It never ceases to amaze me that, with regards to the history of popular revolt and revolution (especially in France), the first thing that comes to mind to many State-side is a commercialized musical.
I say this less as a way to harp on Les Mis and more as a result of a reflection on two things: the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune and a New York Times article on theatre that I read yesterday. In the case of the former, it is rather telling that a popular movement (and let’s get more specific – one that saw the involvement of several anarchists) such as this one has joined the ranks of several others like it (not just in scope or in aim but also in the fact that it was suppressed – violently – by the powers it directly challenged and destabilized) in being largely lost in the American imagination. Then again, there are several socio-ideological reasons behind why leftist history in America tends to be pushed out, leaving only traces – symbols – behind. These symbols then get picked up, sanitized, and, divorced from their context, sold off to a public willing to buy a facsimile of a revolution, singing along to “Do You Hear the People Sing” while the image of a red flag waves in the air. It’s condensed enough to be turned into a slogan you can put on a button or a t-shirt, the illusion of being close enough to revolt while still retaining a sense of comfort that, fundamentally, not much will change once the piece is over.
To illustrate this point: I remember going to see the revival of Hair back when it returned on Broadway in 2009, and in particular, how excited I was to finally get to see something from an era I was starting to dive more into. Yet, what I most retained from that experience – and what, thinking back now, somewhat informed my approach to Re-Paradise at Nanterre a few years ago – was how empty it all felt. Holding up anti-war signs, inviting the audience up to dance on stage with the actors, extolling the merits of free love and self-expression and criticizing the war machine sending young men off to die rings more hollow in a gilded theatre space where tickets are prohibitively expensive. But nostalgia sells tickets.
This is all more or less to say that, albeit with some exception, American theatre has difficulty truly getting political. What I mean by this is that the system – as it is – fundamentally does not allow for the kind of formal and contextual reckoning that could move what goes on the stage to a point beyond consumption of “political” imagery to actual confrontation and potentially discomfort. Now, America is not unique in this (I have already spent ample time writing on my frustrations with similar trends on French stages), but I want to make this point to link to the NY Times article I read this week which concentrated on the occupation of theatres in France by performing arts students and workers that has been underway for the better part of this month.
In brief, while these occupations may on the surface seem only to be about re-opening performance spaces – that is, divorced from the reality of the pandemic – in actuality (and it is here that I believe the article should have leaned more heavily towards) the fact that they are happening at all is a direct result both of the recognition of the very real consequences that COVID and its aftermath will engender, and at the same time that these consequences did not just come out of nowhere. Rather, they are the results of what I would argue to be decades of an eroding away of public funds combined with an increased mépris for those who work in the industry. It says quite a lot, in my opinion, that the current Minister of Culture, for example, has absolutely no background in the industry (her background is in pharmacology), yet is a lover of opera, which apparently counts as a qualification.
To return to the occupation, if one were to look at the list of demands (provided here, in French), one will note that chief among them is not the mere gesture of reopening – in fact there is an explicit recognition that that is not going to solve the larger problems at hand – but rather, and this is where the Times article starts to connect, without providing much detail, back to the question of American theatre, that of labor. More precisely, the demands concern the very real worries of students and those who work in the industry (called intermittents du spectacle because of the irregular nature of their work) regarding their employment and benefits status, as well as the lack of communication from the Ministry.
(A brief side note: the Minister of Culture did speak on French radio following the start of the occupations, calling them irresponsible. Ma’am, irresponsible is not communicating with representatives from the sector your Ministry supposedly advocates for.)
Now, in non-pandemic times, intermittents are normally eligible for some unemployment benefits in periods when they are out of work, provided they complete a certain number of work hours over the course of a year (the fact that theatre jobs are as erratic and irregular as they are is largely the reason behind why the system is set up like this). However, access to these benefits can be revoked if the work hour minimums are not met. When the pandemic hit last year, the government initially declared that 2020 would be what is called an “année blanche”. In other words, given the circumstances, the work hours requirement would be waived, giving intermittents at least a little security. Crucially, however, the année blanche was set to expire at the end of August 2021, presumably under the expectation, at the time, that work would have picked back up by then (or because Macron’s government is simply not a fan of distributing monetary aid where it’s needed, but we’ll get to that in a bit). Since the theatres closed again in October after having reopened again for a hot second, there has been little to no communication with artistic directors or union representatives regarding any projections for the rest of the year. Rehearsals are still allowed to happen to some (read: minimal) degree, but this doesn’t mean much when it is impossible to know whether or not, in the end, the performance will be able to be seen at all. But more pressingly, the lack of communication also extends to whether or not there are plans to extend the année blanche beyond its original deadline, meaning that thousands of folks are suddenly finding themselves in a very precarious position.
Yet, their demands are not entirely restricted to the realm of live performance. Case in point: the demand that the government retract an upcoming reform on unemployment benefits. Intermittents themselves are not directly affected by this, but, the long and short of it is that should this reform pass (and given the right-leaning makeup of this government, this is likely), a lot of folks are going to see their unemployment benefits slashed. The post-COVID crisis is going to hit a lot of people very hard, and there’s been quite a lot written already about how, globally, the wealth gap is only going to get wider. I will not bore anyone here with my usual talk of why there haven’t been real steps (in France, but also in the US) to tax the wealthy – or better yet, actually do something about those who use Luxembourg as a tax haven to accrue more wealth than anyone would need in a lifetime – and instead close this with a final point to piggy-back on one touched on in the article.
As much as France can tout its institutional support for the arts (and it is true, it is rather generous compared to other countries), when it comes down to the people working in the arts, the actors, the professors, the directors, set / costume / lighting designers, tech crew, etc., there is a lack of consideration (by the heads of State, primarily) for the labor involved that makes the sector as rich as it is. This has been going on prior to Macron, and it will most certainly last after he’s gone, so long as the notion that some jobs are more “essential” than others persists.
Because as much as that word has become synonymous with a certain imagining of those jobs that are needed to keep things running – of hospital staff, grocery staff, postal and sanitation workers, teachers – when it comes down to concrete measures, it starts to become clear that this image of “essential” does not exactly align with reality. Public hospitals still face cuts (again, in France this has been going on for a couple decades), especially in number of ICU beds, essential, low-income workers are not always working in conditions conducive to their own safety. Hell, aside from hospital staff, everyone else mentioned – including teachers – are not as of yet prioritized for vaccines, unless they are of a certain age and/or have pre-existing conditions.
No, essential has meant that which aligns with a certain set of (capitalist / neoliberal) values for a while. It is an absolutely inhuman way to see the world, and yet here we are.
As of now, the occupation at the Odéon – itself a historical site of occupation, particularly in 1968 – is still going strong and shows no sign of slowing down. There are over 50 other theatres (and counting) across the country that have joined in. Call it the power of unions, or of the collective, but in any case, it’s the people holding the State responsible, of not waiting to be brought in to the conversation but making the conversation themselves. It is political in the sense that the people involved are, by virtue of speaking, challenging the State’s notion of “legitimized” political “actors”, of those who can or cannot have a say in policy based on the perception of their profession – and more precisely what it “brings” to the State – as “valuable”.
This is not, however, to say that this movement will lead to a glorious revolution, or a utopian reversal of the way things are done in the artistic sector. As much as I can hope for the creation of an anarcho-leftist society, this past year has also firmly cemented my cynicism. But I think, and I am having trouble wording this, that what is happening in France speaks to something that I think the arts in the US deserve in terms of recognition. There are so many folks who work in the arts back in the States whose labor is undervalued, ignored. And the lack of recognition on a federal level (to think the Federal Theatre project in the 1930s could have been a reality had FDR not nixed it…because you can’t have too much socialism, apparently) doesn’t help matters. It also does not help that the governing bodies of major theatres look almost exactly the same (because yes, any popular, labor-related movement worth it’s salt must include questions of race / gender / identity along with those of class), which, to take us back to the initial thoughts that opened the article, has a marked effect on the kinds of art that are eventually produced.
So this is what I have been thinking about on the anniversary of the Commune, on the eve of a third confinement (except this one will include unlimited outdoor time within a 10km radius), with absolutely no possibility to predict anything beyond tomorrow. I am tired, I am pissed off, and I have been this way pretty much over the past year.
I sometimes find writing introductions for a new post a bit difficult, so let’s not waste any time and get right to it.
I’m back seeing shows again (finally).
I’ve got two short commentaries to write here, but first, a note on how theatre-going in the time of COVID has felt so far:
To date, I have only revisited 2 out of my usual 4 theatres (yes, again, creature of habit / don’t much feel like changing too many things around right now / this could be good for comparative purposes). I originally wanted to make it so that I would start things off with a show at Bastille (the favorite), but performance scheduling deprived me of that symbolic moment. In any case, starting things off at Nanterre was a pretty fine substitute.
Based on my experience at Nanterre and then at the MC93, I can say that, generally, it almost feels as though things have gotten back to normal, the most visible exceptions being that everyone is masked and that completely sold out shows with every seat filled are a thing of the past (for now). The bar/canteens in the lobbies of the respective theatres were also open when I visited (contrary to what I had originally thought might happen), as were their bookstores. As for seating, the general rule was to have one seat between each party of spectators in a given row. The result was something like this (s = spectator ; x = empty):
Row 1: s s x s x s s s x s s x s
Row 2: s x s s s s x s s x s s s
Row 3: s s s x s s x s s x s s x
As you can see, front to back spacing isn’t being factored in (because otherwise this nightmare jigsaw puzzle nonsense would only get worse). My guess is that for seated performances that adhere to a more traditional frontal dynamic, there is some sort of algorithm being used to determine how many seats could be sold to account for most possible seating configurations. At Nanterre, for instance, the ushers mentioned that the performance was sold out, so there is definitely some kind of a cap in place. I’ll also be heading back there tomorrow to see another piece whose staging/seating arrangements involve a takeover of the plateau of the main stage—similar to how Dying Together was staged a couple years ago—, and I am curious to see how seating or spatial restrictions will be applied to a piece that, based on what I know of the director, leans more towards a loosening of restrictions and a blurring of spectator/spectacle barriers.
But more on that (hopefully) later. For now, some brief thoughts on what I’ve seen so far.
Jamais labour n’est trop profond created by Thomas Scimeca, Anne-Élodie Sorlin and Maxence Tual. Nanterre-Amandiers, September 22, 2020.
It seems almost appropriate to have started things off with a comedy.
Even more so one that touches on everything from environmentalism, climate change, collapsology, theatre in general and its former, current and perhaps future status.
There’s quite a lot in there, but this is not necessarily to say that the piece itself was cluttered (there are some other nits I have to pick with it). In terms of plot, it’s actually quite simple. It centers on four actors living in what appears to be some kind of post-civilizational collapse commune. One of these actors apparently still gets offers for work or new projects (and the salary that comes with them), but at the start of the piece, his phone is taken and smashed by another actor, who persuades him to focus on what is more important: a machine they have invented that will help make their little community more self-sufficient.
A shit-powered generator.
In fact, in this piece that revolves around the after-effects of the disappearance of nature, the most present “organic” element is quite literally a tub of hazardous, bacteria-ridden human waste. And yet, it is also this waste that, the staging suggests, allows for the lights to stay on, and the actors to engage in what they do best: perform. Extracts of Prométhée are interwoven with references to Hamlet (notably a reworking of the “Alas, poor Yorick” scene from Act V.1), a sequence reminiscent of the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey (only this time, instead of monkeys on a beach, it’s a monkey in a dumpster playing with trash) and an extended scene involving an attempt to film (with a stage light standing in for a camera and a broom as a boom mic) a scene suggesting a period piece, only with reused costumes and the bare skeleton of a set. Through all this, a small outhouse-like structure (whose fourth wall is missing so that, when it is rotated, the audience comes face-to-face with the outhouse’s occupant relieving themselves) remains slightly up stage right, with that, plus intermittent trips up to the shit-generator as well as periodic moments in which the lights go out for want of power, serving as a reminder for why we are all able to watch this in the first place.
Beauty in shit.
But with this also comes one of my primary criticisms on this piece, and no, it doesn’t directly have to do with the prevalence of scatological humor. To preface this, I should note that the creators of this piece were all formerly members of the Chiens de Navarre theatre troupe, known for its light, almost improvisational style and bent of humor, and whose work I had seen before (both times at the MC93…I even almost opted on writing on Jusque dans vos bras for my dissertation). The troupe is also known for the frequency with which they make reference to the fact that they are in a theatre and/or directly (attempt to) incite an audience to act supposedly against the bounds of what it is they are supposed to be doing while in the theatre space (an example: in Jusque dans vos bras, imploring audience members to come up and pull a boat of struggling migrants to shore, sarcastically admonishing them when no one crosses the barrier onto the stage, and then finally “attacking” the helpers via two actors dressed in silly shark costumes). This performance retained many of the elements that the performers no doubt honed during their time with the Chiens…, though it’s this question of audience participation and the veneer of disobedience that I want to focus on.
I mentioned earlier that one of the primary set pieces on the stage was an outhouse. Well, this outhouse also had a bucket in which shit and the like could be collected. At one point during the opening third of the show, two of the actors made an announcement that they would repeat periodically throughout the course of the play: any audience member who wished to relieve themselves was more than welcome to come on the stage and do their business in the bucket. If nothing else, it would aid in the running of the very necessary generator, and thus of the show itself. And this wasn’t just a quick announcement. In fact, the actors spent a good amount of time either singling out individual audience members and asking them directly if they wouldn’t like to help, or otherwise posing the possibility and waiting patiently for something to happen, for someone on our side of the space to act against what its normalized codes dictate.
