There’s a heatwave, and I don’t want to leave the library just yet…

For those who are unaware, there is currently a rather annoying heatwave sweeping through large swaths of Europe at the moment, including France (well, not all of France; Brittany was spared). Now, I’m normally someone who actually quite likes the heat, but there is just something about the lack of open water, as well as the whole living on the top floor of a non-air-conditioned building (as well as the skylight that has no curtain or way of covering it, making any attempts to shut out light during the day useless), and the absolute ‘fun’ of those moments when you absolutely have to take the metro to get anywhere that is starting to test my patience a little…

 

 

Bref, I’m ready for my holiday.

 

 

 

I haven’t felt much impulse to write lately, mostly because I have sort of stopped seeing things this last month. The season has, of course, wound down, but I think I also may have come very close to suffering from show-fatigue. Besides, I think I said in another post that I wanted to focus more on writing my other, more relevant stuff.

 

 

 

Speaking of which, I’ve advanced a good amount, but what with end of the year exams and grading–as well as a decision I made myself, which I am ultimately glad I did–I missed an end of May deadline to turn in new pages to my advisor. I have yet to hear anything regarding this from her part, however, so I’m just going to go ahead and assume all is well.

 

 

Well, hopefully it will be well enough to send literally all the things by my own personal deadline of July 10th. I’m planning on using a good amount of my vacation time to try and tackle the bits of my dissertation that aren’t show-critique related (aka: the bits that make it all make sense). I’m still trying to figure out what point–if any–I’m trying to make with this otherwise rather sizable collection of somewhat disconnected pieces. The heterogeneity of the theatre space? Probably something like that. Everything existing in multitudes? Also maybe. There’s the whole cultural politics thing to consider in this too, and how it relates back to the idea of a public, government-subsidized theatre. What is the role of a theatre in such a system? There is something to be said about how, given the current system of governance in France, the theatre has returned to somewhat of a ‘moralistic’ role: theatrical programming is designed in such a way to impart values, perhaps, or support certain ideals (‘le vivre ensemble‘ has been on my mind quite a bit lately), and while the content can vary (there is no overt propagandizing, if that’s what you’re thinking I’m getting at), there is, to some degree, a lack of questioning of a certain set of [neoliberal / universalist] values that are often taken as a default.

 

A better theatre, for me, would be one that recognizes disagreement, the possibility for disaccord or the opening of new avenues or systems of thinking, and, while doing so, shatters the very universality it is otherwise said to stand in for. It’s the question of autonomy and emancipation as it relates both to the work and to the spectator, but it ends up focusing more precisely on the latter, in particular, through recognition of a capacity for singular thought as well as the validity of the choice in whether to engage or not. I’ve seen this kind of theatre here a few times, though funnily enough, none of the productions were from French companies.

 

 

And anyway, I’m not sure if the above makes any sense or it’s just rambling. To tell the truth, I’m only writing here now to kill a bit more time before I venture out into the outside world where the temperature reads 93ºF but feels as though it’s 101ºF (of all the things I have accustomed myself to, the only one that is still giving me trouble is switching to reading temperature in Celsius). I had been reading for most of the day, then thought I’d get back to writing, but, wouldn’t you know it…writer’s block. My brain is tired.

 

 

Otherwise? I’m feeling…reasonably confident about this. I say a lot that I just want it to be done, but I also want it to be good, and be certain in myself that I have something to say, and am not just regurgitating what others have already said before me. The problem is that sometimes, to me, what I write feels so…obvious…but, then again, maybe that’s how one’s own work (particularly work of this kind) feels all the time. Subjectivity and whatnot.

 

 

It’s hard to get the narrative in your own head to change sometimes.

 

 

In better news, though, I think I may start frequenting a workout class once a week, depending on what my schedule is like come September. ClassPass has finally arrived here, and the HIIT course I tested today left me feeling absolutely exhausted but also amazing. The home workouts are still fine, don’t get me wrong, but I was starting to miss the thrill of the challenge after a while, as well as the chance to really test my limits.

 

 

And I think I’m starting to legitimately go stir-crazy, so I may just bite the bullet now, pack up my things, and march out the door. Normally a walk would suit me just fine in moments like this where I can’t seem to get out of my own head. We’ll see how long that lasts…

The March (theatre) marathon…

I’ve been thinking a bit about biases recently, especially in regards to they can affect my own approaches to a critique of something I’ve seen. Those types of situations don’t come up terribly often, but when they do, they generally arise from stagings that tackle certain themes or discourses that, at least from my point of view as an American (and more specifically, as a very left-leaning, educated American) should have been covered already.

