PARIS – Performing in front of the Pompidou Center last Sunday afternoon, I had my first taste of dancing in a choreography. I feel often like the world’s worst dancer, and although music is at the center of my life, I hate dancing. I love to watch fine dancers, I just feel that I cannot do it. But the choreography on Sunday was in the form mostly of a kind of boxing movement, and we were in a big enough group that I felt I could fade into the mass and not be seen! So why did I do such a thing in front of the famous Pompidou Center – and in front of several cameras filming it?
Simple: I, like the other 14 or 15 people who took part in the performance – called “La 27ème heure” – was invited by Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro, with which I have performed occasionally over the last couple of years. Most importantly: The event was designed to fight violence against women. Another detail for why I participated was that in addition to the dance, I was told I could sing a song and play my guitar. So that gave me the inspiration to try the rest….
And so commenced several weeks of artistic creation for the Pompidou performance. Very early on the street action transformed from the kind of spectator participation event that TAC usually does into a performance in which the spectators were just that – invited to enter mentally into the performance, if not physically or vocally – and based on a choreography directed by Philippe Ducou, of ARTA. Ornella and the other artists proposed texts related to women’s rights.
In addition to her experience in performing street actions for women’s rights at TAC Teatro, Ornella also has frequently staged the “Vagina Monologues” of the author Eve Ensler, in Italy, in Italian. So several of the spoken texts came from excerpts of the “Vagina Monologues,” and were performed in several languages – French, English, Romanian, Vietnamese.
Ornella gave the event the name “La 27ème heure,” or “The 27th hour,” after an Italian study that showed that women have days that consisted of 26 hours – to take care of their jobs, their homes, their children, their husbands, etc. – where men need only 24 hours. The 27th hour is the hour that the women should have to be free and do as they please, to escape from their burden however they wish.
PARIS – Could there be a better time to be staging plays about the building of walls to separate peoples? Could there be a better play to show to Donald Trump about the significance of building walls than “Frontière Nord,” a play written in 2007 by the Canadian playwright, Suzanne Lebeau? After all, it was written for children (of all ages). My guess, though, is that Trump would never understand the messages of this play, even in the brilliantly produced and performed version that we saw at the Théâtre du Soleil last night – to say nothing of Trump’s certain lack of understanding of the French language. But what was so fabulous about this production by the visiting Montpellier “Théâtre de l’Evidence,” is that it speaks to the spectator on so many different levels of language – music, dance, vocal expression, mime, and above all of intensity of emotion – that it is unlikely any spectator can see it without some sense of the stifling nature of building walls between societies.
I’ve been thinking a lot in recent weeks about exactly what constitutes great theater, as I work on a personal theater project with TAC Teatro and its director Ornella Bonventre; and as I just had my story published in The Stage all about Paris’s 30 minuscule theatres of fewer than 50 seats; and after also seeing yet another piece in one of those theaters last week. The latter was the one-man-show enacting the “Diary of a Madman” by Nikolai Gogol at the Tremplin Théâtre in Montmartre. Some of these thoughts came to me during and after that production, directed by Stéphanie Slimani, with the actor Sylvain Zarli, attempting to adapt the classic Russian story to the stage using many of the elements of physical theater, including the introduction of another character beyond the human presence in the form of a dog puppet.
And it is this question of text vs. physical action that really preoccupies me. Most of the plays we see in Paris have to do with the text, and the talk the actors do around that text. The use of the physical to express another world is far too often an afterthought. This is where “Frontière Nord” director, and founder of the Théâtre de l’Evidence, Cécile Atlan, not just excels but in my view works like a virtuoso.
Puppet in Hand in Frontière Nord
The play took place at the Cartoucherie in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, in an annex space of the famous Théâtre du Soleil, founded and run by Ariane Mnouchkine since 1970. (Actually, her company was founded in 1964, but they have been at the former munitions factory since 1970, in a wonderland of theater that if you have not yet been there, you have to go.) The atmosphere of the place is more than convivial: Food and drink is served before and after the show, the room probably seats a maximum of 100 or so people, and you can usually meet the artists afterwards for a drink. The show was also presented in conjunction with the ARTA (Association de Recherche des Traditions de l’Acteur) research center at the Cartoucherie.
