AUBERVILLIERS, France – I am still recovering 10 days later from an amazing week of work at TAC Teatro (3-7 April), where Ornella Bonventre and her company met with nine other companies or theater individuals from around the world to exchange their practices and put on a final show for the public. Finestre means “window” in Italian, and the second part of the name of this annual meeting is: “On the Young Theater:” Finestre Sul Giovane Teatro. The meeting has been held for the last 14 years at the Teatro Ridotto in Bologna, Italy, by Lina Della Rocca, the director, and usually involved only Italian companies. After Ornella and Lina met last May, they decided to hold the meeting in France this year, and for the first time make it an international festival. It was a huge amount of organizational work for Ornella and TAC Teatro, but with the support of the city of Aubervilliers, she pulled it off. What a week! What discoveries! Oh, yeah, and what a lack of sleep! But all worth it.
There were more than 30 performers from all around the world, and my job was to film and photograph the whole thing for TAC Teatro, and eventually I will make a little documentary out of the more than 1,000 files I accumulated (film, sound and photos) over the five days of the meeting. First, let me note the companies and people present in addition to TAC and Teatro Ridotto:
We were blessed by the city of Aubervilliers to have been given the use of the Espace Renaudie as a workspace all day long throughout the week, and then we dined and also performed or rehearsed at TAC Teatro’s space, also located in Aubervilliers. The artists stayed in either hotel rooms provided by Aubervilliers, or at the homes of volunteer families of Aubervilliers that are in the habit of working together to house visitors during events in the city. What a great collaboration between the city and the companies.
Ornella Bonventre (from back) directing work at Finestre
Teatro Ridotto has existed for 40 years this year, and is recognized as one of the leaders during that time in Italy in the so-called “third theater” movement. (The third theater “is a kind of theatre made by groups that create their own tradition, their main goal is to exist, resist, not trying to belong to the established theatre. Their own existence is resistance. They might work with ritual, politics, in alternative spaces like schools or prisons.” – Andrea Copeliovitch.)
There was a certain leap of faith required from all participants involved in this first ever week of the event to be held outside Italy, but with Ornella’s TAC Teatro making great headway internationally and in planning events in and around Aubervilliers, Paris and elsewhere, as well as the strong reputation of Lina Della Rocca and her renown for holding this annual event, the whole thing ran without a hitch.
Lina Della Rocca teaches at Finestre
Throughout the week the companies worked together showing their various methods of actor training, and then they worked as a complete group on a flash mob show, thanks to the suggestion of Ornella who desperately wanted to share as much as possible of the gathering with the community. Then the whole thing was again opened to the community with a final show of excerpts from the current work of each of the visiting companies, which was put on at the Espace Renaudie in a free performance for the public.
On the first Tuesday evening TAC Teatro also put on a performance of its latest show, Ajamola, for all of the participants at its home theater space, and then Merida Urquia put on her show that was directed by one of the great actors of Odine Teatret, and ItinerAnts gave a taste of its famous “Tea Lady” performance, by Cinzia Ciaramicoli.
group shot at finestre
All in all, the drawing together of more than 30 people from around the world with at one point five or six directors collaborating on a performance, was an exceptional example of how despite everyone having their own vision and ego, we can all work together when the goals are clearly defined and all leading to a show. It was quite breathtaking for me with the camera, I can assure you! And I don’t even want to mention the babel of four or five different languages being spoken every minute of the week!
painting exercise at Finestre
And the biggest proof of success is that Ornella and TAC Teatro, at least for their part (I can’t speak for the other guests), are already hungry to try to stage another such international event as soon as possible!
card exercise at Finestre
PS: I made tons of videos over the week, but they cannot be posted raw, I need to edit them. So I will eventually post another blog item in the coming weeks with an edited video of some of the high moments of the event. The flash mob performance in the streets of Aubervilliers was definitely one of the high moments, and I got some fabulous footage of it. There were some wonderful moments in the final show of each company’s “personal” productions. Not to be missed!
