AUBERVILLIERS, France – It has taken me a while, but I desperately wanted to get this report up here before the next Ajamola show tomorrow in Aubervilliers. In my previous post I wrote about the great day with TAC Teatro at the Théâtre du Soleil with the Odin Teatret company, followed by the showing of my film interview/roundtable with Eugenio Barba at the Espace Renaudie municipal theater in Aubervilliers. The following day the magic really started when TAC Teatro performed its first of a season of scheduled performances of Ajamola at that same Espace Renaudie. (Tomorrow the show returns to 164 rue Henri Barbusse, TAC’s regular digs.) Both the challenge and the rewards were great at the 180-seat municipal theater!
Ajamola was written and created by TAC Teatro for performing in a specific, non-traditional space: With spectators lining up on either side of the stage, and the play being performed in the middle of them. I’ve seen the play so many times that way that I had a hard time imagining that it would work as well in the traditional kind of theater space that it was necessary to use at the Espace Renaudie. That is to say, there is a stage – not a raised one, by the way – and in front of the stage sit the spectators.
TAC, of course, had to bring its own special brand of performance even to this space, so the show began – as it usually does – in the bar area of the theater – where yours truly served the drinks! – but in this case, the bar area was up a couple of flights of stairs from the performance area. This meant a whole re-thinking of how the initial “performance” begins. (Doing away with a shopping cart that usually features in this first part of the show.)
Ajamola at the Espace Renaudie 5
Pulled off perfectly, the new space even added another feeling to this first part of the show, something a little more special in this space where I suspect there has never been such a performance in the public area before.
Then the show moved to the auditorium, and there the actors also used the whole room, and not JUST the stage area. Still, there were few opportunities for climbing up amongst the audience, and most of the show did take place in front of the spectators on the stage. It was a revelation! I had mentioned in a previous post some time ago that with this play – that combines every human emotion, acrobatics, music, singing, text, shadow puppetry and other kinds of puppetry – I often had the feeling of watching something of Shakespearian proportions. In fact, because our modern experience of watching Shakespeare tends to be flat on, stage to audience, as at the Espace Renaudie, I felt that same sense even more!
Some of the characters came to life in a completely different way than in the usual manner the company uses to perform. And the lighting crew at the Espace Renaudie did a fabulous job – along with Ornella Bonventre, the play’s director – of bringing tones and textures to the show that I am not used to as well.
Ajamola at the Espace Renaudie 4
It was a really fabulous experience of rediscovery of a piece I know like the back of my hand, and all thanks to the changed performance space. But as Ornella always says, the space in which you perform is a partner in the show. And this illustrated it better than I could have imagined. It was also great that there were many more spectators present for the show than are even allowed in the space at 164 rue Henri Barbusse – creating another dimension again. Not only am I looking forward massively to the next performance of Ajamola at the Espace Renaudie on 10 January 2023, but I am also really looking forward to seeing it again tomorrow in its “traditional” environment at 164 rue Henri Barbusse.
Tickets for either show may – and must – be reserved at: email@example.com or at: 06 14 06 92 23
PARIS – I wanted to do two quick reports, one today, the other maybe tomorrow, just to round up the amazing week with TAC Teatro. It started last Monday with the long-awaited double header starting at 8AM at Paris’s legendary Théâtre du Soleil in the Cartoucherie with the equally legendary Odin Teatret, then Monday evening at the Espace Renaudie in Aubervilliers, where we screened my interview/documentary film with Eugenio Barba, the founder of Odin Teatret.
The morning event hinged around a couple of high moments: a conference given by Odin Teatret actor Julia Varley on the theme of the actor’s process of creation and training; which was followed by the actors of TAC Teatro performing excerpts from their latest show, Ajamola, for the spectators and for Eugenio Barba and Julia Varley.
Odin and TAC people at Theatre du Soleil
The conference was “prefaced” by introductions given by Ornella Bonventre, founding director of TAC Teatro, and by Raluca Mocan, a Romanian lecturer at a French university who is also a specialist on Odin Teatret. Varley’s conference was fabulous, starting with her echoing almost word-for-word what I’ve heard Ornella herself saying so often: As an actor she considers herself an artisan, not an artist. They build things – characters, plays, shows, etc., as an artisan might build a chair.
all Ajamola actors at Theatre du Soleil
Varley also spoke of the importance of the actual performance in unforgettable terms: Once you are on stage it is “not a democracy.” In other words, perhaps the actor can try all sorts of strange things during training and creation, but the performance is a dictator that requires the actors to follow the score laid out in advance and stay entirely inside the established character. I have certainly over-simplified that point, but that’s the rough idea.
After Varley’s grand performance as a lecturer, I felt a little worried about how the actors of TAC Teatro might be able to jump into their own characters from Ajamola and put on a convincing short excerpt from the show within confines that were far from anything even close to their usual performance space. As you can see from the video, it was a tight, obstructed space, where the actors did a fabulous job of reconstructing moments from the show – with Eugenio Barba, Julia Varley and others watching on. Ornella had planned this excerpt from the show as an homage to Odin Teatret, and there was every indication that it succeeded. Thanks to the actors, who did manage to get right into character and negotiate the space beautifully.
