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Another Not Review: Three One-Person Shows in Paris, a One Person Quest in Detroit, and a Couple of Readings

February 3, 2018
bradspurgeon

Julien Cottereau

Julien Cottereau

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.

Camille Claudel

Camille Claudel


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

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.

Yannick Rocher

Yannick Rocher


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.

Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau

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.

Charles Gonzales

Charles Gonzales

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.

Rodin

Rodin

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

There were moments while I watched Julien Cottereau wow the spectators at the Theatre des Mathurins in his show “Imagine-toi,” that I had a feeling of watching one of the comic greats of our time – or any time. I wondered to myself, “What would the other ones, like Charlie Chaplin, or the Buster Keaton, or Mr. Bean or others who use their body to communicate as much – or more – as their words think of Cottereau?”

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.

Spoken Word Craziness and More, in Paris at a Couple of Open Mics

January 17, 2018
bradspurgeon

Paris Spoken Word

Paris Spoken Word

PARIS – It was time on Sunday night and Monday to visit the spoken word places in Paris again with Ornella Bonventre and our TAC Théâtre monologue routine. The only problem was that we could not find a spoken word event on Sunday night…until we realized that Paddy Sherlock’s fabulous new Paris Songwriters Club evening is also open to poetry and spoken word, as long as it is – like the music – original material. So we performed there with great pleasure, before trying out the Spoken Word Paris event at the Chat Noir for the first time….

At Paddy Sherlock’s event, we found a perfect stage and audience for spoken word, but I was a little disappointed that there were not more musicians, poets, spoken word artists or spectators present. Oh, it was a wonderful evening, and at maximum there might have been a dozen or more people. But Paddy himself put out a word on Facebook afterwards, trying to encourage more people to come for the next edition, or he risks losing the evening.
First at Paris Songwriters Club

My feeling at both of the evenings I have attended at the Tennessee Bar with Paddy was that this has the potential to be one of the best open mics in Paris, so I hope people discover it fast!

Ornella and Brad woman question

Ornella and Brad woman question

From the Tennessee to the Chat Noir and Spoken Word Paris

Although a few years ago I did try to sing a song at the Chat Noir bar’s Spoken Word Paris event on Monday night, there’s nothing like trying to do actual Spoken Word at this event, which is no doubt Paris’s most popular English-language spoken word event. So it was a natural place to try out Ornella’s monologue, with me providing the soundtrack on my guitar (and occasional vocals, and a few spoken asides).
Wayne at Paris Songwriters Club

It also proved to be as much fun as a spectator as it was as a performer. And in honor of this being a Spoken Word event, I decided (thanks also to forgetting to bring my phone or other camera) to paste together several excerpts from the evening in a 5-minute podcast. So listen to the patched together medley here and above of a few moments from Monday evening’s Spoken Word Paris event at the Chat Noir for a taste of the far out kind of thing you can expect to hear….

This new bit of activity in the spoken word open mics has given me a real feeling of refreshing the blog with something slightly new, but right in line with what it is all about. I hope you agree….

A Bit of Spoken Word from Paris Lit Up to the Osmoz Café near Montparnasse

January 11, 2018
bradspurgeon

Osmoz Café

Osmoz Café

PARIS – I sense a new movement on this blog toward a few uncharted territories in the way of Paris’s spoken word open mics…but also pushing the limits at the music open mics too. Is that a sentence? I mean the grammatical thing I just wrote, not sentence in terms of what lies before me. Anyway, to cut a long introduction short: Over the last week I have twice performed in a small excerpt of the monologue that Ornella Bonventre and I performed in Milan last month, and written about on this blog. But here, we have done it in Paris, first at the Paris Lit Up open mic of spoken word at the Cabaret Culture Rapide, and then at Sheldon Forrest’s open mic at the Osmoz Café, near Montparnasse.


Paris Lit Up presentation
Our first step was to translate a portion of the show from Italian to English. Then we rehearsed, Ornella – of TAC Teatro Italy and TAC Théâtre France) acting the role of the unfortunate woman of the piece, and me on the guitar providing soundtrack and a couple of acting moments. Then we went to the Paris Lit Up spoken word event and performed it for the first time, just an eight-minute segment of the hour-long show. Then we continued to work on the translation and to rehearse. Then we performed last night at the Osmoz. The plan is to continue like this, finding new open stages that cater to spoken word, but also finding the music open mics that “allow” spoken word, poetry, etc. A fabulous adventure.
Paris Lit Up reading

While I have attended and written before about the Paris Lit Up evening – which has not changed, by the way, and remains an excellent evening – I had never attended Sheldon’s open mic at the Osmoz bar, near Montparnasse. But when I prepared to go, I was pretty sure it would be like Sheldon’s fabulous long-standing

Osmoz open mic

Osmoz open mic

open mic at the Swan Bar (now closed down), and I was right. But actually, it was even better in the sense that the atmosphere at the Osmoz Café open mic feels much freer, anything-goes, compared to the often slightly uptight feeling that the Swan Bar could give….


