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 have to be at the airport at 06h00 tomorrow…

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 Blé Sucré. And then came the 100th edition of Saturday afternoon jazz at La Fontaine de Belleville, 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).

 

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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 La Fontaine 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):

 

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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.

 

 

 
Show 1: Rêve et Folie, 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.

 

 

 

Show 2: Macadam Animal, 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?

 

 

 

Show 3: Saison 1, 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).

 

 

 

Episode 1

 

 

 

 

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)

 

 

 

 
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

 

 

 

 
Blackout

 

 

 

 
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.

 

 

 

 
Shows 4&5: Les Tourments (Au Desert and Construire un Feu, both preceded by Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le hasard), created by Sylvain Creuzevault, MC93

 

 

 

 

I’m putting these shows together because even though I saw Au Desert and Construire un Feu (this one, by the way, adapted from Jack London’s To Build a Fire), 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 Un Coup de Dés… 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.

Another personal post about grad school (oh, and some more plays, too)

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!

5 play post? 5 play post

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately on the nature of theatre in general—what it is, why it’s still around, what the point of it is—and particularly in conjunction with the kind of theater I’ve been finding myself more and more drawn to as of late.
Not surprisingly, the more one goes to the theatre—the more variety of shows one sees—the more one gets a sense of what one likes, and even more so, what one does not like.

I’m not entirely sure if this general feeling of jadedness I’ve been immersed in as of late has more to do with what I’ve been seeing or with the slight floundering feeling that comes from sending off one chapter draft—oh yes, I did that last week—and knowing full well that another one needs to be started (like…now) even though exactly how that one is going to look like remains more or less a mystery. In any case, with the exception of a very bright spot courtesy of what is still my favorite theatre in the city as well as someone who I can confirm to be one of my favorite playwrights in general, the last couple of weeks have been very…meh…theatre wise.

This isn’t for lack of variety, though. What I can definitively say is that no show that I saw has been quite like any of the others, itself a testament as to the variety of things (easily) available and accessible to see in this city. On the other hand, what this also means is that not everything is going to be supremely excellent, but then again…at least the trap of monotony is avoided.
Anyway, enough of the rambling…on to more important things. Namely, the shows I’ve seen since my last post (and prepare yourselves…there are several of them).
1. Dans le pays d’hiver at the MC93 Bobigny

 

I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of a show being called “geometric”, but given the aesthetic of this piece—which recalls, among other things, classical aestheticism and imagery—could stand in as the poster child for it. To be quite honest, given that I saw this piece the same day that I returned from Budapest, I wasn’t in the most active state of mind to be able to sit through a highly stylized/ritualized performance done entirely in Italian, meaning I’d have to read subtitles if I ever had any hope of understanding what was going on. So, yes, I nodded off a bit.

In short, the piece is an adaptation of certain segments of Dialogues with Leuco, written by Cesare Pavese between 1945 and 1947. The dialogues address different topics, all with a decidedly existential tint (the nature of mankind, man in relation to animal, the gods, the flood, etc), that are here undertaken by two actresses—one of whom being the playwright, Silvia Costa, herself—of similar appearance. A third actress—this one blonde in contrast to the other two brunettes—supplements the text with choreography.
As one could probably imagine, the whole thing was incredibly stylized to the point that almost rather than give pause for reflection as to the nature of humanity—or rather the humanity of those on the stage at that time—, it essentially stripped away the human element to favor instead a representation of the ‘sur’-human. Or of the god(s). And so, given that, what is it that we in the audience who are sitting there facing this, are meant to do with it all, other than take in and process the philosophy lesson that was just given to us?
Aesthetically-speaking, however, given my penchant for all things symmetrical, I will say I did quite like the geometry of the space, the clean lines that characterized the set pieces that, even when moved, at times gave the impression of looking into a prism.

 

2. Sopro at the Théâtre de la Bastille

 

I’m going to go ahead and say this now: this was my favorite play of the past few weeks.

 

Tiago Rodrigues is also quite possibly one of my favorite playwrights working now.

 

Pity he writes in Portuguese, otherwise I would just study him.
Anyway, Sopro, the title of the piece, is a reference to what used to be known as “prompters” (though the original Portuguese, as well as the French “souffleur” are, in my opinion, a bit more metaphorically fitting as titles). Somewhat of an ‘endangered’ role at this point, prompters used to have a steady—if not entirely visible—presence in the theatre, whether it was hiding in the prompter’s box downstage, or tucked away in the wings or behind a set piece, following along with the script, there to save the day should an actor drop a line.

 

Rodrigues, in his director notes, likened them to the lifeline of a play, that which saves the whole thing from drowning in the weight of an imposing reality that starts to flood in the moment a line is dropped and the already-precarious fiction in the process of construction on stage is thrown even further off balance. They, to paraphrase his words, occupy a space that is neither in the fiction of that being crafted on the stage itself, nor entirely outside it. They are the go-between and the barrier that keeps an already porous spatiotemporal dynamic from completely ripping apart.

 

And, as of now, they are in danger of being forgotten.

 

So when Rodrigues announced to the prompter of the National Theater of Lisbon—where he currently has artistic residency—that he wanted to write a play about her, her reaction was, unsurprisingly, a bit incredulous. A prompter, she states—and just a quick note, a lot of this is gleaned from the performance itself—, does their job well precisely by staying invisible. If people recognize or see their presence, they have undoubtedly failed. Besides, she loved the theatre, but she had no intention of ever performing in a play about herself.

 

The solution, then? She was onstage—yes, this is the actual prompter from the National Theatre in Lisbon—, script in hand. One by one, on a stage that looked more like a site of a theatre in decay with plants bursting through the floor boards than an active, working theatre, the actors would file in, and be directed to their positions. And then, standing behind them, the prompter, Cristina Vidal, spectacles on and index finger following along in the text, would whisper their lines to them, her voice barely audible. Some of the lines were recreations of her words, her conversations with Rodrigues or her memories of starting out in the theatre; others were those of her former theatre director, actors she worked with, roles she had to prompt for (I’m pretty sure some Shakespeare showed up in there, but…French translations of the Bard are not exactly recognizable to me…yet). She, however, remained quiet, yet present in her silence. She was the originator of the words, but the actors were the ones who gave them life.

 

Yet, as much as I love plays that are about the theatre as a whole—kind of like how Hollywood loves movies about themselves, except for me, the more clichéd versions of this have tended to make me cringe—what drew me into this one in particular was its honesty, and in particular, how it depicted the familial relationship that develops between not just actors but the entire theatre team. It’s hard to show the kind of support and love that comes from that without succumbing to the usual “oh my god we’re just like a big family, let’s hold hands and sing around a campfire I love all of you I found myself, etc etc etc etc”.
Yeah…anyway.

 

One thing I remember really responding well to when I saw Rodrigues’s production of Bovary at Bastille last year was the clever mastery of subtlety in his writing (and by extension, his direction) to communicate with his audience. A similar case of subtle yet effective communication occurred in this piece as well, only this time it rested more on communication through silence than spoken word. Towards the end of the play, the actors—still being prompted by Cristina—comment on how difficult a time the playwright (Rodrigues…yes, we can forgive the meta-ness here I think) has with finishing his works. After musing over, and acting out, a couple different possible endings, they settle on the one that finally, fittingly works, one that at last sees Cristina at the center of her own story.

 

For a large portion of the narrative preceding this, Cristina talked at length about the woman who directed the National Theatre of Lisbon when she first started on as a prompter there. This woman had, coincidentally, also been working as an actress/director there the first time Cristina attended a show there as a child, and Cristina even credits her with igniting her love of theatre. Over the years, the two worked very closely together and struck up a deep friendship that went beyond the mentor-mentee relationship they started with. Unfortunately, some years later, the director fell ill and, against the wishes of her doctor who counseled her on undergoing surgery (to remove a tumor, I believe), decides to continue on with her performance schedule, just until the end of the season. It was during one of these performances that she collapsed in the middle of the final monologue, never getting to finish her lines and close out the show properly.