 

 

More often than not, what these pieces deal with–in one way or another–is the topic of race, and specifically the intersection between this and questions of national identity and  the (completely nonsense) notion of colorblindness.

 

 

Unlike the United States–which, let’s be clear, still has a very long way to go on this regard–where discussions of race/racism/white privilege/structural inequalities/etc have been going on for several years now, and have solid footing outside academic circles, France has only started tackling these questions relatively recently, and to put it briefly, such discourse has had some difficulty sticking here. This isn’t because it is unfounded–it absolutely isn’t, and to those who think racial and ethnic bias doesn’t or cannot exist in this country, I invite you to take this little pin I’m going to hand you and burst the bubble you’re currently ensconced in. I don’t have time to get into this too much now, but in brief, I would argue it has more to do with the fundamental set of ‘universal’ values the country is founded on. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, yes, but we should also add Laïcité in there, as that one in particular has led to the greatest amount of nonsense. You can see its effects in the 2004 law to ban the wearing of the hijab/veil in schools/government jobs, as well as in the backlash over the birkhini a few years ago. Those laws very clearly and disproportionately targeted Muslim women (hell, with the latter one, that point was made even more obvious when some people rightly started pointing out that nuns had been visiting the beach in their habits for years, and no one gave a damn then), yet of course that was repeatedly brushed under the rug in the favor of maintaining a certain image of ‘unity’ of ‘laicity’, of ‘we are all equal citizens even though daily occurrences prove almost embarrassingly that this isn’t even remotely true’.

 

 

All this is to say that the time is ripe for France to have a reckoning with itself.

 

 

Said reckoning was very much at the center of the first of the three plays (more precisely, two plays and one operetta) that I saw this weekend, Myriam Marzouki’s Que viennent les barbares at the MC93 on Thursday evening. The title is in reference to the poem “Waiting for the barbarians” by Greek poet Constantin Cavafy, and, much like the poem, the piece tackles the question of an imagined ‘other’, and more specifically, the necessity of this ‘other’s’ existence in order for the dominant group to maintain its power. Interestingly, the piece also frames this question within the context of American discourses on race–and more specifically, discourses following the the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the end of the 1960s. This begins early on with a scene in which an actor playing James Baldwin speaks to a French reporter about his views on race relations in the United States, as well as addresses her (incredibly naive) line of questioning that stems from a thought of ‘but the movement’s over, what more could/do you want?’. He fires back a question at her about the situation in Algeria–and France’s treatment of Algerians pre- and post- Independence–and thus the discursive link between the United States and France is established. Contrary to popular imagination, the racism, othering, discrimination thought to only have occurred ‘over there’ (the United States) was also happening at home, that it wasn’t as ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’ a comportment as previously thought.

 

 

A similar link is made in a later scene featuring another actor in the role of Muhammed Ali giving his own interview to another French journalist–and to be quite frank, I’m not entirely sure if the repetitive nature of this scene really did much other than emphasize the didactic nature of the piece overall–, and it was at this moment I started to question my own biases as a spectator. Everything that was being said seemed obvious to me. Of course structural inequalities still existed. Of course black Americans had the right to create their own safe spaces away from white Americans, of course the parallels with France had been and still are there. But, I am not a French spectator; in other words, I am not who this piece was made for. What seemed didactic or expected to me may very well have been brand new information to any of the number of people in the room with me. I’m still wondering how to grapple with this. I’m still wondering if the didactic approach, of speaking and explaining the metaphors, the connections, the lessons relatively clearly rather than allowing more space for the spectator’s critical capacities to make those connections themselves was the best way to go, even for unfamiliar territory. At one point, during a scene in a sort of immigration processing office, a woman enters from upstage in a cloud of mist, the French flag draped over her in a way echoing that one Shepard Fairey poster featuring a Muslim woman in a hijab made of the American flag. She didn’t say anything. She appeared, came downstage, paused, then slowly exited.