The live music is provided by the “Trio Zéphyr,” also based in Montpellier. Trio Zéphyr consists of three women string players – violin, viola and cello – who have been performing together for 19 years, and whose vocals are as sweet as their stringed instruments. The music comes from a rich assemblage of classical, modern and world music influences, and while it was composed by the trio for the trio – Marion Diaques, Claire Menguy and Delphine Chomel – and not for the play, Atlan worked specifically with pieces she chose or the trio suggested, adapting the performance and the pieces together.
Frontiere Nord at Théâtre du Soleil
The synthesis of the whole is just stunning, as the music adds brilliant drama to the already dramatic situation: The sudden appearance of a wall being built to separate people from the north and the south – and everywhere in between. It is a multiracial cast, too, by the way, with a total of eight actors – three men and five women – plus the trio of musicians, always present and visible off to the side, and sometimes involved practically physically in the action.
I cannot emphasize enough the quality of every element of this show: The actors are 100 percent in character the moment they arrive onstage, and the intensity of their performance is practically physically palpable throughout. The show was about 90 minutes long, and I was not bored for a moment. It was the third show I have now seen in the last year in this room – ranging from a fabulous amateur group’s production to the most recent show of Odin Teatret, called “The Tree” – and it kept me dreaming and asking questions and confronting ideas throughout (as had Odin’s show).
In many ways, I felt like I was watching a piece of ancient Greek theater, with the fabulous use of a chorus technique that continued throughout the play, and consisted of three or four characters speaking in unison much of the text. It was a highly stylized production, disconnected from everyday reality, that lifts the spectator into a world about as far from popular text-based theater as you can get.
The use of the puppet character was also beautifully done and added another dimension, and of course it is not surprising since early in her career, Lebeau had studied puppetry. Having started as an actress the 1960s, the Québecoise began devoting herself to writing plays in the mid-1970s and is now one of Canada’s most successful playwrights, especially as an export. I found it very interesting that at the same time as the main Théâtre du Soleil is putting on the production that became a huge controversy in Canada of the play “Kanata” – its Québecois director, Robert Lepage, was criticized for doing a play about the country’s indigenous people without using an indigenous actor (he is using Mnouchkine’s troupe, which personally makes sense to me, but that’s another story) – this other theater at the Cartoucherie is staging a play by another Quebecois that SHOULD be noticed by as many people as Kanata because of its very important subject matter in our day of Trumpian walls…but also, fittingly, in this day of the “Gilets Jaunes.”
“In this story,” said Atlan (in my translation from the French), “the building of a wall destined to create a border has dramatic consequences: Loss of jobs, uprooting of populations, isolation of families, suffering of children…the work exposes the question of freedom, and what humanity does with it. This wall leads to all of the barriers, both visible or invisible, that deprives humankind of its liberty.”
Theatre du Soleil Nefs
The play, appealing to almost all the senses – it also has fabulous costumes, by the way – and through a physical theater of an exceptional level, manages to communicate this message to the spectator in a powerful way that the written word or current events alone cannot come close to. That, I suppose, is precisely what makes great theater.
at the Théâtre du Soleil, from 08 to 24 February 2019
Ornella and Brad performing for TAC Teatro in Asnières-sur-Seine
ASNIERES-SUR-SEINE, France – It is now a week ago, so no longer considered news, but I wanted to get down as a matter of record, the fabulous day I spent performing with Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro at the Forum des Associations of Asnères-sur-Seine. Founded in Milan, Italy, TAC Teatro now also has a base in France, in Asnières. And last weekend was the annual associations forum of this city just outside of Paris. That meant it was time for the local associations to show off what they do, and try to get new adherents. We had the whole stage to ourselves in front of the mayor’s building – the Hôtel de Ville, or City Hall – and had great fun performing a little show as Ornella introduced TAC to the people of Asnières.