Another Paris Lit Up Reading
It was his usual deal of Sheldon playing piano, and singers taking the mic to sing their favorite pop standards. Sheldon was joined by a violin player as well, by the way. And at the end of the evening, long after Ornella and I had done our act, Sheldon invited me up to play some songs with my guitar, if I wanted to. Naturally, I wanted! It was a great way to close the evening for me, and especially since I had not been playing music in front of an audience in that way for a while….
Singer at Osmoz Café open mic

Stay tuned for the further adventures in Spoken-Word-Land….

The First Open Reading at TAC Teatro in Milan – Bluegrass Style….

May 13, 2017
bradspurgeon

TAC Open Reading

TAC Open Reading

MILAN – TAC Teatro has a very cool theater room with spotlight and pulpit and seats for the spectators that had been set up to host the company’s first Open Reading on Thursday. But as the guess piled in bit by bit they gravitated towards a room at the back of the theater with a couch, tables, chairs. And bit by bit that gravitated group took the form of a circle. So when it came time for the first Open Reading to commence, Ornella Bonventre, the brains behind TAC, decided that it would be worse than a sin to break up the magical circle. She started the reading in the round. I realized it was very much like the traditional bluegrass jam in the round, round a microphone – but at TAC there was no need for a mic, either.

And so began, and so continued for at least four hours, the intimate reading in the round, featuring a fabulous cross-section of writers, poets, musicians, and just plain “normal people” with something to read or say – including a local representative from a refugee squat who had something to say about his peoples’ rights.

Alessio Lega at TAC Open Reading

I even had my turn to play a couple of songs and break up the literary feel of the evening by a kind of Trou Normande of music. I was not the only musician, there was the poet, writer, storyteller and musician by the name of Alessio Lega, with his guitar and his tales. And there was the up-and-coming rap artist, Cisky, whose discovery of rap and writing led him to rearrange his life during a stint in prison after a false start in life.

The most illustrious guest was certainly Maddalena Capalbi, a well-known, award-winning Milan-based writer. She did not read her own text, however, but left that to a fabulous, dramatic reading by Cisky.

Cisky at TAC Open Reading

All in all, it was a great evening of warmth in the circle – I just wish I could understand more Italian! But it was a fabulous event that shows once again the vast spectrum of shows that TAC hosts with success, whether that be a serious play like Edipo Rap – in which Cisky appears, by the way – a clown show – in which I have appeared in a kind of George Plimpton moment – a piano show, acting or writing lessons, or a group to defend against violence against women.

A Couple of Kunst (?!) in a Bunch of Kunst – A Sleaford Mods Doc

March 19, 2017
bradspurgeon

Sleaford Mods

Sleaford Mods

COPENHAGEN – Rather than trying to look hip, cool and with it, I will admit here that before I stepped into the world premiere of Christine Franz’s film at the Empire Bio at the CPH:DOX festival last night I had no idea who the Sleaford Mods were. Then, as the film began, I quickly concluded that they were just a couple of kunst. As the film rolled on, the couple of kunst reminded me less of Derek and Clive, and more and more of the reason Britain voted for Brexit. And more and more, I grew to feel sympathetic and warm to the two stars of Bunch of Kunst, coming out feeling finally that I may not – as Iggy Pop says toward the end of the film – understand much of what they are saying (thanks to that strong British accent) but I can understand the reason they exist. And though I always thought the Brexit vote was an illness, I can now understand a little better through this film the nature of that illness.

Having said that, I don’t think the word Brexit was mentioned a single time in the film. And in a talk in the cinema at CPH:DOX after the film, Franz said she specifically did not want to make an overt political statement in the film. It turns out there has already been another documentary about the Sleaford Mods, called Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain, and that one was very political. So no doubt Franz wanted to avoid what had already been done.

So who the fowk are the Sleaford Mods anyway??? Well, a couple of guys who had musical ambitions, one of whom played in several bands without success, the other of whom was a DJ doing his own thing. They met one night at a show, and the guy who speaks the rap and writes the lyrics, Jason Williamson, got together with the man who does the DJ thing, Andrew Fearn, and they began to do some shows in bars, raging against the machine that is working class life in middle England. At their home in Nottingham, they decided to set up a little studio and record some albums.
Bunch of Kunst Sleaford Mods trailer

This was in the late 2000s, and they stuck things out in bars for years, through failed album after failed album. Eventually, the chicken-factory worker – Williamson – (well, seems that job lasted six weeks) and the unemployed man, Fearn, met up with a guy who had a solid job, driving a bus for 14 years, and he became a fan and had a vision. These two modern day punk rappers, he thought, could get their act together and do something relevant and cool.

To draw the story short, they ended up doing bigger and bigger venues, finally playing in Glastonbury, and then, as the film shows, ultimately signed a record deal with the legendary Rough Trade label. (There is a shot at one moment that shows the first Rough Trade album, Métal Urbain, a French punk band of perhaps equally unlikely people in the 1970s, famous for a song called “Creve Salope,” (“Die Bitch” among others.) And, as I mentioned, the Sleaford Mods also ended up garnering the attention of Iggy Pop and many others.
Sleaford Mods video

The film was shot over two crucial years, from 2014 to 2016, and takes us from their lives in the pub performances to Glastonbury to the signing at Rough Trade.

