It never ceases to amaze me that, with regards to the history of popular revolt and revolution (especially in France), the first thing that comes to mind to many State-side is a commercialized musical.
I say this less as a way to harp on Les Mis and more as a result of a reflection on two things: the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune and a New York Times article on theatre that I read yesterday. In the case of the former, it is rather telling that a popular movement (and let’s get more specific – one that saw the involvement of several anarchists) such as this one has joined the ranks of several others like it (not just in scope or in aim but also in the fact that it was suppressed – violently – by the powers it directly challenged and destabilized) in being largely lost in the American imagination. Then again, there are several socio-ideological reasons behind why leftist history in America tends to be pushed out, leaving only traces – symbols – behind. These symbols then get picked up, sanitized, and, divorced from their context, sold off to a public willing to buy a facsimile of a revolution, singing along to “Do You Hear the People Sing” while the image of a red flag waves in the air. It’s condensed enough to be turned into a slogan you can put on a button or a t-shirt, the illusion of being close enough to revolt while still retaining a sense of comfort that, fundamentally, not much will change once the piece is over.
To illustrate this point: I remember going to see the revival of Hair back when it returned on Broadway in 2009, and in particular, how excited I was to finally get to see something from an era I was starting to dive more into. Yet, what I most retained from that experience – and what, thinking back now, somewhat informed my approach to Re-Paradise at Nanterre a few years ago – was how empty it all felt. Holding up anti-war signs, inviting the audience up to dance on stage with the actors, extolling the merits of free love and self-expression and criticizing the war machine sending young men off to die rings more hollow in a gilded theatre space where tickets are prohibitively expensive. But nostalgia sells tickets.
This is all more or less to say that, albeit with some exception, American theatre has difficulty truly getting political. What I mean by this is that the system – as it is – fundamentally does not allow for the kind of formal and contextual reckoning that could move what goes on the stage to a point beyond consumption of “political” imagery to actual confrontation and potentially discomfort. Now, America is not unique in this (I have already spent ample time writing on my frustrations with similar trends on French stages), but I want to make this point to link to the NY Times article I read this week which concentrated on the occupation of theatres in France by performing arts students and workers that has been underway for the better part of this month.
In brief, while these occupations may on the surface seem only to be about re-opening performance spaces – that is, divorced from the reality of the pandemic – in actuality (and it is here that I believe the article should have leaned more heavily towards) the fact that they are happening at all is a direct result both of the recognition of the very real consequences that COVID and its aftermath will engender, and at the same time that these consequences did not just come out of nowhere. Rather, they are the results of what I would argue to be decades of an eroding away of public funds combined with an increased mépris for those who work in the industry. It says quite a lot, in my opinion, that the current Minister of Culture, for example, has absolutely no background in the industry (her background is in pharmacology), yet is a lover of opera, which apparently counts as a qualification.
To return to the occupation, if one were to look at the list of demands (provided here, in French), one will note that chief among them is not the mere gesture of reopening – in fact there is an explicit recognition that that is not going to solve the larger problems at hand – but rather, and this is where the Times article starts to connect, without providing much detail, back to the question of American theatre, that of labor. More precisely, the demands concern the very real worries of students and those who work in the industry (called intermittents du spectacle because of the irregular nature of their work) regarding their employment and benefits status, as well as the lack of communication from the Ministry.
(A brief side note: the Minister of Culture did speak on French radio following the start of the occupations, calling them irresponsible. Ma’am, irresponsible is not communicating with representatives from the sector your Ministry supposedly advocates for.)
Now, in non-pandemic times, intermittents are normally eligible for some unemployment benefits in periods when they are out of work, provided they complete a certain number of work hours over the course of a year (the fact that theatre jobs are as erratic and irregular as they are is largely the reason behind why the system is set up like this). However, access to these benefits can be revoked if the work hour minimums are not met. When the pandemic hit last year, the government initially declared that 2020 would be what is called an “année blanche”. In other words, given the circumstances, the work hours requirement would be waived, giving intermittents at least a little security. Crucially, however, the année blanche was set to expire at the end of August 2021, presumably under the expectation, at the time, that work would have picked back up by then (or because Macron’s government is simply not a fan of distributing monetary aid where it’s needed, but we’ll get to that in a bit). Since the theatres closed again in October after having reopened again for a hot second, there has been little to no communication with artistic directors or union representatives regarding any projections for the rest of the year. Rehearsals are still allowed to happen to some (read: minimal) degree, but this doesn’t mean much when it is impossible to know whether or not, in the end, the performance will be able to be seen at all. But more pressingly, the lack of communication also extends to whether or not there are plans to extend the année blanche beyond its original deadline, meaning that thousands of folks are suddenly finding themselves in a very precarious position.
Yet, their demands are not entirely restricted to the realm of live performance. Case in point: the demand that the government retract an upcoming reform on unemployment benefits. Intermittents themselves are not directly affected by this, but, the long and short of it is that should this reform pass (and given the right-leaning makeup of this government, this is likely), a lot of folks are going to see their unemployment benefits slashed. The post-COVID crisis is going to hit a lot of people very hard, and there’s been quite a lot written already about how, globally, the wealth gap is only going to get wider. I will not bore anyone here with my usual talk of why there haven’t been real steps (in France, but also in the US) to tax the wealthy – or better yet, actually do something about those who use Luxembourg as a tax haven to accrue more wealth than anyone would need in a lifetime – and instead close this with a final point to piggy-back on one touched on in the article.
As much as France can tout its institutional support for the arts (and it is true, it is rather generous compared to other countries), when it comes down to the people working in the arts, the actors, the professors, the directors, set / costume / lighting designers, tech crew, etc., there is a lack of consideration (by the heads of State, primarily) for the labor involved that makes the sector as rich as it is. This has been going on prior to Macron, and it will most certainly last after he’s gone, so long as the notion that some jobs are more “essential” than others persists.
Because as much as that word has become synonymous with a certain imagining of those jobs that are needed to keep things running – of hospital staff, grocery staff, postal and sanitation workers, teachers – when it comes down to concrete measures, it starts to become clear that this image of “essential” does not exactly align with reality. Public hospitals still face cuts (again, in France this has been going on for a couple decades), especially in number of ICU beds, essential, low-income workers are not always working in conditions conducive to their own safety. Hell, aside from hospital staff, everyone else mentioned – including teachers – are not as of yet prioritized for vaccines, unless they are of a certain age and/or have pre-existing conditions.
No, essential has meant that which aligns with a certain set of (capitalist / neoliberal) values for a while. It is an absolutely inhuman way to see the world, and yet here we are.
