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In Memory of Jim Haynes: End of an Era, but not of a Philosophy of Life

January 12, 2021
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Jim Haynes

Jim Haynes

PARIS – Not long into reading Jim Haynes’s autobiography, “Thanks For Coming!” in 1984, shortly after it was published, I said to myself, “I am certain I will meet this man.” I lived in Paris, as did he, I was interested in the expat literary and cultural world, and he was at the center of it, and my bookstore of choice was “The Village Voice,” on the rue Princesse, which it seemed impossible that he would not know. A meeting had to happen.

As it turned out, sitting in the back of that same bookstore, drinking a coffee and eating a brownie, and reading Jim Haynes’s book, who should walk in but Jim Haynes. With his big moustache, and slightly drawling accident, he was easy to recognize. I wasted no time in approaching him and telling him of the coincidence that there I was reading his book at that very moment and in he walks! So began a 37-year-long friendship that came to an end two days ago when Jim died at the age of 87. In fact, as anyone who knew Jim knows, it was not just Jim who left us, but a whole chunk of cultural life in Paris (and dare I add a cultural life of the 1960s and 70s in Britain too), and a living, walking, smiling philosophy of life.

Thinking about his life in the last few days since he left us on 6 January, it struck me that Jim was born in the same year that Hitler took power in Germany, and that he should die in a hospital in Paris at the same moment that the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was being raided by violent haters, was very significant: Nothing could be further from Jim Haynes’s philosophy of life than the hatred that both Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump knew so well how to manipulate in their followers. Jim was all about love and togetherness and sharing; and if that sounds like some kind of 1960s hippie peace sort of dreamy approach to life, well, not only was it just that, but Jim successfully – and contagiously – lived by it right to the end.

I will not spend time on this blog post reiterating the events of his life. That has been well handled all over the place, including in this obituary about Jim Haynes published in The Guardian, or on Jim Haynes’s own web site. The only thing I feel I can bring that would serve any purpose beyond what everyone else – and he himself in that autobiography as well – would say, is my own experience of Jim. And I look forward to reading many more such accounts by the other legions of people from every walk of life who knew him.

Even so, in a nutshell: Born in the U.S., in Louisiana, after coming to Europe in the military, he decided to live in Scotland in the 1950s, where he created the first paperback bookstore, then helped found the now-famous Traverse theatre, before then moving to London where he founded the Arts Lab theatre space, and the International Times newspaper. He then came to Paris on a teaching assignment at the University of Paris, and stayed the rest of his life here, writing, holding Sunday dinner salons for more than 40 years, creating his publishing company, as well as many other manner of homegrown artistic thing.

Jim Haynes Autobiography

Jim Haynes Autobiography

Jim also, by the way, wanted to meet and know everyone in the world, and it was for that reason that I had no qualms about introducing myself to him in that bookshop. After that first meeting, we had many different kinds of meetings or communications over the years, never as close friends, but always as welcome friends. In the early years he would periodically call me up while I was working in the library of the International Herald Tribune – a newspaper that he read daily – in order to find some clip or other fact that he needed for whatever purpose. We would talk for a while, I’d find what he was looking for, and life went on.

I met him on occasion at the various book launches and small press nights at The Village Voice, at Shakespeare and Company or other meeting points during the period of the 1980s when it felt as if the literary expat world of Paris of the 1920s and 1930s or even the 1950s had returned. Several young expats from the English-speaking world decided to create their own literary magazines, and Jim, who had his own Handshake Editions at the time helped to encourage many of those young people with their literary magazines and actions. “Frank,” by David Applefield, was one of those, John Strand, who went on to have an excellent career as a playwright had another called “Paris Exiles,” and a woman named Carole Pratle had one called Sphinx. And, yes, Ted Joans, the famous beat poet was hanging around too. Jim had even helped advise AND occasionally work for Odile Hellier, the owner of that very same Village Voice bookstore where we met. (Applefield, by the way, who spent most of his life in Paris until he returned to the U.S. a couple of years ago, ran for Congress last summer, lost, and died suddenly the next day.)

One of the astounding things about Jim was just how many people he did indeed know. And the range of the kind of person they were. From the famous to the unknown, it didn’t matter who you were or what you did. He just liked people. But more important, even his act of knowing people was not something only for him: He loved to introduce people to each other, to make connections, to start relationships. One of his ventures was a global address book, comprising many of the people he met. And his famous Sunday dinners in Paris were always an occasion for Jim to introduce people to each other, and I mean in a really, outgoing, almost formal way: “Brad this is so and so; so and so, this is Brad.” That sense that we were all there to meet and share was one of the first signals you would receive upon entering the dinner.