From the Théâtre du Soleil to the Espace Renaudie in Aubervilliers for the Screening of Eugenio Barba film
Eugenio Barba in film at Espace Renaudie
In the evening, we moved on for the second part of the Odin tribute to the municipal theatre in Aubervilliers called l’Espace Renaudie, for which TAC was supported by the municipality of Aubervilliers. Here we showed in public for the first time the TAC-produced film, an interview with Eugenio Barba, which is a film in which I have a half-hour long interview with Barba about his life and the Odin Teatret. I conducted the interview, Ornella filmed it, and I did the editing, splicing in all sort of documents, photos and films from Odin’s own archive, dating back to the 1960s.
It was a moment of great pride and wonder on my part to see the film on the big screen shown in front of a public in a 180-seat municipal theatre. Judging by the roundtable discussion that we then had following the film, it was a success. The roundtable was the chance to give all participants the floor to speak about the film, Odin and theatre in general. It went on for almost two hours.
Another Eugenio Barba in film at Espace Renaudie
I will return with the report soon of the production of Ajamola itself in this same theatre in Aubervilliers the next day – with photos and videos….
From Ornella in French: L’Odin jouera Thèbes jusqu’au 19, nous du TAC y allons le mardi 15, ceux qui veulent se joindre à nous sont les bienvenus (envoyez-moi un message). Toutes les informations ci-dessous.
AUBERVILLIERS, France – Just a very quick word to say you must listen to this radio interview of some of the members of TAC Teatro – including me, and me playing my songs live – and you must also, if you see this post between now and 8PM tonight, get out to see the show Ajamola. We are putting on the show for the first time in a municipal theater, that of Aubervilliers called L’Espace Renaudie, just outside Paris. There is still time to book your presence, if you call up the TAC number at: 0614069223 This is a big beautiful theater, and the show will be great to experience in this different environment!
It is in this same theater that last night my film about Eugenio Barba was screened for the first time, and I will come back to that in the coming days on this blog. Now I have to prepare for Ajamola.
But have a listen to this radio show that was aired in Aubervilliers last Friday (and I have been too busy with the film and other things to get a post up before now!) Here are direct links to the show itself, without passing through the radio station:
The interview with TAC was 15 minutes long, and all in French, done by Daniel Graisset at the AR.FM radio station:
After this he approached me while I was playing some songs at the TAC Teatro stand of this local Fête du Quartier, and I was making a mess of both songs – the first “Mad World,” the second “Borderline,” my on song, for which for the first time ever I forgot some lyrics!:
More to come about the incredible day of yesterday…
PARIS – I’m already bubbling over with excitement about the premiere of my short, 30-minute, documentary/interview film with one of the giants of world theater of the last 60 years. I am talking about the work I did with Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro – of which I am a company member since 2017 – and our interview with Eugenio Barba, founding director of the Odin Teatret of Denmark. The film will be screened next month, on 7 November, in the Espace Renaudie, a municipal theater in Aubervilliers, a suburb of Paris. It is part of a double-bill of activities with members of the Odin Teatret and TAC, beginning in the morning at the iconic Théâtre du Soleil of Paris.
That’s a lot of stuff to pack into your brain in the first paragraph, so let me backtrack now a little: Eugenio Barba is an Italian-born director and writer who after working with the Polish theater master Jerzy Grotowski in the early 1960s, went on to create Odin Teatret – based in Holstebro, Denmark – and to become one of the great theater theorists of our times, as well as the founder of the International School of Theatre Anthropology. Odin has always been at the forefront of avant garde theater in the world, innovating in the area of what is often called “physical theater,” as it speaks as much, or more, through the movements of the body as it does through text. And even the spoken word itself – or the music – is considered a kind of physical action in the performance.
The company was founded in 1964, and some of the actors that still make up the company have been with it since the 1970s, others for several decades. They are coming to Paris next month to put on their latest show, “Thèbes au Temps de la Fièvre Jaune,” at the Théâtre du Soleil. (The latter is another of the world’s great avant-garde theatrical institutions, also founded in 1964 and still directed by Ariane Mnouchkine.)
The morning event with Julia Varley.
The Odin show will run there from 8 to 19 November, and TAC Teatro, in collaboration with ARTA, Association de Recherche de Tradition de l’Acteur, and the Aubervilliers mayor’s office organized two events that will take place the day before the show opens, ie, on the Monday 7th November at 10AM in the Théâtre du Soleil, and the film premiere at the Espace Renaudie starting at 18PM, with, following the film, a roundtable discussion. The event starts by featuring especially the intervention of Julia Varley, one of the Odin Teatret actors, who will give a conference about the process of training and creation for the actor in the morning part of the program at the Théâtre du Soleil. Ornella will take part in that too, along with Raluca Mocan, a theater expert and member of the Husserl Archives of the Ecole Normale Supérieure.