(Side note: in the spirit of situational presence—and in the improv-esq spirit of Chiens…—, at one point during the initial plea, the actors went on a short tangent about how much better it would be for us as spectators, especially those of a certain age, to use the bucket since the toilets at Nanterre are located at the basement level, requiring several stairs and almost a tour of the building to get to. Despite my critics of this sequence, I will grant that they are right on this point. The toilets at Nanterre are somewhat of an inconvenience to get to).
Here’s my critique, though (and this comes from having thought about this through my research on audience participation-based theatre, and especially some thoughts I had while writing on Re-Paradise): based on other instances of similar calls for spectator action, I am beginning to come to the conclusion that arguably one of the most direct ways to enforce a traditional spectator/spectacle dynamic is to draw attention to it via an impossible request. In other words, the only way that question could have been asked of an audience is if it was done so on the assumption that no one would actually follow through. Would it have been an interesting experiment if someone had? Yes. But it also risked destroying the theatricality of the experience by bringing in an unavoidable (stinking) reminder of the real onto the constructed/imaginary playing space. Of course we know that the actors aren’t actually sloshing around in shit when they go and examine the generator, but we can suspend our disbelief enough so that, after they step out of the tank, the mud caking their boots takes on the symbolic association with shit in our minds, hence reactions of disgust. Bringing in the possibility of real human waste into this risks breaking the illusion.
What I find still more pressing, however, is the fact that often requests like this are made with an air of potential rebellion, of upending a status quo in order to open the possibilities for something different. Yet, rather than creating possibilities, calling for action while likely anticipating the exact opposite (that is, for spectators to behave as they more or less normally do) not only draws a distinct line between actors (those who do) and spectators (those who observe), increasing the distance between the two primary bodies both spatially and temporally. In other words, it becomes an act that re-enforces a traditional dynamic rather than one that works to poke holes in it and thus imagine possibilities outside its paradigms.
Now, this might not always be such a bad thing. In fact, one could read it in this case as a way of highlighting a return to a more “skeletal” (“primitive” is a word that popped in my head also, but it’s not quite the right term, and also I have some reservations using it in general) relationship to theatre, one that brings it back to its pre post-post-modern roots. Often, however (and I would argue that this is what is happening here), this is not the case. Instead, you get the illusion of rebellion while maintaining an already established relational structure.
And speaking of audience/spectacle relations…
Watch: “voyages diverses” created by Oliviere Fredj, Shani Diluka, Matias Aguayo and the Paris Chamber Orchestra, MC93, September 25, 2020
I feel like one of the most frustrating things about the MC93 is how much some of the programming visibly tries to be out of the box innovative and just comes up a little bit short.
Case in point: this show.
In brief: this piece is composed of loosely connected vignettes, each one centered on the theme of “Time”. Time as a linear progression, Time as notions of past/memory, present and possible futures, Time as measured, Time as a commodity (lost time, borrowed time), Time as in dual temporalities on stage and in the house. It was this last one that the show opened with, with a direct address to the audience via asking someone what time it was and then noting the time on the back wall in chalk (the show started about 15min late, which was a fun surprise…). From that point, we (as in those of us in the house) were supposedly absorbed in the “stage time”, spatial union merging with temporal union.
As to the texts, these were composed following a series of various workshops the creators held in hospitals, retirement homes and prisons in the nearby area; in other words, in spaces occupied by folks for whom time takes on a significant weight. It’s a communal effort and judging by the presence of several participants/their friends in the audience that evening, a highly successful one. Which is fine. Honestly, I have no gripes with this when it’s done well (see Ils n’avaient pas prévu qu’on allait gagner for when it’s not…), and I don’t want to discount the effort put in by the volunteer participants to collaborate and create something.
But why, seriously why, does it still seem to be the thing to do to try and address “high concept” things in a “meaningful / deep” way that more often than not results in a mess of meh?
To get back to the beginning of the show, the asking of the hour (which happened periodically throughout the production, each time with the hour being noted on the timeline along the back wall) could have been an interesting avenue in order to explore the passage and marking of time, had it have been accompanied by conscious control of rhythm and pacing on the part of the actors (I think some of them were beginners or amateurs, but cannot say for certain). As it was, the pacing veered from the overtly artificial / theatrical, to rushed, to steady but sometimes with mumbling. Consequently, all this served to do was throw into stark relief the reality that, as spectators, one of the key elements that defines the distinction of our temporality from that on stage was almost denied us:
The liberty of being bored.
If time is constantly marked, and there is a pattern of constantly marking it, the risk is that instead of then creating a new rhythm to “bleed into” (so to speak) the one that otherwise marks the temporality in the house, the result is one in which the most present thing is the eventual possibility of an end to all this and a return to a more autonomous sense of control over one’s temporality. It becomes, in other words, a process of disengagement rather than immersion.
Again, though, this is not to discount the collaborative work that went into this—nor the feeling in the room when the piece finally (yeah, they did one of those fake-out endings where they announce that it’s going to end and then spend another ten minutes talking about how to end things/Time and endings) came to a close. There could have been a way to tackle this subject without resorting to cliché or even documentary-style theatre. What it needs is honesty.
I’m not sure if this has more to do with the fact that I’ve just not had as much time to write here as I like, or that I’ve just not been out to see as many things as usual (blame time, of course, but also maybe the fact that this fall has been more dance-heavy in terms of programming at my usual haunts compared with the last couple years), but as we head towards winter, I’m getting the impression that this fall season has not left as much of a mark on me as previous ones.
This isn’t necessarily to say that everything has been terrible—The Way She Dies was, as expected, a highlight of the rentrée—, but more that I haven’t been “marked” by what I’ve seen to the same degree as I have previously. Maybe I’ve just become more discerning (read: picky haha). Maybe it’s just mental fatigue from the fact that right now the finish line for my dissertation is right within my reach and I just don’t have the capacity to open myself to much more (and anyway, the rest of my mental energy goes towards dealing with my teaching).
Or maybe it’s quite simply because a number of things I’ve seen so far have just been…eh.
This isn’t to say that none of them tried to go outside the box at all. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I went out to Nanterre-Amandiers to check out Pillow Talk, an immersive experience that involved transforming the main stage of the Amandiers into a sort of futuristic lounge space, with pillowed pods set up for individuals to lay down in. The general idea was that you would talk to an AI for about an hour, the position of the microphones on the pillows designed in a way that, in order for the AI’s voice to be heard, one would have to arrange one’s body in such a way that it would mimic cuddling.
Listen, as someone who really thrives in (and ok, maybe really craves right now) that kind of intimacy, let me confirm to you that there is nothing that will shove you into the uncanny valley faster than listening to an AI whisper a joke in your ear and then “laugh”. Ok, maybe it asking you to sing “Killing Me Softly With His Song” with it comes a close second.
And yes, I get the whole thing about using this medium to question our own perspectives on interpersonal connectivity, but it’s also become such an obvious approach, I wonder if it even makes sense to do it anymore.
Anyway, enough of that. That’s not what I actually want to talk about today. No, today what I want to do is tackle a question that has been asked many times, yet nevertheless still remains relevant.
Why the hell are we still crafting redemption stories for asshole men?
Now granted, the asshole in question here is a character who, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t do anything particularly egregious other than just generally be a dick to other people (especially the women in his life). Compared to some other real-life less-than-savory individuals out there, this dude is almost inoffensive. Almost. Because at the end of the day, the everyday, small-scale nonsense of his that his friends and colleagues are convinced to forgive in order to help him have a moment of revelatory introspection is the kind of thing that, once it starts building up, contributes to the larger toxicity that not only keeps a certain hierarchical power structure in place, but also, and to varying degrees, silences those (read: anyone who is not a straight white cis-gendered man) who are not at the top of said hierarchy.
Anyway, let’s get to it.
Mort prématurée d’un chanteur populaire dans la force de l’âge. Written by Wajdi Mouawad with Arthur H. Dir. Wajdi Mouawad, La Colline, November 17, 2019
Of course, this also just happened to be the first show I saw as a 30-year-old. Eh, can only go up from here though, right? Right.
Actually, I almost ended up missing this show entirely as I was still…recovering…from the festivities the night before. Somehow though, I managed to shower, eat something, and make myself look just presentable enough to make it out the door in time.
It’s the small successes in life that count.
Much like the other of Mouawad’s pieces I’ve seen recently, this one (other than the aforementioned character problem…which I’ll get to in a moment) suffers from a certain imbalance. More precisely, similarly to Notre Innocence in spring 2018, its first half is much stronger than its second.
The piece opens at the end of a concert given by the singer mentioned in the title. Alice (yes, that is his name; no, it’s not for “Alice Cooper”) is an aging former punk rocker who, like many others before him, is contending with the discrepancy between his past and his present reality as, well, a “sell-out”. No longer outside the system, he is now part of it. And he’s sick of it. Literally. I mean the first thing he does when he enters the backstage area (the set design is such that the concert that opens the film sees Alice upstage, facing away from the audience, with the backstage area set up downstage) is shut himself in a toilet and take a very long, very vocal, shit. And then he complains about his stomach hurting and needing to shit more. And then eventually he shits himself during a photo session.
Clearly, something is rotten on his insides.
I should also mention that this first half is very clearly a satire, as based on not only the rapid-fire jokes and “second degree” humor flying around, but also because the characters themselves that are featured here can be reduced down to certain tropes:
-The aging, cranky rocker
-The overworked manager (who Alice always refers to by a nickname rather than her—yes her—actual name, at least until she has a breakdown over it in Act II)
-The critical journalist who, with one brutally honest article, sets our protagonist on a downward spiral that ultimately contributes to his decision to do something very stupid (though also very silly)
-The former manager with questionable judgement and a nostalgia for the “good old days”
-The girlfriend who is an established artist in her own right, but who is nevertheless still second to the whims of her partner.
-The newcomer who has travelled over from the other side of the world (in this case, Canada) and, though she may not know the other characters well, nevertheless becomes the key to them rebuilding their relationships (and themselves), after a crisis. Oh, and she also does this using a mysterious ritual (that, yes, is made-up, but it relies on tropes and stereotypes of First Nations culture).
And honestly, if the tone did not shift so drastically between Act I and II, this could have ended up being a decently entertaining piece. Alas.
Anyway, the short version of the story is that Alice, in a rather low point after being skewered in an article (worse still: he was replaced on the magazine’s cover by a new, up-and-coming musician), reconnects with his old manager with whom he had parted ways with after he started becoming successful. The two commiserate a bit about what their lives once were, what they used to stand for before money, marketing, and success got in the way, when the latter of the two comes up with a plan. A last “f**k you” to the system, if you will. Simply, Alice would fake his death. The moment was perfect. Yes, he was just taken down a notch in the press, but he was also in the middle of a successful tour, and there was no indication he would need to be slowing down any time soon. There would, of course, be a period of mourning. And then, after the initial grief had died down a bit, the manager would release a “recently-discovered” (in reality: recorded in his in-house studio while he was making the necessary press calls) album of unpublished recordings. People would go crazy for it: I mean, it would truly be the last new music they would ever get from Alice, and really, given how hot posthumous records sales have been in recent years following the loss of several high-profile artists, huge profits were almost a sure-thing.
In the meantime, Alice would go lie low in Ukraine (yes, Ukraine). For added security, a sham funeral/cremation ceremony would be organized so that there would be no doubt as to how really dead he was. After a year in hiding, he would return to France, triumphant, a middle finger in the face of all those who bought into the ruse, a true condemnation of our consumerist society.
Of course, one thing that Alice and his manager did not count on was the former’s girlfriend. See, in order for the more essential part of their plan to work (read: the cremation and funeral), they would have to have had a closed-casket funeral. The girlfriend, on the other hand, insisted that the ceremony not only be open casket, but that she and those close to Alice be present up until the final closing of the casket and the final shove into the fire.
Anyway, to get around this, some associates of Alice’s manager gave him some drugs that made him fall stone asleep as if dead. This worked to fool the doctor who came in to sign the death certificate (no autopsy though?), but the dosage needed to be upped if they wished to keep the illusion going through a full-on funeral (getting Alice out of the coffin in time would come later). As expected, however, the dosage wore off a bit early. More precisely, it was during the funeral when Alice’s girlfriend was in the middle of singing a song he loved to hear her sing.
Anyway, it’s not like he got off easy. Other than terrifying literally everyone, Alice also ended up blinded by the drugs. Classic punishment.
So ends Act I.
Act II largely involves the fallout from all the above, with Alice’s girlfriend dumping him for the trauma he put her through (as well as for his general selfishness), his current manager standing up for herself and refusing to represent him any longer, the press eviscerating him even more than they had previously for his nonsense, and Alice having to attempt to navigate the world without the use of his sight (instead of going to see a doctor like literally everyone was telling him to).
It’s in this period of loneliness that Alice reconnects with a superfan of his who had come all the way from Canada to follow his tour, and who he had first met outside his stage door following the concert that opened the show. Her name was Nancy. He signed a condom wrapper for her because it was the only thing he had in his pocket.
Nancy had expressed to Alice during their first meeting how grateful she was to him for how much his music had helped her through some difficult times, and now, seeing him in this state, she decides to take it upon herself to give back some of the help he had given her. This is where this piece truly started to lose me. Nancy kind of helps Alice navigate around for a couple of days, but then she ultimately takes it upon herself to call all of Alice’s former friends together. She had a plan to help Alice rid himself of the demons, of the bad thoughts inside him, but she needed their help.