As of now, the occupation at the Odéon – itself a historical site of occupation, particularly in 1968 – is still going strong and shows no sign of slowing down. There are over 50 other theatres (and counting) across the country that have joined in. Call it the power of unions, or of the collective, but in any case, it’s the people holding the State responsible, of not waiting to be brought in to the conversation but making the conversation themselves. It is political in the sense that the people involved are, by virtue of speaking, challenging the State’s notion of “legitimized” political “actors”, of those who can or cannot have a say in policy based on the perception of their profession – and more precisely what it “brings” to the State – as “valuable”.
This is not, however, to say that this movement will lead to a glorious revolution, or a utopian reversal of the way things are done in the artistic sector. As much as I can hope for the creation of an anarcho-leftist society, this past year has also firmly cemented my cynicism. But I think, and I am having trouble wording this, that what is happening in France speaks to something that I think the arts in the US deserve in terms of recognition. There are so many folks who work in the arts back in the States whose labor is undervalued, ignored. And the lack of recognition on a federal level (to think the Federal Theatre project in the 1930s could have been a reality had FDR not nixed it…because you can’t have too much socialism, apparently) doesn’t help matters. It also does not help that the governing bodies of major theatres look almost exactly the same (because yes, any popular, labor-related movement worth it’s salt must include questions of race / gender / identity along with those of class), which, to take us back to the initial thoughts that opened the article, has a marked effect on the kinds of art that are eventually produced.
So this is what I have been thinking about on the anniversary of the Commune, on the eve of a third confinement (except this one will include unlimited outdoor time within a 10km radius), with absolutely no possibility to predict anything beyond tomorrow. I am tired, I am pissed off, and I have been this way pretty much over the past year.
The loneliness didn’t fully hit me until I started baking again today.
Lots of folks on social media/in general are baking nowadays (as further evidenced by the lack of flour at the markets). It makes sense, honestly. Baking is comforting, it’s warm, sometimes sweet, rich, or just so carb-y you want to keep going back for more. It’s the kind of food that turns your tummy into a soft pillow you just want to rest your hands on in satisfaction, preferably as a precursor to a nap.
But baking–at least for me–is something that’s shared.
I used to bake pretty regularly back in Boston. This was partially due to my living situation at the time, but also having a full sized oven plus a ready group of friends/fellow grad students/co-workers who I could gift some of my goods to played a rather sizable role. The last time I really baked here was when I made my (3 layered…yeah) carrot cake for my birthday back in November. Even then, though, I had an apartment full of people ready to dig into that cake with me.
Now? The first thing I thought of when I pulled my cornbread out of the oven was ‘How the fuck am I supposed to eat this by myself?’
It’s strange for me to realize how much more pragmatic my line of thinking has become lately in light of all this. As much as I want to use this time to try out a new cake recipe or revisit a favorite cookie, I would also have to be the person consuming all that afterwords. And the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t shake the thought that I didn’t want to be the only person eating those things.
It didn’t help today that I accidentally knocked a bit more baking soda into my batter than the recipe called for–but I wasn’t going to be throwing any of it out, of course–as well as slightly overfilled my skillet, causing some batter to bubble out during baking. I was stressed, for lack of a better word.
But baking isn’t supposed to be stressful, right?
And so when I took that pan out of the oven, and even after I tasted the cornbread and found it still tasted perfectly fine, the only thing I felt towards it was frustration.
Yes, it was partially because I was disappointed in my little blunders, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that part of me was also disappointed that I didn’t have someone physically in the room with me to laugh about this with. It’s one thing to post about all this on Instagram after the fact; it’s quite another thing when someone else is there to react with you in real-time, and possibly help turn your mood when you goof up a bit. And to be honest, with the way things are going, that’s what I am genuinely terrified about: being alone for so long that the possibility for shared physical presence–not to mention intimacy–with someone else becomes its own kind of fantasy. Unattainable.
I ended up cutting the cornbread up into smaller pieces and storing them in a Tupperware in my fridge. I’ll have one for breakfast with some yogurt tomorrow. And the next day, and so on until it’s all done. Moderation is key for me. I am already terrified of the ramifications of this extended alone time; I don’t need to add any fears about what all this comparative inactivity will do to my own body image to the mix.
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?
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 honestly cannot remember the last time I managed to sit down and blog two days in a row.
Hell, other than the very first blog I started waaaaay back in January 2011 (which…holy shit was eight years ago) when I first moved out to Paris for a semester abroad, I cannot remember when was the last time I made a concerted effort to blog something, even a small thing, every single day for a duration of several months. Given how DAU-centric my last post was (and how much earlier I really should have published it…), I figured I’d give the show I saw yesterday afternoon its own space, if for no other reason that to give my thoughts some room to breathe.
Before that though, some updates:
1. I submitted my application for completion funding for the 2019/2020 academic year last Friday (Feb. 8). I honestly still cannot believe I managed to make it to that point–and let’s be real, if you had told me back in September that I would have been ready to submit this thing on time, I would have very likely thought you were crazy–, but, somehow the mess managed to pull itself together. At least now I can continue writing in (relative) tranquility without the whole ‘financial stability’ thing hanging over my head.
2. Somewhat related to the above, I’m going to be meeting with one of my committee members on Wednesday to finally get some feedback on the…gems…I submitted in the guise of chapter drafts. I’ve pretty much just accepted the fact that the whole ‘imposter syndrome’ thing is just going to keep following me around for as long as I’m doing this, so there really is no point in pretending that I am not internally kind of stressing about how that conversation is going to go. It’s not that I don’t like critiques of my work, I actually appreciate them a great deal. It’s more that there is always the risk of being told that I have no idea what I’m talking about/what I’m doing. I’ve learned to manage that kind of stress better as I’ve trudged along on this ‘journey of writing a thing that like…five people might read’, so at least there’s that :).
3. I took myself out on a solo movie date on Friday after the application had been officially submitted. I’ve been getting slightly more comfortable with doing some things on my own again and not feeling isolated about it (the joys of adulthood: scheduling time with other people is sometimes nowhere near as easy as it used to be in uni). Case in point: I’ve also signed up to this services that organizes live music events around the city, and uses a kind of lottery system to determine who gets one of the (somewhat limited) spots on a given night. I went to my first one of these at the end of last month; going to be heading to another in 2 weeks. Making efforts to get out of the house, even when I have to fight against myself a bit, have proven to be a good thing for my overall sanity (if anything, it’s a nice distraction from the constant thinking).
Anyway, enough of that. On to what I saw yesterday…
So those who read here somewhat regularly (hello all…five of you) might remember a couple of posts back I wrote about a show I had seen at the MC93, entitled Ils n’avaient pas prévu qu’on allait gagner. As a refresher, the show centered around a group of foster kids in a group home, and one of my main critiques concerned the fact that the text, rather than being composed of transcribed conversations the production team actually had during their respective times spent volunteering at one such location–or otherwise words that, even if fictional, came directly from the kids in such a way that it allowed them to carry some agency in the communicating of the particularities/nuances of their situation–was written by a someone who occupies a status of societal privilege. In addition, the staging, coupled with the manner in which the piece was composed, centered–purposefully or not–the privileged gaze in its narrative. It would be difficult to say, in other words, that given the aesthetics of the production, the goal was to question or destabilize that particular gaze, and not, as I would argue, leave it intact for the sake of ‘presenting’ a ‘problem’ to a supposedly somewhat ‘ignorant’ audience.