 

 

Don’t get me wrong though; there absolutely needs to be more theatre, more art, more articles, more…everything written in France/accessible in French that allows for the inciting of a dialogue around these issues. I’m just starting to ask myself to what degree I should be writing about them at this particular stage in my own journey as an American-educated academic.

 

 

Anyway, onto the next thing.

 

 

Le Direktor (d’après le film de Lars von Trier) dir. Oscar Gómez Mata, Théâtre de la Bastille, March 15

 

Full disclosure: Lars von Trier isn’t really a director whose films I know particularly well (hell, I think I’ve only managed to watch Antichrist all the way through…tried with Melancholia, ended up falling asleep and not bothering afterwords…meh). But, the promo photos made this seem like a good time, and so I went into this hoping for some high energy to counteract the vast majority of things I’ve been seeing this year.

 

 

And oh man was I right.

 

 

This piece is silly. Very silly. Absurdly silly. And I like absurdly silly, especially when it involves poking fun at theatre, at the pretentiousness that the form gets sometimes, and at its conventions–especially the whole ‘suspension of disbelief/these actors are in their own little universe separate from the one we in the audience occupy’ thing.

 

The basic premise: a man (Ravn) is the head of an IT firm with a staff of 5 other employees who are nice but…incredibly naive and possibly incompetent. But they mean well. He, on the other hand, had gotten in the habit over the course of his ten years at the company of saying that all his unpopular decisions came from a hereto unseen ‘head director’, thus successfully managing to shift blame from himself and staying relatively popular. When the play opens, Ravn has the opportunity to sell the company for a very hefty sum, but to do so, the contract must be signed by the company Director, which, as far as literally everyone else knows, he is not. So, he hires an actor to play him, one who is very ‘into his craft’, so to speak (god the number of people I could recognize in that portrayal just made the whole thing soooo much better). Naturally, hijinks ensue, especially as the actor finds himself integrated even further into the company.

 

 

What I loved about this piece, however, were the amount of overt references to the ‘play’ part of acting that were integrated into the text. Often, Ravn and his hired actor would spring from the edge of the white flooring that indicated the limits of the office space to the edge of the stage, left bare and black, a kind of non-space, an in-between space, a space where they could also play with us sitting in front of them, with our knowledge of their fakery, of how they go about producing it. This kind of thing can get a bit kitsch at times, but the tongue-and-cheek of it all here–especially coupled with the very clipped rhythm the show moved in–kept things more or less fresh. Of course, all this was later related back to the whole business of management as well (there was a short interlude that discussed an actor’s capacity to elicit certain emotions/emotional responses from spectators through acts of manipulation that seemed to contain easy to spot links to the whole notion of running a business), but honestly, I was just too busy letting loose and laughing a bit (dear god comedy is such a hard thing to get right, especially absurdist/satirical comedy) to really care about the greater thematics that evening.

 

 

 

The last piece I saw this weekend, however, was decidedly less ludic, but this had more to do with certain imageries and juxtapositions in the staging than the piece itself.

 

 

La Chauve-Souris (Die Fledermaus) de Johann Strauss, dir. Célie Pauthe, MC93, March 16, 2019

 

 

I know what you all may be thinking: ‘Opera? Really?’. Yes, really.

 

 

This show is actually being put on in partnership with the Academie de l’Opéra de Paris, and simply put, I quite like the idea of taking opera and moving it out of the city and into the suburbs for a bit (and for much lower prices too!). Makes it more accessible, if nothing else.

 

 

Anyway, the operetta. The piece itself can be summed up as a farce involving a man who is meant to turn himself into prison where has been sentenced to an 8-day stint, deciding to skip out on that to go to a party with his friend, his wife (in disguise) and the chambermaid showing up to the party as well, and everything just being silly. Act II closes with an ode to champagne. Silly.

 

 

No, what’s more interesting about this piece is that during her research, the director discovered that it was performed by prisoners at a concentration camp not far from Auschwitz. This camp was known for housing artists and creative types–basically anyone whose absence would have potentially caused a slight media stir–, and as such, often the prisoners were forced to perform for the guards. I don’t know what or how much can be said about the particular kind of torture that this represents that isn’t stinking of a cliché, but what cannot be denied is the fact that at times, performance became both an act of survival as well as a sort of act of resistance.

