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A Not Theater Review (as a Q&A): James Thierrée and His One-Man (and Support Team) Show, Raoul

February 20, 2018
bradspurgeon

James Thierrée

James Thierrée

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.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin

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

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 technically, yes, the quality of his physical movements was amazing as well. He is not just a mime, he is an acrobat and a dancer. It is clear that he studied many different techniques. It was multidisciplinary. And, in fact, this is the same tendency that I saw at the circus festival we went to a couple of weeks ago, the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain. Each artist is not just specialized in his own discipline but is now multidisciplinary.

And I think this is something that James Thierrée had to face as the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin. He cannot just repeat what Charlie Chaplin did. He has to be something else, and probably something more and different and unique in his own way.

Q. What about the mixing of the huge puppets he used occasionally as well, the use of the giant stage set, and trapeze-like things, etc.?

A. I loved that because everything was transformed. Each object had its own life and was transformed into something else. And that’s very magical. And it is always the goal in my theater to obtain this result as well. And they were doing it with very traditional techniques. The puppets were built in a very simple way. And they were moved by people, not with machines, so there was nothing extraordinarily technical, and the materials also were simple, poor materials – like papier maché, simple cloths, etc.

Q. You mentioned something to me also about how this show, and the other one we saw, with Julien Cottereau, both depended largely on the use of sound.

A. Yes. I loved the use of sound in this show, the use of the soundtracks and the noises. And I think that they were necessary because they were also covering the noises of all of the huge machines that were moving up and down on the stage, the things from the floor to the ceiling, and the huge puppets. So the soundtrack was necessary to cover these sounds so that the audience would not be distracted and removed from the spell of the show by the unintended noises. It was very well done.

Q. For me the biggest problem was that I was waiting for, or expecting, a kind of storyline that I couldn’t find. So it was difficult for me to hitch in to the narrative. Was that something you found difficult too?

James Thierrée aloft in Raoul

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.

Thierrée dancing

Thierrée dancing


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.

A. Yes.

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.

A New Not-Book-Review: Mike Nesmith’s Autobiographical Riff, “Infinite Tuesday”

July 24, 2017
bradspurgeon

Infinite Tuesday

Infinite Tuesday

PARIS – You can’t run with the hares and hunt with the hounds, said Ernest Hemingway, referring to what he thought of book reviewers who were also fiction writers. That is why on this blog a few years ago I came up with my concept of the Not Review, which I have done periodically in the form of Not Reviews of music in my “Morning Exercise Music” listenings, in Not Reviews of films, and Not Reviews of books. The idea is I’m not criticizing, or placing myself in a high position of cultural authority, but simply reflecting on books, music or films that I have seen recently, and what they made me think, what they say, how I feel, and what you might want to know about them to see if you want to listen, read or see them. Today, I have put up my latest Not Book Review, this time of the autobiography of Mike Nesmith, the former Monkee, which is called, “Infinite Tuesday.” He also refers to it as an “autobiographical riff.” Check it out on the link above! His is a fascinating story that goes way beyond The Monkees – like, how about to creating one of the first music videos, helping to create MTV, and then there is his mother the inventor of Liquid Paper….

A Serendipitous, Synchronistic Video Experience for “Since You Left Me,” Amongst the Jugglers and the Musicians

April 26, 2017
bradspurgeon

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.

Since You Left Me – video

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 Photo Shoot and “Out of a Jam” on all Music Download and Streaming Sites

December 11, 2016
bradspurgeon

Brad Spurgeon by Pierre Nguyen

Brad Spurgeon by Pierre Nguyen

PARIS – At about the same time in the fall, I had a fabulous day in a hot, Indian Summer in Paris in a park and on the Seine River shooting with a photo group that wanted to do photos of musicians, and I released my CD, Out of a Jam, online.  

With the photoshoot, a Paris “meet-up” that I found on Facebook, I jumped at the opportunity and it resulted in some nice photos.  It felt more special with that coinciding with the release of my album, “Out of a Jam,” on all the usual online music sites, a few months after the album came out in CD format. I finally got the photos up on my personal music site, and BradSpurgeonMusic.com in a gallery.