I was pleased to find myself on stage for the first time with the newly face-lifted Peter McCabe, my ventriloquist’s – well…o.k., sorry, Peter, I’ll just say, happy to be on stage with Peter after his recent facelift. Only problem was the facelift seems to have gone to Peter’s ego, and he announced to the people of Asnières that he was going to be the next president of the United States of America – saying that he could do a lot better than the current office holder.
We put together a short video of some highlights of our time on the stage, which I paste in here; and we were very proud to find a few days later – and this makes some sense of having not written about this before now – to find that we were picked up in the official city video of the event, very much near the place of honor, in the last 10 or so seconds of the video, at approximately the 2 minute 20 second point of the video. I am pasting that one in here too.
In any case, it was a fabulous day, and thank goodness the weather was great – as it has been all summer, but after the worst winter in recent memory in Paris (and Asnières). I hope Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro are selected to do this again (as not all of the associations were selected to show off their expertise).
PARIS – Having now arrived back in Paris after a weekend in England, I have finally found a few minutes to report on our final days at the Braziers Park Mini Indie Film Festival, and what came after. (Does that sound like one of those click-bait headlines?: “…what happened next will ASTOUND you!!!”)
The final day at the Braziers Mini Indie Film Festival was highlighted by a great fun final show resulting from Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro’s Flow Zone workshop – three days of the workshop ended in a show put together by the participants – and the long shadow from the night before of a fabulous film by a 16-year-old director.
Actually, the film, called “Charlie’s Letters,” and about a voyage by the director’s great grandfather up through Italy solo trying to escape from the enemy during World War II, was certainly one of the high points of the festival. I think few of the spectators expected to find this mature work of a film done by a teenager, despite the hype around it stating that Elliott Hasler, the director, was the youngest ever director to premier a full-length dramatic film at a major film film festival in Britain, as he had already done at both the Brighton Film Festival and the Edinburgh festival.
Somehow, Elliott, with the help of his family’s financial support – with a miraculously small budget of about 7000 pounds sterling, managed to create a persuasive feature film where both the size of the budget and the age of the director is soon forgotten by the passionate story telling. It was in fact years in the making, as Elliott began it at between 13 and 14 years old and finished it just shy of his 17th birthday. He is now 18, and during the talk after the film showing at Braziers, he struck me as being as mature as all the great young and precocious Formula One drivers I have interviewed over the years – Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen, and many more – and made me feel that there will be great things to come from him.
I don’t want to go into detail about the film, as I’ve not got the skills of a film critic, but suffice to say that the story – with Elliott in the lead role and looking like a man in his late 20s or more – just draws you in from the first images and carries you along with expert editing, story-telling, visual beauty and acting. The only hint for me – as a non professional – of its low budget nature was the less than perfect sound capture. (So I was not surprised to learn that it was done with a mic on the camera, rather than a separate sound source.) But even this was dealt with in a way that managed to add a certain atmosphere to the whole.
My feeling was that Elliott, given the right support and continued interest (he said he started making films at around age 10) could certainly go on to become another David Lean or Richard Attenborough or…Elliott Hasler!
And from Braziers on we went to Giffords Circus in Stroud
Giffords Circus tent
It has been years and years that I had intended to attend Giffords Circus, a small family-run circus that I first heard about in 2014 when I met three of the musicians of the circus’s orchestra. I wrote about that meeting on this blog, as it happened in the context of my open mic journeys around the world. They showed up at the great Catweazle Club open mic in Oxford, and I could see immediately that they were massively talented – and entertaining – performers. I introduced myself afterwards and we continued our musical evening at a pub or two after Catweazle ended.
So it was that a light flashed in my mind last month when Peter Pullon (to be mentioned below) told me that I really should check out the circus up on the commons outside Stroud. It turned out that the final date of the circus in Stroud took place on Tuesday afternoon, and that I had just the time to attend on this, my return trip to see Peter.