On one of our early meetings at his home in the 1980s, I went because I learned he had some kind of recording studio at home and I wanted to record a couple of songs and a piece of prose writing I had done. I secretly hoped he would love it and use it in his then popular “Cassette Gazette,” a cassette tape collection of all kinds of writing and music and everything else you could put on tape. He showed no interest in the written piece, but he did sincerely and with some surprise in his voice, compliment my recording of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies song. At the time I was no longer playing music in public and had no ambitions to do so. So I was a bit pissed off he liked the song but not the writing!

That recording, by the way, was done by his longtime friend, Jack Henry Moore, who I knew nothing of at the time, but who I would eventually learn was also very much at the center of the underground of the 1960s. Jim wrote a Jack Henry Moore obituary for The Guardian when he died in 2014.

That, I believe in fact, was my first visit to Jim’s atelier at 83, rue de la Tombe Issoire, where one of his illustrious neighbours and friends was Samuel Beckett, by the way. Yes, Jim was friends with countless literary people, including Henry Miller, another one-time Paris expat, and he had a long running friendship with the book publisher, John Calder, with whom he founded the first Edinburgh international book festival. And to my delight and surprise, he had also corresponded with Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British literature, whom I would later meet, interview and befriend. I was delighted to be able eventually to give to Jim a copy of the interview book that I did with Colin Wilson. How strange the world is! (I recall now that I had also run into Jim at the Frankfurt Book Fair the one time I went there, which he attended regularly, and he introduced me to Calder.)

From a coffee and brownie meeting while reading his book, and him calling me up as a librarian at the IHT, soon he would be complimenting me on “writing half of the IHT newspaper,” or however he put it, while referring to all my regular Formula One writings and multiple-page special reports in that paper. He had treated me with the same respect as a support staff member of the IHT as when I became a regular journalist for the paper. Over the years we would meet in various circumstances, maybe at an organized play attendance followed by a dinner with a small group of people whom he had encouraged to see his friends’ play – or at a Sunday dinner at his atelier.

In another interesting Jim Haynes phenomenon, through the decades the number and kinds of people who I knew and who I learned also knew Jim Haynes grew and grew. They would, again, be from different countries around the world, and my relationship to them would vary completely, never being entirely to do with journalism or the arts, so vastly large was his relationship “footprint” around the world.

Jim Haynes and Varda Ducovny, with host Grace Teshima behind. Photo © Seamas McSwiney

Jim Haynes and Varda Ducovny, with host Grace Teshima behind.
Photo © Seamas McSwiney

One of our more recent meetings happened four or five years ago at a book launch of a friend of his, Varda Ducovny, in a home art space in Paris, in Montmartre. I had met Varda at one of the above mentioned dinners. At the end of the evening, he left a few minutes before I did, and as I descended the stairs of the building, I found Jim, sitting oddly on the bottom stair, with a couple of his friends either side. He had fallen and hurt himself; in fact, he had fallen before the start of the evening, and despite being in pain throughout, he stayed for the full launch and cocktail ceremony. By then in his early 80s, such a fall felt ominous. And as it turned out, it really was the beginning of a series of incidents that would remove from him his strong good health and easy mobility.

One of our last meetings I now see in a short recorded interview that I did with him for some research that Ornella was doing, was in January 2018. Three years ago. While he was 100 percent there mentally – and morally, ie, in his usual good spirits – I seriously worried about how many months he might last. That he lasted three more years is testament to his incredible inner strength, which I put down to that Jim Haynes optimistic, happy, loving and thankful philosophy of life.

Ornella found a key to that philosophy in the book he had given her that day three years ago, a copy of his book, “Everything Is!” She posted these words from the book on her Facebook page, and I agree with their profundity, so I finish this post with them too: “Some people say that when they are happy they sing and dance. But I say: when I sing and dance, I am happy!”

Another Interview from the past: François Guérif of Rivages and his World of Claude Chabrol and Barry Gifford and James Ellroy!