Check out the gallery and check out the album at all the usual suspects: iTunesSpotifyBandcamp, and who knows how many others!

“Out of a Jam” Now Up on Bandcamp – With the Lyrics to the Songs

September 5, 2016
bradspurgeon

Out of a Jam

Out of a Jam

PARIS – Back in Paris after a long train ride from Milan, I’ve finally finished putting up on Bandcamp my CD, “Out of a Jam,” that I released this year. This is the first of what I’m planning to be many different releases for the CD on various sites – iTunes, etc. – and I really like this particular site, Bandcamp. Anyway, what is really really cool about the Bandcamp site is that it incited – no pun intended – me to use their feature to put up the lyrics of the songs too. So for the first time, I have put up the music – these are the mastered versions of the songs exactly like on the CD (my SoundCloud versions were not mastered) – as well as the lyrics, and where I feel I have some grasp of the names of the actual chords that I play, I have put up the chords too! So go check out “Out of a Jam” on bradspurgeon.bandcamp.com, if you do not already have a copy of the CD. Well, what the hell, go check it out even if you do!

A Sublime Rickie Lee Jones at the Bouffes du Nord – When You Could Hear Her

October 20, 2015
bradspurgeon

Rickie Lee JonesPARIS – I waited 36 years to see Rickie Lee Jones in concert, having bought her first album in 1979, when it was released, and having been hooked ever since. Last night I saw her in Paris, but I think I will still have to wait another 36 years before I get to hear her singing live. Attending a concert with virtually no sound on the vocals? Can this really happen? I don’t know. I do know that most open mics I attend every week in dive bars have better sound than what I “heard” at the Bouffes du Nord theater in Paris last night….

As soon as I noticed last week that she was playing at this old theater, a 7-minute walk down the street from my place in Paris, I bought the most expensive tickets in the house, two of them, one for me, one for my girlfriend. We’re both fans. I was a little too late to get seats on the floor, but as the seats in the “corbeille” were the same price as those on the floor – i.e., 51 euros each, or 102 in total – I decided that was probably just as good as the tickets for floor seats. I think I was wrong.

It was the first time I have gone to a show at the Bouffes du Nord, and I can say that this is one impressive theater in middle of Paris’s rough neighborhood of La Chapelle. You enter a nondescript building and find yourself facing what looks like a lost, inner theater that might have been built at the time of the Roman Coliseum. You then enter the theater itself and find what seems was built as much as an indoor circus as a theater to stage drama. It is all bricks, wood, has a fabulous open proscenium arch with a full view of the empty stage behind, a massive floor area extension of the stage (i.e., which is floor-level), and several balconies of seating in the round.

We sat on the first level of seating above the floor – to me it is a kind of balcony, but the theater calls it a corbeille, or basket. As we sat down, we were absolutely delighted to be above the stage, slightly stage-left. The view of the band, and of the central microphone where Rickie would sing was just perfect. I was sure we were better off there than on the floor….

Bouffes du Nord

Bouffes du Nord

My first disappointment came when someone entered the floor just before the concert and announced that we were not allowed to take photos or videos. I couldn’t get anything on the blog, I thought. But at least it would mean I could just thoroughly enjoy the show. Wrong. I now suspect the reason they said we could not take videos is because they were embarrassed by what they knew would follow: No vocals mic, no monitor for Rickie, or a guitar through the vocal monitor, or feedback through the vocal monitor, or no rhythm guitar through the monitor, or no vocals through the main speakers, or no rhythm guitar through the main speakers, and lots and lots and lots of desperate requests from Rickie Lee Jones to the “sound engineer” to please do something to get it all right!

Yes, readers of this blog will know that I have a mountain of worldwide experience playing in and even occasionally organizing, open mics in rowdy, lowd, crappy dive bars all over the world. Readers will also know that I rarely make complaints about the sound systems in said bars. In fact, I rarely have complaints to make, since most of the time a friendly and responsible organizer of an open mic will do his or her best to make sure that we can hear the vocals and instruments.

Last night, the Bouffes du Nord pretty much never got the sound right, with the exception of when Rickie went to the piano and sang and played from there. Suddenly, some eight or so songs into the show, she seemed to be able get right into the music, and so could we. In fact, the best thing I take away from the concert is the knowledge of just how professional she is, how fabulous her voice remains at 60 years old, and how cool her personality is on stage.

