking that I’m not sure the world really needs another person yapping about theatre for 200+ pages right now, and other times I think that my loving the theatre so much to want to devote my time writing about it (all while still wondering if I am even contributing anything new to the conversation…but what arts/humanities PhD doesn’t constantly ask themselves this?) is enough. Who knows? I would like something else to come out of all this though…something beyond the final dissertation. I’m just not sure what that is yet.
Teaching high school has, I think, had a larger effect on the development of my state of mind and my relationship with my project than I had originally anticipated, I think. Maybe it’s because every time I leave the school for the day, I always ask myself if I have really given anything to my students, if I’ve managed to get them to think outside the confines of their own bubble at all. I have some doubts about this. But then again, I’m always thinking I should be giving more, that I can give more. I just want to be useful somehow, like I’m contributing something other than noise (or worse) a repetition of something someone else has already said.
For now, though, I’ll limit my usefulness to providing you lovely reader(s) with some comments on Angélica Liddell’s The Scarlet Letter at La Colline, a show that brought me back to some very familiar aesthetic territory, but also made me a bit angry.
To preface, despite the title, this play is not a direct adaptation of Hawthorne’s novel, but rather only inspired by it. Yes, Hester Prynn (played by Liddell) and Arthur Dimsdale are present as figures in the production. Yes, there is a scarlet letter A sewn onto Hester’s dress, and yes, female sexuality is thematically thrust front and center. Overall, however, the production was concerned more with sexuality, morality/moral hypocrisy and the act of transgression than it was with linear narrative.
It was the morality thing, above all else, that eventually irked me.
In her director’s note, Liddell begins by quoting the following from the opening of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter:
“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”
From here, she, I would say correctly, highlights a link between the sacred or the hallowed–can’t forget that even for the Puritans, cemeteries and proper burials were reserved for only certain members of the population–and the abject, or the rejected (that which has been deemed as going against the established order and must consequently be excluded). She links this back to art by proposing the hypothesis that art cannot exist without the act of moralizing, that, indeed, art is born from the disdain and rejection poured out by audiences/consumers toward the work in question for either its refusal to adhere to a certain moral code, or the lengths to which it pushes it. She continues by likening the process of art-making to taking a scalpel and draining a pus-filled plague sore, not necessarily to cleanse her body, but to drain and expose the toxicity of the bodies of her audience. It is, then, an exposure of that which many may well wish to keep hidden away. In order for this ‘drainage’ to work, however, she needs us–the audience–to be there, us with our potential for scorn and ridicule and disgust. I’ve copied the relevant excerpts from the text below for reference (and for anyone who can read French and is curious):
“En exposant sa propre pourriture, l’artiste, le fou, l’immoral agit tel un scalpel sur les bubons pestilentiels de ses maîtres : il les draine. Sans juges, la punition n’existerait pas. Et sans lettre écarlate, l’art n’existerait pas. Sans moralisme, l’art n’existerait pas. Sans hypocrisie, l’art n’existerait pas.”
As she says later…there could not have been a Mary without an Eve.
Honestly, if this show was in production back when I was writing my first Master’s thesis on masochistic theatricality in Genet, I would have been alllll over it because even this short excerpt by itself is so incredibly aligned with what I was writing on back then. Hell, the Genet parallels are even stronger earlier in the text when Liddell makes an open ‘confession’ to her criminality–something she later vocally repeats on the stage:
“Alors laissez-moi être une criminelle. Celle qui vous parle tue, vole, pervertit.” [“So let me be a criminal. She who now speaks to you kills, rapes, perverts.”]