 
So, when asked what she would do if she ever found herself alone on a stage in front of an audience, Cristina (or ‘Cristina’, as it is an actress speaking for her) responds that she would finish that unfinished monologue.

 

And so, one by one, the actors started to leave the stage, all save Cristina who instead slowly made her way towards center. But before they left, they all shot a quick glance back at her, and if you have ever worked in theatre, you might know the kind of glance I mean. It’s the one that, without the need for words, sends out support, encouragement, love, whatever you want to call it. It’s that thing that is difficult to pin down, but it’s also the thing that has kept me coming back to theatre because I cannot find it anywhere else. And normally it’s a hidden thing, a backstage thing. We—the audience—cannot be exposed to it, lest it expose us to the fact that these people have a history that extends beyond the bounds of the theatre space, one that requires a bit more reality—‘our’ spatiotemporal reality—to seep in than is maybe ideal. But it was there, and then Cristina finally spoke and the lights went out. How fitting.
3. The Veldt (La Savane) at Nanterre-Amandiers
Right…sometimes the best thing to say about something is nothing at all.

 

I mean, look, if you want to go and play loud, not that excellent, techno music while projecting surtitles on a screen that talk about how some neglectful parents gave their kids a VR room and are now surprised that the kids have just full-on escaped into that room, fine. Go ahead. Honestly though, I’m not really sure I saw the point of all this other than, yeah, maybe don’t just buy your kids’ happiness and also, I don’t really care that you got eaten by a virtual lion (or was it a real lion…who knows).

 
This one was done in the salle transformable at Nanterre. The whole floor was covered in thin foil. Gives it that whole futuristic look. The titular ‘savana’ was suggested through the use of installation pieces that evoked natural objects—namely, a tree…or rather, a dead tree—, as well as a robot…thing.

 

Ok I’m going to stop this now before I really start to hate myself.
Moving on!
4. L’inflammation du verbe vivre at La Colline

 

I feel as though my relationship with Mouawad’s work has become rather…unsteady as of late. On the one hand, his early plays along with his novels (here’s another shout-out to Anima, for its poetic, cathartic violence) are rather brilliant in their reworking (and at times subverting) of classical dramatic tropes. On the other hand, where, for instance, Rodrigues is light and subtle, Mouawad is almost unnervingly heavy-handed. This could partially be attributed to the fact that a lot of his theatre deals with trauma—in particular his own, what with growing up in Lebanon during the Civil War and having to flee the country as a young child—but sometimes I wonder if the weight of his poetics has more to do with the dramaturgical history he has tied himself to, the writers whose recorded adaptations of even older orally-passed stories he both sends up and pays homage to. I had a slight inkling of this last year when I saw Tous des oiseaux (which, coincidentally, is being revived at La Colline in December, though I don’t think I’m in the mood for another four hour session of that right now). That feeling grew stronger with Notre Innocence. I can pretty much cement it now with this piece.

 

The production is billed as a sort of cinematographic theatre, and given how much time was spent staring at a screen—probably the most frontal position an audience can find itself in—I’d be more inclined to describe it as a film during which sometimes the main character pops out of the screen to talk to us.

 

The main storyline: Wahid, a playwright of Lebanese origin played by Mouawad himself, is suffering from a combination of writer’s block and lack of inspiration (a little on the nose, right…just wait), following the death of his friend and colleague Robert Davreu. Said friend also happened to be in the middle of translating a complete volume of the works of Sophocles, including one of his least well-known plays, Philoctetes, that Wahid’s company was set to mount in a few months. Unfortunately, given the writer’s temperament towards himself as well as towards the work, things are pretty much at a stand-still.

 
And so Wahid does what everyone else does when they need to find themselves: he embarks on a solo trip to Greece, whereupon, after unsuccessfully trying to visit Philoctetes’s cave (access closed due to rough waves), he decides to throw himself into the sea in an attempt to reach Hades. Because, as we all know, when one truly needs answers to the seemingly unanswerable questions life throws at us, one must seek the counsel of the dead. Hey, if it was good enough for Odysseus (and yes, we are treated to a reading of the passage in the Odyssey that talks of the moment leading to Odysseus’s decision to visit the Underworld), it’s good enough for everyone else.

 

Since our hero is in the Underworld, and has successfully crossed the Styx thanks to a couple of friendly fishermen, he needs a guide. Since we are in Greece—as an aside, a genuinely silly moment was when Wahid stands on a hill looking out at the expanse around him before realizing that, yes, Hades is Athens—, his guide is, what else, a taxi driver. Named Leftheris. (In Greek = freedom). Wahid’s journey takes him to a city dump (where the souls of all those who died, forgotten, at Salamis take on the form of seagulls), then to the home of a pack of stray dogs where he finally comes in contact with his soul (a dog, but not just any dog, a dog that speaks Arabic…the others all speak Greek…there’s actually quite a bit of Greek in this play, surprisingly), followed by an abandoned building where he discusses the bleak state of the world with three Greek teenagers, and finally to a sort of abandoned retirement home, the last residency of poets.

 

All of this, mind you, takes place mostly on screen. Occasionally, Mouawad, as Wahid, slips in and out of slats in between the screen, sometimes to signal a transition from his physical body into the virtual, pre-recorded one, others to disappear completely and thereby let the story move on to whoever, or whatever, was being shown on screen. All the footage was taken from a trip Mouawad took to Greece back in 2013, at the height of the economic crisis.

 

I’m not sure if I’ve talked much on here at all about certain gripes I have with classicists, or lovers of Greek classical theatre in general, but one of them is a certain dismissive attitude I’ve encountered in conversations with some of these people (mostly men, go figure) towards not necessarily modern Greece, but the history of the country following the classical era. On that note, I will say to this that at least for once we don’t have any lengthy poetic lamenting over what happened to get Greece into the state it (still) is in. There is some of that, but during the aforementioned filmed segment with the teens, they are at least given a chance to say their piece, calling out the inherent hypocrisies in the sacrificing of their generation by those that came before.

 

Here’s my problem with the filmed segments though: at one point, Wahid makes a side comment about how a screen is a sort of symbol of enduring presence (as in, being of the present moment). Given how the screen is interacted with in this production, I would be inclined to disagree. Instead of presence, what the constant moving back and forth inside and outside the screen did—especially as doing so, one could see the variations and changes in Mouawad’s appearance more clearly—was act as a constant, heavy reminder of the past, of a thing that was done once and that belongs to that particular moment. Conversely, if there was any presence in this, it was only in the moments when Mouawad himself was physically on stage, interacting with the flat image on screen and physically “being” in real time. But he was on stage so little compared with the amount of time spent watching the previously-recorded film (which, let’s be honest, tried a bit too hard to be deep at times) that his presence almost seemed like a gimmick in the end.

 

Oh and speaking of the end, he ends up getting a hold of a box in which is hidden the key to his happiness, the solution to all of his woes.
It’s a pencil.

 

Of course it’s a fucking pencil.

 

 

5. Crash Park, l’histoire d’une île at Nanterre-Amandiers.
We’re going to end on a slightly lighter note—thank god—with the piece I saw last night at Nanterre, this one created and directed by Philippe Quesne, the current artistic director at Nanterre-Amandiers.

 

I’m going to call this an anthropological/diorama study with a good dose of vaudeville and a dash of cinematic epic-ness à la Spielberg. Part of Quesne’s M.O. is creating works around micro communities, and this one is no different. The basic premise: survivors of an airplane crash find themselves stranded near a mysterious tropical island. The difference, however, between this and other stranded-on-an-island tales is that this group decides, instead of leaving (and, as the program notes suggest, going back to their commercial, monotonous, stressful, lives), to stay and make a home there.

 

There was very little talking in this play. If any talking did happen, it was usually small chit-chat instead of dialogue deliberately written to advance the plot. No, in this case the stage was a microscope and we were peering in to watch the little “ants” try and figure out their lives.

 

There was a funny little dance number involving leaves, a makeshift bar set-up inside a volcano that later turned into a club (oh, and a silly cabaret-style song about the mysteries lying inside a volcano that was made all the more ridiculous by the fact that the man singing it was doing so while wearing a Hawaiian shirt, silly sunglasses, and an airline pilot’s headset), and a ferocious octopus that threatened at the eleventh hour to destroy everything, but thankfully our little community of characters vanquished him easily.

