PARIS – I could have created some click-bait for those who do not know who James Thierrée is by adding in the headline of this blog post the words “grandson of Charlie Chaplin.” But James Thierrée, who is the son of Chaplin’s daughter Victoria, made a name for himself long, long ago, and so it is debatable how much value the “Charlie Chaplin’s grandson” moniker still holds today. Thierrée, who grew up performing since he was a child in his parents’ circus, then trained all over the world (including at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan and the Harvard Theater School), and who is adept as a mime, dancer, acrobat, violinist, actor, director among other things, has clearly added several dimensions to the Chaplin identity that he inherited. Of course, the one thing he cannot really do anything about is that he looks almost a dead-ringer for his grandfather – especially the grey-haired version. This last week Thierrée has been putting on a show, called Raoul, at the 13éme Art theater in the place d’Italie in Paris, and Ornella Bonventre and I decided to check it out.
My not-reviews are meant to be blog posts about me going to a show, reading a book, listening to music, eating a meal, and talking about it as a spectator – no “critic” attached. But this time, I decided to explore a slightly different version, and give most of the words over to Ornella, who, as an Italian actress, theater director, playwright and circus artist, I knew had a much better sense of what James Thierrée’s show was all about and could do a better job of talking about it than I can.
So we spoke about it together, and I have decided to run a little Q&A from that talk as my “not review.” Oh, and by the way, just for the sake of context it is important to know that despite our leaving home on time to get to the show by its 20:30 start time, we arrived at least 15 minutes late due to the tragic accident of someone falling – or jumping? – onto the metro tracks on Line 6 at the Quai de la Gare station and causing us to lose nearly half an hour in getting out of the metro and finding a taxi and then having to wait to be taken to seats in the 900-seat theater. As a result of me being placed in a handicapped person’s seating area, my view of the show was not great (would the view have been better from a wheelchair? If not, this is scandalous.), and we missed the beginning of the show, and therefore perhaps some vital information on the game-plan of the spectacle.
The Q & A With Ornella Bonventre Answering Brad Spurgeon on James Thierrée’s Raoul
Question to Ornella from Brad. You were telling me that you enjoyed some of the technical aspects of the show, like the puppets but also James Thierrée’s physical movements. Why?
Answer from Ornella. I enjoyed the entire show from a technical point of view. I was very, very surprised because I wasn’t expecting anything. I wasn’t expecting a comical show, I wasn’t expecting a mime show, I wasn’t expecting him to be doing Charlie Chaplin. I was just expecting something very good – and in fact it was very good. I enjoyed the techniques he used as a director, because the structure of the show was based on principles that I am trying to use as a theater director too. For example, the puppet theater technique, or the use of the lights, the use of the space, the different levels of height he used on the stage throughout.
And technically, yes, the quality of his physical movements was amazing as well. He is not just a mime, he is an acrobat and a dancer. It is clear that he studied many different techniques. It was multidisciplinary. And, in fact, this is the same tendency that I saw at the circus festival we went to a couple of weeks ago, the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain. Each artist is not just specialized in his own discipline but is now multidisciplinary.
And I think this is something that James Thierrée had to face as the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin. He cannot just repeat what Charlie Chaplin did. He has to be something else, and probably something more and different and unique in his own way.
Q. What about the mixing of the huge puppets he used occasionally as well, the use of the giant stage set, and trapeze-like things, etc.?
A. I loved that because everything was transformed. Each object had its own life and was transformed into something else. And that’s very magical. And it is always the goal in my theater to obtain this result as well. And they were doing it with very traditional techniques. The puppets were built in a very simple way. And they were moved by people, not with machines, so there was nothing extraordinarily technical, and the materials also were simple, poor materials – like papier maché, simple cloths, etc.
Q. You mentioned something to me also about how this show, and the other one we saw, with Julien Cottereau, both depended largely on the use of sound.
A. Yes. I loved the use of sound in this show, the use of the soundtracks and the noises. And I think that they were necessary because they were also covering the noises of all of the huge machines that were moving up and down on the stage, the things from the floor to the ceiling, and the huge puppets. So the soundtrack was necessary to cover these sounds so that the audience would not be distracted and removed from the spell of the show by the unintended noises. It was very well done.
Q. For me the biggest problem was that I was waiting for, or expecting, a kind of storyline that I couldn’t find. So it was difficult for me to hitch in to the narrative. Was that something you found difficult too?
A. Yes, there was no story…or possibly because we arrived late and we weren’t able to see the beginning of the show, and that might have helped to follow the story more. But even so, for me the story was: “Welcome to a magical world!” A world made of little things in which the objects have their own life, and the objects themselves were actors on the stage. Strange things were happening around this poor character who was reacting to what was happening around him. And he was very tender; he was the typical character of the clown, with the stupefaction, the wonderment about everything; every little thing became something extraordinary. This is the principle of the work that we saw. And it is something that I really adore – the magic of little things.
Q. That makes me think of the fact that I felt the theater was too big for the show! 900 seats! I had the worst seat I ever had in a theater (for the maximum price of 45 euros), with two people right in front of me on the same level, and I could not see clearly the area where Thierrée performed most of the show. It was difficult for me to see the little things and small movements. So I felt I was missing a lot. How was your seat just beside me?
