Asnières-sur-Seine, France – Now, if that headline is not an exaggeration, I don’t know what is. But at the same time, I had many roles to play yesterday in TAC Teatro’s year-end celebration of theater in Asnières-sur-Seine, outside Paris. I wanted to stamp this down here on the blog for several reasons: one is that I wanted to explain why there have been so few posts of late, the other is to celebrate yesterday’s achievements and fun, and finally, to get back in the groove of posting, period!
I do hope that readers of this blog have been missing my posts as much as I have missed posting them. But I have been working like hell on several projects that have perturbed all of this: Most of my time has been involved in working on another book, which is supposed to be published by the end of the year; as well as working for the last two months writing in a temporary, limited-time gig for the United Nations. Someday I might go further into that, but not now.
The point is, I have been occupied so full-time that I have barely had moments in the day to pick up my guitar, let alone to attend open mics. But one thing was certain: I had to help out Ornella Bonventre and TAC Teatro at the latest year-end gig at the Petit Theatre in the building of the Théâtre Armande Béjart in Asnières-sur-Seine. This year I had not one, but three roles to play.
As with last year, I MC’d the show with my ventriloquial figure, Peter McCabe. Unlike last year, someone captured some photos of these bits. So I am happy to have those to show on the blog. Unlike last year, I also played a role in one of the plays…or rather, in a way, two of the plays….
Brad as Chasuble with Ornella Bonventre and some of the children of TAC Teatro
I played Chasuble in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” by Oscar Wilde, but in the French translation. That was tough! Or rather, I would have preferred to do it in English, but I had a great time playing the character! I felt a touch of destiny as my great, great, or maybe even another great, uncle, was a famous preacher, a precursor to Billy Graham, named Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Of course, Chasuble is not exactly a flattering representative of the profession.
In the end, we did not perform the whole play, but just excerpts. I did this with the adult members of the TAC acting courses.
Peter McCabe, through me somehow, had been selected by the adolescent students to be the central figure – yes, good choice of words – in the play that they wrote themselves, called, “Ce N’est pas une Comédie Romantique.” I thought that was a brilliant title, and I am sure it will be stolen! The English translation is, of course, simple: “This is not a romantic comedy.”
Peter McCabe on stage in the ados show at TAC Teatro
Peter appeared alone in this show, although I had to wear Chasuble’s hat to cover myself and sit behind the chairs where sat Peter most of the time in order for me to whisper to him his lines, as he did not do the slightest effort towards memorisation.
It was a fabulously successful evening, with more than 160 people present. And Ornella, who deserves every bit of praise for her success for this event, was also praised by the unexpected appearance of the deputy mayor of Asnières who showed up to launch the event. This was a fine moment of confirmation of all of Ornella’s work, as this deputy mayor was none other than Marie-Do Aeschlimann, the wife of the mayor, Manuel Aeschlimann, and herself in charge of childhood and education in the town. Only the week before this, she had run in the second round of the legislative elections.
Brad and Peter with some Audience at TAC performance
From all we heard and saw, the day was a great success, and I look forward to participating again next year! With Peter, of course.
And I do hope to have some news soon from the open mics, and particularly from the success encountered by at least a couple of the bands or performers I met through my period of playing in the open mics around the world. There are a couple of recent success stories that I have been planning to write about for months, but keep getting side-tracked by the other work mentioned at the start of this post.
PARIS – I’ve spoken a little about how musicians have survived and challenged the coronavirus pandemic over the last couple of years, but I have barely touched on theater. And theater has arguably been worse affected, as it tends to rely on fewer ways of reaching its public than music. (You can’t call a video of a theater show a theater show – even if you are one of the Cohen brothers directing Shakespeare!) But one of the reasons I have been so quiet on this blog in recent months is because I have been devoting a vast amount of time – and loving it – to three separate theater projects all produced by TAC Teatro over the final months of 2021. And I want here to share the information and the short versions of the videos I did of each of these shows, as I think they show the resistance that theater can develop – should I call it the “antibodies?” – to a pandemic that has otherwise eviscerated much of its usually fertile grounds.