 

 

This connection was reflected very openly in the stage design, which consisted of a set of walls, bare except for the lower stage left corner on which was printed an image of one of the interior corridors of the camp (I was a bit too far away to confirm, but there is a chance that the photo itself may have been taken following liberation in 1945). Periodically, video footage of the director’s 2018 visit to the camp would be projected on the walls as one of the characters performed a solo, the lights dimming down from their usual warm glow to signal the presence of this ‘memory’ in the show’s history. Costume and prop design also nodded to the late 1930s/early 1940s, the lack of overt ‘opulence’ in the décor and objects further harkening back to the tragedy the piece is intertwined with.

 

 

This production also contained a sort of aside that broke the fourth wall, so to speak, with this one further functioning as a means through which the connection between the play and the Holocaust would be more pointedly thrust forward. At the start of Act III, just as everyone had settled back into their seats following intermission and the house lights turned off, the stage lit to focus on a man sitting on a table center stage, with a small screen behind him. What ended up getting projected on this screen was a propaganda video made by the Nazis of prisoners in the camp living what appeared to be a blissful life in nature, with leisure activities, excellent medical care, food, cultural programs, etc. Of course, this was all completely fabricated, and the actor on the stage made that point very clear several times. What is striking, of course, about this footage is the knowledge of the horrific tragedy and torture looming over it. There is a sort of weighted, heavy presence hanging over the–to us, who know what really happened in those camps–supposed bliss and joy on people’s faces.

 

 

It is easy to see the connection between this and a piece whose main plot centers around a party, around good fun, silliness, but which was performed under circumstances of incredible duress.

 

 

I’m not sure if I’m going to end up writing about any of these pieces in further detail for my dissertation, at this point, I have a meeting on Friday with my advisor (finally!) to talk about things and maybe even lay out a game plan for where I go from…wherever I am right now. But where February was relatively quiet theatre-wise, March is going to be absolutely packed. Let’s hope my fingers (and my brain) will be able to withstand all the typing.

On the act of viewing

I’m sort of starting to come to the realization that, as I get closer to hacking out this thing that will eventually become my dissertation (or a mess that slightly resembles one), I’m not entirely sure how realistic it’s going to be to write up detailed descriptions of every single show I see on this blog. This isn’t really so much to do with a general feeling of laziness–even though I should admit I’ve taken a slight writing break again to focus on some grading I absolutely needed to get done these past few days–, but rather more to what I’ve started to use this blog for on a personal level.

 

 

 

If my Instagram, where I post a program photo every night I see a play, serves as a sort of personal show archive, this thing has become something of a place where my first drafts start to take shape. I honestly almost find it hilarious that, as I was writing up some show critiques that would eventually be integrated into the larger work, I was referencing back to here more often than to any of my (many…oh god so many) notebooks. So with that in mind, I think from here on out I’m probably only going to do more detailed posts on shows that stuck with me, shows that I want to go back to, that I have thoughts on.

 

 

 

But before getting into that, a small update on my current state of being: I’ve been feeling slightly guilty about my present ‘lazy’ streak. I think one trap that I (and I’m guessing a lot of other PhDs) fell into was looking up how often I should be working on this thing, or whether my productivity/rest periods were ‘normal’. In short, whether I was doing enough. It is incredibly disheartening sometimes at 1am, right before bed, to stumble upon articles or blog posts that say that if you’re not working on your thesis at least 15 hours a week then you’re doing it wrong. But then I just have to remind myself that, at least for me, sometimes taking my time is how I am the most effective (although, yeah I fall into patterns of procrastination that sort of start a cycle of feeling as if I’m just cutting corners, cheating my way through this, and thus have no idea what I’m talking about). I absolutely hate the whole ‘productivity’/’work output’ narrative, and I don’t think it really does anyone any favors, especially when it comes to a kind of work where you’re stuck in your own head for the most part.

 

 

 

 

I mean, hell, I managed to write around 70 pages in about 2.5 months, and this is with working about 15hrs/week on top of that (not including lesson planning and grading).

 

 

 

And I know that, logically, there is no magic or “right” way to be doing this. It’s just hard not to fall into that trap when Google is right at your fingertips.

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, enough with that. On to today’s two write-ups, the second of which is…well…let’s just say I have some THOUGHTS on it.