Lina Della Rocca and Ornella Bonventre at the end of Finestre
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – There are few things I dislike more in life than getting out of bed for the day at 4:40 AM. Especially after going to bed at 1:40 AM (due to the birthday party of a 1-year-old). But the offer to join up with an Italian theater company to put on a ritual performance along with the rising of the sun above the Mediterranean Sea on the top of a World War II bunker overlooking some craggy cliffs at the Fossa Dello Stinco near Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily was just too great to resist. It was the same for Ornella Bonventre, and so it was that we joined Giovanni Berretta and his Compagnia Ordinesparso at sunrise and integrated his troupe for a 40-minute or so piece of physical theater, with a live soundtrack of drums and baritone saxophone. And while I may still be “jet-lagged” from the experience a day later as I write these words, I feel blessed to have been able to take part.
The whole thing did not happen just overnight, of course. (No pun intended.) Rather, Ornella, as the director of TAC Teatro, and a native of Castellammare del Golfo, had learned from her friend, a local filmmaker and photographer, Claudio Colomba, that Berretta was in town and doing a theater lab and a few performances. Ornella had also crossed paths with Berretta and his Compagnia Ordinesparso a few times in the past, so last week we went to watch one of their street performances, in one of the main boulevards of Castellammare. That took place during the heat of the night, with a couple of actors on a balcony above the boulevard, and the others in the street below, and it was quite impressive to see and hear.
We spoke to Berretta afterwards, and he invited us to take part in this performance on the morning of the day leading to the midnight celebration of Ferragosto, the Assumption of Mary religious holiday. If we accepted, we would have to go to one day of the workshop, the day before, the write a score to integrate the performance. This we did with great pleasure on Saturday evening, and it was my first time on the small, but fabulous stage of the main local theater, the Apollo, which is located in the center of Castellammare.
There, much to my great fear of failure due to a horrendous tendonitis in my left arm, Giovanni simply ignored my plea that I was entirely incapable of any kind of physical stuff and would be better off just playing my guitar and singing. But with the help of my hugely gifted partner, Ornella Bonventre, taking the heavier load of responsibility for the movements – despite doctor’s orders against straining her recuperating knee injury – we managed, through Giovanni’s gentle and precise direction, to come up with a score and integrate the group.
The group was made up of actors part of Compagnia Ordinesparso, as well as a few local amateurs who joined in as a theater activity, upon invitation by the event, which has some support from the local mayor’s office. Giovanni provided both the direction, as well as being the anchor of the performance, reciting texts to the sound of the musicians’ soundtrack. It was very impressive hearing the baritone sax, played by Tommaso Miranda, and drums, played by Domenico Sabella, at dawn; and the sound reminded me of a cross between the mix of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane as a duo, and some of the later work of Tom Waits!
There was a third major partner here that I have not mentioned yet, but they came in during the final stage, which was the performance itself at just after 6 AM. This was the group of about 50 hikers who were led by the local exploring association called, CAI Castellammare del Golfo. (The letters stand for: Club Alpino Italiano. They explore local mountains, caves, seashore, forests etc.) Ornella and I and TAC Teatro had put on a performance last year with and for this same hiking organization, but then it was to celebrate the setting sun! (Which is much more naturally to my taste, as a late riser.)
So it was that arising at 4:40 AM, we prepared ourselves and met the other actors and musicians at 5:15 close to the staging point, before heading on in several cars through the scrub vegetation at the seaside, and arrived at about 5:45 at the World War II bunker at the Fossa Dello Stinco. There the musicians set up the drums, took out the sax, warmed up; and so did the actors and Giovanni. We found our points of reference, spent some time figuring out how to mount the bunker – no easy thing, and in the end Giovanni himself lifted most of us up there – and we all warmed up too.
We took our positions and waited until close to 6:15 or so – the sunrise was set for 6:20, according to my phone – the spectators began to arrive and placed themselves on the stones, rocks and vegetation around the performance area. And then began Giovanni’s recitations, the other actors’ movements, dance and contortions, and finally Ornella and I mounted the top of the bunker and did our part.
The patient and talented director Giovanni had instructed me that my movements were to be a kind of action that reacted to Ornella’s movements, and her movements were that of the wind. Standing atop the bunker with the real wind gently blowing all around me, with a camera equipped drone hovering above, and with Claudio moving about in his various positions filming and photographing, with the saxophone and drums beating, and the sun rising mostly over my left shoulder as I looked at the rising hills and cliffs around me, the whole thing was a little bit like a natural religious experience and I had entirely forgotten the tendonitis in my left arm and shoulder!