I have written about TAC Teatro several times in the past, since I have been involved with Ornella Bonventre in one way or another in her theater company since 2017 when it was based in Milan, and then through its move to France the following year. But for me the biggest achievement of the company that I have seen so far has come in recent months with the three projects for which I have made these films. (And I should actually include here the period the members of the company spent doing research in Sicily last summer, but I won’t get into that here, since there is little recorded in video of that period. And also because the work they did subsequently benefitted by the research they did there, as I will mention later.)
Three written shows on three different themes for three different purposes: “Just a Sunday Brunch,” “Respire” and “Ajamola.” But all of them were put together and performed in Aubervilliers, at a theater space that TAC Teatro managed to recuperate in the middle of the pandemic and to save the creation, especially, of the biggest, most ambitious of the pieces above: “Ajamola.” I wrote about “Ajamola” two years ago when we first began creating it, just before the pandemic began, and before it had its current name. And it is the piece that has the most merit as being a monumental creation that made it through the endless battles that the pandemic threw in the company’s way over the last two years.
But I’m fluttering on. Let me get to the point!! I’ll do it in order of appearance though.
Translated as European Heritage Days and created by the French ministry of culture in 1984, the Journée du Patrimoine, in the third weekend of September was a huge success for TAC’s show, which the actors put together in only a few days and as a true announcement of the company’s arrival in Aubervilliers. Meant to highlight and show off the history of places and their artistic heritage, the day was a collaboration amongst many of the different artists of the space where TAC has been working in Aubervilliers, at 164 rue Henri Barbusse, and old warehouse-like space with musicians, sculptors and other artists, and TAC’s theater.
The TAC show was done with a set that was conceived by one of the sculptors of the space, Taïne Gras. She had created the installation of a feast table for a previous event, but remade it in the theater space, where Ornella and the actors of TAC created their show around it. The resulting show is a brilliantly funny and light piece that combines some elements of visual gags that remind me of the old silent cinema, and with a mixture of TAC’s usual physical theater forms of expression.
In addition to the theater show, there was a fashion show by a local designer in the courtyard of the place, and another event done by one of the other sculptors. We were blessed, somehow, with great weather, and the weekend was a resounding success, as you can see in the short version of the video that I made of the show.
November 25 is a date well-known by many as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. And TAC has done shows pretty much every year in support of this day, in one form or another – see the one at the Pompidou Center a few years ago – so this year, with the space in Aubervilliers, it was a great opportunity to continue the tradition. What was even better this year is that for the first time in France, the company put together its contribution with the backing of a subvention by the local municipality of Aubervilliers.
Over a three week period, the company worked with the local community to develop workshops, shows and a documentary film – which I made, and the short version, or trailer, of which I will paste in here – with the purpose of approaching the problem of violence against women in an indirect, let’s say, “non preachy” way.
Ornella went to the local schools, youth organizations and other public and private groups to get the word out and find actors to take part in the workshops and the final shows. It was no easy matter, given the limited time between having the project approved and the official deadline for completing it, which was the end of the year. Her goal was to complete all workshops, performances and the video by the end of the first week in December, and she succeeded.
The approach was to create a show that gets across the message of the horror of, and prevention of, violence against women. The main prop that they used, as you will see, is the umbrella, which is a statement of an item that protects, but at the same time isolates, and can be used as a weapon. In the video you will not only see actors from TAC Teatro, but members of the general public with no acting experience, including children, who took part in the workshops and created the show with the actors of TAC, under Ornella’s direction.
The show was performed both inside the theater space and in the streets of Aubervilliers, as a flash mob event, notably in front of the City Hall and in front of three local schools, where we got some great participation – and feedback – from the students.
But the crowning achievement of the TAC company really came in the half dozen performances of the show the company had been working on since the fall of 2019. “Ajamola” not only managed to survive, but to thrive through the pandemic, and to take on themes that were inherent to the pandemic, although strangely, some of those themes were part of the show from the beginning before the pandemic even hit! (I refer, for instance, to the so-called “dream constructors” who wear doctors’ white smocks! And how I remember everyone’s surprise and confusion when they first received their smock in Jan/Feb 2020 as to what should be done with the surgical mask that came with each costume! We threw them all away!)