 

The various costumes worn by the characters evoked time periods and settings of other ‘deserted island’ tales from the Hawaiian shirts to the 18th century pirate garb worn during the fight with the octopus. At one point, a character picked up a megaphone to announce that the ‘duty free’ cart was open, offering a selection of books including Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest, Utopia, Lord of the Flies (yes, there is a theme). In the end, the characters went to sleep inside the plastic volcano—whose plasticity and artificiality was increasingly emphasized throughout the production, particularly through the demonstration that it was easy to take apart and ‘convert’ into a new space—to the tune of Sinatra’s “Fly Me To the Moon”. What a quaint way for us researchers in the audience to leave our subjects on.

 
And that’s it for the plays of the past couple of weeks. Other than that, the one other significant event was my hosting of a small Friendsgiving the day after the actual holiday. I grabbed one and a half roast chickens, and whipped up some stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce. Other friends provided veg, cheese, dessert, the much-needed cranberries for the sauce, and wine (of course). It was, perhaps, one of the more cozy of Thanksgivings I’ve had in recent memory (I think crowding around a tiny table to eat helped with this a bit).

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Until the next (massive) theatre post, my readers!

A post while on holiday…

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Right, I know what you all must be thinking.
“Effie, that is clearly not Paris in that photo.”
Correct. In fact, I am currently writing this post from inside the main reading room at the New York Public Library.
Why am I here? Well, a family member is getting married this coming weekend, and since the wedding coincided with the Toussaint holidays, I figured I’d come out early and spend a couple days in one of my other favorite cities.

(And yes, it goes without saying that, other than seeing friends, a big motivation for spending a decent amount of time here was motivated by food. Especially pizza. And bagels. Seriously, Paris really needs to up their game when it comes to the latter. The pizza offerings are pretty good—especially if, like me, you really like Neapolitan-style pies—, but sometimes you just really want a bagel with cream cheese and lox and tomato and onion…)

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Thankfully, Russ & Daughters was there to meet my bagel-craving needs. (Instagram @effie143)

As to the rest of my life, I’m not entirely sure why I let things (aka grading) pile up as much as they did, but between that and hacking through more chapter writing (albeit rather slowly…writing longhand first before typing everything up tends to do that), I haven’t really found a moment’s peace to commit to writing on the last five shows I saw since my previous post.
Given that, the write-ups are going to be a bit more brief than usual, as there is quite a bit of ground to cover and not a whole lot of time to cover it in. Besides, I’m not entirely sure that a multi-page treatise on each of the shows would be particularly attention-grabbing.

Anyway, let’s start with the first : Richard Maxwell’s Paradiso at Nanterre
First things first, despite the name, this play has nothing to do with Dante’s Divine Comedy (even though, as with Dante, this is the third part of a trilogy of works). What is presented here, rather, is an exploration of the post-human, that is, what remains in terms of form of expression after an eventual apocalypse. For this production, the playing area (I’m not entirely sure one could call it a ‘stage’ for reasons I’ll explain in a bit) of the salle transformable was covered with a white flooring, on the edge of which were arranged three rows of simple wooden benches. There were no raked seats, no ‘gap’ between the playing space and the first row of seats. We were all blended, or gathered, into the same delimited area.

Other than the benches, the space was relatively bare, save for a screen onto which subtitles were projected (the performance was in English). Oh, and a pickup truck. Yes, at the start of the show, the large factory doors were opened, and a silver pickup drove in to music that could best be described as at once ethereal and futuristic. The truck took a few turns about the open space before the driver engaged in the always frustrating endeavor of parallel parking upstage left.
And yes, before any of you ask, he did do that thing where you just keep backing in and out and slightly readjust the wheel so you turn like a quarter-inch, but even that isn’t enough so you pull out and readjust again by about a hair and…god it almost makes one want to yell enough already (if said person wasn’t also giggling at the sheer banality of this gesture).

Anyway, once the car finally stops, one of the back doors opens and out comes—or more precisely “rolls”—not one of the actors but a little robot. A little robot on a rudimentary four-wheeled apparatus, whose “eye” was what looked to be a web camera (but one from about five or six years ago). This is our first introduction to the piece: a machine who speaks in a cadence familiar to those who have ever played around with the read-aloud function on a word processor. Artificial, cold, precise, devoid of subtext even when the words actually being said could—assuming the “human” was not removed—have been spoken in such a way so as to convey some “deeper meaning about life”.

I put this last bit in quotes because one of the things the piece concerns itself with is precisely this question of “profound meaning”, especially once the human characters—four of them, an older woman, an older man, and two girls around my age—come in and start speaking in platitudes themselves, but in such a way that evoked the kind of stereotypical community theatre performance style parodied in Waiting for Guffman than anything that was supposed to convey something beyond “these are phrases that sound important but in the grand scheme of things really don’t mean much.” It is the human transitioning into its own obscurity through speech. Hell, the ending—if one could call it that—involved the “family” getting back into the car and driving back out into the street, leaving the little lonely robot in their wake. Said robot then began printing a very long receipt of text, though not the text of the script itself.
There was no curtain call, no bows, no moment of congratulations for the cast. Eventually, as the robot kept printing, some audience members tentatively got up to inspect the writing, constituting an “end” if there ever was one.
I mean, if the concept of storytelling is a human construct, do its conventions still hold once humans disappear?

While you all ponder that…let’s move on to Mama by Egyptian playwright Ahmed El Attar, performed on the main stage of the MC93.

Ooooh boy where to start with this one…
On the one hand, the exploration of the dynamic between mother and son in Arab/Mediterranean/Levantine (or even former Ottoman) cultures is one that resonates rather well with me (Greek and Middle Eastern/Arab cultures have quite a few similarities as far as this is concerned), and deserves to be told.
On the other hand, is it really necessary to, again, place the onus of change onto the backs of women? One of the things El Attar discusses in the show program is the manner in which he feels women in his country are still subject to certain levels of oppression brought on in large part by the distinctly patriarchal/machismo culture in which the society in which they live is structured. Women counteract this, he states, by forming close, influential bonds with their sons, especially the eldest, as it is through the eventual installation of the son as the head of the family that the mother can hope to gain some level of power or control. The problem, however, is that this keeps perpetuating cycles of oppression, as though the mother has an illusion of power through the level of control she exercises over her son, she still does not have access or opportunity to gain equal footing with him, or other men, in general.
What I have an issue with, however, is not necessarily the fact that El Attar pinpoints a certain kind of internalized misogyny that manifests itself in this, but rather his insistence that the responsibility for change is found solely in the mother, as men, he states, will never change and we cannot hope for them too.
Look, whether or not a mother realizes that what she does could perpetuate cycles of sexism/patriarchy/oppression does not change the fact that her efforts will amount to very little if there is not a general overhaul of the sociocultural structure in which she lives by those who actually have power, aka men.
Also, I mean if we want to talk about giving women more of a voice and influence, perhaps we could start with the fact that this play presented a story centered on Egyptian women, but that was written not by a woman but by a man. Give women a seat at the table, let them speak of their experiences themselves, of how they see their place in the world, and then we can talk.

Anyway…

I was not really a fan of this production, but I don’t attribute this entirely to the fact that reading the program notes before the show started left a bad taste in my mouth. For one thing, the show was in Arabic, but the screen on which the subtitles were projected was placed so high up—the stage is rather tall at the MC93—, that unfortunately reading the subtitles to understand context sometimes meant missing some of the subtle body language cues on stage (and thus subtle evolutions in different characters’ relationships to one another). Second, apparently El Attari is a fan of a collage-style of playwriting (this is the first of his plays I’ve had the chance to see, so I can’t speak to how it did/did not work in other cases), which did not quite work for me. I have a feeling this may have something to do with the fact that the sound cues—our signal as to when a transition was happening—were incredibly off, but the pacing seemed very inconsistent from one vignette to the next, resulting in a piece that was more incoherent than I think it had the intention of being. If we are meant to view in the course of this production a shift in family dynamics as one generation yields to the next, there was a distinct lack of urgency in which every action was carried out that it almost made one want to ask what the point of all this was.