It would be perhaps good to keep the above in mind as I lay out my thoughts on the piece I saw last night, one that also centered a marginalized group, but in a way that I would say was ultimately more successful in destabilizing established structures (in particular, those revolving around the act of looking or gazing). This, I would argue, is in large part due to the fact that, in this instance, those marginalized were given greater autonomy with regards to their storytelling.
Didier Ruiz’s Trans (Més Enllà), as the title suggests, centers on the stories of transgender individuals–seven, in this case–, not only in terms of their personal histories, but how they themselves relate or interpret the question of ‘gender’ and the ‘gender binary’. The seven performers–four trans women and three trans men, ranging in age from 22 to early 60s–are not professionals. Instead, much like with a previous project centered on life while in prison, Ruiz set out to meet with different folks in the trans community in Spain (and more precisely Barcelona), ultimately forming a small troupe with the seven that ultimately appear in the show. The stories they tell are all theirs, though they are not necessarily chronological.
The stage itself–this, by the way, was at the Théâtre de la Bastille–was relatively bare, save for two gauzy screens that curved upstage where they somewhat overlapped to create a sort of hallway from which the performers would enter and exit (exceptions being a few instances where the performers entered/exited by coming around the side extremities of either one of said screens). While the performers were speaking, the screens remained bare, save for the French subtitles that were projected onto them (the piece was in both Spanish and Catalan, depending on what language the speaker was more comfortable with). The exceptions to this were a couple of transitional moments during which kaleidoscopic animations were projected onto them, a burst of color on an otherwise white stage.
The fact that there was no set script, and that the performers had a little bit of leeway in their storytelling meant that there was reasonable potential for the subtitles to not be word-for-word precise, or for things to get slightly deviated. This, however, was acknowledged in an opening subtitle text that was projected at the opening of the show, before the first performer began his speech, and, in a sense, it also acted as the first indication as to the degree of performative/speech agency that was granted to the speakers. Even while needing to maintain some sort of degree of precision or consistency, the words remained theirs.
Generally, the performance structure went as follows: one (or several) performer(s) would be on stage. They would look out at the audience for a beat before beginning their narration (one by one, in cases in which multiple performers were on stage at once). Everything was done in direct address, and though there were times in which, when multiple performers were on stage, the gazes of the non-speaking members would veer towards the person who ‘had the floor’ in that moment, the frontal, binary spectacle/spectator relationship remained relatively dominant. Whenever a performer would finish speaking, a few beats of silence would follow, during which the former speaker would fix their gaze outward, scanning the audience a bit before either they left the stage or another performer began speaking.
As I mentioned previously, one of the concepts interrogated in this production is that of the gender binary–and to go further, the notion of ‘transitioning’, of which surgeries, if any, one has done, whether one ‘passes’ or even, the inherent problems of continuing to adhere to this sort of idea, and finally, the degree, if any, to which an individual wants to distance themselves from their former identity–, and to that end, the decision to keep things starkly frontal, I would say, worked rather well in the destabilization of said binary, especially in the intimacy of the Théâtre de la Bastille.
Said destabilization mostly, I would argue, occurred in the silences. Now, I’m still kind of processing through my thoughts on how this worked, so you may all have to just bear with me for a minute as I try to organize things here. Anyway, as a prelude to this, one of the things Ruiz mentioned in his director’s note was the hope that eventually, the conversations around being trans would move beyond what does (or does not) exist between one’s legs. Namely, leaving the gender binary would involve moving past the assumption that there is a sort of endgame of ‘really’ or ‘fully’ transitioning, that one absolutely needs to have a certain set of ‘parts’ in order to be considered a ‘real’ man or woman. Never mind that this essentially erases the experiences of intersex or gender nonconforming folks, it also can pose problems to trans folks who maybe don’t want to undergo surgery, or who perhaps would like to someday but cannot afford it, or rather, cannot find a medical professional to perform it. There are several trans (and intersex and gender non-conforming) folks who have written or talked about their personal decisions to undergo or forego surgery, and if nothing else, it drives the point home (once again) that there is no one absolute way to ‘be’ a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’, that gender, much like sexuality, exists on a spectrum. Hell, the binary can be harmful to cis-folks too, but it has become so normalized, so ingrained in our society, that it is still, at least for me, somewhat difficult to imagine that we will ever fully divest ourselves from it (though I really hope I’m wrong on this).
I mean, even looking at some of the conversations surrounding legislation concerning transgender folks betrays the continued dominance of a rather invasive cis-centered discourse. I’m going to focus on how this applies in recent US legislation because that’s what I’m most familiar with but…the bathroom bills, the transgender military ban…to a certain extent those cases are based on a discourse that concerns itself primarily with what lies between an individual’s legs. And this carries forward into the way that individual may be perceived by others. This is the kind of perspective that fosters a gaze that looks for signs of ‘passing’–or inversely, signs that would ‘betray’ an individual’s ‘hidden’ gender identity (please note here, as above, the use of quotes). It retains the privilege of the cis gaze while also ensuring that the binary remains relatively untouched.
It is also precisely the kind of gaze that is called into question during the pauses in Trans….
When a performer appears on stage, even before they begin to speak, they take a moment to look out, to take in the spectators, and allow them to do the same. There is, in this, something of an acknowledgement of the fact that, at least for each performer’s first appearance, the audience’s gaze will very likely be, to a certain degree, that of a ‘sizing up’. We know that all seven of the performers are trans, but we do not know at what stage they are in their transitions, nor how they choose to identify themselves. The first silence, then, is that moment when those first gazes, those that conform to the notion of the ‘binary’ can happen. The fact that the pauses keep happening, however, especially as we learn more of each individual’s story–and though there are some common themes shared between a few, no two experiences are exactly alike–implies, in a sense, that the gaze has to change as well. That those looking must look differently, that repetitive pauses and moments of ‘looking’ bring attention to the act itself, and the positioning of those performing said act.
And this is all made even more present by the fact that those performing are speaking their own words, that they are given a voice and a platform from which to directly influence the shifts in perspective that ultimately lead to the aforementioned destabilization of the gender binary. They are granted autonomy, multiplicity; they are not reduced down to a ‘figure’ that has been filtered through a privileged gaze (though perhaps at another time, there could be a conversation as to Ruiz’s role in staging all this, in his choice of selecting the performers that he did, especially given that he is a cis-man).
Anyway, apologies again for any potential incoherence in everything I just hacked out, but I have quite a few thoughts to sort through, and I’m thinking that perhaps a few of them will have to wait to be hashed out in one of my dissertation chapters.