I will not go through the whole show here, but for a nutshell description, check out the description of the show at the end of this blog post and as translated from the French. The play is inspired also by many of Ornella’s connections with her birthplace of Sicily, including the fisherman’s song that gives the play its title, and some other songs and musical bits in the production – which themes the actors imbued themselves with on that aforementioned visit to Sicily last summer.
In any case, the show had capacity, or near capacity, attendance each time, and as I recorded it through several cameras and a sound device simultaneously during each performance, I not only never grew bored or used to it, but I felt more and more understanding, enthusiasm and respect each time for the work of Ornella Bonventre as director, and the actors Sara Baudry, Julie Lossec, Tato Moya, Constance Dolleans and Marine Lefèvre.
And I cannot wait until the show returns, with a slight change in lineup, in the months to come. Keep posted!
By the way, I almost forgot to mention that I was actually an actor and part creator of the show two years ago, but as I became more occupied with other projects – mainly the Formula One book for Assouline – I pulled out. But I have contributed where and when possible, including at the moment I not only made the short trailer you find here, but I am working on a full-length film version of the show, which I filmed at every one of the presentations they have so far done of it.
Ornella Bonventre, Peter McCabe and Brad Spurgeon
In fact, on that same theme, I must not forget the activity of the company in Asnières-sur-Seine, where Ornella continues to teach lessons to a growing number of actors of every age in her acting school part of the company. Since the pandemic had killed any possibility of the three age groups – children, teenagers and adults – from putting on their season finale shows last June, Ornella decided to work with the students to put on the season final afternoon of three performances at the Petit Theatre in Asnières in November. And she invited me to present the festivities with my ventriloquial figure, Peter McCabe! It was our debut effort as presenters, and I found myself having to write and memorize our script very quickly…with the result, I am told, of my efforts to bring emotions of laughter to the spectators to actually succeeding in bringing strong emotions of sympathy for Peter McCabe, and equally strong emotions of disdain for me, his nasty master! What counted were the strong emotions! I regret also that the audience was apparently so involved in Peter’s performance that not a single spectator thought to take a photograph or video of our performance! So there is nothing to show for it here…. Maybe next time!
The station of a small village somewhere in the south. The court of a king. Two parallel events that intertwine: that of Alma, Nina, Vera, and Jules waiting for the train and that of the Marquis of the Moon condemned to tell stories to a mad king.
And above all: The dream builders are watching.
At the station.
People from different parts of the world, forced to leave their homeland, meet at the station of a small abandoned village while waiting for the train. An important train that will take them to where they have wanted to go for a long time, where they hope to finally find freedom. Will it arrive?
During this long wait, friendships are born, the plots of their relationships are woven and the individual stories of each come to life: the fears, joys and emotions of those who have challenged themselves, and so many dangers to freedom.
In the King’s Court.
In the power room of the palace of a mad king, the Marquis of the Moon, condemned to tell him new stories, decides to tell him that of the dream builders. This is how the dream builders come to life. They set to work in their laboratory, interacting with the lives of the protagonists who, unaware of everything, are waiting for the train at the station.
What happens when life changes suddenly and forever?
What is the force that makes us dream?
Stories of tenderness and bravery are told through songs, dances, objects that come to life and bring back distant people and memories.
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
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…
We had a fabulous two weeks at TAC Teatro working daily on our next show, and then crowning the work period with a demonstration of the creative process to spectators at the Petit Théâtre in Asnières-sur-Seine. There we interspersed our personal work on the next show with explanations of how we went through the creative process to come up with the scores. The whole was led, of course, by Ornella Bonventre, the director of TAC Teatro, who was also the one behind leading us towards our individual creations.
It’s a process of work that I began wondering if I would ever come out of it with anything at all. But on the very first day, with the instructions Ornella gave us, I began to create my character and his place in the show. Can there be any surprise that the character comes from a circus background and so did some juggling, tight-rope walking and…reading of the beginning of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”?