January 5, 2021
bradspurgeon

Rivages Cover of James Ellroy

Rivages Cover of James Ellroy

PARIS – Rereading this interview that I did 25 years ago with François Guérif, the director of the crime writing collection at the Rivages publishing house in Paris I am actually astounded by all of the interesting aspects to the link between the French publishing world and the American one. François Guérif had already been directing the collection at Rivages for 10 years, and he only left the job in 2017, so this interview is still in its own way relevant. But among the stories that makes this worth reading today are those linked to Guérif’s discovery of James Ellroy, to his hand in helping revive several careers of American writers, like Barry Gifford, and his work with Claude Chabrol, the film director. So as part of my decision to put up on this blog and publish for the first time ever these interviews in their entirety that were done as research for my article on French crime writing in the 1990s, here is my interview with François Guérif, then of Rivages, and certainly one of the most interesting of the Q&As so far!

A Visit to the Past with Patrick Raynal as then Editor of the Série Noire

January 3, 2021
bradspurgeon

La Série Noire

La Série Noire

PARIS – Today I have published on my blog the third in a series of never-before-published Q&A interviews that I did in the 1990s in preparation for a big article about the French crime writing scene. This interview, with Patrick Raynal, who was then the editor of the famous Série Noire crime novels of the Gallimard publishing house, is a great look at how the world has both changed and remained the same. Raynal is still alive, and about to publish a new book at Albin Michel this year, and the Série Noire continues as well. But it is interesting to see how much a few things have changed since then, like his comment about how few women writers he received manuscripts from in the mid-1990s. Or the role of the agent in France, which while not having grown to the level of so many Anglo-Saxon countries, has nevertheless developed massively since then. It is also a good look at the American writers the French liked at the time, and still do, in fact.

Writing on Writers and Writing: a New “Salon” Space on this Blog

December 29, 2020
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Writing on Writers and Writing Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

Writing on Writers and Writing.
Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

PARIS – The other day when I put up that article I did about Marc Villard, the French crime writer, I mentioned that I thought it was about time for me to create a separate space on this blog to hold together all my articles about the French crime writing scene. Sleeping on the idea, I came up with an idea I like even more, which is to create a space on the blog that will group together ALL of the writing on this blog about writers and writing. So it seemed natural to create a menubar, that you see above this post at the top of the browser, called “Writing on Writers and Writing.”

Under that menubar you will find a collection of all sorts of bits and pieces of writing from this blog of stuff about writers and writing, books, bookstores, Not Book Reviews, etc. It is not an exhaustive collection of such writing that I have done over the years, by any means. It is just like the rest of this blog, stuff that I chose at any given time to devote a page to. As a result, I took away some of the articles previously held in certain other parts of the blog – like from “Blog Articles as Opposed to Posts,” and I gave them this their own home.

I am hoping that it will inspire me to contribute regularly to them with many of the pieces of writing on writing and writers that I have done in the past, and perhaps, eventually, I will create subheadings for each area that may grow too big, such as the writings specifically about the French crime writing scene.

Also, I decided that it was a good place to carry the definition of what should be linked there just a little further, by adding links in the menu to such things as my interview book with Colin Wilson, linking to its place on Amazon: Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Or the video interview that I did with Colin Wilson when a new edition of the book came out.

Finally, I also decided to add to the Fiction menu the some of the translations that I have done of other people’s fiction, notably the three stories by Marc Villard, and a story by Jean-Hugues Oppel, that appeared in an anthology in the United States, and then later made its way to a BBC radio play, which is where the link goes.

And so it is that under semi-lockdown I have finally found the time to do some long-required housekeeping on this blog! (You will have seen the huge lack of blog items in recent months about playing music in public! And you will not, coronavirus oblige, wonder why!)

Another Story of French Crime Writers: Marc Villard

December 27, 2020
bradspurgeon

Marc Villard

Marc Villard

PARIS – I decided to publish another instalment of my occasional pieces from the period in which I wrote all about the writers of the French crime novel. Adding to my interviews with Jean-Bernard Pouy and Maurice Dantec, I have now put up a feature interview article that I did with Marc Villard. Villard has written hundreds upon hundreds of short stories, as well as novels, poems and scenarios. He also had a double career as an art director at Givenchy, and for many years he was the rock critic at Le Monde! Now if that is not enough to draw your attention to looking at my story, “From the Bourse to the Banlieue: Marc Villard, a French Master of the Short Story, and then some,” then perhaps you might like to skip my story about him and click on the links I put in its introduction that will take you directly to his site and the short stories of his that I translated from French to English. That will give you the best idea of some of what he does. So check it out anyway! Today I also suddenly had the idea, by the way, that I might in future do a special page devoted to all of the writings I did about the French crime writing scene, rather than have to have you scrolling through the menu above about “blog stories rather than posts.” The centrepiece, of course, was always my roundup story from “The Armchair Detective,” that I put above under the simple heading, “France and the Crime Novel.” Anyway, check out Villard now!