I had originally told myself that I would write about this immediately after attending, but since my procrastination streak shows no real sign of abetting any time soon (sigh), here I am about a week after the fact. Thankfully, however, I have talked about the experience with enough people that the thing hasn’t completely faded from my memory.
First things first, for those who want something of a primer as to what this was, here is a helpful article from The Guardian:
In short, this experience is the result of a years-long ‘workshop’ of sorts, which saw several people from varying walks of life–artists mostly, but also scientists, researchers, and workers–inhabit a block of Soviet-era warehouse style buildings in Ukraine in such a manner that not only did they willingly cut themselves off from the outside world, they also recreated in minute detail, a temporally accelerated version of life in the Soviet-era Eastern bloc from 1938 – 1968. All the while, the inhabitants were constantly being filmed (the article linked above goes into some detail regarding some of the ethical questions surrounding this, notably those involving some of the women who took part in the project), with the final footage edited down into just over a dozen 3-hour films. As individual works, the films are held together by thematic threads more so than a single, constructed narrative. They could, in fact, be said to resemble more ‘reality TV’ footage, as nothing is simulated (you can probably guess where some of the more problematic elements come from based on this), and inter-personal relationships are ostensibly said to have occurred more or less naturally. The DAU project, then, is a way to both show the films as well as recreate the experience of living under the intense surveillance of the Soviet era.
Or, well, at least that’s what it attempted to do.
To get this out of the way early: no, it was not a colossal failure. Though some have come out and made comparisons between this and the Fyre festival, I would be hesitant to do the same. Yes, there were problems (a number of which should have definitely been foreseen by someone on the production team, but I’ll get into that later), and yes the hype around this as being ‘revolutionary’ and ‘the thing that’s finally going to change the art world/art will never be the same after this/etc etc etc’ was premature and obviously overblown. At the same time, I would chalk those problems up to an overambitious (and self-centered) ego, rather than as the result of a blatant scam. Honestly, the reception around this probably would have been a lot better had they not tried to advertise it as an immersive experience.
Keeping all that in mind, let’s get into this.
When I initially came across the advert for the experience on Instagram, I was intrigued by the fact that not only would it be an immersive experience, but it would also be taking place in two theaters that are currently undergoing extensive construction and renovation work (the Théâtre de la Ville and the Théâtre du Châtelet). As I had yet to set foot in either of those theaters, I figured, why not do it now, when possibilities for spatial dynamics and exploration are so open?
Instead of tickets, those who wished to attend had to apply for a “visa”, of which there were three options: 6-hours, 24hrs, and unlimited access. For the first type, all one had to do was put in one’s payment info, submit a photo, and then select the date and hour they wished for their visa to ‘start’ (the expo is open non-stop throughout the duration of its run, so possibilities for entry times are…pretty much endless).
As to the 24hr and unlimited access visa, in order to acquire those, one had to agree to fill out a very personal questionnaire, the results of which would be used to generate a personal itinerary. Theoretically, those visa holders would also be granted access to an electronic device (yeah, in the spirit of the event, all phones had to be stored away in lockers before entering), that would orient them on where to go, as well as the next steps in their itinerary.
I, being a curious person (and admittedly a bit wine-happy that night), opted for the 24hr option. When I got to the questionnaire (this must be filled out before one can proceed to payment), and saw just how personal the things being asked were (think questions about your moral compass, but also, and more problematic, questions about your personal intimate relationships), I decided to lie a bit in my answers. I gave myself the profile of someone who may have possibly experienced some kind of past trauma, if only for the sake of (hopefully) testing the limits of this. Knowing what I had marked down, would that mean that the itinerary would orient me towards potentially triggering content? Would there be adequate staff or support on hand should a patron end up unexpectedly confronting a past trauma? Was I, in essence, consenting to potentially being rendered unsafe?
Unfortunately, I never got my answers to those questions because one of the things that ended up not happening was the whole ‘personal itinerary’ thing. Something about having access to our data, and how that’s a privacy issue….hmmmmmmmm…. Yeah.
Knowing that the personal itinerary thing was scrapped, I still decided to go anyway because maybe the rest of the ‘experience’ would still be worth it. Also, there were no refunds and I had already thrown down a LOT more money than I had ever thought I would for a performance in this city (thanks, wine).
Before I get into the nonsense, a couple of things I actually did like:
In the mezzanine hall of the Théâtre de la Ville, an area was set up with a series of small booths, covered in a heavy, metallic curtain. Inside these booths were ‘listeners’, people from different walks of life who had volunteered their time to the DAU project to sit in these booths as, one by one, visitors would come in and discuss whatever it was they wanted. I was curious about this, so I decided to put my name down at a moment when there seemed to be a lull in the wait time (oh yeah, it was pretty crowded the afternoon/evening I was there). I ended up in a booth with a nice older woman, and after the initial awkwardness was pushed out of the way–I have never put myself in a situation like this, so I literally had no idea what to say–, I, like any ‘good’ grad student, started talking about my dissertation. And the exchange was nice. Not the most incredibly, intimately personal of topics, but it was fun to flow back and forth with someone else for a bit…to bounce off my thoughts on them (because I still feel like I’m floundering and have no idea what I’m doing sometimes…figures). Originally, the idea was for all these sessions to be recorded, and, following their conclusion, for each visitor to be given the choice as to whether to erase or keep their video. Erase, and not only would that particular video be deleted from DAU’s recorded archives, but the visitor would be denied access from watching any other ‘confessions’. Keep, and the video would remain accessible to DAU and other visitors, and the individual in question would also be granted access to watch whatever other confessions they would have liked.
I think it’s pretty easy to understand why that would have caused problems, and why the whole recording thing ended up not happening (not sure if this was due more to technical issues, or to data and privacy protection laws in the EU…which, you know, someone should have looked into). For the record, just based on the nature of the conversation I happened to have, I would have probably been okay with its recording being stored in some kind of database, but I’m not sure how I would have felt about the whole ‘watch other people pour out their secrets’ thing. Besides, there would always have existed the possibility of someone consenting in error to having their data stored, but who knows how well DAU would have handled that scenario.