Brad Spurgeon at TAC Teatro work demonstration
If you don’t understand a word of what I just explained there, well, you will have to come to the show when it is finished later next year. The other members of the company to perform in the work demonstration – who worked in the same manner as I just explained, but who came up with many different kinds of characters and scores – were Sara Baudry, Ioana Jarda, Marine Lefèvre, Julie Lossec, Marina Meinero, Pacôme Puech, and Janice Zadrozynski.
Marina was the only one not physically present, as she had a commitment in Italy. But she sent a video of her work, which I place below.
Ornella Bonventre speaking to the spectators during the TAC Teatro work demonstration
Keep posted for the next steps of the work-in-progress.
Ornella and Brad performing for TAC Teatro in Asnières-sur-Seine
ASNIERES-SUR-SEINE, France – It is now a week ago, so no longer considered news, but I wanted to get down as a matter of record, the fabulous day I spent performing with Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro at the Forum des Associations of Asnères-sur-Seine. Founded in Milan, Italy, TAC Teatro now also has a base in France, in Asnières. And last weekend was the annual associations forum of this city just outside of Paris. That meant it was time for the local associations to show off what they do, and try to get new adherents. We had the whole stage to ourselves in front of the mayor’s building – the Hôtel de Ville, or City Hall – and had great fun performing a little show as Ornella introduced TAC to the people of Asnières.
I was pleased to find myself on stage for the first time with the newly face-lifted Peter McCabe, my ventriloquist’s – well…o.k., sorry, Peter, I’ll just say, happy to be on stage with Peter after his recent facelift. Only problem was the facelift seems to have gone to Peter’s ego, and he announced to the people of Asnières that he was going to be the next president of the United States of America – saying that he could do a lot better than the current office holder.
We put together a short video of some highlights of our time on the stage, which I paste in here; and we were very proud to find a few days later – and this makes some sense of having not written about this before now – to find that we were picked up in the official city video of the event, very much near the place of honor, in the last 10 or so seconds of the video, at approximately the 2 minute 20 second point of the video. I am pasting that one in here too.
In any case, it was a fabulous day, and thank goodness the weather was great – as it has been all summer, but after the worst winter in recent memory in Paris (and Asnières). I hope Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro are selected to do this again (as not all of the associations were selected to show off their expertise).
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
Ornella Bonventre & Brad Spurgeon Clowning
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 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.
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?
James Thierrée aloft in Raoul
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.
PARIS – At a recent party of a friend in Paris, I met a guy from Detroit who has lived in France for a couple of decades. We started talking about various personal projects, specifically film and theater. He had made a documentary film about a century of his family’s life in Detroit. His wife was playing in a one-woman show in Paris, the director of which also had his own one-person show. The man invited us to see first his wife’s show, then the director’s. Little did I realize that it was the beginning of a long string of attending one-person shows, readings, theatrical productions – and film – that would keep me musing for weeks on the meaning of one-person productions on stage, in film, with texts, without texts, the physical versus intellectual and emotional theatrical representation and other profound and less profound thoughts. Let me get to specifics:
The man we met at the party was Steve Faigenbaum, who has had a long and varied career in film and video, but whose recent documentary is his first full-length personal, big production. His wife is Yannick Rocher, a French actress, starring in “La Voix Humaine,” by Jean Cocteau, at the Théâtre de la Contrescarpe. The director of the play is Charles Gonzales, who is starring in his own one-man show in Paris, at the Théâtre de Poche in Montparnasse.
The idea of comparing these two linked shows was too enticing not to try. So it was that after Rocher’s show we then attended “Charles Gonzales Devient Camille Claudel“…and, as you may have realized, this might be called a one-woman show as well… or whatever. (Which set up more strands of musing.)
In between those two shows we saw Steve’s film, “Internal Combustion,” (called “City of Dreams” in France) a story based on his return after 25 years to his home city of Detroit, where he retraces his and his family’s past, but simultaneously tells the history of the city and especially its black and Jewish population. (And, through these, a certain history of the United States itself.) The documentary is in some ways a one-man show, since it focuses on Faigenbaum’s look at his own world where he grew up in Detroit; but it is obviously made thanks to a cast of hundreds, including the crew and the many interview subjects and people of Detroit, dead and alive.