Searching for Beth Harmon: The “Real-Life” Media Checkmate of “The Queen’s Gambit”

December 23, 2020
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Hou Yifan No. 1 Woman Chess Player

Hou Yifan No. 1 Woman Chess Player

The latest of my illness-in-the-media shocks has come after watching, and loving, the Netflix series about the fictional female chess prodigy, Beth Harmon,”The Queen’s Gambit.” Almost every day for the last month or two, in the news feed of my telephone, I have seen articles relating to the series. While some of the articles or even television shows or other filmed interviews have drawn for reactions to the series on some of the world’s greatest players, including women players – such as the interview by Christine Amanpour on CNN with Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgar – there is a much, much bigger trend that is the part that is shocking, and sickening me. Almost daily I find articles by every level of media, from personal blogs to traditional newspapers, using the Netflix series to introduce to the world “the real-life Beth Harmon.”

So who, you will ask, is the real-life Beth Harmon and why does this bother me?

First, I want to put into a few words the premise of the Netflix series for those readers of this post who have not seen it. In a nutshell, Beth Harmon is the fictional character in the novel of the same name as the series, written by Walter Tevis, an American novelist, and published in 1983. It is the coming of age story of a girl whose father has abandoned her, whose mother dies, and who ends up in an orphanage and discovers the game of chess through the janitor. She finds she has a talent for it, and she goes on to build a career in the game, rising to win the U.S. national championships, and culminating in a tournament in Moscow against the top players in the world.

Beth Harmon

Beth Harmon

Beth Harmon also has another essential aspect to her character, which is her addiction to drugs and alcohol, which began with her force feeding of various medications at the orphanage. In another nutshell, I want to say that while I loved the series – watching it became my own short-lived addiction – there were some fundamental parts to it that were indeed pure fiction. No drug addict under the influence is going to play chess the way Beth Harmon did. (And while this made her character interesting for fiction, it is questionable as an example for other young women seeking to find themselves in today’s world, where drugs are more accessible than in the fictional day of the 1950s and 1960s in which Beth Harmon lived.) Beth’s rise quickly through the ranks without actually having any chess teachers or coaches of any note was another aspect to the fiction that was farfetched. Also, there was a huge mismatch between the player rating level (called an Elo) we heard she had at one point – something like 1800 – and the kinds of players she was supposed be beating. The top players at the time were already pushing for the 2700s. The final outstanding aspect of this fictional character is that she is a kind of drop-dead gorgeous woman, portraying a kind of man-beating femme fatale of the chess world.

While the chess world is excited to see attention paid to it like nothing since when Garry Kasparov played – and lost – to the Deep Blue computer more than 20 years ago, and while it is being reported that the Netflix series has led to a massive new demand for chess sets, books, and people playing the game online (at sites like Chess.com or Lichess.org ), there is another way in which coverage of this Netflix series is doing no good at all.

Judit Polgar

Judit Polgar

How so? First, my shock: In those almost daily articles about “Meet the real Beth Harmon,” the subject of the articles is usually not only a million miles away from ever having achieved any of the exploits of the fictional character, but worse, the subject of the article is rarely even within the Top 100 of rated women chess players in the world (or even the Top 100 “girls,” which is for women under 20 years old). I had considered naming names and putting up links to some of the subjects of these stories, who hail from countries all over the world – every country is seeking to show its very own “real Beth Harmon” – but the goal of this blog item is not to point the finger at any one particular person or media. Let me just continue outlining the broad brush strokes of this con game. Every time I have found an article about the latest “real Beth Harmon” I have started by doing research to find out what the “phenom”‘s rating is. Most of the time, as I said, the women are not even close to the Top 100 lists of women players – which may be found on the site of the world chess federation, at FIDE.com – and in many cases, the women do not even HAVE an international rating.

What they do almost invariably have, is a great presence on the social media, with photos of their undeniably feminine good looks – à la Beth Harmon. They are usually featured looking sexy sitting over a chess board, often in clothes that match the black and white squares of the game, or some other chess-related image. They have online followings and their image is more important than their chess success. Still, some of them did have at some point in their lives periods playing the game at local, or even national level, and met with some success in tournaments, even if they never achieved any kind of internationally recognized results or ratings.