Oh, and then at one point a woman came out and sang an Arabic rendition of R Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”. Yeah.
Right…show number 3: Maeterlinck’s La Princesse Maleine, this time in the smaller theatre of the MC93.

I’m going to be really brief on this one: melodrama is not my thing. Neither, apparently, is symbolism. I don’t care that there was ice all over the stage, meaning that every time someone had to move at anything faster than a careful walk it became an exciting game of “Try not to slip and break yourself”. I don’t care that there was some rather interesting projection work being done. Having to listen to someone slowly moan out variations of “Oooooooooh nnoooooo” or “Ooooooooh deeeeaaaaarrrr” is not my idea of a fun two hours.
Yeah…we’re just going to chalk this one up to “sometimes we really just don’t end up liking things, and maybe this will just be a play that we will forget about when it comes time to writing the chapter on the MC93 for the eventual dissertation…”
Onto number 4: Affordable Solution for Better Living, at Nanterre (in the design workshop)
Less a theatre piece than a dance/performance art piece with text, this production centered around a single performer (dressed in not one but two of those sheer looking body suits) who spends the first half of the hourlong production building an IKEA bookshelf.
I mean, you really cannot get more banal, sterile or supremely ordinary than a white IKEA bookshelf, or more precisely than the assembly of a white IKEA bookshelf. The thing is designed to be so impersonal so as to fit within nearly any lifestyle. It is a thing without much substance. A pure object. And this man—or rather humanoid creature, as the first of the two body suits has the actor’s face printed on the bit that zips over the head, bringing the whole thing crashing smack-dab into the uncanny valley—places it together with an intricate precision of gesture, any deviation from which results in an error message from a disembodied, robotic, female voice that also at times offers reassuring messages such as “You are a responsible citizen.” “You are doing well.” “Only those who sleep don’t make mistakes.”
After the bookshelf is complete, stagehands unload a few other pieces of white/beige IKEA furniture, and the stage space is thus transformed into the approximation of a “living room” (I’d say the Platonic ideal of a living room, but I don’t quite feel much like discussing Plato’s cave allegory at the moment). The “human” then slowly sheds his first “skin” revealing a second body suit with muscle fibers printed on it underneath. His body as a whole remains recognizable as that of a “Human”, but only a close approximation of one. As he interacts with/climbs on and over his furnishings, he only moves closer to becoming a non-human figure than a fully realized person.
He does, however, have a voice, though it, like the female voice earlier in the piece, is disembodied, emanating from a mic hanging over the stage. His body reacts to his words, but the absence of a moving mouth to bridge the final connection between the voice and its source renders his particular “human-ness” divided.
And finally show number 5: Winter Family’s H-2 Hebron, again at Nanterre, and, as with the previous show, in the design workshop

Here is a quick sum-up of this show: a documentary theatre piece in which one woman speaks the words of four different individuals. It’s polyphony and contradiction, battles for control of a narrative, in the site of a singular body.

Given that the show centers around the conflict surrounding the increased Israeli colonization of the city of Hebron (which both Israelis and Palestinians claim ancestral ties to), the choice to structure the show this way actually makes quite a bit of sense. To be honest, it took me a minute to realize what was going on, as hearing contradictory statements coming out of the actress’s mouth without visible change in inflection to signal a change of character almost made me think my comprehension skills had become inexplicably rusty. Thankfully, I caught on as to what she was doing after a bit.
The space was set in a bi-frontal structure, with the middle being occupied by a long table, covered in a black cloth. This, we would discover, was where the city of Hebron would be built in miniature over the course of our “tour” there. Indeed, one of the inspirations for the writing of this play came from the artists’ experiences encountering various tour groups (oh yeah, war/conflict tourism is a thing) while on a visit to the city, as well as noting the differences not only in information but rather in the way certain information or history was framed. We then, as an audience, were transformed into tourists, though given that we were presented with multiple, often incredibly contradictory narratives, at once, the responsibility in the end was put on us to determine what “truth”, if any, there was to be gained about the situation. There is, in this, an assumption that we who are seated there before our singular yet multiplicitous/fractured “guide” are smart enough to think critically enough in order to unravel the complexities of the situation, which to a certain degree, I find to be a bit more effective than some of the more straightforward didactic theatrical presentations I have seen over the past year. Given the situation at the center of the play, however, I question the limits as to how far such an approach can go. There is a question of active colonialism at hand, after all.

Right, with that, we come to a close on another round of “Effie hurriedly writes things down before she procrastinates even more and the task becomes almost insurmountable”. If you need me, I’ll be downing another coffee…and staring at a small pile of papers that need grading. Work never ceases, even on holiday.

 

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Where I’m writing from…

And the lights went out…and stayed out…

For reference, the title of this post is referring to my state of mind at this very moment as the latest nonsense out of the US with the Kavanaugh hearings pours in. Is it really all that unbelievable that, once again, a woman’s voice is essentially silenced, even though—and especially since—she had nothing personal to gain from speaking in the first place? First Anita Hill 27 years ago. Now this. I am aware that the official vote of confirmation still has to take place, but I am not optimistic. The cynicism is back in full force, friends. Long may it live.

 

 

Funnily enough, I think my general feeling of internalized rage and disgust with everything somewhat mirrors a show I saw on Tuesday evening at the MC93. Le Père is, as the title suggests, about a father. A father figure (a figured father?). There is only one actor on stage, and other than a large square of grass hidden under a panel that rose up halfway through the show and some well-placed fog machines (again with the fog machines), the stage (this was in their smaller upstairs theatre that sort of resembles the salle transformable in Nanterre in terms of size and design adaptability) was relatively bare.

 

 

Speaking of space, there is still a lot of talk around what exactly the theatre-going experience is, in terms of the level of connectivity between audience members (or audience members and actors/what is being performed on stage). One of the generally-accepted approaches towards this is to think of the theatre as a site of communion or better community creation. In other words, it is in this shared moment that all involved—audience predominantly, but actors as well—are brought together as one whole for a brief moment in time. How very special.

 

 

I snark on this mostly because I have encountered some interpretations of this idea that posit that the community created inside the theatre is capable of continuing to be nurtured outside of it. To be clear, I do not deny there is something that happens in that instance of a shared moment, but I don’t really think it has the capacity to last beyond the exiting of the theatre and the returning to one’s lives. This is not to say a true long-lasting community could never be created just from one night spent with a particular group of people at the theatre. It is possible that that could happen, but unlikely.

 

 

I tend to eschew the question of community and prefer to think of going to the theatre of a moment in which I and several other people will happen to be in the same room at the same time watching the same thing play out before us. Maybe this is a result of the fact that 99% of the time, I end up going to see things by myself (because I have work to do, and I can’t really afford to let my showgoing schedule depend on the decisions of others), but I will say that, even though I am by myself, even though I don’t usually have someone to turn to to make a quick comment at or share a knowing glance with, I don’t actually feel solitary at the theatre. I mean, half of watching a performance is watching other people watch it, and it’s kind of hard to separate yourself from the fact that you’re not the only person in the room.

 

Director Julien Gosselin takes a slightly different approach to the question, stating in the show program that he considers theatre to be a very solitary experience. Fine. I was kind of hesitant about how this was going to be communicated during the show, but honestly, I think he found a way to make that work.

 

 

Basically: if Wagner turned off the lights briefly to shut people up, Gosselin kept them off to remind people of how lonely, how solitary in our chairs we really were.

 

 

The performance was a good 90 minutes long, and I would say about half of that was in total darkness, the kind of darkness where its more comfortable to keep your eyes closed rather than strain them and risk a headache. And in that darkness, pierced only by the voice of the actor playing the father (I’ll get to him in a minute), unable to quickly gauge the reactions of those around me, those who I knew were still there, I shut my eyes and closed off the main portal to the world around me.