My absolute favorite thing though was getting to watch a piano concerto in the still-unfinished main theatre of the Théâtre de la Ville. Walking in and seeing nothing but concrete steps that mark out the rows of seats (and that are usually covered by carpeting) was enough to bring me back to when I saw a show at the Bouffes du Nord (a theatre that is purposefully kept more or less in the state it was reduced to following a fire), but what really sealed the deal for my love for this precise moment of the experience was what they did to the area where the stage would normally have been. As the space is still under heavy construction, the actual stage floor had not been laid yet, meaning that though the ‘skeleton’ of the proscenium was still there, there was a very large and deep pit that, in a ‘finished’ theatre would normally remain hidden. Those who have ever had the opportunity to poke around behind the scenes in large theatre houses are probably aware of the fact that below those stages–even further below any orchestra pits–is a network of scaffolding, hallways and nooks and crannies, sometimes used for storing props or equipment, other times used for facilitating anything involving trap doors. Here, though, the pit was bare, save for the pianist. So that those in the audience could watch, and not just listen, him play, a very large mirror was set up at an angle from the proscenium arch, reflecting the image of the pianist below, and giving the spectators a sort of bird’s-eye view. We, as the words painted on the walls in the pit suggested, were almost like gods by virtue of our positioning. All that aside, sitting in there, witnessing this exposure of a new kind of verticality, of a new potentiality for the use and design of the theatre space, was probably the only time I did not think about how much time was passing. I think just the simple fact of being in that space with it laid out in such a way that I knew would no longer be possible after the experienced closed and the theatre was ‘fixed up’ was enough. It was, in effect, a use of art as an opening of spatial/architectural possibilities; unfortunately, this was, as far as I could tell, the only instance where such a use occurred.
And now, on to the rest:
The spaces themselves were divided and organized thematically through the painting of words on the walls. At the Théâtre de la Ville, one could pass from ‘Motherhood’ to ‘Inheritance’, then ‘Brain’, ‘Futures’, or the aforementioned ‘Gods’. The thematic labels at the Théâtre du Châtelet were quite a bit more provocative–examples include ‘Sadism’, ‘Sex’, ‘War’, ‘Lust’, ‘Orgy’, etc–, but quite frankly did not really live up to any of the images they conjured, unless of course those images included the incredible banality of concrete. A bar in each of the two theaters served food and drink–which I did not partake in, even though a vodka or a whiskey would only have set me back 2eur, and who knows, maybe would have changed my perspective on this whole thing–and conveniently, there was also a gift shop front and center at the entrance of the Théâtre de la Ville. Yes, dear Patron Comrade, you too can complete your DAU experience with the purchase of an exhibition catalogue, a postcard, or even a delightful tin mug and/or bowl such as those that were used at the canteen.
Capitalism is fun.
By and large, the rest of the experience saw the majority of available spaces either outfitted as screening rooms to show the various films, or filled with even more of those metallic ‘confession booths’ described earlier (only this time, they were just…empty). An exception to this was the top floor of the Théâtre de la Ville–labeled ‘Communism’ on the handy maps that all visitors were given upon entry–which was transformed into a group of meticulously recreated Soviet-style apartments for the occasion. Think furnishings, knickknacks, photographs, clothes, basically anything to give the impression that the space had been and still was ‘lived in’. As the apartments were set up in what I am assuming normally function as administrative offices, one could peer into them from the windows that lined the hallway connecting all the apartments together. In other words, once again, any illusion of privacy, of a right to true personal space, was promptly done away with. Here one would also be very likely to encounter performers/artists who had either lived in the DAU complex in Ukraine and signed on to continue ‘playing’ their roles, or had been hired to play at being residents solely for the purpose of these exhibitions (after finishing here in Paris, DAU is set to move to London with the same concept). Visitors could engage these performers in conversation if they wished, though at times it was very possible that the latter would only speak Russian and have little to no knowledge of English or French. Verisimilitude and whatnot…or something.
One incident stood out from this portion of the experience: at the back of the hallway was a large apartment that seemed to belong to a group of traveling Romani shamans. It just so happened that when I and some other visitors wandered in, a few of them were preparing for a seance. The performers seemed to be ignoring us–though, when they spoke to one another, it was not in a language I understood, so I’m not entirely sure how our presence, or even the fact that we had the freedom to wander in and out as we pleased, factored in to their present routine–, and this sort of mutual lack of direct acknowledgement would have likely continued were it not for the fact that a fellow visitor at one point asked one of the performers if it would be alright if we stayed and watched.
It’s funny, I think in any other situation this would have been the correct way to go. We do not know if we are welcome, if we have been invited in, therefore it is only right that we ask. The tricky thing about this situation, however, is the fact that by virtue of the layout of the space, and the fact that our Visas grant us leave of exploration, this gesture of asking permission for access rings false. It doesn’t matter, really, if the performers answer that actually, yes, they’d prefer this to be a closed session. The window into the hallway ensures that there will always be eyes–the visitors’ eyes, our eyes, the eyes of the outsiders–looking in. We have the power of observation, of surveillance, of accessing almost whatever we want while in this area of the exhibit (though, at the same time, we watch knowing fully well that we are also under surveillance from those working the experience, for instance, ready to catch anyone who may have tried breaking the no-cell phone rule). Hell, those planning on trying to stick out the night could even theoretically sleep on one of the beds if they liked (though at that point, they themselves would also run the risk of being watched, of sacrificing their privacy and their power as an observer).
As to the films themselves, I managed to catch some snippets of some, but to be quite honest, I do not think I could sit through a full three hours of one. That takes a kind of willpower that I, quite frankly, have little time or patience for. Maybe it’s just me, but stark, loosely thematically connected, documentary/anthropological cinema isn’t something that can really hold my attention for that long. This becomes especially more evident when babies or small children are involved and you remember that there was no script writing or planning really involved in these, and you can’t help but think what kind of advocacy (if any) these kids had while essentially ‘working’ on this project. Nothing too egregious happened with the children on screen as far as I could tell–though there was one sequence involving babies being brought into a medical laboratory straight out of the late 40s/early 50s and being strapped to some equipment that made me uncomfortable, even though it didn’t appear as though any actual/permanent harm was done to them. The problem, though, is that all of that does raise questions about responsible artistic practices and the question of consent from minors or otherwise almost (if not entirely) voiceless persons.
In all though, even one week after the fact, I still cannot see the reason why all this had to happen in precisely those theaters, in those spaces ‘under construction’–spaces in transition, spaces that are not quite what they are supposedly labeled as–if the majority of the project consisted of screening films. Why call it an immersive experience? Yes, it was a bit odd having to surrender my phone, while at the same time seeing other workers/volunteers using their phones or other similar electronic devices (to do what…spy on us? Keep track of scheduled performances/screenings? Post updates on Instagram because yeah, you gotta keep the public interested after all?), and yes there were some flashes of realism/immersion with the apartment recreation, but overall, this could all have very well also taken place at a rented out movie theatre.
But who knows, maybe they’ll iron out the kinks by the time they get to London, at which point they may actually end up recreating a surveillance space as they had originally wanted.
Hello from the official start of my two weeks of vacation from teaching but not working! Not gonna lie, it’s pretty fantastic to be here.
First things first, I am in a much better place than I was when I last posted. I think all the stress was starting to get to me a lot more than I wanted to admit to myself, but writing it all out felt very cathartic.
And then, following my post, I ended up having a string of back-to-back hangout commitments, pushing me to get out of the house to do something other than go to the theatre on my own.