What am I getting at? What’s the problem with all of this? Certainly it is great publicity for the game of chess to be talked about more than it has perhaps, in fact, since the biggest international battle of wits in the early 1970s Cold War match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Certainly, for the noble, intelligent game of chess that helps form young minds to be learned and discovered by more people than ever before is a great thing.

But what bothers me here is that another of the themes of almost every one of these articles about the “real Beth Harmon” is that the women are invariably asked to speak about how difficult it all was as a woman in a man’s world, and how much sexism they faced by paternalistic male players who could not accept being beaten by a woman. Fine. Judit Polgar – who in fact is as close to being the “real Beth Harmon” as any woman could be, since she was the top woman player for decades, and also sat within the top 10 amongst men players for many many years – has spoken about her own encounters with such sexism. So, yes, this is a natural subject. If only the articles would not be hypocritical on another level….

In my description of the “real Beth Harmon” that I discover almost daily, you will have noticed that all of the women are beautiful, that they flaunt that beauty, they flaunt the femme fatale aspect of their image, as well as their social media image popularity. But on the other side of all of this is those lists I have mentioned of the world’s current Top 100 woman and girl players. Very few of those players are using their feminine attractiveness to sell their image. They are devoting their lives to learning how to play and win the game of chess. And they are succeeding. The Top 100 women players – lightyears ahead of the vast majority of the “real Beth Harmons” that I am reading about in the media (including many, many reputable, traditional media) – are great chess players, women or not. But they are being, for the most part, ignored by the media that wants to exploit the image that the Netflix series is exploiting: Beautiful, sexy, fashion-model-like woman beats man at man’s game.

Therein lies the problem for me – one of the two main problems – which is that in the guise of saying that women are equal to men and not being reduced to their physical attributes, these articles are doing the very opposite. They are only presenting us with the woman whose image is that of Beth Harmon – sexy young women looking like fashion models and with a great social media presence – rather than showing us the REAL REAL BETH HARMONS! Those Top 100 at most, but really, say, the Top 20 women or “girls” in the world. Let me introduce to you Hou Yifan. She is currently No. 1, and a little like the Judit Polgar of our day – as Polgar has been retired for several years – by being far ahead of the second placed woman player in rating.

So what is actually happening here is that the media is indeed again using women’s beauty, women’s physical attributes, their image, their sexiness, as the thing that makes them worth talking about or not. These media are not sticking to the reality of whether or not these social media objects are actually great chess players by the standard of the world’s top-rated players!

This now leads me to the higher level point of this whole rant: It is again and clearly the kind of shorthand that passes for a story in today’s media that is actually leading to what in another area would be referred to as “fake news.” People are reading mainstream media – as well as less mainstream, but perhaps just as popular – media and if they know nothing about chess, then they cannot know that what they are reading is fake news. The woman being portrayed as a “real life Beth Harmon” is nothing close to a real life version of the fictional mastermind, BUT…but…but… a little more honesty would reveal that there are indeed many other real life Beth Harmons who are NOT being written about because they do not flaunt their bodies, faces, images, online in social media or otherwise talk about themselves as women men-beating geniuses.

So I take this to the final level: It is only because chess is a world that I am very close to, and very familiar with – I have a very low international rating, and I have played online for years as an addiction, but my son was a highly-placed national player in France for years until he quit age 15 – that I am not being duped by all these stories about the “real life Beth Harmon.” But what does this mean for all the other aspects of world politics, science, geography and social life that I know nothing about and which I am spoon-fed untruths or exaggerations daily without realizing it?

I hate to think what the answer to that might really be.

Checkmate!

A Metaphor for Our Times at the Valdemone Festival in Pollina? The Clown Dog that Cannot Feed Himself

August 23, 2020
bradspurgeon

Paolo Locci Hobo

Paolo Locci Hobo

FINALE DI POLLINA, Sicily – The Hobo clown character goes back generations in the circus arts, with the most famous one being that of Emmett Kelly, whose hobo “Weary Willie” was a reflection of the tramps of the 1930s depression. We are now on the edge of an economic period that is being classified as potentially worse than that depression, but for circus performers and most other live entertainment artists, the period of Coronavirus has been even beyond the imaginings of the depression period. So it was that the show we saw last night in this extraordinary resort town on the north coast of Sicily was, as Ornella pointed out to the artist himself after the show, an extraordinary metaphor for our time.