 

 

Eventually—from fear of falling asleep maybe, though the at times ground-shaking volume of the, for the moment, disembodied voice, made sleep impossible—I felt okay enough keeping my eyes open, and it was around then that faintly, a light far upstage slowly started to come on. Excruciatingly slowly. After a moment, it was clear that the light was backlighting something—a figure, the father—and this something started to also take on discernable movements, slowly coming closer out of the shadows.

 

Pure figure. This is a thing come from the abyss. From nothing. Suspended in an unmarked time and place.

 

 

The content of the piece surrounds the lament of the titular father over the state of his life. Growing up, he was told what he had to be, what he had to do in order to eventually become this figure, to fully realize it. But—as with several promises made by previous generations as to the general order of things in life—what he was promised never came to fruition. The farm he settled on and cultivated in order to provide for his family must be sold. He has no legacy to pass on to his children. He has failed, miserably, spectacularly at the role he was told he would take on if he followed certain steps. But if he cannot fulfill the supposed requirements for becoming said role, what is he then? He both is—by virtue of his producing children—and is not—by his lack and loss of anything to give them—the title which is conferred on him. Suspended.

 

 

It is weird though writing about this in the current context of life in general. I think the one thing that kind of pulled me from fully resisting to what was happening entirely was the fact that, at the end of the performance, he talks about how he burned all the bills and notices from the debt collectors. It’s not an ending that speaks to a revolution, but I think instead of the bleakness, I saw the potential for something different. Something that had to come from hitting absolute rock bottom.

 

 

The lights never fully came back on. In the end, the stage was more brightly illuminated, but by that point, at least for me, the cocoon effect of the first half of the performance had done its job. I didn’t particularly care about what other people were thinking. Maybe something like that was what I needed in this moment, to be really alone (or at least have the illusion of being really alone) again. To gather myself…

 

 

Sometimes it’s hard to fully get back into that mindset when all you want is to cocoon in a very large warm hug. Ah well. Life.

 

 

Anyway, moving on.

 

 

I closed out the month by seeing two shows at La Colline, both of which addressed questions of historical trauma, and more specifically, coming to terms with it.

 

 

The first, Révélations from the Red in Blue Trilogie by Cameroonian playwright Léonora Miano addressed the notion of trauma and loss in the context of the transatlantic slave trade, and more specifically, the questions of the nameless lives lost at sea during the voyage, whose souls err in the afterlife, unable to find the repose (and eventual reincarnation) of those buried with proper funeral rites. Interestingly, when she was asked about who she would like to stage her piece, she named Japanese director Satoshi Miyagi, whose troupe is known for their highly stylized, ritualized performances.

 

 

And holy shit before I say anything else, the costume design of this show was absolutely amazing. Like…go look at pictures of it. It is gorgeous.

 

 

Ahem…anyway.

 

 

The play was in Japanese with French subtitles, and the members of the company took turns alternating between performing on stage, and playing one (or many) of the several instruments in the pit. Stage design was geometrically minimalist, with two large circles—one black, one white—hanging down over the center of the stage, whose deliberate slight shifts were often used to cut the light in such a way so as to suggest pathways (to the world of the living) or isolated chambers for the realm of shadows. At the back of the stage, the limbs of several mannequins lay scattered, looking almost like drowned bodies. To be honest, this was the only element that felt slightly out of place to me, design-wise, as everything else seemed far more suggestive or abstract than literal.

 

 

The theatre itself had also undergone a bit of a facelift—well, at least the seats did—over the summer, and I have to say the new ones are pretty comfortable. Removing the last few rows of chairs in order to make room for the orchestra pit, further helped to cut back on what I think is one of my least favorite things about the space: its sharp depth. I don’t know if saying it’s too vertical would be exactly what I’m going for, but sometimes I feel as though, after a certain point, the distance of the seat to the stage coupled with the fact that the stage is not nearly as big as the main stage in Nanterre makes me feel as though I am in a different room entirely than what is being performed in front of me. Thankfully, going to see things alone can have certain advantages sometimes, such as the fact that I can literally pick almost any seat I want when selecting my ticket, meaning I was seated relatively close to the stage this time.

 

 

And it almost felt immersive. Almost. The fact that at the end, some of the actors came in the audience to shower us with pink confetti—as well as hand out little pink papers shaped like…something. I honestly have no idea what it is supposed to be other than maybe a cotton bud…maybe—kind of helped bring us in, so to speak, but still, it’s hard to feel completely wrapped up in something when you can see a very large pit, and a very grey platform separating you from this living painting being composed in front of you. Yeah, I still can’t get over the costume design.

 

 

 

The second play, Points de non-retour [Thiaroye], written and directed by Alexandra Badea, comes with a disclaimer [from me] to immediately go and look up the Thiaroye massacre of 1944. Needless to say, it is one of several “incredibly not bright, yet we’re still going to stubbornly deny the monstrosity of it” events of colonial France that the country needs to reckon with. In short, towards the end of the Second World War, around 1600 Senegalese soldiers—recently repatriated to Senegal, after having both voluntarily fought for France and being held as prisoners of war by Nazi Germany—were gathered at the military camp in Thiaroye, Senegal where, on the night of November 30, 1944, they were fired upon by their white superior officers. The reason? The soldiers had recently called a strike after finding out the pensions they were promised were both not equal to those of their white compatriots, as well as very likely not coming anyway. The government justified the massacre by saying the soldiers were prone to revolt, or had otherwise been corrupted by the Germans—claims that were of course, absolutely unfounded—and the official death toll only numbered 35. Those that were assassinated were buried in a mass grave. Furthermore, the distinction “mort pour la France” or “died for France”, a distinction that itself came with a sort of family pension, was denied them.

 

There has recently been some calls to reopen the investigation into this event to try to provide answers, if not closure. In the play, this is seen through one man—Senegalese, but adopted by a French family when he was very young—returning back to Senegal to find answers about his father who went off in the war and never came home, leaving his wife—a Romanian woman who was conceived during her mother’s brief affair with a German soldier following the disappearance of her Jewish fiancé to Palestine—and newborn son in Paris. The son, whose parents never told him the stories of the gaps and weights in his history, and who bears the name of his grandfather gunned down in Thiaroye, grows up without a means to grapple with the [to him] unknowable trauma passed down from previous generations. Meanwhile, the grandson of one of the French soldiers who carried out the order to shoot finds his grandfather’s old diaries, detailing not just what happened that day, but the haunting presence of the monstrosity of the act that never quite disappeared.

 

Tying this all together is a journalist who, after she gets a hold of the research of a recently-deceased [I think, that part was either unclear or I spaced out…] colleague, decides to try and finish the work he started, creating a radio broadcast about the event, and ultimately bringing the grandson of the soldier and the grandson of the officer who killed him together.

 

 

Yes, the stereotypical inter-generational moment of reckoning/reconciliation happens. So do some rather too on the nose speeches about how we have to change the system, it’s the system that allows for this thing to still be kept in the shadows, and we can change that even by just talking about this event.

 

 

Yeah, the writing got a tad clunky sometimes. Several story beats were easy to spot, as the narrative followed a pretty typical structure. But I am glad this play happened still because, yes, I did learn something.

 

 

Stage design consisted of two walls angled together to suggest the corner of an apartment, with large windows on which were projected videos of whatever outside setting we happened to be in. And yes, this did also mean that at times they did that thing where an actor leaves the stage and then appears on the video, suggesting a seamless transition into an invisible ‘beyond’ backstage. The front of the stage, meanwhile, was absolutely covered in red sand. Blood red sand. At times it was laid in, picked up, held and run through fingers, and then inevitably tracked along the platform of the stage, traces of blood red footprints on a steel-grey floor.

 

A final thing: there were times when the performance was intercut with the live typing out of notes being projected onto the wall right above the windows. I’m not entirely sure about that choice, but there you go.

 

Other than that, I still feel like I’m in a bit of a limbo state. I want to both curl up against something and stretch out and run headlong into something/-where unknown. It’s a strange feeling…

Finding my footing (again)

I really want to try and make more of a point to update this thing more frequently than I did this past year, hence why I’m writing now after scrambling to finish up some last-minute lesson planning.