Only once it was finished did I realise that I knew several people in the audience both from last year’s event with TAC Teatro and from the organizers of the hike. It was a gentle and warm descent. (Although suddenly feared my shoulder pain as Giovanni had to lift me down the bunker back to hard earth!)
My only regret during the experience was my inability to really be seeing all the details of how Ornella’s spectacular dance, as well as that of the other actors, must have appeared to the audience. I was part of the show, but with Ornella as my solid underpinning guide, it was a shoe-in there too…. Oh, and I am hoping that I will be able to see what Claudio eventually does with the film of the event, and I hope I will be able to put up a link to that on the blog soon!
AUBERVILLIERS – I continue to be surprised by all of the cool cultural institutions, workshops and artistic spaces that I am discovering in Aubervilliers, a suburb of Paris, where TAC Teatro has been performing its latest show this season. A couple of days ago, TAC – well, Ornella and I – visited the Villa Mais d’Ici arts community to meet Les Grandes Personnes. “The Big People,” who were in rehearsal, are a troupe of really big puppets and puppet makers that was founded in 1998 and is one of the many artistic residents of the Villa Mais d’Ici.
Where to start?!?! I think the photos and short videos I took will tell the story best on this one. But I do want to say that I felt for a moment as if I was in Budapest at the Szimpla Kert, and yet here, at the Villa Mais d’Ici, founded in 2003, there was a much, much bigger range of artistic endeavors. From the puppets to an office of architects to theater performers to a guitar luthier, it seemed that anything goes at the Villa Mais d’Ici. (Which, by the way, is clearly a play on words for the Villa Medicis.)
As I looked into the eyes of several of these fabulous puppet figures – which have now not only toured the world but also spawned imitators around the world – I felt like I was looking in the eyes of my own ventriloquial figure, Peter McCabe! But where I feel safe arguing with Peter, no way I would get in a fight with one of these behemoths!
Ornella and I were wonderfully received by the director Pauline de Coulhac, who is also an actress who works with masks, and who over lunch told us about how the concept has grown over the years, “When we started out,” she said, “we were considered nothing but carnival performers. I am proud of that, but it is interesting that it all grew into us now being seen as street artists. And we are!”
I learned that my feeling of looking in the face and eyes of my own Peter McCabe was not based on nothing: These heads are also made from papier maché. The mechanisms that provide their underlying structure, however, are made by Maurizio Moretti, a mechanical engineer (static equipment and package engineer), who suddenly got bit by the bug of building puppets!
Ornella Bonventre of TAC Teatro with one of the Grandes Personnes.
Ornella Bonventre, Peter McCabe and Brad Spurgeon
I took a brief side trip into the atelier of the luthier, Adrien Collet, who it turns out shares dozens of friends with me on Facebook, and since I lost my last luthier who moved to the south of France, I will now know where to go to fix my almost chronically ill Seagull S6.
Les Grandes Personnes
But it will also be an excuse to return to see the Grandes Personnes and explore the rest of this artistic community!
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.
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
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…!
Why have I done so few posts on this blog in recent months? Let’s call it a TACtic. I have mentioned TAC Teatro a few times on this blog in the past three years, and especially my activities with TAC. But as of this summer, I have been devoting a lot more time to TAC, and am now a full member of the troupe. This is part of a decision to transform all my open mic experiences into something different, and, hopefully, bigger.
When I say bigger, I mean above all in terms of range of use of the body, voice, performance. I continue to play guitar and write every day – in fact, I am working on a very big writing project that I will finish at the end of the year – but I got to the point with the open mics that it felt as if I was repeating myself. Since stopping my travel to the Formula One races at the end of 2016, I had pretty much only Paris as my stage. And as big and beautiful and great is that stage, playing the same open mics with the same songs for the same spectators began to wear on me.
But my love of performing and my need to create are as strong as ever and always. Now, invited by Ornella Bonventre, the director of TAC Teatro, to involve myself even more than before – that is to say, with at least three meetings with the newly formed Paris troupe per week — I have found what feels like the answer to the stagnation at the open mics.
Of course, I am also continuing several other projects, such as the completing of my open mic documentary and the completing of my open mic memoir. But as far as performing goes, the idea is to build as much as possible on the physical theater of TAC Teatro. This is a kind of theater that appeals to me as it involves voice, music, physical action, acrobatics, puppetry, juggling, unicycling, text and just about every other thing you can imagine all wrapped into one.