So Ornella and I attended the show, and I was hoping to find my friend the musical director of the show, but he was not there for this performance! What we did find, however, was a very, very classy circus show that incorporated the best feel of the intimacy of a family-run circus along with a judicious hiring of acts from around the world to make up the non-regular acts. So in the end, I may not have met my old acquaintance, but I did meet a performer who used to live on the same street as I did in Toronto, while Ornella, who was born in Sicily, met a couple of Sicilian performers.
The show was sold out, and while I have no idea how many spectators the tent seats, it felt like it must have been anywhere between 500 to 1,000. It was smaller than many of the big Christmas shows I have seen in Paris, but bigger than the smallest. My favorite acts were the main clown, who was almost acting as a ringmaster too, the juggler, and the acrobats who launched themselves high above the ground in the second part of the show. I also absolutely loved the miniature ponies and the dachshund dog act.
The performers live at this circus in trailers, as it is a real, true travelling show. Part of the charm of attending this last show outside Stroud was to watch how the troupe began dismantling the tent and packing up the show the moment the place had emptied of spectators, as it was clearly time to hit the road. It reminded me of my life in Formula One and the biggest travelling circus of them all in the afternoon after a Grand Prix race ends.
And then back to Peter Pullon’s workshop to reunite with Peter McCabe
Peter Pullon and Peter McCabe and Brad Spurgeon
After the circus on Tuesday we headed over to the workshop of the master puppet maker, Peter Pullon, who was giving a facelift to my sidekick, Peter McCabe. I had left Peter with Peter last month, 43 years after Pullon made Peter! Pullon is a fascinating man, having had two or three successful careers in his life, including working in theater for the decade of the 1960s, before setting up his own business as a theatrical prop builder in the 70s and then becoming the film director and producer of advertisements.
And during much of this time he also sidelined as a great puppet maker. His two most famous creations were probably Emu, the bird figure of Rod Hull, who was massively popular in the UK in the 70s, and the ventriloquist figure, Orville. In recent years he decided to put an end to the TV commercial making career and return to his great love of making puppets. So he set up shop in the Cotswolds and now devotes his time fully to making – and repairing or renovating – puppet figures.
When I approached him a year or so ago and asked if he would take on a renovation of my Peter McCabe, he agreed, and I had to just wait for the right moment. I was, of course, somewhat worried at the prospect of what might happen to Peter if I sent him across the channel and subjected him to the no doubt painful process of a face – and body – lift at age 43, but when I stepped into Pullon’s studio on Tuesday and saw the masterful job he had done, I was overjoyed. So was Peter. He apparently had a lot more fun in the Cotswolds than he usually does with me in Paris.
Stay tuned for the further adventures of Peter McCabe (and me) in coming months….
In the end, our second trip in as many months, was as successful and fun as the first. We hope to do it again soon. (Peter is yelling in the background, telling me to cut the crap, he refuses to undergo another facelift for at least another 43 years.)
BRAZIERS PARK – I just finished this afternoon showing my Colin Wilson interview film at a film festival in the barn of an ancient country home called Braziers Park in England, not far from Oxford. It was a beautiful fitting location for the first show of this film to a general public after 12 years of its making. I have so much to say about this whole fantastic weekend at this extraordinary faux Gothic former home to Ian Fleming – the author of James Bond – and to Marianne Faithfull, who spent some time of her childhood here and later brought her boyfriend, Mick Jagger to visit. It is more than 300 years old, but it is thanks to its more recent history that I ended up here. Since the 1950s the house has been the home to an “intentional community,” which is hosting this Mini Indie Film Festival this weekend.
That community is a small, nearly self-sufficient commune that acts as an educational institution, or to be more precise, a School of Integrative Social Research. So there’s nothing religious or sect-related in the place. It is apparently England’s oldest such community – or one of the oldest. I did managed to read a few unflattering things written about it (mostly to do with sex) by Marianne Faithfull in a book of hers about her time at the community, of which her parents were members, but it seems to have been changed since then, because I’ve seen nothing odd going on!