A. My vision was good. It is true that probably the theater was very, very big, but fortunately for Thierrée it was full. It was sold out. And I think that’s why it’s necessary to have a very big theater; in order to contain all of his fans, the whole audience that he brings. It’s true that perhaps this show can work better in a smaller theater, but the reason for such a big theater I think is simply to contain the audience he brings.
But, even so, I was able to follow the details. As I said before, every theater show is made of the details – the movements even of the eyes – and usually you are able to see those things even if you are far away from the stage. Because that’s it, this is theater. The quality is in the details, and even if you are not really able to see clearly the details they touch you in any case.
Q. What did you see that I did not see since I am not an expert on mime, on movement, on dance? Can you tell me what you saw in his skills, in his techniques, that was so exciting for you and that held your attention?
A. Perfection. I never saw such a high quality of movement in all the senses. His movements were so fluid, so organic and so true – above all organic and fluid and it had a high, high quality that I’ve never seen before.
Q. What kind of movements are you talking about in particular?
A. In general. The whole show is based on his movements. There is no wind on stage, for example, but it exists, a very strong wind blowing at 100 kph because you see his body that is acting as if the wind is there. So he is creating a world with his body, just with his body. He is acting as if the wind is there, so for me, the wind was there. I was believing in that.
Q. Some of the funniest, most successful parts were the simplest, most slapstick things, I felt. Like him pouring water into a cup that it is bottomless, and then when he tries to drink it, there is no water in the cup. It’s a gag. It’s an old joke. But for me it was a moment I could really relate to and identify with.
A. Me too. Welcome to the magical world of the little things. It’s amazing how he had such beautiful tricks and big machines that carry him up and around the stage, but what is working best are those little things. In fact, you asked me about the quality of his movements, and the quality of his actions, and I told you it is amazing. I never saw such perfection. Why? Because I always saw those tricks – the water, or the wind or the body acting in a certain way, mime stuff – because I grew up in circus, in theater, and to me this is my daily life. So I appreciated those little things because they were so well done, they were magical.
Q. So he did old gags in a fabulous way.
Q. What about the advantage or disadvantage of being Charlie Chalplin’s grandson? I think that part of the reason the theater was full was because everyone knows this is Charlie Chaplin’s grandson. But also that can be a negative thing too because you are being compared to Charlie Chaplin, to your grandfather. How do you see this aspect of his identity?
A. I think it is already difficult for everyone to find their own identity. To find our identity is a battle. And so, I think that for him, as for all people who are the “son of,” “grandchild of” or the “daughters of” famous and loved personalities, it is very, very difficult. I think it is a weapon that can turn against you easily if you are not good enough to demonstrate to the audience that you are really unique and great in your own way. So at the beginning it can be something that brings an audience, but if you are not good enough this is also something that can destroy you forever. And I don’t think the theater was full because he is the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin, because he has been on the stage for many years. So probably in the beginning the theaters were full because he was the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin, but today if he wasn’t good enough the theater wouldn’t be full.
Q. Were there areas that disappointed you?
A. I don’t know if “disappointed” is the right word. But one flat point was the story. It is true. I don’t know if it was because we missed the beginning or not. Another thing, and I asked myself this: “Why are you not doing this guy??!” It was a moment when the house lights were turned on over the audience and he stared at us, and I thought, “My God, use this! Now you see us, and you are trying to interact with us. But do this for real. Come to us and use this other part of the space.” In fact, he did do that, but just one time. When he entered from the door and walked directly in front of us. But it was just one time, and it was so quick. Just a moment like that! (Ornella snaps her fingers.) So not disappointment, but…it could have been more.
And also, I think this show was all about teamwork, and I would have loved to see more of the other participants. As well as their names on the posters, etc., being more recognized for their contribution.
But the rhythm of the show was amazing. Because it was a very long show. And without a structured story. So it is difficult to keep an audience seated down like that for 1 hour and 40 minutes. So the rhythm was amazing.
And the meta-theater aspect was interesting too. To show the show being made was amazing.
Q. You mean when they were fake hiding the members of the cast and crew with screens as they came out to set up the props, pretending that they were not there, etc.? But much of the show was “meta” stuff. It is external appreciation of what was being done, as opposed to really entering into the character, no? How much were you involved personally in the character?
A. I can honestly say to you that I was moved. As I am moved every time that I work with Claudio Madia in Milan and he really becomes a child, and the tenderness, and the innocence comes out…. At that moment I am completely with the character and I am moved. Because the theme of the innocence of childhood is personally something that touches me a lot. Was I with the character? Yes.
Q. We are living in a world where anything is technically possible in film, on the internet, in YouTube, and here is James Thierrée’s show with traditional gags, the flesh-and-blood live performance of an individual, and nothing that you can see in the way of the technological achievements that even a knowledgeable home video editor can do. What place does a show like this have in today’s world where our senses have been numbed by anything being visually possible on YouTube?
A. I think, honestly, that shows like this, and not even just this kind in particular, but the theater in general has a very important place in our contemporary world. I really believe that it is the future of this world. Theater is a meeting. But for real it is a meeting. It is a meeting between the audience and the actors and it is a meeting between the daily life of the audience and the life of the show, of the stories of the show. It is a meeting between the audience and the audience. It is work that you do in a team. When you are working in a show you are not alone. Your show depends on other people. So theater is a meeting, and it is made by people for people. And it is the future. And its place in our contemporary world is very, very important. Wherever there are two people in the same spot that want to listen to each other, there is theater. It is up to theater today to save human relationships and humanity.