I am very pleased to be able to show this documentary interview film that I did with Eugenio Barba the last time Odin Teatret visited Paris, with their previous show, called, “L’Arbre.” The interview was conducted outside at the Cartoucherie, and Ornella filmed it – and organized it – and also intervened with some of the most interesting questions – when I think I took over the camera briefly! It was a wide-ranging interview with Barba covering his life story, his theories of theater, the history of theater and of Odin, and even comments about the state of Paris’s theater landscape in general. It also contains a lot of footage and photos of Odin’s work through the decades.
Brad Spurgeon interviewing Eugenio Barba.
Taking place at the Espace Renaudie in Aubervilliers starting at 18PM, the screening is free of charge, and there are about 200 seats in the theater. So if you want to come, best to reserve in advance at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at: 06 14 06 92 23
By the way, this is the same location where the full production of AJAMOLA will be performed several times this year and next – so if you like what you see in the performance extracts at the event at the Théâtre du Soleil…don’t hesitate to book for the show too!
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – There are few things I dislike more in life than getting out of bed for the day at 4:40 AM. Especially after going to bed at 1:40 AM (due to the birthday party of a 1-year-old). But the offer to join up with an Italian theater company to put on a ritual performance along with the rising of the sun above the Mediterranean Sea on the top of a World War II bunker overlooking some craggy cliffs at the Fossa Dello Stinco near Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily was just too great to resist. It was the same for Ornella Bonventre, and so it was that we joined Giovanni Berretta and his Compagnia Ordinesparso at sunrise and integrated his troupe for a 40-minute or so piece of physical theater, with a live soundtrack of drums and baritone saxophone. And while I may still be “jet-lagged” from the experience a day later as I write these words, I feel blessed to have been able to take part.
The whole thing did not happen just overnight, of course. (No pun intended.) Rather, Ornella, as the director of TAC Teatro, and a native of Castellammare del Golfo, had learned from her friend, a local filmmaker and photographer, Claudio Colomba, that Berretta was in town and doing a theater lab and a few performances. Ornella had also crossed paths with Berretta and his Compagnia Ordinesparso a few times in the past, so last week we went to watch one of their street performances, in one of the main boulevards of Castellammare. That took place during the heat of the night, with a couple of actors on a balcony above the boulevard, and the others in the street below, and it was quite impressive to see and hear.
We spoke to Berretta afterwards, and he invited us to take part in this performance on the morning of the day leading to the midnight celebration of Ferragosto, the Assumption of Mary religious holiday. If we accepted, we would have to go to one day of the workshop, the day before, the write a score to integrate the performance. This we did with great pleasure on Saturday evening, and it was my first time on the small, but fabulous stage of the main local theater, the Apollo, which is located in the center of Castellammare.
There, much to my great fear of failure due to a horrendous tendonitis in my left arm, Giovanni simply ignored my plea that I was entirely incapable of any kind of physical stuff and would be better off just playing my guitar and singing. But with the help of my hugely gifted partner, Ornella Bonventre, taking the heavier load of responsibility for the movements – despite doctor’s orders against straining her recuperating knee injury – we managed, through Giovanni’s gentle and precise direction, to come up with a score and integrate the group.
The group was made up of actors part of Compagnia Ordinesparso, as well as a few local amateurs who joined in as a theater activity, upon invitation by the event, which has some support from the local mayor’s office. Giovanni provided both the direction, as well as being the anchor of the performance, reciting texts to the sound of the musicians’ soundtrack. It was very impressive hearing the baritone sax, played by Tommaso Miranda, and drums, played by Domenico Sabella, at dawn; and the sound reminded me of a cross between the mix of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane as a duo, and some of the later work of Tom Waits!
There was a third major partner here that I have not mentioned yet, but they came in during the final stage, which was the performance itself at just after 6 AM. This was the group of about 50 hikers who were led by the local exploring association called, CAI Castellammare del Golfo. (The letters stand for: Club Alpino Italiano. They explore local mountains, caves, seashore, forests etc.) Ornella and I and TAC Teatro had put on a performance last year with and for this same hiking organization, but then it was to celebrate the setting sun! (Which is much more naturally to my taste, as a late riser.)
So it was that arising at 4:40 AM, we prepared ourselves and met the other actors and musicians at 5:15 close to the staging point, before heading on in several cars through the scrub vegetation at the seaside, and arrived at about 5:45 at the World War II bunker at the Fossa Dello Stinco. There the musicians set up the drums, took out the sax, warmed up; and so did the actors and Giovanni. We found our points of reference, spent some time figuring out how to mount the bunker – no easy thing, and in the end Giovanni himself lifted most of us up there – and we all warmed up too.
We took our positions and waited until close to 6:15 or so – the sunrise was set for 6:20, according to my phone – the spectators began to arrive and placed themselves on the stones, rocks and vegetation around the performance area. And then began Giovanni’s recitations, the other actors’ movements, dance and contortions, and finally Ornella and I mounted the top of the bunker and did our part.