 

To start, the question many (?) of you are wondering: how am I doing?

 

Raw

 

Raw but supported. Still hopeful, still feeling like I can give of myself, which I’m surprised by but in a pleasant way. Also feeling like I want to reach out to something but then having to contend with the fact that what’s in front of me is just air. Heavy air. Heavy, nostalgic air. Sometimes, I get a whiff of something in the air as I’m walking that sets off a chain of memories, and I feel a small pang in my heart because of the uncertainty of things, specifically, uncertainty as to the possibility of recurrence of things. And then the feeling passes, but its mark lingers on for a while. The weather’s also gotten crisper now, and I’ve begun to notice the exposed skin on my cheeks and my hands more acutely. The urge to be wrapped up in something is getting stronger, but I’ve found that sometimes confronting that urge doesn’t have to be as lonely as it first seems.

 

 

Besides, I was surrounded by friends this weekend: strong, wonderful, understanding supportive women. Oh, and chocolate. Like, literally a mountain’s worth of it.

 

 

Friday, I met with Isabella at Brasserie Barbès for a quick drink (okay two), during which time we discovered some croquettes that I would say almost rivalled the crack dumplings at Le Pacifique. We then moved on to grab dinner at Bouillon Pigalle, which was a bold choice since—considering how incredibly inexpensive it is—there is always a line to contend with. Thankfully, getting there close to 22h30 on a Friday proved to be an excellent idea, since whatever line there was moved very quickly, as most other patrons were finishing their dinners.

 

And really, for some steak-frites, red wine, and (first chocolate appearance) an absolutely massive profiterole filled with ice cream, I’d say the wait was worth it.

 

Side note though: strangely enough there were about three separate parties celebrating birthdays that evening, one of which was seated at the table next to ours. The birthday boy was gifted, among other things, one of those stereotypical, incredibly fake Native American headdresses (complete with plastic tomahawk axe and bow and arrow set). It’s times like this that I remember that a good majority of the world has an incredibly long way to go when it comes to reasons why nobody should be buying/gifting these things…ever.

 

 

Saturday was much more quiet during the day, but at least it involved some tarte au chocolat baking (yes, I’m baking again…that’s got to be a good thing…right?), and sitting on my floor consuming massive bowls of popcorn and cookies and said tarte with some other girlfriends. The original plan was to watch a film. As these things usually go, conversation kind of took over, which, honestly, is almost always the better outcome.

 

 

As to theatre-goings, there were two shows up this week, both at Nanterre, and one of which I…was not particularly fond of. Boundary Games sounded pretty up my alley on paper (I mean, an experimental piece with that title, and me working on questions of space…like…how could it not be perfect). Instead it was an hour of people pushing blankets around to ambient noise.

 

Ok, fine, perhaps there was more nuance than that. Perhaps one could say something about the fact that the sound effects played alternated between urban and rural/natural, or the fact that the manner in which the actors interacted/moved the heavy woolen blankets around suggested, at times, attempts to create or seek shelter, and other times literall world-building (what I called the ‘Pangea moment’ when, at a time when all the lights were almost off, leaving nothing illuminated save for the glow of the grid taped down on the floor under the black lights overhead, the blankets, now resembling small mountain ranges, were slowly pushed together into a sort of continental mass), but see the whole thing ended with some stage hands in the rafters throwing down large empty cardboard boxes. And really, all I can remember thinking at that moment was ‘dear god I hope we don’t have to watch them put the blankets in those boxes’.

 

Thankfully, we didn’t.

 

 

It’s a shame the show—silent, by the way, other than the aforementioned sound effects—didn’t take advantage of the stage setup to explore the notion of boundaries even further.  The fact that the audience was seated tri-frontally could have provided, at least in my opinion, some opportunity to play with the stage/audience boundary that was never really tested. There were a couple moments where crossing that boundary came close to happening, but from what I saw, I think that was more due to a blanket that just so happened to fall a certain way rather than a deliberate choice to test a limit. Pity.

 

 

The second show was one I saw this afternoon, and honestly was almost coincidentally perfect in terms of its content, given that Saturday night’s conversation ended with me expressing an interest in possibly modifying my 1er (11th grade) lesson plan to focus on teaching The Laramie Project. Milo Rau’s La Reprise. Histoire(s) du théâtre (I) is only slightly connected to Laramie in that one of the central narratives deals with crafting a sort of documentary piece around the April 2012 murder of Ihsane Jarfi, a gay man, in Liège, Belgium. Like Matthew Shepard, Jarfi was getting a ride home from a bar when the men driving him started beating him senselessly, for no other reason other than he happened to be gay. Also like Shepard, Jarfi was left outside, in the cold, on the side of the road, the difference being that instead of being tied to a barbed wire fence, he was stripped of his clothing and laid face down on the street.

 

There was no mention in the program of any connection to Laramie or Matthew Shepard, and it’s a shame that the talkback with Milo Rau happened yesterday (Saturday) because I really wish I could have asked about this. I mean, really, how do you go about creating a piece of (somewhat…and we’ll get to that in a bit) documentary theatre about a  homophobic hate crime and not think of Laramie? And yes, I am aware that Laramie was a piece of American theatre, but it made the rounds in Europe as well…so…

 

 

Anyway, the other big thing that separates the two is the fact that La Reprise is just as much about the process of creating the piece of documentary theatre about the event than it is about the final theatrical product. I mean, the first thing that happens is that one of the actors comes downstage to give a monologue on the difficulty of beginning, of starting the performance and at which point (and to what extent) does the actor become their character. Really, you’d almost think this was a play about the nature of acting, if what followed was not a recounting of the events that happened on that day in Liège. The piece then proceeded to show the ‘auditions’ of those who would be taking on the roles of several of the real-life figures, and at this was the point where, once again, a camera was introduced. Yes, everyone, once again we have a situation where a camera is simultaneously filming something while what is being projected on the screen above/behind the actors is at times a live transmission, and other times something previously recorded (though the transition between the two coupled with the fact that the actors’ movements on stage often closely matched/were only slightly out of sync with what was on screen definitely heightened the hyper-theatricality of the whole thing). To be honest, I’m still trying to grapple somewhat with the connection between the two threads—there were times where I felt as though the show was tackling two separate themes but, who knows—, but this is probably also due to the fact that I could not get the Laramie connection out of my head the entire 90 minutes of the show’s runtime.

 

And with that, another week gone. I’m feeling this sense of tiredness that’s been creeping up on me these past few nights come round again. That, and a general feeling of suspension.

 

Oh, but I did manage to write some thesis-related things this week, so there’s that at least.  Yeah, I’ll try and hold on to that for now.

Parallels

I’ve been thinking a lot since my last post about when to update again. At first, I thought I’d write something during my vacation in Greece this August, but internet connectivity being almost non-existant where I was, I put that off.

 

Besides, disconnecting for a while felt pretty nice.

 

Then I came back and what with la rentrée/back to school in full swing, and the general hectic nature of September, I almost felt as though I had no time to myself to think of anything but what was happening the next day — hell, the next few hours.

 

And so I figured the best way to come back would be to write a post after seeing my first play of the season, Infidèles by tgStan at the Théâtre de la Bastille.

 

The play happened.

 

Then this past weekend, the rug was pulled out from under me once again.

 

I couldn’t help but think of parallels today while I was teaching, how similar certain events in my life have been, how I’m in a somewhat similar place now that I was a year ago. Somewhat. The difference is in the details, and the circumstances being what they are, I feel a slight tinge of hope this time around. Not necessarily  for any particular outcome, but hope in the unknown, in the not closing of a link, a connection. Hope in realizing that there are wonderful people who we want in our lives, who we choose to want in our lives. And who, sometimes for reasons we can barely comprehend, choose to want us around as well, even and especially in the shit times.

 

And I feel lucky this time around that, when loneliness almost snuck on and grabbed hold of me, I knew exactly who I could contact. That’s a pretty wonderful thing to be confident about, isn’t it?