 

 

 

Doreen (d’après Lettre à D. d’André Gorz), directed by David Geselson, Théâtre de la Bastille, January 21

 

 

I’m not usually the biggest fan of hyper-realistic theatre, mostly because I’ve found that the closer a design attempts to approach the ‘real’, the easier it becomes to spot the artifice. The exceptions to this are usually productions that sort of use that knowledge to their advantage, or at least try and interrogate it somehow. This, I would say, is one of those exceptions.

 

 

 

A bit of background first: the piece itself is liberally inspired by–and at times quotes directly from–André Gorz’s Lettre à D, an ode he wrote to his wife, Dorine, who at the time of writing (2006) was dying from an unspecified illness likely caused by some injections she had received decades earlier on a routine visit to have some x-rays done. The two had been married for close to sixty years at that point, and the text itself reflects that, particularly in the pang of realization of the possibility that soon one of them may have to try and live without the other.

 

 

 

In real life, Gorz and his wife both committed suicide in 2007, preferring to die together on their terms than risking being separated. As for Doreen, the show program makes no secret of the final endgame–and indeed, those familiar with the real story have already been ‘spoiled’ on that account–, but at the same time, it, and the production, prefer not to linger on that and focus instead on the long ‘moment before’. How do you sum up or capture a life of nearly sixty years together in close to an hour and a half?

 

 

 

The answer, it seems, is to host a dinner party.

 

 

 

As far as gestures of hospitality are concerned, eating together, sharing or offering food to others is perhaps one of the most intimate. There is an act of camaraderie in the passing around of dishes, in pouring out glasses of wine from the same bottle, in dipping hands together into one bowl of chips to grab some to nibble on (all while making sure to leave some for the next person). When the doors to the Bastille’s black box/little theatre opened, what we were greeted with when we walked in was a sort of living room set decorated in a distinctly mid-century modern style (carpeted, and lots of beige/browns…you know that almost comforting yet also somewhat overwhelming scent of old dusty books? It looked like that, if that makes sense). Chairs were set up around 3 sides of the rectangular perimeter, with the back wall being taken up by a set of his/hers desks. Patrons could thus choose to sit either incredibly close to, or even somewhat on the set (as I did), or a few rows back on slightly more traditional raked seating.

 

 

 

The most prominent thing in the room, however, was the dining table set (assuming we are looking at the stage front-on) at a diagonal on the upper stage right quadrant. On this table were several serving platters with cheeses, charcuterie, cherry tomatoes (because this is Paris, and there are some stereotypes that will never cease to be so hilariously true), nuts and dried fruits, and crackers, as well as several bottles of wine, some carafes of water and juice, napkins, toothpicks, and drinking glasses.

 

 

The two actors, our André and Doreen, were pretty much in host-mode right from the start, inviting us to help ourselves to what was on offer (it took a minute for someone to get up the courage to be the first at the table, but not as long as I would have predicted). The minute someone approached the table to not just look at but actually serve themselves, the energy of the room just shifted to move over there. People claimed seats first, of course, and what I found particularly endearing here was the fact that several times “André” and “Doreen” actually helped some older patrons to find more comfortable seats, engaging directly with these individuals. It’s a small but not insignificant thing. Showing direct concern for another’s needs or well-being is a step towards fostering a connection of trust, of a friendly intimacy.

 

 

There was no real announcement that the show was about to “officially” begin–though, let’s be honest, it started from the moment the doors opened–, but naturally after the house doors had been closed, everyone made their way back to their seats. The house lights remained on, keeping us ensconced (for the moment) within the world on the stage, and with this André and Doreen launched into an initial summary of their story together.

 

 

 

Now the expected thing in a situation like this would be to have either one of the two take the lead in the storytelling–thus establishing themselves as a sort of ‘primary narrator’–, or if not to have the two play off of one another in a sort of storytelling volley.  In other words, the staging would be such that one voice takes precedence over the other, in order for the audience to be able to clearly follow what was being said.