The patient and talented director Giovanni had instructed me that my movements were to be a kind of action that reacted to Ornella’s movements, and her movements were that of the wind. Standing atop the bunker with the real wind gently blowing all around me, with a camera equipped drone hovering above, and with Claudio moving about in his various positions filming and photographing, with the saxophone and drums beating, and the sun rising mostly over my left shoulder as I looked at the rising hills and cliffs around me, the whole thing was a little bit like a natural religious experience and I had entirely forgotten the tendonitis in my left arm and shoulder!
Only once it was finished did I realise that I knew several people in the audience both from last year’s event with TAC Teatro and from the organizers of the hike. It was a gentle and warm descent. (Although suddenly feared my shoulder pain as Giovanni had to lift me down the bunker back to hard earth!)
My only regret during the experience was my inability to really be seeing all the details of how Ornella’s spectacular dance, as well as that of the other actors, must have appeared to the audience. I was part of the show, but with Ornella as my solid underpinning guide, it was a shoe-in there too…. Oh, and I am hoping that I will be able to see what Claudio eventually does with the film of the event, and I hope I will be able to put up a link to that on the blog soon!
Asnières-sur-Seine, France – Now, if that headline is not an exaggeration, I don’t know what is. But at the same time, I had many roles to play yesterday in TAC Teatro’s year-end celebration of theater in Asnières-sur-Seine, outside Paris. I wanted to stamp this down here on the blog for several reasons: one is that I wanted to explain why there have been so few posts of late, the other is to celebrate yesterday’s achievements and fun, and finally, to get back in the groove of posting, period!
I do hope that readers of this blog have been missing my posts as much as I have missed posting them. But I have been working like hell on several projects that have perturbed all of this: Most of my time has been involved in working on another book, which is supposed to be published by the end of the year; as well as working for the last two months writing in a temporary, limited-time gig for the United Nations. Someday I might go further into that, but not now.
The point is, I have been occupied so full-time that I have barely had moments in the day to pick up my guitar, let alone to attend open mics. But one thing was certain: I had to help out Ornella Bonventre and TAC Teatro at the latest year-end gig at the Petit Theatre in the building of the Théâtre Armande Béjart in Asnières-sur-Seine. This year I had not one, but three roles to play.
As with last year, I MC’d the show with my ventriloquial figure, Peter McCabe. Unlike last year, someone captured some photos of these bits. So I am happy to have those to show on the blog. Unlike last year, I also played a role in one of the plays…or rather, in a way, two of the plays….
Brad as Chasuble with Ornella Bonventre and some of the children of TAC Teatro
I played Chasuble in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” by Oscar Wilde, but in the French translation. That was tough! Or rather, I would have preferred to do it in English, but I had a great time playing the character! I felt a touch of destiny as my great, great, or maybe even another great, uncle, was a famous preacher, a precursor to Billy Graham, named Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Of course, Chasuble is not exactly a flattering representative of the profession.
In the end, we did not perform the whole play, but just excerpts. I did this with the adult members of the TAC acting courses.
Peter McCabe, through me somehow, had been selected by the adolescent students to be the central figure – yes, good choice of words – in the play that they wrote themselves, called, “Ce N’est pas une Comédie Romantique.” I thought that was a brilliant title, and I am sure it will be stolen! The English translation is, of course, simple: “This is not a romantic comedy.”
Peter McCabe on stage in the ados show at TAC Teatro
Peter appeared alone in this show, although I had to wear Chasuble’s hat to cover myself and sit behind the chairs where sat Peter most of the time in order for me to whisper to him his lines, as he did not do the slightest effort towards memorisation.
It was a fabulously successful evening, with more than 160 people present. And Ornella, who deserves every bit of praise for her success for this event, was also praised by the unexpected appearance of the deputy mayor of Asnières who showed up to launch the event. This was a fine moment of confirmation of all of Ornella’s work, as this deputy mayor was none other than Marie-Do Aeschlimann, the wife of the mayor, Manuel Aeschlimann, and herself in charge of childhood and education in the town. Only the week before this, she had run in the second round of the legislative elections.
Brad and Peter with some Audience at TAC performance
From all we heard and saw, the day was a great success, and I look forward to participating again next year! With Peter, of course.
And I do hope to have some news soon from the open mics, and particularly from the success encountered by at least a couple of the bands or performers I met through my period of playing in the open mics around the world. There are a couple of recent success stories that I have been planning to write about for months, but keep getting side-tracked by the other work mentioned at the start of this post.
AUBERVILLIERS – I continue to be surprised by all of the cool cultural institutions, workshops and artistic spaces that I am discovering in Aubervilliers, a suburb of Paris, where TAC Teatro has been performing its latest show this season. A couple of days ago, TAC – well, Ornella and I – visited the Villa Mais d’Ici arts community to meet Les Grandes Personnes. “The Big People,” who were in rehearsal, are a troupe of really big puppets and puppet makers that was founded in 1998 and is one of the many artistic residents of the Villa Mais d’Ici.
Where to start?!?! I think the photos and short videos I took will tell the story best on this one. But I do want to say that I felt for a moment as if I was in Budapest at the Szimpla Kert, and yet here, at the Villa Mais d’Ici, founded in 2003, there was a much, much bigger range of artistic endeavors. From the puppets to an office of architects to theater performers to a guitar luthier, it seemed that anything goes at the Villa Mais d’Ici. (Which, by the way, is clearly a play on words for the Villa Medicis.)