The clown act was that of an Italian from Turin named Paolo Locci, which he calls “Hobo.” And while that name and Locci’s makeup and costume fall right in the Emmett Kelly tradition, this was an act with a twist: The clown was both the hobo and his dog; most importantly, throughout most of the act, the dog is trying to feed itself, but the food falls just short of his grasp. There’s the metaphor of the clown that today cannot feed himself – like most actors, circus performer, musicians and other live entertainers!

Asked after the show where he got the idea, Locci said he got it from his own dog. In fact, it was a beautifully executed and imaginative pole act from beginning to end in which Locci interweaves classic pole performance with the characters of the hobo and dog. Locci has trained at circus school in both Italy and France, and he performs around Europe.
Paolo Locci Hobo on the pole

I managed to get a little bit of it on video, but I as too far from the stage to get a good quality video. This can just give a small idea of what it as about. Making the video was also a bit difficult as we were seated on the ground level in front of the stage, not in the arena seats behind, so there were plenty of spectators’ heads in front of us.

But that is part of the theme too: The show took place during an annual festival for street theater, contemporary circus and music called Valdemone Festival that was founded in 2010, but which, this year due to Coronavirus was not supposed to take place at all. The organizers fought to keep it going and managed to set things going in record time.

Our seats were spread out according to social distancing laws, and there were not so many spectators as to make it dangerous proximity anywhere in the theater. Locci’s act was preceded by a music concert by a three-man band called Trio CasaMia – a small acoustic bass or viola, guitar and saxophone – that mostly entertained by telling long stories about the music they would then play, most of which had come from popular films and television series of the past.

Pollina and its built-in theater

Pollina and its built-in theater


Our only regret was that we did not get to see a show in the other theater of the festival, which is located up in the town above where the hobo show took place in a theater the likes of which I have never seen before as it is a kind of amphitheater built right into the city-scape of the town (if such a phrase is possible!). Pollina is an ancient town built on a hill (a little like Mont Saint Michel in France) that is a major tourist attraction in Sicily; but it was too dark for us to see it from the beach area where we saw the show.

It felt a little like we had driven 150 kilometers to get fed, but it was just outside our grasp…

Time Past and Time Present are Both Perhaps Present in Castellammarre del Golfo – from an Old Time Parade to Dolce & Gabbana

August 12, 2020
bradspurgeon

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – “That’s not Italy!” Such was the idea behind a message a Facebook friend wrote when six days ago I posted a brief dream moment that I captured in a video when Ornella and I found ourselves in the back streets of this Sicilian town, hearing loud Italian music coming from a window while church bells rang simultaneously. Not Italy, perhaps. But not Sicily? A few days later, we encountered a traditional parade through the marina area of the town, and Ornella told me that it was the kind of thing she had so many fond memories of in her childhood here. So, was that not Sicily?

I know what my Facebook friend meant: It’s a little like those American novels set in Paris in which the French are all about wearing beret hats and eating baguettes and they are “oh so quaint, oh so silly.” But sometimes the clichés and real life come together.
Castellammare del Golfo, Yesterday & Today

I took a lot of video footage of the parade in Castellammare del Golfo with my telephone camera and then we decided to make an edited video of the footage along with the reading of a poem of a local poet, now dead, named Castrenze Navarra. That was Ornella’s idea – to read the poem – after we had found a wine bar in the town that was not only named after the poet’s first published collection, Timpesti e Carmarii, but it was located in the groundfloor building area where the poet also had his photographic studio, as he was also a photographer.

There was an exhibit of his handwritten manuscripts and letters on the walls, and his old camera is still there, and the owner of the bar decided during the lockdown this year to publish a new edition of his collected poems called, Timpesti e Carmarii, which first appeared in print in 1938, when the poet was 46 years old.

The parade that I show in the video, by the way, was part of a huge celebration of an evening in the presence of the famous Italian fashion designers, Dolce & Gabbana, who were in the town to show the film about them called, “Devotion.” (Dolce was born outside nearby Palermo.) The film was made by Giuseppe Tornatore, who is a famous Italian director, who filmed, notably, “Nuoco Cinema Paradiso,” and as he also has had a long association with Ennio Morricone – who died recently – Morricone composed the music for the film.

Tornatore’s was a fabulous film, by the way, although it was also clearly designed as an advertisement for the fashion house. For me, best of all, it was a great excuse to bring the past back to the presence in the form of the parade. There was a fabulous moment during the parade – which I put in the video – in which the performers sing a popular song from here, called, “Si maritau Rosa.” This will strike home very strongly with the actors of TAC Teatro (of whom I am one) as it is a song that we are singing in the new show, and which none of us knew anything about. It was, of course, Ornella’s idea.