They, of course, wanted nothing to do with any of it, and with good reason. This is where I want to go back to what I mentioned earlier about why the stories some people create still feature men like Alice getting a full redemption arc in which the burden of the work is not placed on them but on those they have wronged “getting over themselves” first before banding together to pull the asshole in question back “into the light”, so to speak.
And this could have played as a satire as well, except Mouawad had written and directed it with incredibly evident sincerity that it was impossible to interpret it otherwise.
Anyway, as Nancy points out as a means of convincing the others to put aside their anger, it wasn’t like Alice had done anything incredibly terrible like kill someone, or start a call for genocide. He just happened to put his friends through a short period of an incredibly stressful Hell, and that, plus the fact that he was an artist whose music had helped others like herself, meant that he deserved a second chance.
But what she doesn’t bring up—and conversely what the other two women in the room do—is the lasting damage his regular behavior has caused. His manager has sacrificed not only time with her daughter, but also ended up suffering a miscarriage because of the constant stress he put her under, what with his steadily bad humor, his erratic behavior, and his preferred manner of addressing others by yelling at them. His girlfriend, meanwhile, brings up her feelings of not just betrayal at what he did, but also her general frustrations at their relationship, at the imbalance felt when it became clear that one of them was investing in it slightly more than the other.
But we can put that aside now.
And in any case, as a sort of Hail-Mary, Nancy mentions that she is ill, that this trip to France was a sort of last hurrah for her before she begins treatment.
Ultimately, what Nancy’s plan consists of is her leading Alice out into the woods under the assumption that once there, he would encounter a shaman who would perform a ritual to cleanse him. Nancy—who mentions she is part First Nation, though the actress playing her is white-passing—will of course play the shaman. Alice’s friends, meanwhile, would dress up in bird costumes (there is literally no purpose for this other than the fact that this is happening in a theatre, as Alice wouldn’t be able to see them since he is still blind), and at the appropriate moment, swoop in and “peck” at him, thereby removing all the bad things inside his spirit.
There is a lot of sage. Nancy at one point starts banging a drum.
And ultimately it works. The final scene of the piece opens on a hospital waiting room in Quebec where Alice has come to visit Nancy, after having discovered she was ill via his friends…with whom he is back in contact with.
He mentions to her during their last conversation that her ritual managed to push him not only to see a doctor (miraculously, he can see again…because “clarity”…), but also to take the difficult step in reaching out and apologizing.
And you know what, yes, that isn’t really an easy thing to do. But it’s also something that 1) only happened as a result of an initial effort of forgiveness on the part of the hurt parties and 2) occurs offstage. His act of apology, of taking the necessary steps to interrogate himself and engage in a process of self-assessment are, to a degree, secondary to his friends momentarily ignoring his bullshit to see the goodness in him. There are times when, perhaps, such a stance could be justified, but one could argue that those moments generally follow events that are out of the person’s control. This situation, on the other hand, along with everything preceding it, is, on the other hand, a direct result of Alice’s conscious behaviors.
Yeah, it’s true that he didn’t kill anyone. But to minimize his past actions for the sake of advancing the question of his supposed “goodness” (that we have had little evidence of, other than Nancy’s comments on his music) is, for lack of a better word, lazy. We can do better. Our stories can do better. No one should have felt the need to forgive him. The choice to not forgive, to step away for the sake of one’s own mental/physical health is also a justified one, yet here the sacrifices are continually made by those who have performed that gesture time and time again.
But, then again, this also all fits in with Mouawad’s greater ethos on the spirituality of theatre. It goes back to his affinity for the classics (especially the Greeks). Maybe I’ll address it here in another post.
For now though, I have a dinner to get to.
Here’s to the end of fall (and hopefully a more inspiring winter theatre season).
So, I’m actually writing this while balancing my laptop atop two large rolls of paper towels, minding the first layer of a carrot cake I’ve got baking in my oven. This is the first time I’ve actually made my own birthday cake (because why not), and of course I’ve decided to be ambitious(…ish).
But more on that in a minute.
After a (very) quiet October, my theatre-going has ramped up again, with, as a little bonus, a return to a writer (and a play) that not only largely defined a large part of my graduate work from my first masters all the way to—and even through practically the first half of—my PhD.
Les Bonnes by Jean Genet, directed by Robyn Orlin, Théâtre de la Bastille, November 9, 2019
I find it almost amusing that, despite having written a good part of my first masters’ thesis on productions of this play, I had never—until this performance—seen it live. Despite that, and just based on the sheer number of recordings of live productions I’ve watched, I went into this half-expecting it to fall into a trap that is not necessarily present in all of Genet’s pieces, but, I would argue, is very much a factor here: pacing.
Generally, when first getting introduced to Genet, one of the first things that comes up is his pointedly ritualistic aesthetic. While this is of course very evident in his writing—and this goes for his novels as well as his plays, what with their constant repetitions of gestures/phrases, circular structures, and evocations of the divine or a process of ascension towards a moment of transcendence in the lowest, most abject of settings—, what it has also led to is a tendency to almost always literally translate that to the staging. Les Bonnes (The Maids) is only one act long but is often stretched to close to 2 hours or more, in part because of the tendency to really “amp up” the ritualistic aspect.
I mean, I can remember at a certain point during my research, after watching the I-can’t-remember-which-number version of the piece, thinking ‘We get it. It’s meant to be precise and de-li-ber-ate. But is there really only one way to evoke this…?’
Thankfully, this version did not fall into that trap.
It also—and this is a rarity for this piece, despite it actually corresponding more closely with Genet’s original intentions—featured an all-male cast.
Yeah, funny how this need to emphasize ritual makes exceptions for certain things. Then again, this piece did originally premier in 1947, and back then the biggest issue was people not believing that their maids would ever speak of them in the way Claire and Solange—the maids of the title—do of their mistress (who is only ever referred to as Madame).
What may have partially contributed to this piece’s divergence from the “standard” aesthetic was Orlin’s background as a choreographer. That, and the fact that she grew up in South Africa. With the dancing, the influence was seen in, of course, the way the performers moved and carried themselves, but more significantly (for me, at least) was its effect on the overall rhythm of the piece. Namely: it actually had one.
This isn’t to say that the piece was sped through, but more that there was both a sense of reverence AND a sense of urgency in play (often tricky things to try and strike a balance between, but also elements that underscore a number of Genet’s dramatic works). Honestly, it was almost like seeing the piece with fresh eyes.
As to Orlin’s origins, these, according to her director’s note, had a more direct influence in her approach on the casting. Though her version still highlights the commentaries on class division and the sometimes ambiguous dynamics of dominant/submissive relationships, Orlin (who is white) chose to integrate an additional element through her casting of two black actors in the roles of Claire and Solange and a white actor in the role of Madame. It’s a move that evokes the apartheid-era South Africa Orlin grew up in, as well as the very much still-present racial disparities not just in South Africa, but in much of the West as well (including France).
And the way she has the public confront these disparities is rather fascinating, in that it is based in a way of consuming media and information that is both familiar and yet, when it is transposed to a theatre setting, rather destabilizing.
The stage at the Bastille was rather bare, save for a clothing rack stage right, two stools upstage center with a small camera propped on a tripod in between them, and a DJ booth stage left. A video screen on the back wall played scenes from a 1970s film version of the piece, first as a sort of way to set up everything that happened before the opening scene (mainly the arrest of Madame’s husband, the appropriately-named Monsieur, based on a false tip letter sent by Claire to the police, which is brought up several times in the course of the piece), and then, through the use of freeze frames, as a sort of virtual scenic design.
As for the camera, the actors—especially in scenes featuring only Solange and Claire—spend a good chunk of their time when on stage playing to it rather than facing out and playing to the audience. What this meant was that, physically, their backs were facing us, yet at the same time, the projection of their faces on the screen—and therefore in the environment of the ‘virtual space’—meant that they were still performing to us. Yet, this manner of performing, and more precisely of consuming performance, through a video screen (as though on a Youtube channel, or, perhaps more relevant here, through camming) is both isolating and voyeuristic. Isolating in that it evokes private moments at home when one streams a new video from a Youtube content creator or adult cam performer. Voyeuristic in that there is the sensation that we are not meant to be seeing this. Indeed, we can’t be seeing this because if Solange and Claire’s roleplay sessions as Madame in the latter’s absence become exposed, the two are, for lack of a better word, fucked.
But then, when Madame does eventually make her entrance, she pulls out an iPhone and, after filming Solange and Claire in close to extreme close-up, turns the camera on the audience commenting on some pieces certain patrons were wearing. It was a moment very much anchored in camp—Madame’s coat made up of a bunch of child-size pink puffer jackets attached together added delightfully to this effect—with an added palpable threat. Madame could loosely slap Solange or Claire’s visors (worn as part of their uniforms) to the sides of their faces, sometimes swiping at their dreadlocked hair in the process, without even the hint of a potential rebuttal. She, in the end, is more powerful than perhaps anyone wants to let on.
And I think before I move on from this, I just want to say that should Orlin ever decide to stage another of Genet’s pieces, I would be one of the first in line to buy a ticket.
Actually, to be perfectly honest right now, I did not get a good amount of sleep last night (oh hi winter cold and your nonsense), so my brain is having a bit of trouble concentrating/remembering things. Though this could also have something to do with a big milestone that I’m going to be hitting tomorrow, November 16.
Turning 30 is something that, even up to now, seemed both inevitable and so far away. Though I think I’ve been able to avoid most of the absolute ageist nonsense that is often marketed toward women regarding reaching this particular birthday, I have nevertheless spent the past week or so reflecting on the last decade of my life, trying to figure out the best way to summarize it.
Because I went through—and did—a LOT over the last ten years.
I graduated from my undergraduate program, then 2 masters programs, and started my PhD.
I lived in so many different places: Irvine, Paris, Boston, and now back in Paris again.
I visited new countries I’d never seen before, both solo and otherwise:
Czech Republic (Prague)
Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh)
Italy (Rome and Bari)
Sweden (Stockholm and Uppsala)
And I saw more of the countries I call (and called) home, as well as the country I call my homeland.
Speaking of the homeland, I also got my Greek citizenship and with that, a passport that has changed my life in more ways I could imagine.
I ate so many delicious things, discovered my love for red wine, whiskey and bourbon, and upped my tolerance for all things spicy.
But with that I also had to learn (and am still learning) how to cultivate a healthy relationship with my body. Developing an actual love for working out (and discovering HIIT training) when I was 24 helped.
I fell back in love with theatre again. I performed on stage fewer times than I would have liked, but I also saw shows (Hamilton in London, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 in Boston, and Bovary and Sopro in Paris come to mind) that reminded me why I love theatre in the first place.
And with all the moving and show attending and studying and starting over, I found my independence. I learned that, yes, I could do things on my own. I could move to a new country, a new city and figure out my life, deal with apartments that were absolute shit, live in dorms and realize that what mattered there was less the accommodations and more the people I was sharing the space with, and find a sense of determination and stubbornness that would help me deal with almost any “no” that came my way.
And I learned how to advocate for myself.
Hell, I travelled by myself.
And as for love, I felt love—and loved—and knew love in many ways, two of them more significant than the rest. And there was heartbreak. But there is also hope. And there is the feeling of telling someone you care about them, and knowing you’re cared for in return. And there are also those things that still haven’t changed: like getting the courage to open your heart up to someone. But then there’s also that feeling of being held, of feeling someone pull you into them, steady you for a moment, and knowing that maybe being vulnerable wouldn’t be such a bad thing sometimes. That maybe someone will be there to catch you.
I laughed a lot—so many more times than I can even remember. Yes, there were tears too (and oh god with a PhD there are always tears), but it’s the laughter that stays.
I still feel like I barely know what being an adult is, but at the very least, I do have an ever-growing list of recipes to keep me well-fed while I figure that out.
So, with that, farewell to my 20s. You were, in the ups and downs, truly wonderful.
I find it funny (though not very surprising, to be honest) that even though I am technically done with the “researching live shows” part of my dissertation, I still feel a tiny hint of a panic when I haven’t managed to do a write-up almost immediately following a thing I have seen.
Then again, this could also have something to do with the fact that I saw three shows this weekend (Thursday, Saturday and Sunday).
As usual, I will likely devote a lot more time to one of these (hint: the third one) than the others, but that is only because that one involved not only a return to my favorite theatre in the city (one whose somewhat problematic aspects I also need to reckon with somewhere…here a bit first perhaps, then maybe my dissertation conclusion…there is something coming together in my head as to how I am going to attempt to tie everything I am doing together to form a semi-coherent piece of work, though its potential influence and contribution to the field will remain…unknown…uncertain…anyway) but also a collaboration between one of my favorite playwrights working today and a theatre troupe that I have also come to admire since moving back here.
But before I get to all that, a quick round-up of the other two things I saw this weekend.
Thursday, September 19: Farm Fatale, dir. Philippe Quesne, Nanterre-Amandiers
I’ve written a couple of times on the particularities of Quesne’s theatre here on this blog, on its diorama-esq esthetic, where clear narrative is more or less eschewed for observation of human (or non-human, see La Nuit des taupes) interactions in a set circumstance. His newest piece for the Amandiers largely keeps with the focus on the nature of communion/community-making, though here the thematic and narrative purposes are a bit more explicit.
In short, Farm Fatale is a play about ecology, its message summed up rather succinctly in a sign carried in by one of the characters (whose text has also been transformed into a hashtag for the show’s publicity campaign): No Nature, No Future.
The main characters here are a group of five scarecrows, four of whom run a sort of pirate radio out of what was once their farm, and the fifth who joins them after his farmers—who also used to transport him to protests—died by suicide.
Yes, that is a bit dark, but to be honest, the show as a whole was a lot more lighthearted than that—even if that lightness came with an obvious warning as to the fragility of it all.