As I looked into the eyes of several of these fabulous puppet figures – which have now not only toured the world but also spawned imitators around the world – I felt like I was looking in the eyes of my own ventriloquial figure, Peter McCabe! But where I feel safe arguing with Peter, no way I would get in a fight with one of these behemoths!
Ornella and I were wonderfully received by the director Pauline de Coulhac, who is also an actress who works with masks, and who over lunch told us about how the concept has grown over the years, “When we started out,” she said, “we were considered nothing but carnival performers. I am proud of that, but it is interesting that it all grew into us now being seen as street artists. And we are!”
I learned that my feeling of looking in the face and eyes of my own Peter McCabe was not based on nothing: These heads are also made from papier maché. The mechanisms that provide their underlying structure, however, are made by Maurizio Moretti, a mechanical engineer (static equipment and package engineer), who suddenly got bit by the bug of building puppets!
Ornella Bonventre of TAC Teatro with one of the Grandes Personnes.
Ornella Bonventre, Peter McCabe and Brad Spurgeon
I took a brief side trip into the atelier of the luthier, Adrien Collet, who it turns out shares dozens of friends with me on Facebook, and since I lost my last luthier who moved to the south of France, I will now know where to go to fix my almost chronically ill Seagull S6.
Les Grandes Personnes
But it will also be an excuse to return to see the Grandes Personnes and explore the rest of this artistic community!
AUBERVILLIERS, France – When Ornella Bonventre and the actors of her TAC Teatro company began the creation of their new show in the fall of 2019, they had no idea what disasters – both human-made and natural – were about to befall the world. And yet, as if predicting the future, themes of the coming cataclysms began immediately to define the show: A look at the lives of refugees, a question about what happens when your life changes forever in one sudden fell-swoop, and even, the arrival in February of the costumes of the “dream constructors” of the show in the form of doctors’ white blouses. And with the white blouses, surgical masks. Everyone joked about what they might be able to do with surgical masks. Within months, of course, and then within years, we have been hit hard in our world by many of the themes of the show.
After putting on several performances of the show last fall, TAC Teatro took a break from performance after one of the actors left, and the show has now returned with a new actor – Oscar Paille – and several new and changed and developed moments of pure delight. Every time I see this show – and I have now seen it at least 10 times live – I feel like I am watching a play of Shakespearian dimensions. Not the tragedies, more something like “The Tempest” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And fabulously, while Shakespeare is all about the text, “Ajamola” is all about the actions…and yet the text that there is excels in many spots with a beauty that touches me every time, especially that soliloquy that begins: “Goutte qui tombe sur le rebord de la fenêtre, pourrait-tu faire moins de bruit; il y a ici des gens qui ont besoin de dormir. Pas nous…” (Translation: “Drop that falls on the windowsill, could you make less noise; there are people here who need to sleep. Not us….”)
I must confess, of course, that I was involved in the beginning as both an actor and a writer of some small part of the text – not that above quoted line that comes from Ornella – but the play was ultimately a work containing contributions by all of the actors. And that is what it remains. A physical theatre show written through what the French call “écriture de plateau,” along with a very hefty and healthy job of direction by Ornella. (I dropped out of any involvement long ago, but I have attended all the performances.)
I am writing this blog item now simply to announce that the piece is back on stage, and set to run every Thursday night between now and the end of June – French school holidays excepted – at 9PM. And you should reserve in advance before going.
I am also writing this because I wanted to post some of the photos I took at the performance last week, as well as the teaser that I made for the show. Hope to see lots of readers of this blog present! It’s an experience not to be forgotten!
PS: Only now in finishing this post do I see that my last post was also about “Ajamola!” SHAME on me. I hope soon to be bringing more news, diversity in posts, and updating my open mic guides! For a full description of “Ajamola” read the bottom of the previous post!!!
PARIS – I’ve spoken a little about how musicians have survived and challenged the coronavirus pandemic over the last couple of years, but I have barely touched on theater. And theater has arguably been worse affected, as it tends to rely on fewer ways of reaching its public than music. (You can’t call a video of a theater show a theater show – even if you are one of the Cohen brothers directing Shakespeare!) But one of the reasons I have been so quiet on this blog in recent months is because I have been devoting a vast amount of time – and loving it – to three separate theater projects all produced by TAC Teatro over the final months of 2021. And I want here to share the information and the short versions of the videos I did of each of these shows, as I think they show the resistance that theater can develop – should I call it the “antibodies?” – to a pandemic that has otherwise eviscerated much of its usually fertile grounds.
I have written about TAC Teatro several times in the past, since I have been involved with Ornella Bonventre in one way or another in her theater company since 2017 when it was based in Milan, and then through its move to France the following year. But for me the biggest achievement of the company that I have seen so far has come in recent months with the three projects for which I have made these films. (And I should actually include here the period the members of the company spent doing research in Sicily last summer, but I won’t get into that here, since there is little recorded in video of that period. And also because the work they did subsequently benefitted by the research they did there, as I will mention later.)