But in any case, there it was, the past in the present. The folklore moment of ritual, bright colours, dance and music that may not be Sicily in many peoples’ minds, but it certainly was Sicily last weekend! I’ve edited part of the video in old looking black and white to show that the images we see of the town and the parade look like something we imagine having seen in the past, no more relevant to today…but then the color comes and it looks very much like today…as the past would have no doubt to our eyes had we been there…!

Culture Under the Scorching Sun in the Wilds of Sicily: A Panel Session about Theater as a Social Tool

August 9, 2020
bradspurgeon

Emma Dante, left, and Ornella Bonventre at the panel discussion

Emma Dante, left, and Ornella Bonventre at the panel discussion

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – A discussion about the vicissitudes of modern theater and the theater as a social action, taking place under the scorching sun of Sicily amongst the trees and vegetation of the small Fraginesi artists’ retreat outside this town was the moment I had in mind when I earlier spoke of the TrinArt association while writing about the turtle event last week. The panel took place on Wednesday, and opened my eyes to yet another cultural aspect of life in Sicily.

Some of the spectators in the round at the panel

Some of the spectators in the round at the panel

I attended because Ornella Bonventre, representing TAC Teatro, was invited to speak on the panel, as she fit in perfectly as a director and actress who comes from Castellammare del Golfo originally – actually, she was born in nearby Erice – and now also has copious experience of theater also in Milan, Paris and elsewhere. The panel also featured the illustrious Emma Dante, who is based in nearby Palermo, but is also internationally known, having worked regularly in places as far apart as Paris, Edinburgh, the United States – where her play “The Sisters Macaluso,” was staged in 2017 – and many other places. Also on the panel were Laura Castelli, an actress from Milan, a couple of actresses from the Palermo-based company, Barba à Papa Teatro, and Maria Tesè, the deputy in charge of culture for the mayor of Castellammare del Golfo.

The event was attended by a healthy sized audience of perhaps 25 people – given the relatively remote location of the retreat – and among those in attendance was Nicola Rizzo, the mayor of Castellammare del Golfo.

Video: Ornella Bonventre talking about theater and society at the panel session in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily

 

How fabulous to find such cultural energy amongst the rugged, parched landscape, and to contrast it in the mind with the works these people normally do in theater spaces. TrinArt is an artistic association founded by Simona Nasta, a Sicilian artist, but which is not only about art but also about taking in and harbouring refugees and other people with social problems at the retreat.

il-teatro-come-relazione-sociale-trinart

il-teatro-come-relazione-sociale-trinart

Opening words of Ornella Bonventre's article on Rodari

Opening words of Ornella Bonventre’s article on Rodari

Perhaps that is where the social theme of the theater came into it. In any case, given the crisis that theater has been going through since the beginning of coronavirus, it was also not surprising that a lot of the discussion revolved around the problems that theater is facing today due to the virus. But there were also discussions about the general health of the modern theater itself, and what attracts people – or not – to the theater today.  Ornella gave an inspiring talk about how theater is and always has been a social tool, a tool for social transformation. I won’t go into the details of what she said, because I told her I thought she had the basis for her next article for publication. (Ornella’s latest article appeared a couple of weeks ago in the Italian education industry magazine called Pedagogika, and it is a wonderful piece about the popular writer and educator, Gianni Rodari, in a special issue of the magazine celebrating the centenary of his birth.)

In any case, it was a great pleasure to attend in this panel discussion, and I look forward to reporting about further such cultural activities from this summer in Sicily….

Oh, yes, and by the way, I heard the bad news at the event that it was likely the turtle eggs on the beach that we were trying to save will be wiped out by the rising tide of the Mediterranean itself.


 

 

A Year of Creation @ TAC Teatro, and the Incredible Synchronicity of the New Show

August 3, 2020
bradspurgeon

A scene from TAC's Latest show

A scene from TAC’s Latest show

Despite the lockdown, despite the Paris transport strike, despite the gilets jaunes, despite the mice we had at home for a while, and finally, despite the two-month-long illness that I had in January and February that was apparently NOT coronavirus, everything worked out fine in the extraordinary year of work that we all had at TAC Teatro, of which Ornella Bonventre is the director, and I and six others are actors. It culminated with a high moment at the beginning of June when we began to make a fabulous video of our show that we are hoping to complete soon.