 

 

Instead, what happened here was that both “André” and “Doreen” began to speak at the exact same time. Furthermore, rather than being identical, their speeches had almost nothing to do with one another, other than the fact that they centered on some aspect of the couple’s relationship. While “Doreen” centered her speech more on the couple’s personal history–how they met, and so forth–, “André” focused more on the relationship in conjunction to his writing career, and more specifically on the final book he had just finished writing. As the two actors were seated either upstage right (“Doreen”) or down center stage, literally in the front row of seats (“André”), it was not entirely impossible, from an audience perspective, to drown out one voice for the sake of concentrating on the other, provided, of course, that one was seated relatively closer to one of the actors than the other. For those situated in between them–as I was–the choice or act of listening was a bit trickier. I ended up listening in more on “Doreen”, as the higher pitch in her voice carried more clearly, but there were also moments where I attempted to ignore her in an attempt to “eavesdrop”, as it were, on “André’s” conversation. The problem with doing that–as well as the general conundrum of being stuck in the middle–, however, was that it required playing catch-up to try and pick up the thread of conversation, while at the same time acknowledging that one could be missing something being said by the other partner. This idea of remaining in a certain state of ignorance, of not being given full access to every single bit of information, happens anyway for those who happened to be sitting considerably closer to one actor than the other. But the question of having a choice, of actively choosing to not listen or at the very least choosing which voice to give preference to is one that really only becomes apparent for those who just so happened to choose a seat that just so happened to not be near enough to either of the actors to make the decision-making process easier for them.

 

 

 

At the same time, these initial simultaneous speeches are also the first indication that, though the living room set, the invitations to partake and share in the food and drink, and the initial chitchat between the actors and some audience members suggested that the latter were being fully invited “in” to the world on the stage, a full immersion or ‘world-sharing’ was only illusory. In other words, there were going to be gaps, parts we could not see, parts of the story we, the observers, were perhaps never meant to be privy to. Some of the instances where this became evident were relatively innocuous–as the duo reflected back on their lives, memories came up not in any chronological order, but were rather triggered by something one member of the duo said/did, transitions following a pattern or code unknown to those ‘outside’ the couple–, but there was one moment where the cutting off of avenues to understanding became rather explicit. Towards the final tail of the piece, the duo gets into an argument, triggered in part by how to tackle the question of “Doreen’s” illness, as well as “André’s” work schedule. At this moment, the house lights are more or less off, with the living room lighting dimmed to suggest an evening glow. There is a sound of rain, light at first–so light, in fact, that I at least almost thought it wasn’t part of the sound design, but was rather the actual rain that was scheduled to fall that night–but then progressively escalating to a full-blown storm (complete with thunder and lighting sounds). As the sound increases, so does the intensity of the argument between the two characters. Eventually, the duo finds themselves at the center of the stage, still yelling at one another, but at that point the sound of the rain had grown so loud that it all but completely drowned out everything else. At times, one of the voices would cut through the rain–proof that the actors were still actually speaking rather than miming an argument–, but it was not enough to make out distinct words or phrases. By the time the storm died, the argument was over. No resolution to that moment was given, at least it was not given to the members of the audience.

 

 

 

It’s enough to make one wonder whether or not we were “owed” one, and if so, why? On what grounds? Were we even supposed to be there, watching this, anyway? The intimacy  of the situation is almost suffocating here not just because of how limited it is, but of the shift from welcome guest to voyeur that this moment in particular results in. It’s funny, I think, whenever a production unexpectedly makes you question your act of “watching” like that.

 

 

 

Ils n’avaient pas prévu qu’on allait gagner, written by Christine Citti, directed by Jean-Louis Martinelli, MC93, January 24

 

 

Sigh…

 

 

Ok buckle in kids because I have some THOUGHTS on this one.

 

 

Before I get to them though, a little preface: for those who are familiar with the show Orange is the New Black, remember how the show creators/writers characterized Piper early on as being kind of a “Trojan horse” that would bring viewers–and let’s be honest, when they say viewers, they mean white viewers–into the world of the mostly WOC-populated prison? Yeah, let’s keep that in mind for a minute.

 

 

 

This play doesn’t take place in a prison but rather in a group home for kids who, for one reason or another, are part of the French foster care system. The piece itself was inspired by time that both writer Citti (who appears in the piece as a fictionalized version of not necessarily herself, but of the role/position she had) and director Martinelli spent visiting and working with the kids and staff in one such home. The latter had originally gone to try and see if it would be possible to organize some theatre classes, but when that didn’t pan out (logistics and whatnot), he and Citti entered into a sort of loose collaboration to see if they could create something. The result is a piece that largely centers on a group of teenagers in a home in Saint-Denis (a suburb just outside Paris), but contrary to what one might think, this is not a piece of documentary theatre. Rather than taking direct stories or testimony from the kids they met/worked with and creating something out of that, the resulting script was written using those stories and experiences as inspiration. The production team is very open about this, insisting to not take the focus off the fact that this is a constructed piece of theatre. Further drawing attention to the theatrical construction of this whole piece is the fact that all of the kids are played by actors who are very obviously in their mid to late-twenties (“Hollywood” teens, in other words). What does not get touched on is the fact that, once again, here we have a piece of theatre that focuses primarily on the experiences of disenfranchised minority groups written by a white author.