Among its great proponents are groups like Odin Teatret of Denmark – I am also finishing the editing of a video interview with the founder of that theater, Eugenio Barba, that I conducted along with Ornella – and even the Théâtre du Soleil of Paris, and many others. TAC Teatro has existed for many years in Italy, and Ornella started up the Paris part two years ago. This year is the biggest step so far, with the recent gathering of several new performers – and you could say I am part of that wave.
In the first week of September five of us, under Ornella’s direction, put together a performance on the theme of borders, or “Frontières” that we performed on an outdoor stage at the city hall of Asnières-sur-Seine, where the French TAC is legally based in France. I am putting up on this blog page two videos connected to that event, one of which is a short video of the performance that Luca Papini, an Italian filmmaker in Paris, made.
The other video is of my own specific contribution to the writing of the performance, that did not make it into Luca’s film. All the performers created the first seeds of their own scenes, which we all then worked on together under Ornella’s directing, and so I was pleased to learn that Ornella had found in the filmed bits of our rehearsals and moments of creation, that there was a good, complete filming of my scene. (The exercise of filming the rehearsals was in order for the performers to have a more objective view of their work.) Ornella just finished preparing that segment as a video, which I post above.
TAC Rehearsal with music
We all used our personal preoccupations of the moment to create these seeds of our scenes, which were all also somehow connected to the theme of borders. My own section, called “Le Passeport,” as you will see, has to do with my personal battle with the concept of Brexit, which is affecting me to the point of madness as I wonder at how long I will be considered a legal citizen in France, as opposed to an illegal alien…. And I emphasize that word ALIEN.
So to sum up, again, my lack of presence on the blog in recent months has had nothing to do with an end to my creative projects, but rather, a reduction in the approach of the past – focusing almost entirely on open mics – and the beginning of a new approach, combining all of my interests, including playing music. I hope now I can shake myself out of the lack of contributions to the blog and back into a cycle of regular updates, but on a bigger theme!
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.
BUDAPEST – In yesterday’s post I said that open mics and open jams were not really much part of the culture in Hungary. I have to take it all back. Or, rather, I have to redefine what an open mic and open jam session is, and say that they are very much alive and well in Hungary. I stumbled into one last night in a kert in downtown Budapest, but this is strictly, totally, a Hungarian form of what my blog is all about.
I heard the music from the street, violins, a bass fiddle, some smacking and stomping. So I entered the kerf – a beer garden of a kind that Budapest is full of, using mostly ruined buildings or the foundations where buildings used to be – and followed the sounds of the violins into a small sub-bar off the edge of the kert. There I saw a fabulous vision of three young guys in their 20s and a young woman in her 20s playing what sounded to me like Hungarian folk music. In front of them danced a man in a crazy body slapping dance I’d already seen in a completely different context.
I took a beer and sat and listened, and when the band stopped, I decided to ask if it was an open jam session, even though I knew that if it was, it was strictly Hungarian traditional music. I asked the right violin player of the three present – the woman played the bass – because he immediately launched into an explanation of the entire history of the location AND the music, and told me what it was all about.
The Hungarian Dance House Craze, Part of a Folk Revival
It’s called a Dance House, and Budapest has five or six ones that run different days of the week, according to this violinist. The music comes mostly from Transylvania – yes, yes, Dracula and all that – and is part of a Hungarian and Romanian folk tradition that goes back hundreds, and even thousands of years. In more modern times, Bela Bartok, the great Hungarian composer, began collecting the music and preserving it, and soon the phenomenon of the Dance House, or Táncház, was born basically from the 1970s onward, in a Hungarian folk revival period.
The musicians now get together to play this traditional music, they share the songs amongst themselves, and they play it in the many Dance Houses around the country. But it is essentially a kind of gypsy music played in villages. My interlocutor – who is a music student from Transylvania, by the way – told me that even the gypsies that play gypsy music in the cities do not necessarily know this kind of music, which is different.
He said that in some villages the musical sessions usually at peoples’ homes Dance Houses and at weddings can go on for days on end, with dancers and musicians even taking shifts – going off to sleep while another group returns to celebrate.
Last night several other musicians showed up, more and more dancers joined in, then some people began singing to the pieces, and for once I did not take my guitar out of my bag, but rather hit the dance floor and spun my partner round and round – or rather, I think that she spun me.