There was a raclette night (including an attempt to grill some sausages on the top of the raclette machine which…was not the greatest idea), which, since it fell just after the last day of Hanukkah, also included latkes and applesauce, and an absolutely decadent chocolate-caramel bûche de Noël from BléSucré. And then came the 100th edition of Saturday afternoon jazz at LaFontainedeBelleville, where I met up with an old friend and their parents (their mom even made friends with the gentleman at the table next to us, leading to said gentleman buying a bottle of wine and some charcuterie for the table…because why not).
I saw a friend perform in a short play festival at Cité U, grabbed drinks (and stayed out far later than expected) with another, and had a very copious brunch at LaFontaine the next day with a third. And through all of this, I’ve been frantically trying to rid myself of my remaining tickets resto for the year (which, to be honest, I’m debating applying for next year, since I barely go out for lunch, and it’s never certain that an establishment will ‘bend the rules’ and accept these vouchers during dinner service), trying out different places, most of them old stand-bys, but I did get a couple of new ones in as well (the photo below is from my lunch at Bol Porridge Bar):
FYI: I managed to get rid of all of them, save one. So close…
Anyway, I’ve got an episode of my new obsession, 90 Day Fiancé (or actually, Before the 90 Days, season 2, episode 6) on in the corner of my screen and a list of show notes to get to so…let’s get right to it.
Show1: RêveetFolie, directed by Claude Régy, based on a poem by Georg Trakl, Nanterre-Amandiers
Before I get into this one, one thing I’ve started to realize is that I’m subconsciously making decisions about which shows I’m pretty sure I’m going to end up writing on, and which ones will be blips.
This one, I have a feeling, will be one of the latter.
It’s not due to anything personal; I’ve just come to the point where I know I’ll need to be more discerning about which pieces to devote my energy to. If I’m not still thinking on it the day after—and especially if my notes don’t really jog my memory—I’m probably just going to end up filing that particular show away into my memories. At least I’ll still have the program and my notes to look at, should I ever want to (attempt to) revisit the thing.
Also, not gonna lie, I was not in the most energetic mood when I saw this one, and, seeing as it was a deliberately quiet, very dark (think just enough light where it is almost dreamlike, where when the actor finally appears you’ve got to take a minute to assure yourself that he’s actually there), solo show, it took a bit of energy for me to keep my eyes open.
The set design, however, was pretty cool in its minimalism. Think a large conical structure, where the tip of the cone narrows upstage to a degree that it looks almost as though it could go on forever, into infinity. This is where the actor emerges from, eventually, moving and gesticulating about the space slowly, striking a certain set of poses, eyes shut the entire time. Yeah, that’s right. His eyes were shut right up until he came out for his bow.
If you want disconnect, you pretty much have it right here.
Show2: MacadamAnimal, created by Eryck Abecassis and Olivia Rosenthal, MC93
Here’s a question for you all: at what point do animals become pests? And to whom? And if/when they do become pests, what do we do with them? Do we leave them be? If so, there is a very high likelihood that some populations will be affected more than others.
This was a performance of sound and image/projection more than anything, with the artists in question taking, as their subjects, the animals that inhabit the city with us, yet who we’d prefer to ignore: pigeons, crows, rats, termites, bees, stray dogs…Each one had its own segment, complete with a little foley set-up that complemented the images projected onto the screen behind the two performers.
A couple segments stood out more than the others, the first of which I will mention is the one on stray dogs (which also flowed into a segment on bees). During this segment, a video was projected on the screen showing footage of residents of Bobigny first walking towards the MC93, and then filming an interview inside in which they discussed any encounters they had with the animal in question. Of course, when a group of kids came on the screen—local kids, made obvious by the fact that they at times referenced very specific areas of the neighborhood with a certain level of ease that comes with not having to think too much about pinpointing and claiming your surroundings—the audience visibly perked up a little. I mean, it’s almost a universal maxim: tiny children talking over each other because each one insists that they have the most important thing to say is pretty adorable.
But the localizing, the precise localizing of this production within the environs of the theatre (building) itself was pretty unique in its execution. And, given how the rest of the piece plays out following this moment, establishing a network of inter-connectivity that was easily comprehensible on a human scale (if that makes sense) acted as a rather effective gateway into understanding the thematics of urban networks (visible and invisible) that would be continued to be explored later.
This…very peripherally…brings me to a second segment: the one on the soft-shell crabs that, through no deliberate intention of their own, ended up making a transatlantic crossing into France. These are non-native crabs. They do not belong here, lest they disturb the local ecosystems.
Interesting, the show posits, that we think of this now when, during the period of colonization of North and South America (and let’s be honest, even beyond that), ships from the Atlantic were bringing incredibly invasive species into the ‘New World’ that all but destroyed several established ecosystems.
So, again, at what point, and for whom, does an animal become a pest?
Show3: Saison1, Florence Minder, Théâtre de la Bastille
Another show at the Théâtre de la Bastille that is about the theatricality of theatre.
I love this place so much.
And this one was not just a show—or rather, a storytelling session—on theatricality, but theatricality using the codes of television series. Hence the title.
There were three “episodes”. I think for the sake of clarity, I’m just going to give a detailed summary of what happened in this one because it was…something. In the best of ways.
Here we go…
When we enter the space, we see a woman (Florence Minder) sitting at a table, a laptop and a microphone in front of her. She bids us good evening. It’s as though we are here for a conference or a pitch meeting.
When everyone is sitting, she begins by welcoming us all to this reading of this ‘serialized’ play commissioned especially for the Avignon Theatre Festival, 2034 edition, through a generous donation by the theatre arts commission (this comment elicited quite a bit of giggles…because no such thing exists, and how silly to think that people would care enough to bring such an association into existence). She then explains that she will be presenting (reading) for us episode 1. The episode would end when she closed the laptop and stepped out from behind the table.
And of course, like in situations where you start watching an episode of a thing on Netflix and say to yourself you will just stick to one when you know perfectly well you will not, I did not want the ‘episodes’ to end (especially the last one because how it ended was both rude but also absolutely perfect).
Onto the episodes…(fyi it does get a bit graphic at parts). Also full disclosure, for the sake of time, I just copy/pasted everything below from a text conversation I had while I was walking home from the theatre (when everything was still very fresh in my mind).