 

I’m going to be wading through some heavy things these next few days, so you all might have to bear with me. For now though, I can say that I feel okay. Someone dear to me told me I was strong this morning, and I believed them. So there must be some truth to that.

 

I am a lion. I can still roar.

 

With that, the plays I saw this week.

 

 

The first, as I mentioned, was Infidèles at Bastille. I figured going there for my first show of the year was a good choice, given that it is still my favorite theatre in the city. And this show did not disappoint. It’s based off a script of a similar name by Ingmar Bergman, and I’m just going to take this moment right now to say I have never seen anything by Bergman. So, we can all just get that little bit of nonsense out of the way.

 

The play centers around the retelling of a woman’s infidelity, her journey from faithful wife and mother to woman who sleeps with her husband’s best friend (and the fallout that follows, especially for her 9-year-old daughter, here played by an actress in her forties. Trust me, it actually really works). The opening sees the four actors – two men, two women – standing downstage, and instead of launching straight into the narrative, begin by performing a sort of character creation exercise. Essentially, one of the male actors turns to one of the women, and asks her to describe the woman at the center of the story – who she, it becomes abundantly clear, will eventually be playing. She in turn gives a bit of information about her – her name, age, career, a bit of her personality – before, in the course of describing her family, designating the principle roles the other  actors will play (her husband, her daughter, the husband’s friend who she eventually sleeps with). From there, the play moves into the narrative, but not before some comments are made over whether or not this retelling will ‘work’ (sly glance at audience who they know are there to see a play).

 

In some ways, this sort of putting into performance of the process of ‘becoming’ that often defines a large part of an actor’s work seemed very similar to what I saw in Bovary last year. Exposing the invisible processes of the actor’s craft to draw attention to the theatricality, the fictionality of what was about to happen. It renders the whole thing less illusory but also more honest…? As in, there is no question here of anyone trying to get  anyone else to believe, truly believe anything. And it works rather well in cases like this because when small flubs happen, there is already an understanding in place about the possibility of imperfection. Imperfection, in fact, becomes part and parcel of the whole experience. And in the end, when the actors reconvene back downstage and – while sometimes quickly glancing back out at the audience – ask if what they did worked, if it ended up being a show after all, there was in that question a recognition that, despite anything that did/did not go as planned, it was still theatre. Theatre in its (almost) entirety, creation to presentation. The moment before to the moment after. Yes, none of it is « real », but does that really matter?

 

 

And the second show was one I saw yesterday, Sunday, at Nanterre. How appropriate, to find a temporary moment of solace in something I love.

 

Hilariously, the play was called Hate, but that didn’t really have much to do with my current state of mind. Just a weird coincidence.

 

The subtitle of this play (and I’m going to translate from the French), is « an attempted dialogue with a horse », and yes, before any of you ask, there was an actual horse on stage.

 

A horse, and a naked woman. Well, almost naked. She wore a belt with a fanny pack full of carrots (for the horse), and a small holster where she placed a plastic sword.

 

It goes without saying that this whole thing was really more of a monologue than a true dialogue, although about a third of the way through, the actress, Laëtitia Dosch, who also wrote the piece, also started speaking as the horse. That choice itself speaks to the overall question of power that underlines the production as a whole. As Laëtitia slowly begins to develop a more and more intimate relationship with the horse – don’t worry though, no actual sex happens, though the possibility of it is very explicitly alluded to – the question arises as not really the ‘authenticity’ of this relationship (again, horse), but the agency of one of the two parties involved. The horse’s voice can be provided artificially, but this nevertheless still anchors him as an object, as a piece of whatever narrative his human counterpart is in the process of creating. He has no true agency, at least not enough to make him a subject. The relationship, in other words, exists within the context of only one of their points of view.

 

 

It’s a rather interesting way of exploring this kind of relationship, these imbalances of power.

 

Anyway, I should perhaps write more on this, but I’ve got dinner to make. And to be honest, my brain is a bit exhausted.

 

 

But if anyone wants to reach me, you know where I am. I may be a bit under water right now, but I’ll be ok. I’ve got good people in my life, people who choose me to be in their lives in various capacities. And something else I’ve started to realize over this past year is the value of that. Fine comes with time. Besides, the sun was out today. How wonderful that life can still have such beauty in it like that.

231 – 258

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Every year, around spring, there comes a point where things both start to pile up and converge into a sort of machinal monotony, during which nothing terrrrrribly exciting happens. A large part of this – at least in my case – has to do with the fact that the school year is winding down, and going into the home stretch means paper grading, exam proctoring, teacher meetings, etc., etc., etc.

Oh, and also writing and sending off what I hope to be my final prospectus draft (just need to wait for email responses…any day now…hopefully).

Needless to say, I haven’t really felt the impulse to write much, first because not a ton of things were happening, but then mostly because the prospect of trying to condense the increasing number of days between my last post and this one into a reasonably long text seemed more and more daunting as the days missed racked up.

But there were some wonderful things I would have liked to mention. Like how my theatre students gave their final performance and blew me (and our audience…yes we had an audience, including the principal and vice principal of the school) away with their energy, dedication, and commitment. To say I’m a bit sad that some of them will be graduating and off to new projects next year is somewhat of a given, but on the bright side, my eleventh graders will be back next year (and we had some students in the audience express enthousiastic interest in joining next year). This is probably one of my biggest regrets about leaving when I did the last time I taught this course: I wasn’t able to start a legacy, to establish a sort of permanence. Hopefully, since I’m not planning on leaving any time soon, this thing will grow into a slightly larger group of misfits instead of a relatively small one (though there’s nothing wrong with either).

Then of course there were reunions with friends from Boston (including one that involved a visit to some galeries in the Upper Marais that I had never visited before, but will probably try to more often when I have the time for it, mostly because…they’re freeeeee), discovering a potentially new favorite restaurant with the boyfriend (Buffet…you are wonderful, I love you and your delicious food and incredibly affordable prices), picnics, impressionist art expos, starting up round two of the physical theatre workshop I joined about a month or so ago…

And best of all, securing an apartment for next year. Other than waiting for feedback on my prospectus, this was probably my biggest source of stress for the past month.

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Could probably also call this the month of avocado toasts…

One thing that sort of got pushed to the side more than it should have though was my theatre attendance. I missed…probably more shows than I should have. I can tell myself that I let the hectic-ness of my schedule get the best of me, but I think a bit of show fatigue had started to set in as well.

Not for too long though because now I’m back with another mini review of a show that I have already seen…well kind of.

Back in the fall, I saw a production of Je suis un pays at the Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre. As part of this production, there was also a companion piece programmed on the same evenings – Voilà ce que jamais je ne te dirai – that spectators were meant to see before seeing the longer main show (but the two could not be seen on the same night). Now, last fall, I kind of dropped the ball on seeing the companion piece (the first one – which, need I remind everyone, had a running time of about 4 hours – was more than enough for me at the time), but I figured that since both plays were coming through La Colline this month, and since a) spatial dynamics are my focus and b) La Colline is one of the theatres I’m focusing on, why not go and see both again…and in the right order this time.

I should point out right away, that I wasn’t exactly the ideal spectator for Voilà… considering I had seen the longer show already, and a large part of the aesthetic of the smaller piece plays with the confusion of walking into a space that has been from all appearances largely destroyed, and trying to piece together what the hell just happened. I will say though, that enough time had passed between the first time I saw the show that I didn’t remember every detail of what transpired before, but I was able to recall enough of the ‘plot’ details that I didn’t remain confused/perplexed for long.

The experience of this show starts with arriving at the theatre about two hours after the initial start time of Je suis un pays. After checking your ticket, the ushers hand you a wristband, and instruct you to go to the coat check downstairs to drop off your bag, and pick up your white hazmat suit and small headlamp. You had twenty minutes to get dressed before meeting back upstairs with the other suited-up spectators. While this was happening, Je suis… had in the meantime entered the second of its intermissions, meaning that for a good fifteen minutes, the spectators of both shows were mingling together in the entryway/bar area, with those who had already gone through our ‘experience’ looking on knowingly, while others remained more or less confused as to what in the world these people were doing.