 

 

 

Yes, pretty much all of the kids in the piece are POC, though there are a couple of white kids from low-income families in the mix as well. Thankfully, despite the piece starting with Citti’s character coming in for her first afternoon volunteering at the home and the resulting back-and-forth that pairs her earnestness (but not naiveté, thank goodness) with the kids’ suspicion, this is not a “white person comes in and saves the poor POC kids from themselves by teaching them to believe in their dreams and blah blah blah”. Rather, Citti remains more or less silent, with the majority of the piece reserved for the kids (their interactions with one another and the staff, moments where they tell their stories or reveal a bit more about their home lives, etc). Citti does have a couple of scenes in which she has a short dialogue with one or more of them, as well as some instances in which she directly addresses the audience, summarizing events to signal the passage of time. Most of the time, however, she is seated–usually far stage right–with a notebook in front of her (even if she’s not writing in it, it’s there). She, then, is “our” — and by “our” I mean the mostly white audience, including myself, and especially those of us who have been privileged enough to not know what it is like to live in group home — in, our Trojan horse into the world.

 

 

 

Of course, the fact that she remains on stage as an observer, as a sometimes notetaker, gives her something of an air of an ethnographer, though I have a slight suspicion this may not have been intentional. Regardless, I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that though this piece is primarily dominated by the voices of performers of color, that the words they speak and the narrative being played out is inspired by the experiences of POC, the words themselves are filtered through a white lens by virtue of Citti’s act of writing.

 

 

 

I also kind of sometimes wonder whether my American-ness is having too much of an effect on my perception of this, considering that these sorts of conversations very rarely happen in France (outside of some anti-racist circles). Then again, North America is still very far from perfect in how it addresses these same questions so…there you go.

 

 

 

In any case, the staging of Citti as an observer did also end up tying her closer to those of us in the audience by virtue of her act of watching. She essentially does the same things we do. She sits, mostly quiet, watches, reflects, but in the end, her presence there doesn’t result in a life changing moment or a revolution for the kids she has put herself in close proximity with. Granted, to think that theatre itself (especially theatre about explicitly politically and emotionally charged topics such as this one) can directly lead to large-scale structural change is a bit foolhardy. A play can make someone think, but it’s not going to change the world on its own. But for a situation like this, why is it, exactly that an audience needs to be here? Is it for the exposure of these stories, so that they can reach a space outside the walls of the group home? If so, why did it need to happen in this medium, with this writer and director?

 

 

 

 

At a certain point in the production, all the kids gather in a plexiglass “box” in the center of the stage, earlier established to be the program director’s office. Earlier, one of the home’s residents–a Vietnamese kid who doesn’t speak, as he does not speak French, but rather moves slowly about the space, silently interacting with his fellow residents–had taken a white marker and written the names of all the kids, as well as those of the staff and of the character Citti plays, on the front of the box. When the kids gather inside, they stand facing outward, directly towards those observing them, and it is almost impossible to not conjure up images of a zoo, of animals on display, their names letting visitors know who (or what) they are. It is a powerful image, directly playing to the implications of the gazes of those in the audience.

 

 

 

It is also irresponsible, I think, to stage an image like that without taking the time to interrogate the origins of the play of which it is part.

 

 

 

 

 

So there you have it. My thoughts on this last one are perhaps somewhat incoherent, but its a piece that, either intentionally or not, unearths quite a lot of complexities.

 

 

 

 

In other news, this weekend I am headed to this new immersive experience called DAU that, in brief, is inspired by living conditions in the Soviet Union (think ultra-high surveillance and whatnot). My expectations are…low-ish…but mostly because so many people were trying to characterize it as this new life-changing/art-changing thing, and that kind of talk makes me both curious and suspicious. In any case, I am prepared for anything with this, including hilarity and nonsense, and I have a feeling that, no matter what ends up happening, I am very much going to enjoy writing about it.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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