In fact, I was a little worried before I came about what I might find. But it has been a fantastically comfortable event and lifestyle. The house looks and feels like something you would see in a classic film – anything from an Agatha Christie story to Frankenstein, or, indeed, James Bond – with some 20 or so rooms for guests, a study, drawing room, large kitchen, very high ceilings, and a huge garden. There is also a campsite, and many acres of farmland, and even farm animals.
I was invited by one of the Colin Wilson film’s producers to show the film here as he, Michael Butterworth, was also showing a film about his life and publishing concern. In a nutshell: Michael Butterworth is one of the founders of the Savoy Books publishing company in Manchester, and he is also the publisher of my book, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Mike was also one of the producers of the interview film, along with Jay Jeff Jones, who was also the director, and a small production company in England called Excalibur Productions.
Savoy Books also had a hand in the film production, so it was the perfect marriage to join up the showing of the Colin Wilson interview with the film about Savoy Books, called “House on the Borderland,” which is by Clara Casian, and is about the publishers’ problems with the Manchester Police Department, a battle that went on for years decades ago. (Here is the long trailer I made of the interview film, the full length of which runs 1 hour 30 minutes.)
Showing the film in the barn was a delight, as was speaking with the spectators in that setting afterwards. In fact, the festival has been a wonderfully quirky and thought-provoking adventure with a huge cross-section of films, including horror films, documentaries, short art films, and others.
There was an excellent documentary called Power Trip, by Zoe Broughton and Paul O’Connor, about the battle against fracking in England. It covers the trials of a real grassroots movement by citizens under threat of the ravages of this bizarre method of removing oil from the earth, in a battle fought by normal citizens, including many housewives, grandmothers, and people who would never otherwise have been involved in such a movement.
Ornella Bonventre in Ian Fleming Library at Braziers Park
The horror film “The Fallow Field,” that I saw last night, scared the hell out of me. At first I was sorry I attended, as it played from 10 PM to 11:30 PM, and we need to get early to bed and have a full night of sleep here. I was sure this horribly frightening film would keep me awake all night with nightmares. In fact, perhaps it was the act of catharsis, but I slept much better last night than I have in days. Still, it was perhaps a help to have the leading actor in the room to talk to after the film. This way, we could confirm to ourselves that it was only a film. As this actor, Michael Dacre, proved to be harmless as a person in real life. Or rather, he seemed not at all to be the horrendous character he portrayed in the film, a character that ranks up there with the worst of them in my experience. Meaning, a horrendously evil, nasty, but at the same time human, murderer. Dacre plays a farmer who kills people and then buries them, only to dig them up again…. But I don’t want to give away the story. Suffice it to say that this is an excellent horror film that also forces us to ask questions about our own humanity. It transcends the genre. Made in 2009, it has apparently had a hard time breaking out, including spending a few years in its own fallow field.
The festival is also called a “Wider Community Weekend,” as it is a kind of “open doors” weekend to invite the community in for many other activities as well. Among those is the three-day workshop by Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro, a workshop which she has called “The Flow Zone.” I have been attending her workshops, and helping out there was well, and learning a lot about the process of acting…and getting into the flow zone.
Ornella Bonventre directing her Flow Zone workshop at Braziers Park
The festival continues tomorrow, so I may well post again on the subject. Oh, I should explain a little more about how this was the childhood home of Ian Fleming at the turn of last century, so there is a direct link to the James Bond novels somewhere. And there is an Ian Fleming library within the house. I have barely begun to explore all of the nooks and crannies, and somehow I feel I will leave the place without doing so, as there are so many activities that there is barely any time available to lie about. But this only gives me another reason to hope to return next year – maybe to show my open mic film…!