What made these performers a success is clear: The nasty, angry, bad, expletive-full lyrics that speak the anger of the English working class in a language and emotion that they understand. “They speak for me,” says one of the gig-goers, a man who also appears to be in his 40s, like the two members of the “band.” But the language is so strongly couched in English argot that it is, as I said, nearly incomprehensible to an outsider – and that is also one of the main factors that makes it popular to its tribe.

And yet this deep-rooted cultural whatever did not stop the duo from gaining at first a slightly greater following in Germany before they developed one in England! (Which partly answers for the German director – although Franz also pointed out that she had attended Birmingham University, and so was steeped in a little bit of this culture herself.) We are also taken on a trip to see the German fans celebrate and react to the Sleaford Mods, and to sing along with their lyrics – which was as surprising to the Sleaford Mods as it was to anyone.

They are now about to embark on a visit to perform in the United States, and it will be interesting to see how they are received. While my first impressions were entirely softened by my “getting to know” these guys through the film, I still have to add that had I seen them in an open mic somewhere, anywhere, around the world, even in middle England, I am sure that I would have still had the impression that they were just a couple of kunst. Had I seen them in front of one of their raging audiences in England, on the other hand, I might have wondered what world I had stepped into … just the way I did when I saw my first ever performance by a punk band, the Viletones, in Toronto in early 1977. In fact, the ambience was very, very similar…and as I write these words, I realize it was exactly 40 years ago that I had that strange experience of seeing the Viletones in the Colonial Underground, and wrote about it the moment I returned home, as I did last night this post….

So if you want an experience like seeing the first punk bands in the 1970s, take a look at this film.

Update of Thumbnail Guide to Oxford Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music

July 13, 2016
bradspurgeon

catweazle

catweazle

I have updated my Thumbnail Guide to Oxford Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music. I’m happy to be able to say that I did not remove any open mics from the list, as all the ones I know are still running. On the other hand, I’d have liked to add one or two that I know about but have never been able to attend, and that remains the case.

But I did do a considerable amount of housekeeping on the page, and added links of stories and items that were not there before, and I updated information as my knowledge and understanding of certain open mics grows….

So take a visit to my Thumbnail Guide to Oxford Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music.

So check it out!

From Spoken Word to Sung Songs and Surprise Meetings with – and at – Some Girls

January 13, 2016
bradspurgeon

Paris Skyline

Paris Skyline

PARIS – Just a quick one today. Because in fact there’s not much new, but just a bit worth noting. I ended up doing just one open mic on Monday this week because I decided to check out the spoken word open mic at the Chat Noir on rue Jean Pierre Timbaud before heading off – or not – to the Bastille area to try out the same three open mics I did last week.

I had heard about, and been curious about, the Paris spoken word scene for a few years, and I knew about the Chat Noir bar’s basement meeting each week. So I finally, finally managed to get there. I thought I was early, but the room was full of a religiously silent and highly diverse audience listening to someone read her poetry when I arrived sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 PM. So I took an unobtrusive stance in a doorway against the back wall and listened.
First at Some Girls open mic

A couple of poems from this woman followed by a stand-up comic, followed by a musician with guitar, mic and song. A bit of a talk from the MC, and I don’t know what else. Suffice it to say that in 15 minutes there, I started itchy really strongly for a return to what feels to me like the more relaxed, and casual and cool feel of the music open mic world I’m used to. I felt at once that although I was delighted with the vast cross-section of spectators – from old and retired to young and not yet active (in the working world) – I just felt like anything I could contribute would still be better in the music open mic scene.

So I left the Chat Noir spoken word evening and headed on over to the Bastille – stopping briefly for a 7 euro-meal of two lamb chops and frites at a North African restaurant at Menilmontant – and I poked my head into the Yellow Mad Monkey open mic on the rue de Lappe to find it looking quite active and full. I said to myself that I would first more casually check out the Some Girls open mic up the street, where I felt I could speak to at least the MC, and have a casual beer, maybe play a song or two and then return to the Yellow Mad Monkey.
Second at Some Girls open mic

Turned out that I was in for a surprise at the Some Girls because not only was the open mic in full swing – and with a different MC than last week – but that I met a couple of women I used to talk to regularly at open mics more than three years ago and whom I had not seen since. Then, surprise, surprise, a musician I had not seen for more than four years turned up and we had a great talk about what had happened in the intervening years.

This was a guy who I had met in Paris at open mics, and then one day met again at the open mic of the Ruby Room in Tokyo!!! So we again spoke about the global village of open mics and their denizens, and we spoke about many other musical things.

A fabulous evening, but it meant not taking part in either the Yellow Mad Monkey open mic or the one at Madame Louis on the Ile St. Louis. To say nothing of the Galway or the Tennessee…. Did I miss any?

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