Steve Faigenbaum from Internal Combustion
As a grand finale to all of this, we went last Saturday night to the Théâtre des Mathurins to see another one-man show, “Imagine-toi,” of Julien Cottereau. One of the reasons we chose to attend this was to have a direct comparison to the other shows: Because it was a performance told entirely through the movements of the body, and not through spoken language. Having said that, it turned out that Cottereau depends hugely for his communicative effects with the audience on sound. But I’ll get back to that in a moment.
I now want to return to look a little at each of these shows in the order we saw them, and in the spirit of my Not-Reviews.*
Yannick Rocher at the Contrescarpe Takes the Neutral Approach to Cocteau
Yannick Rocher’s “La Voix Humaine,” written by Cocteau, and here directed by Charles Gonzales, was the first of the bunch for us. It was in the small, but very cool Théâtre de la Contrescarpe, off the place de la Contrascarpe (Hemingway called this “the cesspool of the Rue Mouffetard,” but it has changed since then, going somewhat upscale). The play is about a woman who has ended her relationship with a lover and is reminiscing with him on the telephone, in a call, or a series of calls. It must have been technically an original concept at the time Cocteau wrote it, to use the telephone as a device for a one-person show.
Well, it still stands up today, entirely. The first performance of “La Voix Humaine” was in February 1930, in Paris, at the Comedie Française, starring Berthe Bovy. One of the original aspects of Yannick Rocher’s production are the decision to portray the role in as neutral a manner as possible. Her voice remains mostly neutral throughout. It gives a modern sense of gravitas to the play that the original production does not have in the same way.
And that leads to the other bit of originality: The use of a recording of the voice of Berthe Bovy in the original production as a kind of backdrop, or dramatic ploy, which makes its “appearance” several times throughout. It’s an interesting concept, that forces the spectator to compare Rocher’s performance with that of Bovy’s. In other words, you have the lines being spoken by the creator of the role, and then you have the same lines being spoken by the actress in front of you, but in a completely different way. That is quite a courageous thing for any actor to dare to do, I would think, being compared simultaneously with the creator of the role. So kudos to Yannick Rocher.
Yannick, I learned later, has done the role elsewhere in recent years, including in the U.S., and she did not do the neutral approach – which fact I found interesting as well, as I thought it must be like trying different ways to sing and play a song I’ve been doing for years in a certain way, and just completely change it. Not easy.
And then we saw Faigenbaum’s Film about Detroit
The story behind Faigenbaum’s film “Internal Combustion,” is fascinating on its own: This is a film all about the city of Detroit and the life of its black and Jewish immigrant population. It is done entirely in English. But it was funded and produced entirely in France. As I indicated, this is a film that might in some ways also be called a one-man show, as Faigenbaum goes on a personal quest back to his hometown and relates his family life through his own words, and above all, those of other family members and local personalities he interviews.
Internal Combustion trailer
But the brilliance of this film is the way the director manages to go from the personal situation into the general one of the history of the city and the life of all of its inhabitants throughout the 20th Century. He charts the movement of the Jewish and black populations, as they move from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on the social developments. A previously Jewish neighborhood becomes a black neighborhood. Some neighborhoods then get wiped out for new projects, highways, modern life that leaves no trace of the old, of the past.
Through it all, is a path of integration – or not – and for me it was absorbing to see an historical presentation – along with the family’s point of view – of the race riots of the 1960s, which I was aware of as a child while visiting relatives on the other side of the border, in Windsor, Ontario, putting a lot of things into perspective for me on a personal level. But I felt the biggest success of Faigenbaum’s film was that fabulous marriage of the personal with the universal, along with Detroit’s story mirroring that of the U.S. as a whole.