As noted in the program—and as becomes incredibly evident very quickly—nothing on the stage is, materially-speaking, natural. The hay bales the fifth scarecrow carries in with him, and that the others use to set up a sound stage, are made of synthetic material, the birdsong that opens the show is pointedly noted as coming from a tape recorder, a bird flying in the studio is plastic, its wings fashioned out of delicate crepe paper, and the scarecrows themselves approach an almost terrifying (and yes, before they started speaking, it could have gone either way) medium between the Uncanny Valley and Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre with the grotesque, exaggerated masks they wore over their faces and the lumpy bodysuits under their costumes suggesting being stuffed up with hay. It is, in brief, a notable separation from nature, with the synthetic there as a reminder, an image, a sign, of what once was, but that has become so removed from its own cycles and so reappropriated/modified into our own that it has lost the sense of what it was before we (humanity) started irreversibly messing with it. Funnily, the scarecrows, objects “not of nature” created by humans for the sake of protecting the crops from that which could harm them become, here, those same crops’ only visible advocates (the only “human” presence is an offstage character whose farm neighbors that of the scarecrows, and who the latter spot spraying chemicals on his crops. Their first solution: they should kill him…their second: they should scare him through the art of music, namely a very clean/could show up on a kids’ program but still vaguely intimidating rap song).
But the very evident social/political message aside (and yes, it is very obvious what the piece advocates for), what is touching here is how…not shitty these scarecrows were to each other. Everyone just kind of worked together and took to each other with an ease you don’t really see on stage anymore (or in too much media outside perhaps of child-centric programs). When the newcomer enters the stage and asks to join the group—he mentions he is a fan of their radio—the others let him in willingly, giving him something to do almost right away and teaching him how to get on in his new surroundings without being overly nasty. I’ll be honest, I’m not a very big proponent of the whole “kindness is the answer” schtick—and to go further, if something like this were to try and be implemented in the real world, there are several intersecting issues that would have to be contended with first before this vision of equal understanding can even begin to be conceived of—but I think maybe it was something about the mix of childlike curiosity with the very adult subject (there were a couple of jokes involving bees mating that made it very clear that this might not be for children) that made this utopian vision almost, temporarily work. No nature means no future for all, when one gets down to it.
Saturday, September 21: Trust/Shakespeare/Alléluia dir. Dieudonné Niangouna, MC93
I am going to preface this one by saying that I spent my entire afternoon prior to heading out to see this show at a picnic, and because of that, I was a bit exhausted during the first half. Thankfully, I got some coffee in me during the short intermission before completely succumbing to sleep, and honestly, better to have been awake during the second half of this show (which was much stronger than the first).
In short, the piece is very loosely structured around seven “vignettes”, though each one flows into the other to the point that the clear distinction between where one starts and another begins can be a bit hard to spot. At the center of each vignette is a character taken from Shakespeare, though in name only, as the language they speak is decidedly modern. They have been transposed (and transformed in some cases…for instance, Hamlet is now a revenant admonishing over his failed relationships – and not just with Ophelia) into this ‘non-space’ to talk – or rather, exorcise their inner demons. There is a notable voodoo influence on the part of some of the staging, with chorus members who are not currently incarnating characters taking on the role of “witches” (as noted on the cast list), and a performer in the role of Puck acting as the conductor or master of ceremonies.
There is also a psychiatrist, a Dr. Serge. He, supposedly, is there to “cure” our characters, to make them “better”. He also has the personality and zeal of a cheesy gameshow host.
With the modern linguistic transposition, however, came also a situational one, as each character was also, to a degree, taken out of his (first half) or her (second half) original Shakespearean setting. This is perhaps where, for me, some of the divide between the first and second half started, as the women (whose narratives were largely centered after the first half) seemed to have more defined settings (as well as characteristics in general) to “carry” their pieces. The exception for the men, in my opinion, was director Niangouna himself playing King Lear as a wanderer in a metro station. Somehow the situational juxtaposition seemed very right in that case.
And again, who knows, maybe if I hadn’t been so tired, I would have been a bit more alert and my opinions would have been different. In any case, there is something to be said here about the act of (re)interpreting classic and/or “established” texts or characters, which will bring me to my final bit of show commentary for this post:
Sunday, September 22: The Way She Dies, written by Tiago Rodrigues in collaboration with TG Stan, Théâtre de la Bastille.
Oh, it was so good to come back here again.
I’ll be honest, I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be able to get tickets for this show, considering who was involved in it, and considering I had waited until August before buying my ticket (it sounds early, but for this collaboration, I was definitely pushing it). Thankfully, I managed to snag a place before the whole run sold out, and thank goodness I did because any chance I can get to see anything Tiago Rodrigues is doing I will 100% take it.
I mean, almost two years ago, a piece of his reminded me why it was that I loved theatre so much at a time when I was starting to doubt everything I was doing (this was right before I definitively wrote my prospectus and finalized the direction my project would take).
And him working in collaboration with TG Stan (a Belgian troupe who I also discovered at the Bastille) is almost as perfect a thing as one can get, as far as the current theatre scene is concerned.
The piece itself is an adaptation of sorts of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but not necessarily a direct book-to-stage one. The text itself (in the literal, physical form) figures quite prominently in the staging, and those who have read it (or are at all familiar with the plot) will recognize the parallels between its central plot and the intrigues happening on stage rather early on, yet as a whole, this is more a piece about language, communication, about the individual relationship one has (or can have) with a text—and consequently with a piece of theatre itself, what with the whole emancipation of the spectator thing to consider—than anything else. The Way She Dies refers not only to Anna’s final act of (spoiler?) throwing herself in front of a train, but the different possibilities of narrating, describing, or communicating the process leading up to and including this act, especially when taking into consideration the act of translation that has to happen first before the act of communicating can even begin.
I have read both Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and one of the things I distinctly remember about the process of acquiring the books themselves was how much time I spent researching translations. There is quite a vibrant conversation—at least in the English-speaking world, though I’m sure it’s also reflected elsewhere—around the history of translations of Tolstoy’s works, and especially the, we can call it, acceptance of Constance Garnett’s translations as definitive (which, look translation is incredibly difficult but omitting a word or phrase because you can’t quite understand it? Really?). It’s a conversation worth having, however, because the work of a translator (and indeed, their point of view/interpretive perspective) can have a significant impact on the way the work itself is read by this target audience. There is, as Rodrigues points out in his program notes, a difference between “the candle is put out” and “the lights go out” when confronted with a phrase that evokes a general idea of a removal of light.
And the question of translation is taken even further when one considers the differing origins of both Rodrigues (who is Portuguese) and the troupe (who hail from the Flanders region of Belgium). Given how Rodrigues often does not work on a script until after rehearsals have begun (though the germ of an idea can be there), as well as how TG Stan often works from a written text, the need for some common ground, linguistically, was needed. Both parties, however, spoke French (TG Stan often performs in French). As for why Anna Karenina was chosen as a central text from which to work, the idea, as summarized from the show program, came about when considering literary works that left a mark, so to speak, that lingered. Acknowledging the fact that Tolstoy’s novel came later, Rodrigues also referred back to his previous work adapting Madame Bovary (the resulting show, Bovary, is still one of my favorites I have seen since I’ve moved back), another work of literature (written by a man…and one who likes to moralize a bit) about a woman who attempts an existence beyond that which her station/her time period/etc. has doled out for her. Anna, he imagined, would be the kind of character that Emma Bovary would have loved to read about.
Of course, Anna Karenina was not originally written in French (even though French figures somewhat prominently in Tolstoy, given its status, at the time, as the language of the aristocracy), meaning that the text that centers in the staging is one that, as a translation, is already one degree removed from the “source” in terms of interpretation. The question of the potential and consequences of transforming text through language has begun even before the play has officially started. The Anna Karenina here is not the ‘original’, but a version that has been filtered through one interpretive lens (and will continue to be filtered through others).
Indeed, a majority of the intrigue—which centers around 2 couples, one in Portugal in the late 1960s, the other in Anvers, Belgium in the modern day—centers around the act of taking a text and reinterpreting it in a way that creates a map of signification decipherable almost exclusively to ourselves. Going further, there is also the question of use of a text that has been visibly previously read and interacted with by someone (so for those like me who often write in their books, your underlines and margin notes are now a maze leading into yourself…maybe…if anyone can decipher them) in order not to extract meaning from a text, but rather to extract the significance attributed to certain passages of a text in order to try and understand the former reader as well as current happenings in one’s own life. But even in this last instance, the text itself goes through a further transformation, becoming a container not of its own significance, but also a roadmap, a means of deciphering (or translating) someone outside of itself.
If that makes sense.
Essentially, what this piece does in its constant playing with the process of individual choices in appropriation of a text (whether it be, as above, in its use as a window into someone else, or, in another case, in its use as a means by which to improve one’s language skills, the act of underlining passages here equally speaking to the poetry of the words as they are read by the non-native speaker than the sense of the phrase itself) is demonstrate what the other two of Rodrigues’s pieces I’ve seen imply (or cause) through action: the fracturing, the multiplying of the very idea of ‘meaning’. There is no singular “way” of dying. How Anna “dies” depends on not just the language we read her in, but the context of the reading, our own “why” in why we engaged in the act. In other words, instead of the emancipation of the spectator (which Bovary and last year’s Sopro deal with more openly), here we have something more akin to the emancipation of the reader, a focus on the malleability of the text, of its ability to change (even in competing translations in a single language). There is a moment at the end when all four actors in the piece stand in a line downstage and one by one – first in French, then switching to Portuguese and Flemish with the French translation in surtitles—begin to recount the final passages of the novel, from Anna’s arrival at the train station to her decision to jump and the split moment right before impact when she wonders at what she’s done. The slight shifts and discrepancies in the various retellings are, of course, evident in French when one actor repeats almost the same thing as another, only changing one or two words that alter not so much the general sense of what is being said, but more the image or the metaphor behind the phrase (the candle vs light debate evoked earlier), but they still hold when the actors pass to their native languages, beginning also to more noticeably talk over each other, emphasizing the polyphonic quality of this final speech moment. There is no single voice, no definitive version. There are many.
And it is here that I want to come back briefly to something I said earlier about needing to eventually contend with something slightly problematic about this theatre. Again, I love this space. I love that it is independent and has a clear vision for the kinds of theatre it wants to produce. I love its emphasis on the plural, the multiple, the fractured when it comes to questions of meaning. It is something that is not, from my experience, easily or regularly found elsewhere. Yet, this access to a theatre that brings the focus back to the individual as an autonomous entity via the kinds of shows it programs comes at a price. Because it is independent, and thus does not benefit from full or significant State funding (though at the same time, its independence is the reason why its artistic director has been in place for thirty years and why it has the artistic identity that it has), the Bastille is not exactly accessible from a financial point of view. Tickets are still nowhere near as expensive as theatre tickets are in the States, nor are they quite at the levels of ticket prices for private venues, but the fact that the theatre does not have the kind of financial backing necessary in order to be able to offer a more inclusive subscription package (they have a decent one where one can order tickets for 5 shows at a reduced price, but one must pick the shows and dates in advance which, while this is something that I can do, is not necessarily feasible for everyone) means that it has, perhaps in spite of its artistic mission, become somewhat closed off and exclusive.
The other problem—and this goes back to the question of exclusion, but of another kind—is that the majority of things programmed here are from white artists. Now, granted the Bastille doesn’t program as much as, say, the MC93, but this is something of an oversight that merits being looked at (especially considering the venues own stance of the theatre being a place of dialogue—not necessarily a mirror—with the environment that is around it).
So, what does one do about this?
To be clear, I actually like the concept of significant State funding for the arts. But, like anything, it may need fixing. In a perfect world, I would say we should just throw money at (almost) all things artistic instead of spending it on enriching the military industrial complex, but…we are not in that world. A healthy State arts funding program would be, then, one that would allow for the contract-based public theatres to continue to exist while making it possible for the independent theatres to increase their spectator accessibility.
Because the kind of artistic expression that allows space for and validates the point of view, the intelligence, the approaches and experiences of each individual spectator is one that should be open to all.
I think if I ever (finally…eventually…at some point maybe) found the time to write a play—something I’d been thinking about doing for a while—I’d probably start with a rewrite of the story of my namesake. It’s not that I have a personal grudge against every version of Iphigeniain existence—Euripedes, for instance, gets a bit of a pass, if only because he extended the story enough to warrant a sequel, and also because I just prefer his work over that of his classical compatriots—, it’s just that it gets a bit dull after a while to have a name that, for a certain (though not insignificant) segment of the population, is synonymous with someone who was just there to be sacrificed because her warmongering father couldn’t follow a simple directive to NOT hunt somewhere.
Never mind that I am also named after my grandmother. The first thing that comes to mind is a body that is there as the object of a sacrifice. Not a character with a hint of agency; an object. Even in versions of the story where she does give herself up to be taken to the sacrificial altar, her speeches preceding this moment have never quite convinced me.
Ah, so you’re telling me I was lured here under false pretenses (aka: a supposed wedding between myself and Achilles, who was also mysteriously unaware this was happening), then told I was going to die (surprise!) so that Artemis can bring the wind back to push your boats across the sea to go fight a war because someone’s property wife was stolen (note the passive voice), and you and your bros made a pact to defend this person’s honor after drawing lots to determine “ownership” of said property wife? Right, sounds excellent. Altar is that way? Good, good. Yes, must do what’s best for the country after all. My thoughts on this? Oh no, I haven’t any thoughts. I am merely a plot device here to enable you to carry on your phallic-driven nonsense. Shame that great-great-grandad had to go and bake his son into a pie and curse our house, but, eh, such is life. Anyway, here’s my neck.