Although Ornella created TAC Teatro several years ago and it had some success based in Milan, when she moved to in Paris in 2017, it was impossible for her to not transform the project into both an Italy- and France-based company.  But there was much work and preparation involved in rebuilding the company in her newly adopted location. After spending her first year in France shuttling back and forth regularly to Italy to operate TAC there while living in France and laying the foundation for the company in its second country, she finally settled down to working full-time building the company with new actors in France.

Marine Lefèvre and the old woman

Marine Lefèvre and the old woman

That began last fall in what proved to be difficult timing: starting with the gilets jaunes occupying the streets every Saturday (which did not really directly affect the project) and then the metro strike came in November and lasted for around two months – the longest ever such strike – and made the challenge of creating the company all the more difficult, as the actors had to come for their training, creation and rehearsal sessions three times per week by foot, car, bike or any other manner possible aside from metro from all around Paris.

We thought that would be the worst of it, when along came the Coronavirus and its lockdown. Still, the metro strike gave us all the fighting spirit and a sense of imagination so we were able to continue creating the show and training during the lockdown through three-times-per-week online video conferences.

When I say creating the show, here’s what I mean: Since last fall and the beginning of this new phase of TAC Teatro, the actors of the company used the method that Ornella specializes in for creating theater shows: The French call it écriture de plateau, and it entails the actors all together, along with the director, writing the show through body actions, personal texts, music, improvisation and an original idea that Ornella presented to us in the form of a story that was intended to fire up our imaginations and get our creative juices going.

Poster for Première Etape in October

Poster for Première Etape in October

We performed a first “work-in-progress” show of the piece in the small theater at the Theatre Armande Béjart in Asnières-sur-Seine in October, which we called, “Première Etape,” or first step, and it was well attended by the public. We were about to do the second stage of that in February, after we spent a week the whole company together working in residence in Italy in Emilia Romagna. But, yes, the day we were supposed to put on this second show for the public, France declared that anyone who had been in Emilia Romagna in the previous 14 days had to go into quarantine, as it was the epicentre of the then “young” coronavirus in Europe. So we had to cancel the show. Fortunately, however, none of us got sick of the virus.

Then came the Paris lockdown a couple of weeks later. We continued working online, but we had to cancel the premiere of what was going to be the completed show, which we had scheduled to perform in Asnières in late May.

Still, the story had a happy ending when in early June the mayor’s office of Asnières donated to us the big stage of the Armande Béjart Theatre, as well as the city’s technical crew, to film the piece. It was a gesture to help out the creative sector, so badly hit by Covid.

Now I want to talk very briefly about the extraordinary synchronicity in the creation of this show, which for the moment we are calling “Terminus,” but which might change its name before it is staged. There was an amazing foreshadowing of subsequent world events reflected in this creation that we did not do on purpose, but that somehow came about of its own accord. In brief, the piece is about a group of immigrants who come from various parts of the world to a land where they hope to make a new life. They are, in fact, badly treated by the locals, and even duped by the military, and their world begins to fall apart; just as had their own countries before their emigration.

During creation in Italy as the Constructeurs de Reves

During creation in Italy as the Constructeurs de Reves

Working behind them, invisible and unknown to them, however, are the “constructeurs de rêves,” or the dream creators, who try to help them. The dream creators are dressed in white doctors’ coats and work in another layer of reality to try to change the course of human actions.

When the coronavirus came along, the show took on another sense to us, as we could not believe the way our futures – the future of the whole world – had fallen into the hands of doctors in white coats, and for everyone on earth almost without exception, their world had fallen apart.

Janice Zadrozynski in character for the TAC show

Janice Zadrozynski in character for the TAC show

I have often found while writing creatively that such strange synchronicities with real life do indeed happen. And now that we have almost completed the show, we hope that the constructors of dreams will allow the world to get back to some state of normalcy in the coming year so that we can finally perform it in public. I will keep you posted on this blog as to what happens.

The company consists of Ornella directing and the following actors acting, performing, playing music, and writing the show all of us together: Julie Lossec, Janice Zadrozynski, Marina Meinero, Pacôme Puech, Marine Lefèvre and Sara Baudry. You can find all of our bios through the TAC Teatro “About us” menu.

And, by the way, I have only spoken about our new show here, but we also performed in public this last winter doing a street action to commemorate the day against violence to women, for which we also created quite a complex flash mob performance, and we ran an online open stage for all kinds of performances throughout most of the lockdown . So it was, in the end, a productive season for TAC Teatro, despite all the elements and human nature itself seemingly fighting against us.

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