Three written shows on three different themes for three different purposes: “Just a Sunday Brunch,” “Respire” and “Ajamola.” But all of them were put together and performed in Aubervilliers, at a theater space that TAC Teatro managed to recuperate in the middle of the pandemic and to save the creation, especially, of the biggest, most ambitious of the pieces above: “Ajamola.” I wrote about “Ajamola” two years ago when we first began creating it, just before the pandemic began, and before it had its current name. And it is the piece that has the most merit as being a monumental creation that made it through the endless battles that the pandemic threw in the company’s way over the last two years.
But I’m fluttering on. Let me get to the point!! I’ll do it in order of appearance though.
Translated as European Heritage Days and created by the French ministry of culture in 1984, the Journée du Patrimoine, in the third weekend of September was a huge success for TAC’s show, which the actors put together in only a few days and as a true announcement of the company’s arrival in Aubervilliers. Meant to highlight and show off the history of places and their artistic heritage, the day was a collaboration amongst many of the different artists of the space where TAC has been working in Aubervilliers, at 164 rue Henri Barbusse, and old warehouse-like space with musicians, sculptors and other artists, and TAC’s theater.
The TAC show was done with a set that was conceived by one of the sculptors of the space, Taïne Gras. She had created the installation of a feast table for a previous event, but remade it in the theater space, where Ornella and the actors of TAC created their show around it. The resulting show is a brilliantly funny and light piece that combines some elements of visual gags that remind me of the old silent cinema, and with a mixture of TAC’s usual physical theater forms of expression.
In addition to the theater show, there was a fashion show by a local designer in the courtyard of the place, and another event done by one of the other sculptors. We were blessed, somehow, with great weather, and the weekend was a resounding success, as you can see in the short version of the video that I made of the show.
November 25 is a date well-known by many as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. And TAC has done shows pretty much every year in support of this day, in one form or another – see the one at the Pompidou Center a few years ago – so this year, with the space in Aubervilliers, it was a great opportunity to continue the tradition. What was even better this year is that for the first time in France, the company put together its contribution with the backing of a subvention by the local municipality of Aubervilliers.
Over a three week period, the company worked with the local community to develop workshops, shows and a documentary film – which I made, and the short version, or trailer, of which I will paste in here – with the purpose of approaching the problem of violence against women in an indirect, let’s say, “non preachy” way.
Ornella went to the local schools, youth organizations and other public and private groups to get the word out and find actors to take part in the workshops and the final shows. It was no easy matter, given the limited time between having the project approved and the official deadline for completing it, which was the end of the year. Her goal was to complete all workshops, performances and the video by the end of the first week in December, and she succeeded.
The approach was to create a show that gets across the message of the horror of, and prevention of, violence against women. The main prop that they used, as you will see, is the umbrella, which is a statement of an item that protects, but at the same time isolates, and can be used as a weapon. In the video you will not only see actors from TAC Teatro, but members of the general public with no acting experience, including children, who took part in the workshops and created the show with the actors of TAC, under Ornella’s direction.
The show was performed both inside the theater space and in the streets of Aubervilliers, as a flash mob event, notably in front of the City Hall and in front of three local schools, where we got some great participation – and feedback – from the students.
But the crowning achievement of the TAC company really came in the half dozen performances of the show the company had been working on since the fall of 2019. “Ajamola” not only managed to survive, but to thrive through the pandemic, and to take on themes that were inherent to the pandemic, although strangely, some of those themes were part of the show from the beginning before the pandemic even hit! (I refer, for instance, to the so-called “dream constructors” who wear doctors’ white smocks! And how I remember everyone’s surprise and confusion when they first received their smock in Jan/Feb 2020 as to what should be done with the surgical mask that came with each costume! We threw them all away!)
I will not go through the whole show here, but for a nutshell description, check out the description of the show at the end of this blog post and as translated from the French. The play is inspired also by many of Ornella’s connections with her birthplace of Sicily, including the fisherman’s song that gives the play its title, and some other songs and musical bits in the production – which themes the actors imbued themselves with on that aforementioned visit to Sicily last summer.
In any case, the show had capacity, or near capacity, attendance each time, and as I recorded it through several cameras and a sound device simultaneously during each performance, I not only never grew bored or used to it, but I felt more and more understanding, enthusiasm and respect each time for the work of Ornella Bonventre as director, and the actors Sara Baudry, Julie Lossec, Tato Moya, Constance Dolleans and Marine Lefèvre.
And I cannot wait until the show returns, with a slight change in lineup, in the months to come. Keep posted!
By the way, I almost forgot to mention that I was actually an actor and part creator of the show two years ago, but as I became more occupied with other projects – mainly the Formula One book for Assouline – I pulled out. But I have contributed where and when possible, including at the moment I not only made the short trailer you find here, but I am working on a full-length film version of the show, which I filmed at every one of the presentations they have so far done of it.