This was flashing through my head last night as I sat watching the first show of the new theatre season (which might soon overthrow Christmas as the most wonderful time of the year…for me): Milo Rau’s Oreste à Mossoul. As the name suggests, this is a reworking of sorts of the Orestes myth—this time drawing from Aeschylus’s Oresteia—with the setting moved from Mycenae to Mosul, Iraq. As per the show program, originally, Rau and his creative team had gone to the city of Sinjar, near the Syrian border, in 2016 with the aim of creating a piece around the subject of migration, only this time tracing the pathway in reverse. Not long after their arrival, however, the city of Mosul, once the seat of the caliphate, was liberated from under ISIS control. The team decided to set up shop there instead.
The choice to bring in the Oresteiato this context is an easy one. Mosul is an old city—one of, if not the, oldest continually inhabited cities in the world—, yet for the better part of a century, it has also been a site of continued cycles of violence: the British invasion after the discovery of oil, the brief period of democracy shattered with the rise of Saddam Hussein, the American invasions in 1990 and 2003, the power vacuum when they left in 2011, and most recently, ISIS and the coordinated attacks against them. To look at it now, one would almost say the city has all but been destroyed.
Yet, as with the Oresteiawhich ends with Orestes facing a tribunal in Athens following his double murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the central question being whether to execute him or to pardon him and end the cycles of violence, the notion of “justice” weighs heavily. Should the ISIS fighters be pardoned or executed, a final debate asks. Those participating in the debate—local residents who signed on to participate in the project and whose words were transmitted to us via a pre-recorded video—remained undecided. Many spoke of the hope of establishing a just, unbiased court system to hear the cases and pass judgement democratically, but when the time came to vote on execution or pardon, no one raised their hand for either option.
ISIS left its marks on the city. They are felt in the fact that a group of musicians has set up to play, publicly, outside the former school of Fine Arts (bombed out during the Allied attacks) when before they had to hide themselves in basements to keep up their practice. They are felt in the fact that the choice to mix live performance with filmed segments is to a degree derived from the fact that getting visas for the local performers to come tour in Europe would be next to impossible, as movement in and out of the country has become heavily restricted. And—to return back to the subject that I opened this with—they are felt in the staging, in the way that characters die.
When the piece opens, the actor who eventually goes on to play Agamemnon (one from Rau’s team) comes down center stage to speak directly to the audience about some of the background behind the performance. One thing he mentions early on was the fact that, as part of his own research, a journalist friend of his had sent him videos of executions. There was, he said, a particular style to it. A shot in the back of the neck. Some women were strangled. You never forget, he added, how long it takes to strangle someone to death.
The scene then shifts. A carpet is rolled out. The actor who eventually plays Cassandra—born in Belgium but of Iraqi descent—comes downstage, turns, and faces upward toward the video screen. Another woman’s face appears on screen in close-up. The fact that they are both to a degree there, on the stage, was a sort of taboo when the piece was developed and then later workshopped/performed in Mosul: women were not normally seen on stage, even before the arrival of ISIS.
But the piece needed its Iphigenia. Would she, the woman on stage asked the one whose image was on the screen, like to play the role of Iphigenia? The woman on screen said yes, she would like that.
The scene shifts. On the stage there is not much happening, but on the screen, we see the woman from before standing in front of a line of men dressed in grey smocks—the chorus—the actor playing Agamemnon standing beside her. The latter also wears a red and off-white striped tunic, which his onstage, physically present counterpart, has also changed into. It is another one of the early signs of bridging the temporal and geographical gap between what is physically present on stage and what once was present but now ‘preserved’ on video, not just in terms of the sets of performers, but between the varying temporal strata on the stage and the one encompassing those in the house. The visual cue of the actor seated off downstage left of the video screen dressed in the same way as his recorded counterpart (though not, as would be the case later for several of the performers, simultaneously performing the recorded one’s actions) is enough of a hint to suggest the plural, or even fragmented, nature of his presence. He both is and is not in two places at once. The change into a matching costume is a reminder of sorts that the person on the screen is him—or rather, was him. It is a version of him that is suspended within the temporal moment of the recording, yet not quite ‘present’ within our own. Suspension and preservation in time carries with it the lack of forward propulsion into the unknown and unpredictable that comes with being in the ‘now’. Time can be rewound back in a recording.
And then comes the strangulation.
Unlike in most retellings of the myth where she is essentially stabbed, here Iphigenia is strangled to death with a cord wrapped around her neck and being pulled not by a ‘priest’ but by “Agamemnon” himself. And, as he had warned, the actor was right: it does take a seemingly long while to strangle someone to death. The realism evoked by the way the scene was choreographed was striking in and of itself, but what carried this moment even further into another instance of geographical/temporal bridging was what was going on with the camera. Simply put, it did not move. Set up a few feet away so that one got a full view of everyone in the room for the scene, the camera functioned more as an eyewitness, or a window, rather than a medium through which to transmit a piece of narrative through the use of a particular—to it—kind of language. There were no close ups, no cuts or changes in visual point of view, nothing to suggest the ‘camera-ness’ of the camera other than the fact that it was set up to record the act for the purposes of transmitting it back here. As such, one sees the act played out from beginning to end: from “Iphigenia” being pushed to kneel down, to the rope being wrapped around her neck, to “Agamemnon” pulling and her sharp, then gurgled gasps for air. There is an expected end result of this—her finally collapsing down, ceasing to breath, and being declared dead—, and the fact that the anticipation of this result is shared by both those in the audience as well as by “Agamemnon” who must continue performing the act of strangulation so long as his victim still shows signs of life results in something rather unique: a momentary shared experience of a unique passage of time between those on screen, those on stage, and those in the house. Everyone, in other words, is beholden to a single temporal progression. The creeping seconds start to become almost palpable.
And then, after what seems like an eternity, Iphigenia is dead, her purpose served. The metaphorical ‘closing of the temporal gap’ is repeated several times over, arguably strengthened somewhat by the shared moment of progression early on. One could call it, in a sense, an attempt to bring those of us in the house to Mosul as much as it was to bring those in Mosul who do not have the right to travel to us into the room, into our ‘presence’.
At the same time, however, there is a limit to how far this can go. Despite speaking openly about the extent of the destruction under ISIS (as well as previous periods of conflict), the current state of Mosul and its inhabitants and the hopes for democracy and justice in forms of direct, plain-speaking address free of almost all metaphor, that sometimes bordered on the didactic, one thing that could not be changed was the fact that, in the end, the recordings would shut off, the actors on stage would bow, those of us in the audience would go home, and…then what? There is no predicting the extent to which a piece can affect everyone in its audience—indeed, for a piece to operate on the assumption that it will have some kind of marking, lasting, change-inducing effect is almost a set up for failure (though as with every rule, there are exceptions). And in a way, Rau’s piece acknowledges its own potential limitations when, towards the end, the actor playing “Orestes”, while seated on a bench downstage, mentions that a contact of his had sent him and the rest of the Europe-based team a video of the aftermath of a car bomb that went off near the Arts school not long after they had all left. No one involved in the project was hurt, but what was most striking was what he said while the audio of the recording played from his phone (no images were shown). He could watch these videos, see this destruction of places that he knew, places where he was, and almost become desensitized.
And he didn’t say this, but I’d venture to say that it has something to do with the fact that he had the power in his hands to make the recording stop. To remove the violence from his reality. To not let it affect him as constantly.
And that’s essentially what those of us living in places far away from these sites of violence, those of us who have the privilege to have the means and a passport that lets us move freely away from these sites of violence, possess. We can talk about and consume it as a metaphysical thing, as something that is not physically, threateningly present to the same degree as it is for many of those who appeared in the video. We can leave it.
And maybe that was the whole point.
A note before going: this blog is likely going to transition soon from a dissertation-related blog (though at this point, given how I still have yet to get any feedback after…a very long while…who knows) to a more theatre-critique focused blog. Hilariously, my choice in theatres that I will visit has not changed. Old habits die hard, I suppose. In any case, I am excited about this, to write more freely without the pressure of making something “look good” for an academic setting.
It feels good to be able to acknowledge that I am at this point.
I’ve been thinking a bit about cycles recently. This is partially due to the shows I’m going to write about in this post (more on those in a bit), but also to cycles in my writing process.
In short, I’m dealing with writer’s block again (what else is new…I haven’t written anything new in months because research was happening, and then I, like a dummy, assigned a whole bunch of assignments to my students because…reasons), and I’m starting to see blogging as a weird way of both avoiding staring at a blank word document and getting my flow back. Productive procrastination? Maybe. Then again, writing something is better than writing absolutely nothing, right? Right.
And if I’m being honest, part of this is also due to the fact that it’s getting even more real that the deadline I set for myself to finish/defend this thing is slightly less than a year away. The thought that this time next year I will no longer be able to call myself a ‘student’ in any sense of the word is still rather jarring, considering that moniker has been part of my identity in one way or another since I was 5.
What a thought.
I’ve decided to go back to blogging a bit about some theatre I saw recently, not because I’m planning on including these pieces in my dissertation (not sure if I’ve mentioned this already, but I’ve pretty much made my choices on that regard and don’t much feel like changing them), but more because they both address the question of cyclicality, something that is very likely to get brought up in one section of my work.
Also, because one of them is pretty much a demonstration of an auteur suffering from M. Night Shyamalan syndrome. Yes, that judgement is reductive and a bit simplistic, but seriously there are only so many twists and turns and surprise revelations you can shove into a piece before the effect, the ‘punch’ wears off. The best tragedies—and this piece skewed more towards tragedy/melodrama than comedy—work mostly because the turn hangs on one moment. It’s that one Jenga piece chosen after several rounds of play that, once removed, sends the entire tower toppling. Part of the anticipation, the rush of that moment comes from the fact that it was preceded by gradually increased unsteadiness, wobbling of blocks that look as though they are hanging on by a hair yet somehow still hold fast, giving you a false sense of security as to the structural integrity of the whole thing. Having the Jenga tower fall—repeatedly—after only one or two rounds of play deprives the game of said anticipation, of the temptation to make increasingly risky, yet also confident, decisions that prove that you will somehow outsmart physics and gravity.
That said, let’s move on to the first play of this post:
Fauves, written and directed by Wajdi Mouawad, Théâtre de la Colline, May 12, 2019
I’m going to start with something I actually really enjoyed about this piece: the set. Given how…malleable…the form of this piece is with concerns to timelines, the choice to have a moveable set comprised mostly of sets of walls on wheels that could be rotated/displaced/fit together like Tetris pieces was particularly effective, especially with regards to perspective.
In general, the piece is constructed around a series of flashbacks/flashforwards, though several of these scenes are replayed and revisted several times, sometimes played exactly as they were before, sometimes going on for a couple more lines where they left off, and most significantly, sometimes being played again but from a physically different angle, showing us something that—primarily through the staging—remained slightly or entirely out of view until the walls shifted.
Without giving too much away, the primary story involves a man, Hippolyte (yes, yes, I know), who, while in the middle of trying to finish work on his latest film, gets word that his mother has been hit by a truck. Following her funeral, a meeting with her solicitor reveals that the man he thought was his father was not actually his father, his birth father was living in Canada (Hippolyte, meanwhile, grew up in France), and his mother had never actually his birth father, meaning she had been technically committing bigamy for the entirety of Hippolyte’s life. On the lawyer’s advice, Hippolyte heads to Canada to meet the man who fathered him and convince him to sign an act of divorce from his mother.
Those familiar with Mouawad’s work would perhaps not be surprised to hear that, since all the above took place within the first 15minutes of a 3-hour play, this initial surprise concerning Hippolyte’s parentage was not the first (nor the last…) to shake up the lives of not just Hippolyte, but also those of his two children (a son, Lazare, who is set to join the ISS, and a daughter, Vive, who is ostensibly in Syria working with refugees, but from whom no one in the family has had any news in a long while), and a half-brother he never knew existed. Much like with the Greek tragedies Mouawad often draws inspiration from, the trauma in this piece, the violence that propels these characters to let forth the more animalistic sides of themselves (hence the title), stretch back generations, back to an initial act that is at once a betrayal as well as a case of mistaken placement of blame. In order to ‘purge’ the evil, to cleanse the familial line, as it were, a rather dubious choice is made involving the switching of babies, and a resolve to keep the violence a secret in the hopes that not talking about it will cause it to die out.
This latter point is later evoked towards the end of the piece, in a speech made by Lazare prior to his ascent into space (side note: there is a spacewalk sequence in this play), as a means of tying this idea of the damage done of trying to hide violence/danger/tragedy to the discourse surrounding our approach to climate change, in particular how, up until recently, the very real dangers facing our planet have been downplayed. Although the truth can be very hard to swallow, sometimes hiding it can backfire and cause more damage than just ripping the band-aid off—being open about what is really going on, about the ugly that is bubbling under the surface—could do in the short term.
The problem, though, is that although the link makes logical sense, its impact is lost because of how much other ‘heavy’ stuff is also dropped during the course of this piece—especially in the rather loaded first act. I mean once you also throw incest into the mix (and this comes up in two separate instances, though one turns out to be a case of mistaken incest…yeah…process that), I wonder how much more you could do.