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At the appointed time, after the spectators for Je suis… had been called back into the theatre, we were lead down into a small room located somewhere in the backstage area. There, a video was playing showing an interview between a journalist and a ‘Finnish’ expert on the artist that features prominently in the larger work (but who I don’t think ever actually appears). The conversation quickly descends into absurdity – notably: removal of all artistic works from museums and privatizing them is a way to fight against elitism because all museums really do, instead of being democratic, accessible spaces, is cultivate an even stronger level of elitism and exclusivity…and then everyone must sing the chicken dance – before two of the principle actors from the show come in. One is wearing nothing but briefs and bleeding from the head; the other has just been doused in tar. After a long discourse by the former, we are told that there has just been an explosion, the population has been decimated, and it is up to us to repopulate the planet.

Oh, and there would be beer.

At this point, we were lead out of the small room and into the main theatre – walking through the audience space – in a cloud of fog. We were then lead onto a bank of seats on the stage itself, an act that transformed the formerly primarily frontal dynamic in a bifrontal one, and as the fog cleared, we slowly discovered the mess on stage before us. Almost total destruction. I emphasize the almost because, once again, the audience space remains untouched. Untouched by dirt, by fake blood, by tar. Even though the stage itself  was relatively level with the start of the audience space – in contrast, the stage at Amandiers is raised up, creating a notable gap between itself and the audience – there was still a noticeable division between the two.

Anyway, what to say about the rest? We watched the last fifteen minutes of the show, it ended, we were all given free Heinekens, and then the techno music started. Fun.

Yeah, I’m not entirely sure what else to say about this that I hadn’t already said when I wrote about the longer show a few months ago. In any case, I am actually seeing Je suis un pays (or, well, the first part of it) again this week so…there’s that.

I’m just going to end this here with an image from this sort of immersive, light show expo, thing that the boyfriend and I checked out last Saturday. On the downside, it being a Saturday, it was pretty crowded. On the bright side, these flowers…

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223 – 230

Memory is an odd thing, especially when it comes to theatre.

 

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately for several reasons, chief of which is the fact that, as it is the 50th anniversary – to the month – of May 1968, several events and expositions have been popping up around the city commemorating this very pivotal moment in Parisian/French history.

 

But what does commemoration serve when an event of this kind is concerned? An event rooted primarily in anti-establishment rhetoric, crying for change in the way things are done, cries that – yes – turned violent, but when is that not the case when the people dare to speak out and law enforcement answers with guns and batons (we can add tear gas to this now, useless canisters of tear gas flung into otherwise peaceful clusters of protesters who dare to sit down in the shade for a minute). I don’t think it would be too far-fetched to say that, ultimately, the wished-for upending of the status-quo was never truly realized. Not really. Instead what we get now is neat repackaging of slogans and posters at 5eu a pop, and perhaps a fleeting moment in front of an image of a student alone in a deserted street throwing a paving stone at a cloud of smoke and the mechanized enemy behind it, imagining that we too could imbibe some of his Force™, his Fervor™, his Revolutionary Spirit™.

 

Last Monday, May 8th, the Odéon theatre held a ‘restaging’ (link to an article, in French, for those who want to know more) of sorts of its occupation by students and artists in May of 1968. The idea was to re-evoke the spirit of the event – a giant happening of sorts – while paying tribute both to the event that was, and arts (especially theatre’s) central role in it. The audience gathered, pleasantly, tickets in hand, for what promised to be an otherwise non-eventful evening of nostalgia and ‘playing-at’ revolutionary occupation.

 

And then, when the spirit of 1968 came to them in a form of a group of current university students – many of whom are still on strike protesting against proposed reforms in university admissions, among other things – who attempted to pass the metal barriers surrounding the theatre in order to enter into the space, but ultimately resigned themselves to remaining outside (security guards were rather on point that night), the tone shifted. Several speakers and invitees began to question whether or not it was not a bit obscene to be celebrating this way when, in a weird twist of fate, 1968 came to find them again. Would it not be best to invite the students in, let the new generation speak on its desire, its attempts to create, as the event organizers evoked of the protesters of 1968, a new sort of utopia?

 

No. It would be too risky for the theatre, at least according to management.

 

I wanted to start off by evoking this event before getting into the show I saw this week at Nanterre. As part of their spring festival (this one titled Mondes Possibles, or Possible Worlds), the theatre programmed a reprisal/adaptation of a rather legendary 1968 production : Paradise Now, staged by the Living Theatre in Avignon, and rendered rather infamous at the time for the scandal it provoked.

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Rather than go into a plot breakdown – because really, there isn’t one – I’ll just briefly sum up the general gist of it as being a sort of giant happening. The idea is to eventually bring the audience in through several ritualistic, trance-like ‘movements’. Late-60s spiritualism (rife with cultural appropriation and all) is very much present here.

 

This production was originally programmed to be staged outdoors, but given the rather unpredictable weather (last weekends sunny skies quickly gave way to clouds and rain again this week), was instead staged inside the rest design shop. As we all filed in and took our places around a makeshift stage (a large, white, painted floor flanked at the back by a large black curtain acting as a sort of flimsy wall between this space and the space of the shop), the actors began to move about us, then began speaking, repeating phrases such as “I do not have the right to travel without a passport”, “I do not need money” and “I am forbidden from taking off my clothes”, first calmly, neutrally, then with increasing fervor and anger.

 

As you can probably imagine, eventually the point came when the actors stripped down to their underwear (or entirely), and it was at this point that the following phrase “Théâtre Libre! Faites ce que vous voulez!” (“A free theatre! Do whatever you want!”) was pronounced for the first of what turned out to be many times. Each time the phrase was chanted throughout the 1h50min production, the actors all stopped, looking around at us, as though waiting for someone to answer the call.

 

And though there was a part of me that did feel a bit of a tug to react, I also couldn’t help but wonder whether they actually meant what they were saying, in the literal sense (my friend that accompanied me confessed to feeling similarly). The idea behind the phrase was, of course, to divest oneself of cultural norms and obligations, to throw aside established order and convention in the embracing of spontaneity, of creation, of a return to something more utopian, more human. But was the intention behind the phrase really to spur this into action? If this was an actual happening, with no time limit to adhere to – and if it was not weighted down by the memory, history, the rhythms of what came before it – I would say that maybe, yes, yes it was. Give people enough time, and maybe the change will happen. But see, there was a wall clock directly across from me, a wall clock that I glanced at from time to time, and that served as a reminder of the fact that this little ‘revolution’ was only temporary.

 

So, what was this then? A return of sorts, yes, but, at least for me, a somewhat hollow one. 1968 repackaged again. Perhaps some of this had to do with the fact that I was familiar enough with the original production to know what ‘beats’ to look out for in this revival, and therefore couldn’t get into the spirit of things. I would contest though that the format of a 1960s ‘happening’ itself no longer corresponds to the way we interact anymore, how we form connections with one another. It’s not inconceivable to imagine a similar kind of event that corresponds better to life as we live it now in 2018, but this was not necessarily it.

 

And anyway, there was actually a moment where it could have been done, a definitive break with convention, a step towards the ‘revolution anarchiste’ the piece also called for. Upon the performance’s conclusion, we were all lead outside by the actors into the parking lot that is itself adjacent to a very large – and at the time rather empty – park. The spirit of the crowd and the actors had turned jovial again, everyone was dancing together, clapping and humming along to a rhythm that had been established an hour beforehand. If only, at that moment, instead of heading back inside and signaling that the time for theatre was over, they had all lead us into the park and let whatever wanted to happen, happen. But this time sincerely letting it.

 

To be clear, I am very glad I attended this show. Honestly, even though I saw it on Friday, I’m still trying to think it over in my head a bit (which is to say…apologies in advance for the rambling haha).

Anyway, other than that, the week was rather quiet, with the exception of an unexpected but very pleasant reunion with a former supervisor of mine from the theatre camp I used to work at over drinks on Thursday, pie-baking on Saturday, and generally doing a lot of nothing, something I haven’t done in a rather long time.

 

 

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