Oh dear, and how could I almost forget to mention that last night, in fitting with my usual adventures and this blog, they held an open mic in the drawing room – complete with a mic and a little amp. I had my guitar and played a couple of songs, Ornella did a bit of the song from her workshop – with everyone joining in – and many others did readings of prose – including Dacre reading something from Jack London – and Michael Butterworth reading some of his brilliant short poems. I was very touched also by a regular denizen of Braziers Park who sang a song that he said he learned here in 1961 or 1962. The beat goes on!
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
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
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
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
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.
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….
PARIS – I could have created some click-bait for those who do not know who James Thierrée is by adding in the headline of this blog post the words “grandson of Charlie Chaplin.” But James Thierrée, who is the son of Chaplin’s daughter Victoria, made a name for himself long, long ago, and so it is debatable how much value the “Charlie Chaplin’s grandson” moniker still holds today. Thierrée, who grew up performing since he was a child in his parents’ circus, then trained all over the world (including at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan and the Harvard Theater School), and who is adept as a mime, dancer, acrobat, violinist, actor, director among other things, has clearly added several dimensions to the Chaplin identity that he inherited. Of course, the one thing he cannot really do anything about is that he looks almost a dead-ringer for his grandfather – especially the grey-haired version. This last week Thierrée has been putting on a show, called Raoul, at the 13éme Art theater in the place d’Italie in Paris, and Ornella Bonventre and I decided to check it out.
My not-reviews are meant to be blog posts about me going to a show, reading a book, listening to music, eating a meal, and talking about it as a spectator – no “critic” attached. But this time, I decided to explore a slightly different version, and give most of the words over to Ornella, who, as an Italian actress, theater director, playwright and circus artist, I knew had a much better sense of what James Thierrée’s show was all about and could do a better job of talking about it than I can.
So we spoke about it together, and I have decided to run a little Q&A from that talk as my “not review.” Oh, and by the way, just for the sake of context it is important to know that despite our leaving home on time to get to the show by its 20:30 start time, we arrived at least 15 minutes late due to the tragic accident of someone falling – or jumping? – onto the metro tracks on Line 6 at the Quai de la Gare station and causing us to lose nearly half an hour in getting out of the metro and finding a taxi and then having to wait to be taken to seats in the 900-seat theater. As a result of me being placed in a handicapped person’s seating area, my view of the show was not great (would the view have been better from a wheelchair? If not, this is scandalous.), and we missed the beginning of the show, and therefore perhaps some vital information on the game-plan of the spectacle.
The Q & A With Ornella Bonventre Answering Brad Spurgeon on James Thierrée’s Raoul
Ornella Bonventre & Brad Spurgeon Clowning
Question to Ornella from Brad.You were telling me that you enjoyed some of the technical aspects of the show, like the puppets but also James Thierrée’s physical movements. Why?
Answer from Ornella. I enjoyed the entire show from a technical point of view. I was very, very surprised because I wasn’t expecting anything. I wasn’t expecting a comical show, I wasn’t expecting a mime show, I wasn’t expecting him to be doing Charlie Chaplin. I was just expecting something very good – and in fact it was very good. I enjoyed the techniques he used as a director, because the structure of the show was based on principles that I am trying to use as a theater director too. For example, the puppet theater technique, or the use of the lights, the use of the space, the different levels of height he used on the stage throughout.
And I think this is something that James Thierrée had to face as the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin. He cannot just repeat what Charlie Chaplin did. He has to be something else, and probably something more and different and unique in his own way.
Q.What about the mixing of the huge puppets he used occasionally as well, the use of the giant stage set, and trapeze-like things, etc.?
A. I loved that because everything was transformed. Each object had its own life and was transformed into something else. And that’s very magical. And it is always the goal in my theater to obtain this result as well. And they were doing it with very traditional techniques. The puppets were built in a very simple way. And they were moved by people, not with machines, so there was nothing extraordinarily technical, and the materials also were simple, poor materials – like papier maché, simple cloths, etc.
A. Yes. I loved the use of sound in this show, the use of the soundtracks and the noises. And I think that they were necessary because they were also covering the noises of all of the huge machines that were moving up and down on the stage, the things from the floor to the ceiling, and the huge puppets. So the soundtrack was necessary to cover these sounds so that the audience would not be distracted and removed from the spell of the show by the unintended noises. It was very well done.