And more than the internal cyclical structure of the piece—which actually read more like a film given how much it ‘rewound’ scenes as well as restaged and replayed them—I had cycles on the brain after seeing this because all the themes here are ones that Mouawad has addressed before (and to be honest, last year’s Tous les oiseauxwas more successful in that regard, primarily because it all rested around one crucial, tragic twist instead of…too many). Is there a limit as to how many times you can replay this saga of hidden family traumas based on either a mistake in identity or someone deliberately hiding a part of their/their child’s identity before it becomes…redundant? Perhaps that word is a bit too harsh. It’s a shame too because had the tragedy hinged on one revelation instead of several, the continued replaying/set switching could have merited the urgency with which it was progressing, like a rocket hurtling towards its target.
There was actually a moment when that did come very close to happening. To be honest, if the scene order was reworked a bit to put the crux back onto the one revelation that had a concrete impact precisely because it resulted in one character taking a drastic action based on an assumption that turned out to be both wrong and the most direct consequence of the whole “maybe you should actually talk about things instead of hiding them under the guise of ‘protection’” thing, the amassing of revelations could have worked. The anticipation could have been built up. As such it was just…a lot.
Contes Immoraux – Partie 1 : Maison Mère, concept by Phia Ménard, Nanterre-Amandiers, May 13, 2019.
This second piece is less a play and more a work of performance art, though one centered around a Sisyphean gesture.
Entering the studio theatre at Nanterre, one saw a large piece of cardboard lying flat on the center of the space, with Ménard crouched in the upper stage right corner, looking like a punk rocker circa the 1980s. Once everyone was seated, she got up, grabbed one of several long hooks set up in a bucket nearby, and began to pierce out certain pieces of the large cardboard shape, tossing them off stage right. When all the extra pieces had been dispensed with, it became clear that the cardboard was actually meant to be folded together into a model of sorts (revealed at the end to be a freestanding model of the Parthenon). To accomplish her task, Ménard had at her disposal several support poles of varying sizes (cardboard sometimes does not want to stand like you would like it to…), a generous supply of tape to stick the walls together as they were built up, as well as to pull the whole thing and flip it right side up, and a chainsaw to cut out some slats and create columns.
Now, the thought of watching a woman trying to build a Parthenon out of cardboard and tape for 90minutes might not sound terribly exciting, but honestly, I cannot remember the last time I experienced sitting in an audience as engaged in what was happening as this one. Many of us leaned forward when she started rotating the structure around, gasped when some tape came undone (which happened several times), and let out audible sighs of relief—and giggles—when the thing actually behaved as it was meant to. We, like Ménard, were in those moments united in desiring a similar goal. There was a moment when an entire wall came detached and flopped down in such a way that righting it—again—was going to be incredibly inconvenient. And yet, she persisted. She kept at it. And finally, the thing was up, standing, and she—the punk Athena—sat down to admire her handiwork.
And then a set of sprinklers above the structure went off, drowning it in water, almost comically destroying the thing so much effort was expended on to create. Nothing, the image suggests, matters if the world is about to go to shit because of continued inaction towards climate change.
There is a commentary in this piece about the image of Europe, of the current identity crisis the EU is having, and the difficult (yet still possible) task of working to build it up again. But the greater problem is that none of the work will ultimately matter if we don’t address the greater problem.
At the same time, I do wonder how ecological a show like this—which ran for a few nights at Nanterre—is, given how much water is needed before the structure finally collapses. Is it recycled water? Where does it come from, and what happens to it after? Will the cardboard be recycled? Thankfully, cardboard is a natural material, but was the cardboard used in this piece itself recycled, or was it made ‘new’ (so to speak)?
Plus, just imagining her every night the show is on, starting over, with a ‘blank’ slate. It’s one of the few times I think that I’ve left a show thinking less about its ending and more about the reality that it will ‘begin again’, replay again—though not quite the same way as before. A distinctly more material-heavy return than the previous show’s thematic one.
I think I’m going to leave this as is for now, and close the post here. I’ve got some thoughts on my recent weekend trip to Sweden I’m in the process of organizing, but that deserves its own post more than being tacked on at the end of this one.
Until then, hopefully my funk abates soon. I need to get back to some intense writing (unless, of course, this thesis decides to magically pop out of my brain fully written on its own…not gonna lie, wouldn’t really complain if that happened…)
Going to start things off with some more (very quick, I promise) musings on dissertation-writing today before moving on to other theatre-related things. Don’t worry though. This time I’m going to actually be positive(ish) about things…for once.
I had a meeting with my thesis director about a week ago, the first since our last extensive one-on-one in early July before the summer holidays officially kicked off. Was I freaking out that there would be a lot of skeptical, questioning remarks about what I’d hacked out? Yes. Did I end up having to worry about that? No…as these things usually go, apparently (convenient how the mind tends to forget this when one is ‘in the thick of it’…).
Other than planning out my next steps (which I am kind of excited about because they involve diving back into theory), one thing that was brought up was all the things I had apparently ‘done’ or illuminated in my drafts, things that, in part challenged some other established critiques of audience/spectacle relationships (and I won’t get into it here because it is a bit complicated, and this is not the space for that sort of thing…also I’m on a time crunch). These comments both come as a rather pleasant little surprise, as well as inspire some fear. Because, of course, I had no conscious intention of challenging anything when I was writing my stuff, but as those who write (dissertations or not) probably know, sometimes you just get in the zone and things come out and you don’t really stop to think about the implications of it all.
What I’m saying is, I think I might have to get into some critical analysis of my own work after this is all done, so I don’t look like a fish with its mouth gaping open during my dissertation defense a year (holy shit) from now. Writing is a funny thing sometimes.
At the end of the session, she also threw out, on a whim, a suggestion that I think I’m going to officially adopt as my title :
Contemporary French Theatre: Spatial Effects
I’m not one who easily comes up with short, not terribly wordy titles (or titles in general) for my writing projects anyway, so having this now is definitely something I don’t mind adding to my little list of ‘dissertation wins’. Also, I like puns.
Anyway, moving on to what else I’ve been up to…
I tried an egg-centric (hehe) dish a week ago at brunch with a friend at Salatim, an Isreali restaurant in the 2nd arrondissement. The set brunch menu is priced at 21eur (though some add-ons, such as challah bread, will bump the price up a tiny bit…though…you kind of need bread for this meal so…yeah), and includes
a hot drink (coffee/tea)
juice (orange or house lemonade)
a generous serving of various salads and mezze topped with a portion of the dish of the day (that day the specials were something with salmon and confit lamb. We went with the lamb…because of course)
Shakshouka to share (yep)
A selection of desserts to share (including a very yummy chocolate babka)
When the waiter was explaining the brunch menu, the issue of me hating eggs came up, but I decided–because I guess I was feeling adventurous that day or something–to say to hell with it and said to put two eggs in the pan because hey, who knows?
In the end, I am glad we made that choice because the sauce the shakshouka was served in was really incredible (adding some harissa on it wasn’t such a bad choice either hehe). I did end up mixing in some of the egg white in with the sauce as I scooped it up with the (not included but really should be) challah bread, but I ended up leaving the yolk to the side. Mixing the egg whites in with the sauce was pretty alright. There was definitely a limit to how far I could tilt the egg/sauce ratio to the former but, at least I tried.
This does not, however, change my opinion on other egg-related breakfast dishes, so don’t even think of suggesting I try an omelette or poached egg or a breakfast burrito anytime soon.
Speaking of other food-related things, the day before said brunch I also met up with a friend to check out what I think is going to be one of my new favorite semi-annual events: the Salon des vins des vignerons indépendants (The Independent winemakers expo).
This event takes place two times a year, once in the fall (around November, I believe), and once in early spring. While the fall expo is held at the much larger venue at Porte de Versailles, in the southern edge of the city, this one took place at the slightly smaller–but no less lively, according to my friend who has attended several of these–Porte de Champerret. Basically, how it works is after you buy your entry ticket (normally 6eur, but I managed to snag a free pass), you check in, receive your complementary wine glass, and then proceed to roam up and down the aisles stopping at any tables that seem interesting. Rather than organize the wines by region–that is, one section for Bordeaux, one for the Loire Valley, one for Provence, etc–all the regions are kind of mixed together, allowing for, at least I think, some more spontaneous exploring or venturing out to try something new. Thankfully, for those on the hunt for a particular region, the signage above each table was color-coded, something I at least found rather helpful as the afternoon went on and I became increasingly determined to get my hands on some nice Rhône reds.
I ended up with four bottles in my ‘haul’ (honestly, my little wine cabinet thing could not fit any more than that), including an interesting white wine from the Jura region I would probably have never tried otherwise. I’ll be excited to break that one out eventually (another reason I didn’t get more wines, I don’t actually drink that much wine at home, living alone and whatnot).
And finally, before the ‘fun’ theatre commentary starts, I’m going to toot my own horn for a second and mention that about two weeks ago, I popped back over to Reid Hall to be part of a panel of former MA students, now PhDs, on how to carry out a research project, as well as speak about our own work to the current MA students. Having a rather untraditional–by comparison, at least, considering that the other two panelists were PhD candidates in history–project and trajectory did get my nerves going a bit at the beginning, but I think my choice to sort of dispense with the fact that, given the ephemerality of my corpus, I had no archives/powerpoint to show right away and move on to general advice ended up paying off. There was a nice little discussion afterwards as well, and I think that, having been in the position those students are in now six(!) years ago, hopefully we were all able to give them at least some helpful direction as they navigate the nonsense of a giant research project for the first time.
One thing that really irked me though, there was a gentleman in the audience who, the minute I went up to the podium, got up and started rifling through his bags rather loudly, as well as walking back and forth between the refreshments table and his seat. A side note: I was the second of the three presenters. He didn’t do this for any of the other two. I know it shouldn’t have, but it definitely took me aback for a minute, especially considering that I was doing this presentation after finishing a day of teaching. Honestly, if there is one thing I absolutely cannot stand, it’s when I have the floor and people are disruptive or chatty or in general, taking away my time. There was plenty of time between myself and the person who spoke before me to get up, stretch a bit, and then sit back down. Did it have something to do with the fact that I was the only woman speaking? Who knows. I’m leaning towards no, and just chalking this up to general rudeness, but holy hell my dude.
Common courtesy is a thing. Anyway…
Qui a tué mon père, written by Édouard Louis, dir. Stanislas Nordey, La Colline, March 24.
I’ll get this out of the way now: the answer to the question posed in the title (‘Who killed my father’, in English) is several people, or ‘the system’ in general. But this didn’t get fully addressed until towards the end of the production. The rest of the time was devoted to the solo actor–an avatar of sorts for Louis, considering the very autobiographical nature of this piece–detailing the history of his relationship with his father, a working-class man from the (formerly industrialized, recently deindustrialized) north of France, whose previous conservative and far-right leanings clashed with his son’s own politics as well as his person (Louis, like the solo character in the show, is openly gay). The end of the piece suggests that the father, in his older age, and now out of work due to a back injury, has started to come back around to the left, not only in terms of social issues, but also as a worker in the sense that, until recently, the left had been the side pictured as fighting for workers’ rights. (Xenophobia, homophobia, racism, discrimination, etc. are just some of the divisions the far-right has stoked in order to falsely paint itself as the party for the working man…unfortunately with some success).
As mentioned before, this show–which runs just shy of two hours–is performed by a solo actor, though he is not necessarily alone on stage. When the curtain rises, for instance, it sees him seated at a table facing what one assumes to be his father. The figure seated across from him, however, is not another actor, but a very realistic model (not gonna lie, it took me a while to realize that, partially because I was seated a bit further back in the room). This model has his downstage arm propped up on the table, the hand cradling his face so that it is hidden from view, and presumably, to suggest a lack of ‘connected gaze’. This image of visual disconnect (perhaps reflective of the metaphorical disconnect between father and son) carries on through the production as, during the blackouts that punctuate moments of the long monologue, other models of the same figure appear on stage, all of home facing either upstage, or purposefully away from where the actor is standing.
It’s only towards the end of the piece that the actor actually begins interacting with the models on the stage. At this point, there is a light snowfall bathing the space–or at least the square playing space on the middle of the stage–in white. One by one, the actor picks up the models–by this point, he has recounted the story behind his father’s work-related injury, as well as the bureaucratic difficulties involved with worker’s comp and getting back into/finding work at all–and gently placing them off the playing space. Once said center square is free of all objects, he begins his last, very pointed and very specific series of accusations.
Starting with the presidency of Jacques Chirac and concluding with Macron, the actor one by one names first, the sitting president, and then his Minister of Health and/or of Work. He doesn’t just recite the names either, but rather tilts his head up and cries the name into the sky, into the falling snow, slowly, deliberately, slightly pausing just before his declamation to make sure the focus shifts onto the names themselves before he continues on to recount the misdeeds of the persons behind said names. In general, the discours concerns the gradual eroding of the French social net, especially as far as the working class is concerned. The goal, as the text itself states, in presenting these grievances in such a way is to immortalize, via theatre, the names of the persons responsible for the increasingly-precarious living situations of the working class in the same way that theatre has–again, the comparison is given in the text–immortalized Richard III. The text closes by evoking the fact that the political means something very different for those in a position like the narrator’s (and by extension Louis’s) father, who are more quickly and more directly impacted by even five-euro budget increases or decreases than those of us (and this definitely includes most everyone sitting in the theatre that afternoon, including myself) for whom such fluctuations do not cause as much of a disruption.
And at the end, the son recounts a final conversation he had with his father, one in which the father concluded by saying it was about time for another revolution, for something to happen. Given the ongoing Gilets Jaunes demonstrations (a movement that still, in my opinion, needs to contend with the far-right presence, however small or not, in its ranks, despite the left’s attempts to retake control of the narrative), the timing of this was rather perfect.