Just her at a table, with a laptop and a mic reading the script (as a sort of omniscient narrator). The episode opens on a hostage situation. Our lead character, Irene (a dental hygienist) is on a trip in South America, but her tour bus got hijacked in the Amazon by a group of rebels
Irene gets taken into the back room by one of them and while the dude is raping her (in the ass…this bit was specific), she tricks him, grabs a bit of mirror, plunges it into his neck, grabs his ak-47 and goes on a shooting spree killing everyone (including the other hostages…oops)
The episode closes with her in the jungle, some bullet shells in her ass and a bad yeast infection
Then episode 2 starts
The table is moved offstage, she keeps the mic. Starts again as the narrator and gives us a quick recap (which also turns into a little flashback about Irene’s life). Then the actress ducks under a sheet, then uncovers it to reveal another table with a mic, and also the fact that she has changed costumes
She is now Irene in a bloody shirt and camo pants
Another actress enters…she is the wife of the homme de ménage at the hotel. She serves coffee and talks incredibly quickly
She is also a hallucination
Now we have Irene and her subconscious interacting with one another mostly about how Irene could survive in the jungle with bullets in her ass and a yeast infection and no survival skills (it’s graphic but also hilarious)
The question of survival comes down to how much calorie reserves she has stored in her which are later divided into how many more lines the two have left to speak before they ‘die’ (in the theatrical sense, as in, the character ceases to exist)
Irene ends up besting her hallucination, and the latter has a pretty epic death scene (as all actors like to have), before coming back on stage to bow and whatnot, taking a rather exaggerated time to do so (mostly to allow for some last adjustments before episode 3)
The lead actress as narrator informs us that Irene has escaped the narrative designed for her. She has instead inscribed herself in one in which she lives, in which life takes precedence, in which the unexpected happens
A man comes down center stage. She joins him. They have a moment where they stare at each other awkwardly. The man is a dancer…it’s a thing about human connection. It doesn’t really matter if we don’t comprehend exactly what his movements are supposed to mean because he has constructed something for himself based on his observations and perceptions of his own personal fiction he’s created called ‘reality’
They move together for a bit. Then he kind of breaks the vibe, the lights come on slightly. He asks her to tell a joke
To describe the feeling of this moment…imagine being at the point of climax and then your partner asks you if you wouldn’t mind grabbing some milk from the supermarket or something equally as banal/unexpected
So anyway…she’s like ok fine, comes downstage, peeps to tell her joke…the opening words come out and then
End of show
It was strange, weird, and familiar at the same time. It was an evolution in the act of storytelling, blending the codes of two forms that, at times, people like to consider as incompatible, as polar opposites, as though one were in the process of devouring the other.
It helped too that it was a woman at the helm of it all.
Shows4&5: LesTourments (AuDesert and ConstruireunFeu, both preceded by Mallarmé’s UnCoupdeDésjamaisn’aboliralehasard), created by Sylvain Creuzevault, MC93
I’m putting these shows together because even though I saw AuDesert and ConstruireunFeu (this one, by the way, adapted from Jack London’s ToBuildaFire), the two pieces are both part of the greater Les Tourments project, and both begin with a performance of Mallarme’s famous poem.
So let’s start with UnCoupdeDés… then.
I’d highly recommend, for those who are not familiar with the text, to look it up online just to get a sense of how the words flow on the page, and just the extent to which it is deconstructed. That will probably make the next bit make more sense…kind of.
The performance was basically a setting of the text to music, with a lone soprano taking on the task of vocalizing the text. As she sang, the words were projected on a series of scrims hanging down from the ceiling. The way the projections worked made it look as though the words were being projected onto a series of mirrors, the copies of the copies, images of the images, repeated in such a way that it extended the space backwards, once again into an (almost) infinity. As the projected text also mirrored the way the poem was originally transcribed, following the words along as the soprano sang them required a jumping back and forth of the gaze across the scrims, much like one would jump back and forth across the page while reading the text itself.
At times, there were a couple of other actors who joined the soprano on the stage, but they mostly remained silent, save one who broke the fourth wall to directly address the audience. He, as he explained to us, was Hamlet, or the figure of ‘Hamlet’.
Hamlet is, supposedly, ‘summoned’ by the writer situated stage left and engaged in the act of writing. A woman in white crosses the stage dragging along a clear container in which a feather is suspended. Hamlet—whose face is hidden under a few layers of a black mesh veil so that it cannot be seen—affixes the feather to his hat, then comes out to address the public.
‘We can all agree that we are experiencing a singular moment,’ he says. He then launches into the beginning of a discours on the critical implications of the poem—the rupture with the Alexendrin, the signaling of the arrival of free verse—emphasizing, among other things, the fact that it, like him, is stuck in a position in between the act of making a decision or not. It is at a point of suspension, the precarious position where anything can happen.
So the question now is, why put this piece as an opener to two small playlets, both of which are not only relatively silent in terms of vocalized speech, but also are primarily concerned with the natural world? I would argue it is the notion of chance, or rather, of omnipresent unpredictability that links them. Nature has no ‘structure’, as much as one has been attempted to be imposed upon it. Man in nature is, much like with a certain facet of Mallarmé’s poem, a clash between a being that functions within a system of some kind of order and an environment that is the antithesis to it. The result is messy, brutal, disordered, yet orderly, chaos. The setbacks faced and affronted are a surprise, yet at the same time not entirely unexpected if one were to make a list of potential difficulties one would expect to arrive at any point during a particular kind of excursion into the wild (or the desert).
The torments (Tourmentes) of the title comes from this idea of evoking not only the hardships a person may encounter or must traverse in life, but also the ones a person may inflict or burden upon themselves, willingly or otherwise. The choice to set the depiction of this struggle in nature (in a style the playwright calls a “peinture animée” or a “nature vive” as opposed to a “nature morte” or still-life) could arguably be said to reflect, in a way, the impression of the insurmountability of these struggles, the feeling that, even when one feels close to overcoming or mastering them, this moment of ‘hubris’ is violently squashed (like, say, with a load of snow being dumped on one’s head). The choice to eschew understandable dialogue for barely-discernable murmurs keeps the universality of the piece intact—the connection between the audience and the spectacle being made through recognition within the acts or gestures of those on stage, rather than through discourse. I might go so far to call it a post-linguistic kind of humanism, yet communicating or storytelling through bodily gesture predates language, so I’m not sure that term itself would be just.
Minimalism? Economizing energy to focus on exerting it only on functions essential for survival? Who knows.
I swear, I am trying my hardest to write posts with as little distance between updates as possible. It’s just that work—along with a general level of tiredness I’ve been fighting as of late—has made my procrastination even worse than it usually it.
Fortunately for me, I’m writing this with only two shows on the docket to talk about, instead of the usual 5-6 (or more). Also fortunately for those of you who still (?) read this, the play breakdowns are going to be much more manageable (aka, shorter) this time around.
First up is La Bible, vaste entreprise de colonisation d’une planète habitable, presented at the small, upstairs theatre at the Théâtre de la Bastille. As was the case with Points de Non-Retour at La Colline a couple months ago, this was the first time I had ever been in the smaller upstairs theatre at La Bastille, making this a moment of spatial discovery more than anything.
