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Seven Weeks Away, but Not Just a Vacation: From Paris to Milan to England to Sicily

July 31, 2018
bradspurgeon

Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily

Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – It seems hardly possible that it has been exactly seven full weeks since I last posted on this blog. That has to be a record absence for me. It equals one year’s worth of vacation when I was on staff of the International Herald Tribune, the Paris-based newspaper that worked under the French labor system and so gave us lots of holidays each year. I can say that these last seven weeks have not been a holiday, but the busiest time of the last year – which is the reason I have not been contributing to the blog. So here is a point-by-point recap of the main events of the last seven weeks:

1. Most of early June was spent digging out nearly 20 years’ worth of my piled up papers, paraphernalia and trash from my garage and cave in order to make space for Ornella and her TAC Teatro’s paraphernalia from Italy. Cleaning these places led to many wonderful discoveries, but also some very difficult decisions; among the many relics that I found were three never-before-used Zippo lighters with the aforesaid International Herald Tribune’s marketing department’s effort to publicize the newspaper’s coverage of the 2000 presidential elections. Beautiful objects that I had kept but never once used, I now find use for them, particularly for Ornella and my daughter’s smoking habits….

IHT Zippo lighter

IHT Zippo lighter

I am loving the process of filling these classic lighters with fluid, new flint stones, etc. (I am a little disappointed at how quickly they are losing their paint job, though, as you can see from the photo of this lighter used by Ornella for just one month.) There used to be so much more “process” in the past in our daily lives…. But among the difficult decisions in this vast clean out, was whether I should keep the hundreds of copies of actual newspapers – of the aforementioned IHT – that had the print versions of my articles in them. I had always taken hard copies of the paper home to have a record of the printed work – but I had never had any use for these relics. Now, I found myself with the difficult decision of either throwing them away or else having no further usable space in my storage areas. As I knew that all of the copies existed in microfilm or other electronic form, as well as online in the online archives of The New York Times – many of which copies I also had to decide whether or not to keep – I ultimately decided to throw them all away. It was a heartbreaking moment, but also a feeling of truly moving on into the future. Like the Formula One teams that I had written so much about, I chose to look forward, rather than backwards at personal mementos.

2. Having cleared out these storage spaces, it was time to go on a brief trip to Milan in order to clear out TAC Teatro and prepare the moving van to bring to Paris all of the aforementioned paraphernalia. It was a massively busy and tiring three or four days that also involved very difficult choices. For instance, the most heartbreaking for Ornella was the decision to leave behind the linoleum flooring that she used as the floor of the theater space, and which had come directly from use on the floor of the famous La Scala Opera House, and had, therefore, been danced upon my some very famous performers. But it was just too heavy, massive when rolled up, and required a very good cleaning job, which we had no time for. We nevertheless managed to pack up and transport to Paris two tons of paraphernalia, including seating for at least one hundred spectators, a sound system, a series of spotlights, a piano, keyboard, drum, a workbench table from a famous Italian filmmaker and writer, and countless other items far too long to list here without getting anymore boring than I already risk being. The whole collection of paraphernalia ended up taking two moving vans instead of the original one that had been planned for.

3. We returned to Paris and spent the three or four days waiting for the delivery by finishing the cleanup of the storage space. (Let me note that this was happening in a hot month of June, and with all the dust from the spaces, and the pollen in the air, I wore a face mask nearly full-time to help my breathing.) When the paraphernalia arrived, we then spent two days filling up the storage spaces, but rest easy knowing we can now prepare for the future. It was also very satisfying to have replaced my 20 years’ worth of accumulated crap by this investment in the future of TAC in France.

Philosopher of Optimism

Philosopher of Optimism

4. No sooner did we catch our breath again, barely able to believe what we had accomplished, than we departed for a quick trip to England, where it was time for some more very satisfying work: The first stop was Nottingham, where I was invited to attend the Second International Colin Wilson Conference in order to do the very first public screening of the interview film that is connected to my book, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Produced by a British film production company as well as the publisher of my book, Michael Butterworth, and his other company, Savoy Books, and directed by Jay Jones, it consisted of an hour and a half interview of Colin Wilson by me. Although the film was done in 2006, it was never quite finished. I recently decided to ask if I could work on the edit through my company, the perfectly named, “Unfinished Business SAS.” I was given the go-ahead, and prepared first a trailer for the film (below) and then I prepared the film for this private showing for the 55 people attending the three day conference, including the members of Wilson’s family – three of his children, and his wife, Joy. That last name is certainly the right word for me to use as well to describe the entire event, and especially the reception of the film: It was a pure joy!

5. From Nottingham, Ornella and I headed on to the Cotswolds for a brief visit to have a reunion more than 40 years after I met him with the man who created my ventriloquist’s figure, and to whom I brought the suspect in question for a facelift (and a body-lift). But on the way there we had a fabulous, three-hour long meeting and tour of the Renault Formula One factory at Enstone.

Brad and Ornella at Renault F1 Team

Brad and Ornella at Renault F1 Team

This fell the day after the team’s home race, the British Grand Prix, and at the end of the series’ horrendously tiring triple-header of races in June/July. Although it was the strangest feeling for me to be in England during the race weekend without attending the race itself, the trip was more than compensated for by both our stay overnight in Oxford – where I played in two different open mics (and can now update my Oxford guide), followed by the trip to see Peter Pullon in the Cotswolds. This aforementioned ventriloquist figure builder has become one of the world’s foremost puppet makers, having created some of Britains most famous figures: Rod Hull’s Emu, Honey Monster, the Hoffmeister Bear, Smash Martians and Keith Harris’s
Peter McCabe with Peter Pullon

Peter McCabe with Peter Pullon

Orville. I am waiting with baited breath the renovation of my figure, whose name is Peter McCabe, and for whom I have some future plans that I will talk about on this blog as they happen. (Peter most recently had a cameo role in my video of my cover song of Mad World, by Tears for Fears.