Ornella Bonventre, Peter McCabe and Brad Spurgeon
In fact, on that same theme, I must not forget the activity of the company in Asnières-sur-Seine, where Ornella continues to teach lessons to a growing number of actors of every age in her acting school part of the company. Since the pandemic had killed any possibility of the three age groups – children, teenagers and adults – from putting on their season finale shows last June, Ornella decided to work with the students to put on the season final afternoon of three performances at the Petit Theatre in Asnières in November. And she invited me to present the festivities with my ventriloquial figure, Peter McCabe! It was our debut effort as presenters, and I found myself having to write and memorize our script very quickly…with the result, I am told, of my efforts to bring emotions of laughter to the spectators to actually succeeding in bringing strong emotions of sympathy for Peter McCabe, and equally strong emotions of disdain for me, his nasty master! What counted were the strong emotions! I regret also that the audience was apparently so involved in Peter’s performance that not a single spectator thought to take a photograph or video of our performance! So there is nothing to show for it here…. Maybe next time!
The station of a small village somewhere in the south. The court of a king. Two parallel events that intertwine: that of Alma, Nina, Vera, and Jules waiting for the train and that of the Marquis of the Moon condemned to tell stories to a mad king.
And above all: The dream builders are watching.
At the station.
People from different parts of the world, forced to leave their homeland, meet at the station of a small abandoned village while waiting for the train. An important train that will take them to where they have wanted to go for a long time, where they hope to finally find freedom. Will it arrive?
During this long wait, friendships are born, the plots of their relationships are woven and the individual stories of each come to life: the fears, joys and emotions of those who have challenged themselves, and so many dangers to freedom.
In the King’s Court.
In the power room of the palace of a mad king, the Marquis of the Moon, condemned to tell him new stories, decides to tell him that of the dream builders. This is how the dream builders come to life. They set to work in their laboratory, interacting with the lives of the protagonists who, unaware of everything, are waiting for the train at the station.
What happens when life changes suddenly and forever?
What is the force that makes us dream?
Stories of tenderness and bravery are told through songs, dances, objects that come to life and bring back distant people and memories.
PARIS – Not long into reading Jim Haynes’s autobiography, “Thanks For Coming!” in 1984, shortly after it was published, I said to myself, “I am certain I will meet this man.” I lived in Paris, as did he, I was interested in the expat literary and cultural world, and he was at the center of it, and my bookstore of choice was “The Village Voice,” on the rue Princesse, which it seemed impossible that he would not know. A meeting had to happen.
As it turned out, sitting in the back of that same bookstore, drinking a coffee and eating a brownie, and reading Jim Haynes’s book, who should walk in but Jim Haynes. With his big moustache, and slightly drawling accent, he was easy to recognize. I wasted no time in approaching him and telling him of the coincidence that there I was reading his book at that very moment and in he walks! So began a 37-year-long friendship that came to an end two days ago when Jim died at the age of 87. In fact, as anyone who knew Jim knows, it was not just Jim who left us, but a whole chunk of cultural life in Paris (and dare I add a cultural life of the 1960s and 70s in Britain too), and a living, walking, smiling philosophy of life.
Thinking about his life in the last few days since he left us on 6 January, it struck me that Jim was born in the same year that Hitler took power in Germany, and that he should die in a hospital in Paris at the same moment that the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was being raided by violent haters, was very significant: Nothing could be further from Jim Haynes’s philosophy of life than the hatred that both Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump knew so well how to manipulate in their followers. Jim was all about love and togetherness and sharing; and if that sounds like some kind of 1960s hippie peace sort of dreamy approach to life, well, not only was it just that, but Jim successfully – and contagiously – lived by it right to the end.
I will not spend time on this blog post reiterating the events of his life. That has been well handled all over the place, including in this obituary about Jim Haynes published in The Guardian, or on Jim Haynes’s own web site. The only thing I feel I can bring that would serve any purpose beyond what everyone else – and he himself in that autobiography as well – would say, is my own experience of Jim. And I look forward to reading many more such accounts by the other legions of people from every walk of life who knew him.
Even so, in a nutshell: Born in the U.S., in Louisiana, after coming to Europe in the military, he decided to live in Scotland in the 1950s, where he created the first paperback bookstore, then helped found the now-famous Traverse theatre, before then moving to London where he founded the Arts Lab theatre space, and the International Times newspaper. He then came to Paris on a teaching assignment at the University of Paris, and stayed the rest of his life here, writing, holding Sunday dinner salons for more than 40 years, creating his publishing company, as well as many other manner of homegrown artistic thing.
Jim Haynes Autobiography
Jim also, by the way, wanted to meet and know everyone in the world, and it was for that reason that I had no qualms about introducing myself to him in that bookshop. After that first meeting, we had many different kinds of meetings or communications over the years, never as close friends, but always as welcome friends. In the early years he would periodically call me up while I was working in the library of the International Herald Tribune – a newspaper that he read daily – in order to find some clip or other fact that he needed for whatever purpose. We would talk for a while, I’d find what he was looking for, and life went on.