Having to deal with a venue that cannot get the sound right on one of the finest pop music vocalists of the last 36 years and letting down a near capacity crowd of 500 people paying 51 euros or 41 euros, is just the most extraordinary an unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen!

I should have done a bit of research on the theater beforehand, though, and I’d have realized that bizarre things are part of its history from the beginning, if this entry from wikipedia is to be trusted: “Founded in 1876, it had an erratic existence and seemed that it would never get off the ground. In its first decade it had no fewer than fifteen artistic directors, the most notorious being Olga Léaud who fled the theater after her production had failed, taking the contents of the theater safe with her.”

It seems it went on to have a fabulous and important period as the home of Peter Brook’s avant garde company, from 1974 until 2008. It is still partly a theater for drama production, and perhaps that is why the soundman was having so much trouble. I am used to not hearing guitars or vocals on loud, blaring rock bands, but not with the quiet, mostly laid back music of the band from Montreal that accompanied Rickie: There were five musicians (drummer, violin (and various strings and percussion), lead guitar, keyboards and bass) and it was all excellent accompaniment.

Rickie ran through more than an hour and a half set of songs from her oldest to the latest album (“The Other Side of Desire“), just out, and she did a magisterial job, but never, ever did the sound get done right. On “Chuck E.’s In Love,” not only did we barely hear the vocals from where I was sitting, but her amazing intro on her acoustic guitar was all but lost. On “Last Chance Texaco,” the mic was just totally out of sight, so there was no sense of being able to experience the extraordinary kind of performance that we find on a few youtube recordings of this performance.

Through it all, Rickie did the perfect “grin and bear it” act with smiles and non-stop efforts to get the soundman to please do his job. She did this through feedback from monitor, through the lead guitar player’s guitar coming through her monitor, through no voice through the monitor, through too much voice through the monitor. For me, at some points, from my vantage point, I felt I was ONLY hearing her voice through HER monitor … at those moments when it was stronger there.

When I left the show, outside the theater I spoke to a woman who had been in the front row on the floor, just wanting to hear her reaction. She immediately expressed sympathy for Rickie, saying it was really too bad she was having problems with her monitor, but she said that from her vantage point in the front row, she could hear the vocals and all the rest throughout the performance. She was, in fact, in pretty much the same line of sight and level as the sound engineer, who stood a little behind her, so there is a possibility that the sound engineer was in fact doing the best job with the audience vocals sound – not the monitor – that he could.

That would mean that the theater itself is to blame for the bad acoustics, and/or the lack of effort made at putting speakers high enough for the corbeille and balcony spectators to hear properly. I heard, but I have not been able to confirm, that in fact, the Bouffes du Nord has only recently decided to turn into a concert venue as well as a theater. If that is the case, then clearly it needs to make some investments in creating an adequate sound system for concerts, either that or cease to charge ticket prices of a top venue rather than making it free like a local bar with its open mic.

I do know that I was not the only one who felt bad for Rickie and her band. But I could nevertheless see enough through all of it, that in my wait of 36 years to see her live, I was not let down by her performance and the continuing strength of her voice – which part of the time was so strong I could hear enough of it without the mic to know it was still entirely there.

Worldwide Open Mic Journey 2014: The Multimedia Consolidation – Paris

December 26, 2014
bradspurgeon

Paris Skyline

Paris Skyline

My worldwide open mic journey began in China in 2008 after the Formula One race in Shanghai, and little did I know that it was a journey that would continue for six more years and cover most of the globe, every continent except Africa (where I once lived and played music in an open mic decades earlier) and Antarctica, and that it would spawn a book, a blog, an album, a documentary film, numerous podcasts, music videos and other multimedia projects.

This year, 2014, I have decided to finish all of the projects and tie them together into a consolidation of multimedia. As part of my personal impetus to gather it all together for myself, but also put it into perspective on this blog, I have decided to create a page for each city I have visited on the journey, tying together samples of the whole multimedia adventure linked to that city.

So here is the page devoted to tying together the pieces of the open mic adventure that I have lived in Paris since I first started.

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