6. No sooner did we return from England than it was off to Sicily for us and a three-week vacation, during which period I have, nevertheless, been using every available moment to make plans for the future year, and my many projects for my new life in Unfinished Business…. We have been staying in Ornella’s hometown of Castellammare del Golfo, and reading on the beach by day, and walking the city streets by night, occasionally finding places to play my guitar and sing. We have done a lot of tourism, as well, which we have posted about copiously on Facebook. The highlights for me have been the visit to Segesta and its ancient Greek temple and above all, its ancient Greek theater.

A Plant Growing from the Encasing Sculpture in Gibellina.  ©Brad Spurgeon

A Plant Growing from the Encasing Sculpture in Gibellina. ©Brad Spurgeon

The acoustics of this place are astounding – although I’m not sure the plywood floor they chose to use to cover the rock surface of the stage was wise. And the most painful and touching visit was to the site of the 1968 earthquake, which killed more than 900 people and wiped out two towns. The ruins of many of the buildings remain locked in time in the countryside, and one of the towns, Gibellina, is now covered, encased, in a white concrete monument, or work of art, to mark the tragedy. Walking amongst these ruins and the monument, is a deep, difficult, but valuable experience.

7. I almost forgot to mention that in between all of these activities and right at the beginning of the month, we found a space in Paris that we are looking at as a possible future location for TAC and Unfinished Business. But it represents quite an investment, and it required us to make trips to the bank, an accountant, work on a business plan, and generally occupy all of the free time we had between the above activities! (And we have still not finished working on that.)

So as you can see, I have been busy as anything in the last seven weeks. But now I’ve had a moment to record it all in the web log, and I’m glad to have had so many rich experiences to get down here….

ANOTHER NOT REVIEW: A Physical (Handicap) Theater – at the Festival Future Composé and the Williams Syndrome Opening Piece

June 11, 2018
bradspurgeon

Auriane Vivien and Denis Taffanel in Si Ce N'est Toi.

Auriane Vivien and Denis Taffanel in Si Ce N’est Toi.

PARIS – If theater is about emotion, intellect and the physical world, then there is clearly a powerful formula to be harvested from the approach that is behind the festival called “Futur Composé” – running in several theaters and institutions around Paris from 8 June to 1 July – the opening play of which I attended on Friday at Le Carré du Temple. “Si Ce N’est Toi,” is a very personal piece by Marion Coutarel, inspired by her brother’s diagnosis in his 40s of Williams Syndrome. The festival and its association, were created 18 years ago – and this is its 10th edition, as it runs every other year – to allow an exchange between handicapped people (mostly autistic), and others who are not handicapped, and to bring them together on the stage and through other artistic events and activities – such as singing, writing, painting. The striking thing about Coutarel’s play was nicely put to words by a psychiatrist I spoke to afterwards: “In some ways, the people who are supposed to be handicapped look much more naturally alive in their role on the stage than those who are not.”

It was with a huge variety of emotions, on many different levels, that I watched this piece of 1 hour 20 minutes: On the one hand there was an education about an illness I had never heard of – Williams Syndrome – on another level was the actor on the stage before me who is afflicted with the illness, and on another was the actress, author and director whose brother inspired the show. But it truly did make me question the very nature of what it means to be “handicapped.” And in this way, the play is a challenging and worthwhile venture for the spectator. I left the theater – a 250-seat auditorium in the 3d arrondissement – feeling happily enlightened and uplifted about a part of our world that I knew so little about, and now will never see the same way again.

The play comes in the form of a sort of story-telling acted out by the three main characters, Coutarel, Auriane Vivien and Denis Taffanel. The latter is a dancer and choreographer, who plays the role of John Cyprian Phipps Williams, who was born 16 November 1922, a New Zealand cardiologist who discovered the syndrome in 1961, while he was still quite young. As part of the story, we learn also of the strange, eccentric life of this mysterious, multi-talented doctor who apparently disappeared for years and was presumed dead – until he made contact with the author of a book about the poet Janet Frame, asking that a relationship he had with the poet please not be mentioned in the book!

But the most intriguing performance of the story is that of Auriane Vivien, who is affected by the syndrome. And it is here where I was the most touched by my questions about what constitutes a handicap. Vivien, who has played the role several times over the last year elsewhere in France, was – as the psychiatrist noted – perfectly at home on the stage. In fact, had it not been for some of her physical characteristics matching those of the typical case of Williams Syndrome, it might have been impossible to know whether or not she was truly affected by this disease.

This was a theater of personal exploration, especially for Vivien and Coutarel, as the author wrote the piece in order to try to come to terms with her own brother’s illness. Williams Syndrome affects about 1 in 10,000 people, and is characterized by certain physical attributes – notably the shape of the face and head – but also often by problems with visual spatial tasks, and, unfortunately, frequent heart problems. People with this genetic syndrome often have some moderate intellectual deficiencies as well, but other things are above average, for instance, they often possess a high musicality, often having absolute pitch. It is often marked also by an outgoing, friendly personality; which is something that is really touching in the circumstances as well.

The play takes a form somewhere between a recounting of personal history, self-questioning, demonstrations of what it is to have the syndrome, and even occasionally feels like a university lecture on the topic. But it was highly choreographed, and much of the physical interest comes from the contortions and movements of Taffanel, whose physical traits might actually lend themselves to questioning by anyone who did not know it, as to whether or not he himself suffered from the syndrome! Ultimately, the play’s main interest for me was, in fact, this questioning that it made me do about what exactly is that thing that we like to call “normal.”

* 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.

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.

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.

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.

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