And off we Went to the Théâtre de Poche and the Camille Claudel One-Person Show
After the experience of seeing the one-woman show – although I’m not sure that’s the right term for a play with just one actor or actress – we were curious to see how the director, Charles Gonzales, would act and direct himself in a one-woman show starring himself, a man. For I think in some ways it has to be called a one woman show, his “Charles Gonzales Devient Camille Claudel.” Yes, it is a man performing the role of the lover of the sculptor Auguste Rodin, and sister to the writer Paul Claudel. But Gonzales is clearly trying to live in the skin of a woman throughout.
Or maybe not so clearly. In any case, the story of Camille Claudel is one that has a particular resonance in France in a way that it does not elsewhere in the world. She feels in some ways like one of the great women heroes of the country, like Joan of Arc. And yet Camille Claudel’s story is not one of any sort of heroism that saves the republic. It is more some kind of tale with which the whole country identifies and feels pity and sorrow for. A sense of collective something!
A highly respected sculptress herself, the lover of Rodin ended up spending the last 30 years of her life in an asylum. And with a 19th Century twist to it, this 20th Century story is one suspected of having a grotesque lack of humanity attached to it on the part of her family – and society. Was she really crazy or just locked up for convenience?
The piece was written by Gonzales and has been performed in various different locations – he has become recognized as something of an expert in Camille Claudel. And as I understand it, he had special access granted to him by the Claudel family to letters and papers, from which he draws for the text.
Of course, the originality here is that it is a man playing the woman. On the other hand, I don’t know if it was my lack of adeptness in the French language – although I usually consider myself bilingual – but I could not really see anything in the show to indicate WHY a man is playing this role. I saw nothing in the text or stage actions to indicate the purpose. So I assume it is just the passion that Gonzales has for the Camille Claudel story that drove him to this. And it is clear that Gonzales comes to life through this story, and so carries the audience with him.
The Théâtre de Poche was packed, and with about 90 or 100 seats, that’s pretty good for a play that is running for several months a couple of nights a week.
And off we Went to the Théâtre des Mathurins to see Julien Cottereau in his one-man show
Julien Cottereau has a long and illustrious career in clowning and circus, including working at the Cirque du Soleil. He has also worked much in film and theater. This show, “Imagine-toi,” was actually first performed in 2006, and for it he was awarded France’s highest award in theater, a Molière. But it is the kind of show that cannot age. Full of visual gags and audience interaction, it remains as fresh today as if it was just created.
But the most important aspect to writing about it here is that where I say this was a show that has no text, no words, a show that depends wholly on visual gags, movement, it is in fact a thoroughly modern show that could not have been performed at the time of Vaudeville when the idea of a modern sound system did not exist. In fact, it could not have existed through most of the 20th century either, as the key to this show’s main effects is the small microphone attached to Julien Cottereau’s head, and into which he makes his noises.
Julien Cottereau in his show
These noises – sounds of bouncing balls, roaring animals, barking dogs, squeaking window cleaning cloths – are also occasionally treated or added to by a sound man at the back of the room, who appears to add reverb or volume and other effects, when needed. So it may be a visual show based on movement and visual gags, but without those popping, bursting, barking, roaring sounds we would just have a mime. Granted, for me this is a mime of a much more dynamic, modern style than the classic Marcel Marceau. Cottereau’s show is just uproariously funny. And I noted that it was enjoyed equally by children, adults and others.
Together, all of these stage productions really got me to thinking about the nature of living theater. What makes a stage production. The importance of movement. The importance of voice. The importance of sound. Emotion. Of text. And, in fact, as it turns out, since seeing these productions we attended in the last couple of days two other shows that were readings of text alone, one of which in a language we could not understand. Seeing a pure “reading” was a perfect counterpoint to provide us with a comparison to the classic stage production and show the utility of memorisation and stage action in holding an audience’s attention.
* Not Reviews: This is a format I use on this blog to write about the music I am listening to, the books I am reading, the shows or films or other things that I do that are often in the habit of being written about by critics – book critics, music critics, theater critics, cinema critics, etc. And my feeling has always been that I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about book critics and how fiction writers themselves should not be writing criticism of other writers, in the spirit of the phrase: “You can’t hunt with the hare and hunt with the hounds.” My idea is just to talk about the books, plays, films and music I listen to or see. Talk about the way it affected me, everything and anything it inspires, but not to place myself on any kind of judgmental pedestal as critics are supposed to do – or are at least notorious for doing.