Those who know me, though, will probably not be surprised at the fact that, while I agreed with much of what was being said during that final discours, I remained skeptical as to its efficacy in theatrical form (especially how very close to didactic it became, what with the reminder to audience members of France’s recent past). This is, however, based on an assumption that said discours would at least inspire reflection, if nothing else, on the part of the audience members, but how far can reflection go if it cannot then be translated into action?
I mean, in the end, the show is being performed in a venu located in a neighborhood that was historically very working-class but has recently undergone several years of change and the beginnings of a gentrification that is seeing the former working-class residents at risk of being priced out. It’s also a National Theatre. Normal ticket prices are around 30eur. For my American readers, this might not seem like a lot, given the average theatre ticket prices in many major cities, but here, that is up there. (Thankfully, I am still under 30, and even if I wasn’t, the membership card I have for this season greatly reduces the price per ticket).
Speaking of more political theatre…
Gymnase Platon: Lakhès, dir. Grégoire Ingold, MC93, March 28
So, here’s a question: if someone proposed to you to go attend a performance the first part of which consisted of a staging of one of Plato’s dialogues, would you go? A conversation on the themes addressed in the dialogue would of course follow, this evening in the presence of a professor of Classical Philosophy. As to the dialogue, other than being performed in French, as opposed to recited in Ancient Greek (thank god), there would be little done in terms of taking it from its historical moment to ours, trusting at least that the themes themselves would carry over just fine.
The idea of this production (or series of productions. There were actually three stagings of three different dialogues proposed, the first of which I missed, the second being this one, and the third being Plato’s dialogue on justice which I supposed to attend this past Saturday but didn’t because of…well…this piece) was to recreate the environment of the ancient Agora, a space of interaction, of sharing ideas, of thinking and speaking liberally. The problem with this idea, before we get into anything else, is that it is almost doomed to fall short from the start. For one thing, the fact that this production is staged–that is, that there is a text that is meant to be followed–means that the room for improvisation, for tangents, for interruption and other twists and turns of spontaneous discours is gone. There is, rather, a single group in this case–the actors–who retains vocal and ‘narrative’ dominance. Though at one point early on in the dialogue the audience is asked to vote on which of the two sides they agree with (and this is before Socrates comes in and complicates things), other than that, our participation, our presence was regulated to that of what is ‘expected’ of a contemporary theatre audience.
Quiet, attentive, responding but silently until the signal is given that we may applaud.
Interestingly, the night I went there was also a group of high school students in attendance, one of whom was dealing with a rather nasty cough (yay changing of the seasons). At one point, his teacher asked him to step out so that his coughing wouldn’t be so distracting, but I honestly almost wished he hadn’t done that because this was supposed to be an Agora after all, right.
Also, again, a reminder, in Ancient Greece there was no rule about not talking at the theatre. People only shut up if they thought what was being performed was worth listening and paying attention to. So…yeah.
Second problem: this was something the philosophy professor in attendance pointed out, but there is the question of why stage Plato now while at the same time not try and shift the context of the dialogue, in some way, from his historical moment to ours. The question at the center of this one was that of the nature of ‘virtue’, but one thing that was not addressed in the written program (nor in the staging prior to the professor’s commentary) was the fact that the metrics by which this is measured by are incredibly different now from what they were in Plato’s day. Plato, in other words, would very likely not recognize virtue as we see it, least of which because, unlike in his day, we don’t necessarily measure worth by military victories/prowess anymore.
And quite frankly, I would have been very happy to just have a conversation/seminar session with that professor. He was an older gentleman, but he had a very pleasant voice and a very engaging manner, and he tried his best to make sure we were following his train of thought. In fact, one of the young high schoolers was particularly engaged with what this man was saying, and was very eager to pose him questions (unfortunately, he only had time to ask one of his questions before we all had to clear the space, but I saw him walk over to the professor as everyone was beginning to file out, no doubt ready to ask him the second question he had in mind right when the announcement that we had to clear out was made).
But, yeah, I’m not sure how productive as a work of theatre this was. The tri-frontal seating arrangement (later turned quadri-frontal after the actors ceded the right to speak to the professor) could, I imagine, have given an air of an environment set for exchange of ideas but…the stage/spectator power structures of who can and cannot speak and when were still there. Anyway, in brief, I wasn’t really keen on seeing this happen again on Saturday, hence why I decided to skip out on the next performance.
Evel Knievel contre Macbeth, dir. Rodrigo Garcia, Nanterre, March 29
Yeah, I honestly have no idea how to even begin with this.
Actually, no, here’s how: in Swiss Army Man, before the screen cuts to black, a character, taking in the bizarre nonsense of everything that has just happened in front of her, takes a minute and then clearly lets forth the final line of the film
“What the fuck?”
Some key words for this piece
Yep. I’m going to just…let this one marinate somewhere else for right now.
I will say though that the sound design was cool
Dying Together, dir. Lotte Van Den Berg, Nanterre, March 31
Participatory theatre. Creating community around death.
The one thing I will say about this is that they asked for audience members’ consent each and every time a new scenario or a new person to represent was proposed to them. That’s excellent. More people should do that.
Moving on though, the idea with this piece was, in brief, to approach the notion of death as a communal, constellation-creating (yes, constellations, as in stars, as in things that are connected not physically but by our perception of links or patterns in the spaces between them) phenomena rather than a solo one. To do this, three scenarios were proposed (the 2015 Germanwings crash, the 2013 sinking of a migrant caravan boat near Lampedusa and the 2015 attacks in Paris, specifically at the Bataclan) during which members of the audience were asked to represent, via their physical, not vocal, presence, various persons connected with said events. Said persons could have been victims, perpetrators of the attacks, relatives of victims/attackers, or people who may have been peripherally if not directly involved in the event itself. If, during each scenario, we agreed to represent the person (note: none of these people were named; for those whose identities were more or less known, all we were given was very basic information including sex, age, and perhaps an occupation or a tidbit of info on the person’s background), we were led to a part of the space and told to stand in a certain way and look in a particular direction. This would be our starting position, and from there, when the constellation would start shifting, we could move around a bit to explore the space, our connection to it/the person we were representing, and our inter-personal connections to each other.
Movements stayed relatively slow and consisted mostly of walking or variations of sitting/laying down and standing up. This one is still a bit fresh in my mind since I just came from seeing it, but it did make me think of some general thoughts I have about this kind of improvisational (ish) experimental theatre, especially as it relates to the question of audience integration. It is no secret that I myself love physical theatre. Viewpoints (of which this experience definitely reminded me, especially as we all started moving about the space) changed my life and appreciation for theatre when I was in college, but one thing I’ve found is that, in terms of actually doing it, the best results are produced in intimate, more private spaces, amongst a small group of people who have spent several weeks (or better, months) working together in order to be fully comfortable with the level of physical vulnerability and liberty in experimentation that is often asked of performers in these situations. In short, in my experience, integrating an audience, or transposing these experiences into a much larger–and much more temporary group–is always a risk, and never quite seems to go anywhere. I personally did not feel any connection to any of the persons I was asked to represent. What I did do, however, was spend the majority of my time watching how other people navigated around each other. Dynamic spatial relationships, yo.
Also it should probably not come as a surprise to anyone but when it came time to ask for representatives for the attacks at the Bataclan, it took a couple tries before they found the first person who consented to represent one of the three shooters. This production was first staged in Rotterdam, I believe with the same three scenarios, but there is something about bringing that particular one back to Paris (and only 3.5 years after the attacks) that made the initial refusals or hesitations of participating not terribly surprising.
Anyway, my skepticism towards the efficacy of participation/’immersion’ theatre still holds for now.
And now, I am going to take a lozenge and head to sleep. Stupid seasonal (and time) changes throwing off my immune system…
I’ve been thinking a bit about biases recently, especially in regards to they can affect my own approaches to a critique of something I’ve seen. Those types of situations don’t come up terribly often, but when they do, they generally arise from stagings that tackle certain themes or discourses that, at least from my point of view as an American (and more specifically, as a very left-leaning, educated American) should have been covered already.
More often than not, what these pieces deal with–in one way or another–is the topic of race, and specifically the intersection between this and questions of national identity and the (completely nonsense) notion of colorblindness.
Unlike the United States–which, let’s be clear, still has a very long way to go on this regard–where discussions of race/racism/white privilege/structural inequalities/etc have been going on for several years now, and have solid footing outside academic circles, France has only started tackling these questions relatively recently, and to put it briefly, such discourse has had some difficulty sticking here. This isn’t because it is unfounded–it absolutely isn’t, and to those who think racial and ethnic bias doesn’t or cannot exist in this country, I invite you to take this little pin I’m going to hand you and burst the bubble you’re currently ensconced in. I don’t have time to get into this too much now, but in brief, I would argue it has more to do with the fundamental set of ‘universal’ values the country is founded on. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, yes, but we should also add Laïcité in there, as that one in particular has led to the greatest amount of nonsense. You can see its effects in the 2004 law to ban the wearing of the hijab/veil in schools/government jobs, as well as in the backlash over the birkhini a few years ago. Those laws very clearly and disproportionately targeted Muslim women (hell, with the latter one, that point was made even more obvious when some people rightly started pointing out that nuns had been visiting the beach in their habits for years, and no one gave a damn then), yet of course that was repeatedly brushed under the rug in the favor of maintaining a certain image of ‘unity’ of ‘laicity’, of ‘we are all equal citizens even though daily occurrences prove almost embarrassingly that this isn’t even remotely true’.
All this is to say that the time is ripe for France to have a reckoning with itself.
Said reckoning was very much at the center of the first of the three plays (more precisely, two plays and one operetta) that I saw this weekend, Myriam Marzouki’s Que viennent les barbaresat the MC93 on Thursday evening. The title is in reference to the poem “Waiting for the barbarians” by Greek poet Constantin Cavafy, and, much like the poem, the piece tackles the question of an imagined ‘other’, and more specifically, the necessity of this ‘other’s’ existence in order for the dominant group to maintain its power. Interestingly, the piece also frames this question within the context of American discourses on race–and more specifically, discourses following the the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the end of the 1960s. This begins early on with a scene in which an actor playing James Baldwin speaks to a French reporter about his views on race relations in the United States, as well as addresses her (incredibly naive) line of questioning that stems from a thought of ‘but the movement’s over, what more could/do you want?’. He fires back a question at her about the situation in Algeria–and France’s treatment of Algerians pre- and post- Independence–and thus the discursive link between the United States and France is established. Contrary to popular imagination, the racism, othering, discrimination thought to only have occurred ‘over there’ (the United States) was also happening at home, that it wasn’t as ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’ a comportment as previously thought.
A similar link is made in a later scene featuring another actor in the role of Muhammed Ali giving his own interview to another French journalist–and to be quite frank, I’m not entirely sure if the repetitive nature of this scene really did much other than emphasize the didactic nature of the piece overall–, and it was at this moment I started to question my own biases as a spectator. Everything that was being said seemed obvious to me. Of course structural inequalities still existed. Of course black Americans had the right to create their own safe spaces away from white Americans, of course the parallels with France had been and still are there. But, I am not a French spectator; in other words, I am not who this piece was made for. What seemed didactic or expected to me may very well have been brand new information to any of the number of people in the room with me. I’m still wondering how to grapple with this. I’m still wondering if the didactic approach, of speaking and explaining the metaphors, the connections, the lessons relatively clearly rather than allowing more space for the spectator’s critical capacities to make those connections themselves was the best way to go, even for unfamiliar territory. At one point, during a scene in a sort of immigration processing office, a woman enters from upstage in a cloud of mist, the French flag draped over her in a way echoing that one Shepard Fairey poster featuring a Muslim woman in a hijab made of the American flag. She didn’t say anything. She appeared, came downstage, paused, then slowly exited.
Don’t get me wrong though; there absolutely needs to be more theatre, more art, more articles, more…everything written in France/accessible in French that allows for the inciting of a dialogue around these issues. I’m just starting to ask myself to what degree I should be writing about them at this particular stage in my own journey as an American-educated academic.
Anyway, onto the next thing.
Le Direktor(d’après le film de Lars von Trier) dir. Oscar Gómez Mata, Théâtre de la Bastille, March 15
Full disclosure: Lars von Trier isn’t really a director whose films I know particularly well (hell, I think I’ve only managed to watch Antichrist all the way through…tried with Melancholia, ended up falling asleep and not bothering afterwords…meh). But, the promo photos made this seem like a good time, and so I went into this hoping for some high energy to counteract the vast majority of things I’ve been seeing this year.
And oh man was I right.
This piece is silly. Very silly. Absurdly silly. And I like absurdly silly, especially when it involves poking fun at theatre, at the pretentiousness that the form gets sometimes, and at its conventions–especially the whole ‘suspension of disbelief/these actors are in their own little universe separate from the one we in the audience occupy’ thing.
The basic premise: a man (Ravn) is the head of an IT firm with a staff of 5 other employees who are nice but…incredibly naive and possibly incompetent. But they mean well. He, on the other hand, had gotten in the habit over the course of his ten years at the company of saying that all his unpopular decisions came from a hereto unseen ‘head director’, thus successfully managing to shift blame from himself and staying relatively popular. When the play opens, Ravn has the opportunity to sell the company for a very hefty sum, but to do so, the contract must be signed by the company Director, which, as far as literally everyone else knows, he is not. So, he hires an actor to play him, one who is very ‘into his craft’, so to speak (god the number of people I could recognize in that portrayal just made the whole thing soooo much better). Naturally, hijinks ensue, especially as the actor finds himself integrated even further into the company.