This isn’t the only Genet parallel to be found here–a later bit sees the troupe of eight nude men clasping bouquet’s of flowers between their legs so that they seem to burst out of their behinds in an image recalling not just Genet’s Un Chant d’amour, but also one Pier Paolo Passolini–, but the criminal element did stick out to me precisely because of the allusion to a personal past. See, when Genet called himself a criminal in his works, there was a ring of truth to it precisely because before he became known as a writer he was a thief and a prostitute, two occupations that go against what may be described as ‘orderly’ or ‘moral’ behavior by the dominant ‘powers that be’. Liddell, from what I can gather, is neither a murderer nor a rapist, but she does have quite the penchant for perversion, so I will give her that.
The majority of the close to two-hour performance is a mix of theatre, dance and performance art that sees Liddell–wearing a black silk dress and hoop skirt, with, as it is revealed later, nothing underneath–sharing the stage with the aforementioned troupe of eight nude men, as well as one figure in red cloak and matching face veil (Arthur Dimsdale), and a black dancer, dressed at first in a light blue tunic. In one of her first monologues (there are three), Liddell loudly proclaims that she hates living in a world where women hate men.
Yeah, that’s right…there is some anti #metoo stuff here, all in the name of speaking against what Liddell identifies as new forms of puritanism. Is it provocative? Yeah, I guess you could say it is, in a way, since it definitely provoked a somewhat visceral reaction in me. But, I would also argue that it comes from a misreading of the entire point of the #metoo movement, instead drawing on the hysteric comments from its detractors.
To illustrate my point, let me jump ahead a bit to the middle of the production, during which Liddell addresses her sexuality explicitly, not just as a woman, but as a woman over 50 (conveniently, this comes shortly after author Yann Moix offered his…opinions…on the sexual desirability of women over a certain age). She begins by commenting on the relationship between the attractiveness and ‘beauty’/ ‘purity’ of younger women and the male gaze/male consumption. Men desire this youth, this nubility, the unmarked skin that can be sullied when they touch it (or penetrate it…again and again). What remains hidden–the lines, wrinkles, sweat, cellulite, mucus, piss, etc–begins to appear as age takes hold, and now the woman, no longer conforming exactly to the desires of men becomes ‘ugly’. But she craves, she wants, this ‘ugliness’ that is projected out of her is a result of years of being gazed upon as a desired object, and now that that ‘status’ is forbidden, essentially, to her, she can free her lechery. Liddell, who is 52 herself, uses the stage to perform out her desire for men, for their bodies. At one point, the men of her entourage form two lines, facing inward. As she walks down the center of these two lines, she stops between each pair, briefly taking one penis in each hand before continuing down. At the final pair, she kneels down and very briefly takes one of them into her mouth.
Here’s the thing about that: on the whole, desiring somebody is normal. Women’s desire and sexuality has been repressed continuously in all manner of societies–this is true. At least as far as I am concerned, there is nothing wrong with fantasizing, and indeed, #metoo does not call for a blind stamping out of “impure thoughts” or desire in general–at least that’s not how I see it. I mean, really, anyone is pretty much free to have whatever dirty fantasies they like. The problem, however, is not just when that fantasy transcends into reality, but when that act of doing so involves the nonconsensual negation of another person’s (usually a woman’s) autonomy.
Really, though, it isn’t too much to ask to not be groped at work, or have a boss or coworker make suggestive comments (or worse bribe you into performing sexual favors for the sake of maintaining/advancing your career). The reason it probably feels to some people as though it is a ‘witch hunt’ is not because everyone is making all this up out of thin air–to do so would be a disservice for victims anyway–it’s because now we have the platforms to, loudly, say what maaaaaaany people have been saying for generations. Hell, #metoo was started by a woman of color in the 1990s. The internet just makes it easier to be more open about it now.
Anyway, all this is to say that I think Liddell may have contradicted herself in her own speech (though who knows, maybe I am entirely off base).
I was going to try and jot down some other reflections on the design of the show (so much red), but I’m feeling myself get a bit worked up, and I have to rush back to teach my final class of the day.
We’re reading Into the Wild in my 11th grade class. I never thought I’d be encountering that book in a classroom again after a writing class freshman year of college. At least this time it was my choice to include it in my curriculum.