MILAN – The idea was only to try out my DJI Osmo 4k camera again and see if I could do a cool atmospheric video of a walk in the park with a bunch of jugglers, musicians, slack-line walkers and other circus arts practitioners at a get together by a lake in Lombardy. Then, thanks to some fabulous serendipity and synchronicity, something quite unexpected and beautiful, it turned into the seventh video of the series of 10 that I have been working on to “illustrate” my 10-track CD, “Out of a Jam.”
I have been working towards finding the best way to record sound with this DJI Osmo and so I again tried out my system of using a Zoom recorder attached to the DJI as a microphone. Without me realizing it, the connection between the two gadgets was bad, and eventually the recorder unplugged itself from the camera, as I was walking around the lakeside park. When I returned to view and listen to the video, I found great images – as usual with this fabulous little camera – but the sound was a disaster. A horrible mess. There was crackling, banging, popping and sometimes no sound at all. It went from silence to hurting the ears – moreover, the level was set too high as well, even when it worked, so it was distorted even when at its best.
I decided to put the video up on this blog as a demonstration, again, of what the Osmo can do, but I would put a music recording over the original sound, so not to distract and hurt the ears of the viewers. For that, I decided to use my song, “Since You Left Me.” Then, after importing to the film editing programming, when I pressed the play button, I saw immediately an uncanny synergy between the content of the video in the park and the music of the song. The musicians playing, and the dancers dancing seemingly to the same beat as my song; the link in the lyrics between seeking out another world, another way to live, and the otherworldly link to the juggling, slack-line walking, and other circus arts; even the view up to the sky at precisely the right moment for the song.
I immediately decided that I had the basis for a video for “Since You Left Me,” and that I would put in either a performance by me of the song, or do some more filming, some kind of dramatic storyline of me acting something out. So I used the performance I did of the same song at the Noctambules bar, edited it all together, and felt lucky for the serendipity, synchronicity, synergy, and luck that all seemed to combine to come up with another video for my CD, and the first with which I have used the 4k camera.
PARIS – It is only now after a trip to Milan and back in Paris that I have finally had the time to sit at the blog again and dream about the past…without any jealousy, but many warm memories. I’m talking about yet another night at the Joy bar jam that I have not been able to note; about a fabulous visit to an annual variety show in a very neat theater; and about actually taking part a couple of nights later in another such annual show in a bigger theater and event space. All of which has continued to allow me to dismantle, bit by bit, my feeling that Milan is as boring a city as its mostly boring outer appearance of the streets and cityscape would have us believe.
There IS a mountain of “underground” activities in Milan, you just have to know where to look for them. And how strange and in some ways ironic can it be that it is in this city that I used to classify as “boring” that I would find myself performing for the first time since my early 20s in the area of my life in which I started: In the circus arts!
Yes, it may have been the last of these events, but it stands out first in my mind not just for its proximity in my memory, but especially because I got to dress up as a clown and clown around with a fabulous little troupe of clowns and actors, to ride a unicycle through the event, and even do a little bit of juggling. And, now that I think of it, I managed at one point to gate-crash a musicians’ group and take their acoustic guitar and perform a song – along with them singing along with me.
Brad Spurgeon with Ornella Bonventre of TAC Teatro
I’m referring to the annual “Irreality Show,” which took place at the fabulous associative theater and event space known as, Arci Ohibo. I was invited to join the troupe of actors and clowns of the TAC Teatro – which I have written about before on this blog – by Ornella Bonventre to clown around during this fabulous event. Naturally, having not done such a thing since my teenage years and early twenties, I was a little bit worried. A little bit reticent. A little depressed at the prospect of looking lack a fool – in the bad sense. Especially next to the fabulous talent of the TAC Teatro troupe.