I met him on occasion at the various book launches and small press nights at The Village Voice, at Shakespeare and Company or other meeting points during the period of the 1980s when it felt as if the literary expat world of Paris of the 1920s and 1930s or even the 1950s had returned. Several young expats from the English-speaking world decided to create their own literary magazines, and Jim, who had his own Handshake Editions at the time helped to encourage many of those young people with their literary magazines and actions. “Frank,” by David Applefield, was one of those, John Strand, who went on to have an excellent career as a playwright had another called “Paris Exiles,” and a woman named Carole Pratle had one called Sphinx. And, yes, Ted Joans, the famous beat poet was hanging around too. Jim had even helped advise AND occasionally work for Odile Hellier, the owner of that very same Village Voice bookstore where we met. (Applefield, by the way, who spent most of his life in Paris until he returned to the U.S. a couple of years ago, ran for Congress last summer, lost, and died suddenly the next day.)
One of the astounding things about Jim was just how many people he did indeed know. And the range of the kind of person they were. From the famous to the unknown, it didn’t matter who you were or what you did. He just liked people. But more important, even his act of knowing people was not something only for him: He loved to introduce people to each other, to make connections, to start relationships. One of his ventures was a global address book, comprising many of the people he met. And his famous Sunday dinners in Paris were always an occasion for Jim to introduce people to each other, and I mean in a really, outgoing, almost formal way: “Brad this is so and so; so and so, this is Brad.” That sense that we were all there to meet and share was one of the first signals you would receive upon entering the dinner.
On one of our early meetings at his home in the 1980s, I went because I learned he had some kind of recording studio at home and I wanted to record a couple of songs and a piece of prose writing I had done. I secretly hoped he would love it and use it in his then popular “Cassette Gazette,” a cassette tape collection of all kinds of writing and music and everything else you could put on tape. He showed no interest in the written piece, but he did sincerely and with some surprise in his voice, compliment my recording of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies song. At the time I was no longer playing music in public and had no ambitions to do so. So I was a bit pissed off he liked the song but not the writing!
That recording, by the way, was done by his longtime friend, Jack Henry Moore, who I knew nothing of at the time, but who I would eventually learn was also very much at the center of the underground of the 1960s. Jim wrote a Jack Henry Moore obituary for The Guardian when he died in 2014.
That, I believe in fact, was my first visit to Jim’s atelier at 83, rue de la Tombe Issoire, where one of his illustrious neighbours and friends was Samuel Beckett, by the way. Yes, Jim was friends with countless literary people, including Henry Miller, another one-time Paris expat, and he had a long running friendship with the book publisher, John Calder, with whom he founded the first Edinburgh international book festival. And to my delight and surprise, he had also corresponded with Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British literature, whom I would later meet, interview and befriend. I was delighted to be able eventually to give to Jim a copy of the interview book that I did with Colin Wilson. How strange the world is! (I recall now that I had also run into Jim at the Frankfurt Book Fair the one time I went there, which he attended regularly, and he introduced me to Calder.)
From a coffee and brownie meeting while reading his book, and him calling me up as a librarian at the IHT, soon he would be complimenting me on “writing half of the IHT newspaper,” or however he put it, while referring to all my regular Formula One writings and multiple-page special reports in that paper. He had treated me with the same respect as a support staff member of the IHT as when I became a regular journalist for the paper. Over the years we would meet in various circumstances, maybe at an organized play attendance followed by a dinner with a small group of people whom he had encouraged to see his friends’ play – or at a Sunday dinner at his atelier.
In another interesting Jim Haynes phenomenon, through the decades the number and kinds of people who I knew and who I learned also knew Jim Haynes grew and grew. They would, again, be from different countries around the world, and my relationship to them would vary completely, never being entirely to do with journalism or the arts, so vastly large was his relationship “footprint” around the world.
One of our more recent meetings happened four or five years ago at a book launch of a friend of his, Varda Ducovny, in a home art space in Paris, in Montmartre. I had met Varda at one of the above mentioned dinners. At the end of the evening, he left a few minutes before I did, and as I descended the stairs of the building, I found Jim, sitting oddly on the bottom stair, with a couple of his friends either side. He had fallen and hurt himself; in fact, he had fallen before the start of the evening, and despite being in pain throughout, he stayed for the full launch and cocktail ceremony. By then in his early 80s, such a fall felt ominous. And as it turned out, it really was the beginning of a series of incidents that would remove from him his strong good health and easy mobility.
One of our last meetings I now see in a short recorded interview that I did with him for some research that Ornella was doing, was in January 2018. Three years ago. While he was 100 percent there mentally – and morally, ie, in his usual good spirits – I seriously worried about how many months he might last. That he lasted three more years is testament to his incredible inner strength, which I put down to that Jim Haynes optimistic, happy, loving and thankful philosophy of life.
Ornella found a key to that philosophy in the book he had given her that day three years ago, a copy of his book, “Everything Is!” She posted these words from the book on her Facebook page, and I agree with their profundity, so I finish this post with them too: “Some people say that when they are happy they sing and dance. But I say: when I sing and dance, I am happy!”