As one could probably guess, the theatre itself is rather small. Small…and deep. There aren’t many rows of seats, but the ones that are there are arranged on a rather steep (by comparison to other theatre spaces I frequent) incline, making it almost inevitable that one will be looking down at the actors rather than up or directly at them. The stage was set up to look like something resembling a giant playground, with climbable structures (one of which was basically a lifeguard chair) flanking either side. The cast—five women, playing the roles of five precocious adolescent boys—were dressed in scouting uniforms, knee-high socks and awkwardly long shorts and all. Some had a little emblem embroidered on their shirt pockets (I’m assuming this is a Catholic thing since it did have something of a crucifix design on it, but I don’t want to go making claims on how official it is…anyway).
The next hour was what could best be described as a frenzy of burlesque-level nonsense and buffoonery (in the best of ways, though…at least for the most part). Fed up with the fact that the earth—god’s own ‘creation’—has been brought to the brink of (environmental) destruction by mankind without punishment from the Great One in the sky, these five kids, fresh out of a catechism class, have decided that the best and only solution would be to build a rocket ship, launch into space, and start everything anew on a distance planet.
Because what better way to build a ‘civilization’ than by using one of the world’s oldest tools for colonial dominance and suppression, the Bible?
What followed was a series of rehashing/retellings of selected Biblical passages, with some cameo appearances by Richard the Lionhearted (decked in a white tunic with a red cross, as is tradition), a robot, Dolly the Sheep, and Philip K. Dick. All of these roles were, of course, played by each of the individual children, who were switching up costumes at the pace of a seven year old who’s just been let loose on the costume box after downing a Red Bull. As a final image, a large ball and white sheet were attached onto a large crucifix-like structure hanging from the center of the ceiling. As this DIY-Jesus was hoisted up into the air, the children gathered round it dressed in either red, green or white capirotes (those pointed hoods that some Catholic brotherhoods wear during Holy Week processions, particularly in Spain…also, yes, the white ones do look a bit like KKK hoods, but this is only a coincidence), singing and dancing in a final ritualistic number.
Honestly, by the time this thing was over—what with all the singing, the costume changes, the running around, and the energy level that started at an 11 and pretty much stayed there—I almost felt I could empathize with the positively worn-out actresses, drenched in about a gallon of sweat. Criticism as to the efficacy of this type of performance aside—there were times when the frenzy became a bit much, and I found myself having to tune out for a minute to take a breather—, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that these performers managed to give it their all 100% for the entire hour.
And the intensity only continued last Sunday with a performance of 4.48 Psychosis (in a French-Canadian translation) at La Villette.
This was one of those rare times when I went to see a show because I genuinely wanted to, and not just to fulfill work/research obligations. I couldn’t, in good conscience, pass this one up though. I love Sarah Kane. Even before I spent the better part of a year working on my Master 2 thesis on some of her plays, I was always fascinated by her. It wasn’t until I started said thesis, however, that I began to gain a greater appreciation for her non-explicitly corporeally-violent works, in particular this one, the last play she wrote before committing suicide at age 28.
Some critics—and I think fellow playwright Edward Bond was one of the first to make this statement, though I could be wrong—consequently think of 4.48 Psychosis as a kind of suicide note. I’m hesitant about that interpretation—would not the performance, the constant bringing to life and reinterpretation of this text be the antithesis of a suicide note?—but I would agree that this is probably still one of the better plays around mental health that I’ve ever read or seen in recent memory. Opting to keep it as a solo performance, the actress first starts out behind a microphone on stage, looking something like a stand-up comic. This is our ‘in’: it’s a familiar set-up, never mind that we’re not getting jokes but an insight into the workings of a particular mind, and the people who dismiss it. Eventually, the curtains open, revealing a stage bathed in red light, with movable walls curving back on themselves to create two circular spaces on the stage—though only one of them was actually penetrated into. Whether or not at this point we were meant to be inside the actress’s head was unclear—and I’d argue deliberately—, and really to question that kind of misses the point. Because this shit doesn’t just mess with the inside of a person’s head; it screws with their whole perception of reality.
I think this second piece ended up resonating with me more than the first for several reasons, beyond the personal-academic connection to Sarah Kane. I’m not in a low a place as I was for a large part of summer/fall 2017, but I have been feeling not quite like myself these past several weeks. Maybe it’s the weather—hell, that probably has a little something to do with it—, but in any case, I feel like it’s been a while since I’ve gotten brutally honest and raw about things.
So here goes:
Going to shows by myself—constantly—is incredibly isolating. As much as I want to keep hyping myself up for getting out there and going to see things (yeah, yeah, it’s for the dissertation, but still), constantly being surrounded by people in pairs or groups really drives the point home that I am here in this purportedly social space by myself. Honestly, this feeling is the reason why I’ve tried to stop going to things on Saturday nights because who, on one of the more social nights of the week, wants to really be reminded of the fact that they have no one to talk to but their own thoughts…again?
I don’t want pity for this. I have people here. I don’t see them as often as I would like (I won’t make any comments on their end), and it’s not for lack of trying. But there are certain things about being a grad student in the humanities that no one really talks about, and this is one of them.
To really drive it home: some days, other than a brief exchange of words with a shopkeeper or person at a ticket counter (which last a total of about 5 seconds), my only in-person interactions are with my high-schoolers. Hell, sometimes, I can go a few stretches without even the latter. But, this is what happens when you have a deadline looming over your head that could spell the difference between a final dissertation-writing year in (relative) financial security, or a fucked up tuition bill and maybe more sleep sacrificed for the sake of editing a paper to earn a bit more cash. Because maybe someone will call, or maybe someone will pick up the phone…and you want to go out, see people, do things with them…you deserve that, right?
I take the time that I see people that I like very seriously, maybe more seriously now than I used to. That’s a thing that comes with time and experience, right? Learning how to value other people?
So yeah, sometimes when I leave a theatre late at night after a show, I get a bit sad because I want to talk about it and share my thoughts with someone. But then I go home and write a little bit, and remind myself that all of this will be worth it. Don’t ask me for an unbiased opinion on my thesis—those who know me well know the one thing I am incredibly self-critical about is my writing—, but I am getting closer to something. Slowly. And it’s my thing.
With that being said, this past week I did end up getting a chance to reconnect with perhaps one of my oldest friends (as in, we’ve been friends since kindergarten and now our parents hang out) who was visiting the city for the first time with her mom. Another opportunity for me to play tour guide—and to expand my repertoire of restaurant recs to now include more vegan-friendly options for her and her mom—, and a chance to show off a place that, despite this new bout of personal nonsense, I am so incredibly happy to live in.
EDIT: I forgot to mention this one thing…
So, living in a slightly older apartment has many charms, but one of them is definitely not impeccably insulated windows. Translation: things were getting a bit drafty.
Not anymore though! Why? Because I was gifted insulating curtains for my birthday.
Black, light-blocking, insulating curtains.
My excitement over these should not be taken as an exaggeration. These are literally saving my mornings/evenings (and my wallet). Yay!