But I decided that part of my new life approach over the last decade with its philosophy to do “everything” (except destructive things), I really ought to give this a try and hope that I could have a George Plimpton moment again, of the kind that I had the first time I dared go on stage with a band at the Jazz-Si open mic in Barcelona of 2009. And man, was I right to try.
more of the TAC Teatro clowns
It only took entering into the Ohibo space to see that I loved it immediately and would feel at home. The Irreality show consists of multiple little shows and events spread throughout the space, and performing at the same time. Spectators pay 5 euros and get to walk around all night from room to room, stage to stage, space to space, and take in the various acts and activities. The TAC clown troupe were just about the only ones who had the luxury of being itinerant within the space, an free to roam all over the place. What better way to see everything and take part than to be part of that roaming troupe.
Brad Spurgeon unicycling TAC show
So it was that I could see it all, and take part in what I wanted, riding my unicycle, clowning, juggling and playing music while also remaining a spectator of the amazing collection of acts: An Irish harp player, a mermaid, three or four actors and actresses doing one-person shows, a band of traditional musicians, a folk music trio, a body painter, a marionette act, a cross-dresser, a musician playing a saw, painters, photographers, and performance artists like the depressed man who sat in the same spot all night looking depressed, or the other itinerant one, the Andy Warhol with his head in a picture frame.
There may have been other acts, but the point is, this strange evening of drinking, socialising, and watching the acts through the very hip and cool, sprawling Ohibo, did as I say, renew my faith in the coolness of Milan – once you find it. And while I felt somewhat rusty and ever so inhibited at times as a clown, I also felt amazingly liberated in returning to my own personal roots for an evening. I’m hoping to do much more of it in future, too….
And then there was the skit show at the Scighera Teatro
A few days before that, I found myself the envious spectator at the other space I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Scighera Teatro, where the stage and space was given over to an annual kind of clowning competition show. This is a fabulous space with a bar in the front part of the building, and the stage in a vast room off the back, which includes the performers’ dressing room/off-stage in a kind of bird’s nest above and next to the stage.
The show consisted of several clowning skits, a Mexican trapeze artist, musicians and a storyteller. And it was entertaining almost start to finish. My two favorite acts were, first, the pizza dough chefs with their battle with the dough – this was so Italian and yet so universal, it was crazy. It could be understood in every country in the world, since I think every country has its pizza chefs! And yet here we were in Italy.
And the other act I loved was the incredibly skilled, mind-boggling one of the man who threw and caught paper airplanes in a kind of paper airplane ballet. Hidden behind the dance was a skill of a kind I could not even imagine existed. Unfortunately I had problems with my camera throughout, and particularly during this act – but I did manage to get a little bit of video of the paper airplane guy, as well as the pizza chefs. So check out the videos.
And then finally back to the Joy Bar jam…and then a return to Ligera….
Finally, I’m a little late on getting it up on the blog, but I’ve got a video or two or three of the latest Joy Bar open mic/open jam that I attended. In one of the videos I show the atmosphere as you approach the bar, with the music blaring inside, and the outside, dull, dead, depressing Milan environment from which springs this…joy….
And now suddenly, I remember there was another night of a fabulous, interesting discovery. This was at the great Spazio Ligera, which I have also written about several times on this blog. I was attracted this time to go to a concert in the large and cozy vaulted cellar room with its magnificent stage and regular music concerts, thanks to the appearance of an interesting story in the form of Julith Ryan, of Australia. This is an Australian musician who by complete freak happenstance ended up recording a CD with a bunch of Italian musicians in Italy, after a career in local Melbourne bands.
Julith was on a mini tour of Italy with the release of the album. When I heard the recordings on youtube and soundcloud, I was very intrigued to see her live. I didn’t put it all together until I did see her at Ligera, but that is when the parallel finally came to me: There’s something of the Marianne Faithful to Julith.
But it was the open act soloist on acoustic guitar and vocals who really blew my mind: That was the intriguingly named Jennifer V Blossom. A very powerful mix of strong rock vocals and nifty rhythmic guitar with a mesmerising delivery. And the sudden, surprising rendition of Edith Piaf’s song about regretting nothing. I sure did not regret this discovery….