What I loved about this piece, however, were the amount of overt references to the ‘play’ part of acting that were integrated into the text. Often, Ravn and his hired actor would spring from the edge of the white flooring that indicated the limits of the office space to the edge of the stage, left bare and black, a kind of non-space, an in-between space, a space where they could also play with us sitting in front of them, with our knowledge of their fakery, of how they go about producing it. This kind of thing can get a bit kitsch at times, but the tongue-and-cheek of it all here–especially coupled with the very clipped rhythm the show moved in–kept things more or less fresh. Of course, all this was later related back to the whole business of management as well (there was a short interlude that discussed an actor’s capacity to elicit certain emotions/emotional responses from spectators through acts of manipulation that seemed to contain easy to spot links to the whole notion of running a business), but honestly, I was just too busy letting loose and laughing a bit (dear god comedy is such a hard thing to get right, especially absurdist/satirical comedy) to really care about the greater thematics that evening.
The last piece I saw this weekend, however, was decidedly less ludic, but this had more to do with certain imageries and juxtapositions in the staging than the piece itself.
La Chauve-Souris(Die Fledermaus) de Johann Strauss, dir. Célie Pauthe, MC93, March 16, 2019
I know what you all may be thinking: ‘Opera? Really?’. Yes, really.
This show is actually being put on in partnership with the Academie de l’Opéra de Paris, and simply put, I quite like the idea of taking opera and moving it out of the city and into the suburbs for a bit (and for much lower prices too!). Makes it more accessible, if nothing else.
Anyway, the operetta. The piece itself can be summed up as a farce involving a man who is meant to turn himself into prison where has been sentenced to an 8-day stint, deciding to skip out on that to go to a party with his friend, his wife (in disguise) and the chambermaid showing up to the party as well, and everything just being silly. Act II closes with an ode to champagne. Silly.
No, what’s more interesting about this piece is that during her research, the director discovered that it was performed by prisoners at a concentration camp not far from Auschwitz. This camp was known for housing artists and creative types–basically anyone whose absence would have potentially caused a slight media stir–, and as such, often the prisoners were forced to perform for the guards. I don’t know what or how much can be said about the particular kind of torture that this represents that isn’t stinking of a cliché, but what cannot be denied is the fact that at times, performance became both an act of survival as well as a sort of act of resistance.
This connection was reflected very openly in the stage design, which consisted of a set of walls, bare except for the lower stage left corner on which was printed an image of one of the interior corridors of the camp (I was a bit too far away to confirm, but there is a chance that the photo itself may have been taken following liberation in 1945). Periodically, video footage of the director’s 2018 visit to the camp would be projected on the walls as one of the characters performed a solo, the lights dimming down from their usual warm glow to signal the presence of this ‘memory’ in the show’s history. Costume and prop design also nodded to the late 1930s/early 1940s, the lack of overt ‘opulence’ in the décor and objects further harkening back to the tragedy the piece is intertwined with.
This production also contained a sort of aside that broke the fourth wall, so to speak, with this one further functioning as a means through which the connection between the play and the Holocaust would be more pointedly thrust forward. At the start of Act III, just as everyone had settled back into their seats following intermission and the house lights turned off, the stage lit to focus on a man sitting on a table center stage, with a small screen behind him. What ended up getting projected on this screen was a propaganda video made by the Nazis of prisoners in the camp living what appeared to be a blissful life in nature, with leisure activities, excellent medical care, food, cultural programs, etc. Of course, this was all completely fabricated, and the actor on the stage made that point very clear several times. What is striking, of course, about this footage is the knowledge of the horrific tragedy and torture looming over it. There is a sort of weighted, heavy presence hanging over the–to us, who know what really happened in those camps–supposed bliss and joy on people’s faces.
It is easy to see the connection between this and a piece whose main plot centers around a party, around good fun, silliness, but which was performed under circumstances of incredible duress.
I’m not sure if I’m going to end up writing about any of these pieces in further detail for my dissertation, at this point, I have a meeting on Friday with my advisor (finally!) to talk about things and maybe even lay out a game plan for where I go from…wherever I am right now. But where February was relatively quiet theatre-wise, March is going to be absolutely packed. Let’s hope my fingers (and my brain) will be able to withstand all the typing.
I honestly cannot remember the last time I managed to sit down and blog two days in a row.
Hell, other than the very first blog I started waaaaay back in January 2011 (which…holy shit was eight years ago) when I first moved out to Paris for a semester abroad, I cannot remember when was the last time I made a concerted effort to blog something, even a small thing, every single day for a duration of several months. Given how DAU-centric my last post was (and how much earlier I really should have published it…), I figured I’d give the show I saw yesterday afternoon its own space, if for no other reason that to give my thoughts some room to breathe.
Before that though, some updates:
1. I submitted my application for completion funding for the 2019/2020 academic year last Friday (Feb. 8). I honestly still cannot believe I managed to make it to that point–and let’s be real, if you had told me back in September that I would have been ready to submit this thing on time, I would have very likely thought you were crazy–, but, somehow the mess managed to pull itself together. At least now I can continue writing in (relative) tranquility without the whole ‘financial stability’ thing hanging over my head.
2. Somewhat related to the above, I’m going to be meeting with one of my committee members on Wednesday to finally get some feedback on the…gems…I submitted in the guise of chapter drafts. I’ve pretty much just accepted the fact that the whole ‘imposter syndrome’ thing is just going to keep following me around for as long as I’m doing this, so there really is no point in pretending that I am not internally kind of stressing about how that conversation is going to go. It’s not that I don’t like critiques of my work, I actually appreciate them a great deal. It’s more that there is always the risk of being told that I have no idea what I’m talking about/what I’m doing. I’ve learned to manage that kind of stress better as I’ve trudged along on this ‘journey of writing a thing that like…five people might read’, so at least there’s that :).
3. I took myself out on a solo movie date on Friday after the application had been officially submitted. I’ve been getting slightly more comfortable with doing some things on my own again and not feeling isolated about it (the joys of adulthood: scheduling time with other people is sometimes nowhere near as easy as it used to be in uni). Case in point: I’ve also signed up to this services that organizes live music events around the city, and uses a kind of lottery system to determine who gets one of the (somewhat limited) spots on a given night. I went to my first one of these at the end of last month; going to be heading to another in 2 weeks. Making efforts to get out of the house, even when I have to fight against myself a bit, have proven to be a good thing for my overall sanity (if anything, it’s a nice distraction from the constant thinking).
Anyway, enough of that. On to what I saw yesterday…
So those who read here somewhat regularly (hello all…five of you) might remember a couple of posts back I wrote about a show I had seen at the MC93, entitled Ils n’avaient pas prévu qu’on allait gagner. As a refresher, the show centered around a group of foster kids in a group home, and one of my main critiques concerned the fact that the text, rather than being composed of transcribed conversations the production team actually had during their respective times spent volunteering at one such location–or otherwise words that, even if fictional, came directly from the kids in such a way that it allowed them to carry some agency in the communicating of the particularities/nuances of their situation–was written by a someone who occupies a status of societal privilege. In addition, the staging, coupled with the manner in which the piece was composed, centered–purposefully or not–the privileged gaze in its narrative. It would be difficult to say, in other words, that given the aesthetics of the production, the goal was to question or destabilize that particular gaze, and not, as I would argue, leave it intact for the sake of ‘presenting’ a ‘problem’ to a supposedly somewhat ‘ignorant’ audience.
It would be perhaps good to keep the above in mind as I lay out my thoughts on the piece I saw last night, one that also centered a marginalized group, but in a way that I would say was ultimately more successful in destabilizing established structures (in particular, those revolving around the act of looking or gazing). This, I would argue, is in large part due to the fact that, in this instance, those marginalized were given greater autonomy with regards to their storytelling.
Didier Ruiz’s Trans (Més Enllà), as the title suggests, centers on the stories of transgender individuals–seven, in this case–, not only in terms of their personal histories, but how they themselves relate or interpret the question of ‘gender’ and the ‘gender binary’. The seven performers–four trans women and three trans men, ranging in age from 22 to early 60s–are not professionals. Instead, much like with a previous project centered on life while in prison, Ruiz set out to meet with different folks in the trans community in Spain (and more precisely Barcelona), ultimately forming a small troupe with the seven that ultimately appear in the show. The stories they tell are all theirs, though they are not necessarily chronological.
The stage itself–this, by the way, was at the Théâtre de la Bastille–was relatively bare, save for two gauzy screens that curved upstage where they somewhat overlapped to create a sort of hallway from which the performers would enter and exit (exceptions being a few instances where the performers entered/exited by coming around the side extremities of either one of said screens). While the performers were speaking, the screens remained bare, save for the French subtitles that were projected onto them (the piece was in both Spanish and Catalan, depending on what language the speaker was more comfortable with). The exceptions to this were a couple of transitional moments during which kaleidoscopic animations were projected onto them, a burst of color on an otherwise white stage.
The fact that there was no set script, and that the performers had a little bit of leeway in their storytelling meant that there was reasonable potential for the subtitles to not be word-for-word precise, or for things to get slightly deviated. This, however, was acknowledged in an opening subtitle text that was projected at the opening of the show, before the first performer began his speech, and, in a sense, it also acted as the first indication as to the degree of performative/speech agency that was granted to the speakers. Even while needing to maintain some sort of degree of precision or consistency, the words remained theirs.
Generally, the performance structure went as follows: one (or several) performer(s) would be on stage. They would look out at the audience for a beat before beginning their narration (one by one, in cases in which multiple performers were on stage at once). Everything was done in direct address, and though there were times in which, when multiple performers were on stage, the gazes of the non-speaking members would veer towards the person who ‘had the floor’ in that moment, the frontal, binary spectacle/spectator relationship remained relatively dominant. Whenever a performer would finish speaking, a few beats of silence would follow, during which the former speaker would fix their gaze outward, scanning the audience a bit before either they left the stage or another performer began speaking.
As I mentioned previously, one of the concepts interrogated in this production is that of the gender binary–and to go further, the notion of ‘transitioning’, of which surgeries, if any, one has done, whether one ‘passes’ or even, the inherent problems of continuing to adhere to this sort of idea, and finally, the degree, if any, to which an individual wants to distance themselves from their former identity–, and to that end, the decision to keep things starkly frontal, I would say, worked rather well in the destabilization of said binary, especially in the intimacy of the Théâtre de la Bastille.
Said destabilization mostly, I would argue, occurred in the silences. Now, I’m still kind of processing through my thoughts on how this worked, so you may all have to just bear with me for a minute as I try to organize things here. Anyway, as a prelude to this, one of the things Ruiz mentioned in his director’s note was the hope that eventually, the conversations around being trans would move beyond what does (or does not) exist between one’s legs. Namely, leaving the gender binary would involve moving past the assumption that there is a sort of endgame of ‘really’ or ‘fully’ transitioning, that one absolutely needs to have a certain set of ‘parts’ in order to be considered a ‘real’ man or woman. Never mind that this essentially erases the experiences of intersex or gender nonconforming folks, it also can pose problems to trans folks who maybe don’t want to undergo surgery, or who perhaps would like to someday but cannot afford it, or rather, cannot find a medical professional to perform it. There are several trans (and intersex and gender non-conforming) folks who have written or talked about their personal decisions to undergo or forego surgery, and if nothing else, it drives the point home (once again) that there is no one absolute way to ‘be’ a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’, that gender, much like sexuality, exists on a spectrum. Hell, the binary can be harmful to cis-folks too, but it has become so normalized, so ingrained in our society, that it is still, at least for me, somewhat difficult to imagine that we will ever fully divest ourselves from it (though I really hope I’m wrong on this).
I mean, even looking at some of the conversations surrounding legislation concerning transgender folks betrays the continued dominance of a rather invasive cis-centered discourse. I’m going to focus on how this applies in recent US legislation because that’s what I’m most familiar with but…the bathroom bills, the transgender military ban…to a certain extent those cases are based on a discourse that concerns itself primarily with what lies between an individual’s legs. And this carries forward into the way that individual may be perceived by others. This is the kind of perspective that fosters a gaze that looks for signs of ‘passing’–or inversely, signs that would ‘betray’ an individual’s ‘hidden’ gender identity (please note here, as above, the use of quotes). It retains the privilege of the cis gaze while also ensuring that the binary remains relatively untouched.
It is also precisely the kind of gaze that is called into question during the pauses in Trans….
When a performer appears on stage, even before they begin to speak, they take a moment to look out, to take in the spectators, and allow them to do the same. There is, in this, something of an acknowledgement of the fact that, at least for each performer’s first appearance, the audience’s gaze will very likely be, to a certain degree, that of a ‘sizing up’. We know that all seven of the performers are trans, but we do not know at what stage they are in their transitions, nor how they choose to identify themselves. The first silence, then, is that moment when those first gazes, those that conform to the notion of the ‘binary’ can happen. The fact that the pauses keep happening, however, especially as we learn more of each individual’s story–and though there are some common themes shared between a few, no two experiences are exactly alike–implies, in a sense, that the gaze has to change as well. That those looking must look differently, that repetitive pauses and moments of ‘looking’ bring attention to the act itself, and the positioning of those performing said act.
And this is all made even more present by the fact that those performing are speaking their own words, that they are given a voice and a platform from which to directly influence the shifts in perspective that ultimately lead to the aforementioned destabilization of the gender binary. They are granted autonomy, multiplicity; they are not reduced down to a ‘figure’ that has been filtered through a privileged gaze (though perhaps at another time, there could be a conversation as to Ruiz’s role in staging all this, in his choice of selecting the performers that he did, especially given that he is a cis-man).
Anyway, apologies again for any potential incoherence in everything I just hacked out, but I have quite a few thoughts to sort through, and I’m thinking that perhaps a few of them will have to wait to be hashed out in one of my dissertation chapters.