Q.For me the biggest problem was that I was waiting for, or expecting, a kind of storyline that I couldn’t find. So it was difficult for me to hitch in to the narrative. Was that something you found difficult too?
James Thierrée aloft in Raoul
A. Yes, there was no story…or possibly because we arrived late and we weren’t able to see the beginning of the show, and that might have helped to follow the story more. But even so, for me the story was: “Welcome to a magical world!” A world made of little things in which the objects have their own life, and the objects themselves were actors on the stage. Strange things were happening around this poor character who was reacting to what was happening around him. And he was very tender; he was the typical character of the clown, with the stupefaction, the wonderment about everything; every little thing became something extraordinary. This is the principle of the work that we saw. And it is something that I really adore – the magic of little things.
Q.That makes me think of the fact that I felt the theater was too big for the show! 900 seats! I had the worst seat I ever had in a theater (for the maximum price of 45 euros), with two people right in front of me on the same level, and I could not see clearly the area where Thierrée performed most of the show. It was difficult for me to see the little things and small movements. So I felt I was missing a lot. How was your seat just beside me?
A. My vision was good. It is true that probably the theater was very, very big, but fortunately for Thierrée it was full. It was sold out. And I think that’s why it’s necessary to have a very big theater; in order to contain all of his fans, the whole audience that he brings. It’s true that perhaps this show can work better in a smaller theater, but the reason for such a big theater I think is simply to contain the audience he brings.
But, even so, I was able to follow the details. As I said before, every theater show is made of the details – the movements even of the eyes – and usually you are able to see those things even if you are far away from the stage. Because that’s it, this is theater. The quality is in the details, and even if you are not really able to see clearly the details they touch you in any case.
Q.What did you see that I did not see since I am not an expert on mime, on movement, on dance? Can you tell me what you saw in his skills, in his techniques, that was so exciting for you and that held your attention?
A. Perfection. I never saw such a high quality of movement in all the senses. His movements were so fluid, so organic and so true – above all organic and fluid and it had a high, high quality that I’ve never seen before.
Q.What kind of movements are you talking about in particular?
A. In general. The whole show is based on his movements. There is no wind on stage, for example, but it exists, a very strong wind blowing at 100 kph because you see his body that is acting as if the wind is there. So he is creating a world with his body, just with his body. He is acting as if the wind is there, so for me, the wind was there. I was believing in that.
Q.Some of the funniest, most successful parts were the simplest, most slapstick things, I felt. Like him pouring water into a cup that it is bottomless, and then when he tries to drink it, there is no water in the cup. It’s a gag. It’s an old joke. But for me it was a moment I could really relate to and identify with.
A. Me too. Welcome to the magical world of the little things. It’s amazing how he had such beautiful tricks and big machines that carry him up and around the stage, but what is working best are those little things. In fact, you asked me about the quality of his movements, and the quality of his actions, and I told you it is amazing. I never saw such perfection. Why? Because I always saw those tricks – the water, or the wind or the body acting in a certain way, mime stuff – because I grew up in circus, in theater, and to me this is my daily life. So I appreciated those little things because they were so well done, they were magical.
Q. So he did old gags in a fabulous way.
Q.What about the advantage or disadvantage of being Charlie Chalplin’s grandson? I think that part of the reason the theater was full was because everyone knows this is Charlie Chaplin’s grandson. But also that can be a negative thing too because you are being compared to Charlie Chaplin, to your grandfather. How do you see this aspect of his identity?
A. I think it is already difficult for everyone to find their own identity. To find our identity is a battle. And so, I think that for him, as for all people who are the “son of,” “grandchild of” or the “daughters of” famous and loved personalities, it is very, very difficult. I think it is a weapon that can turn against you easily if you are not good enough to demonstrate to the audience that you are really unique and great in your own way. So at the beginning it can be something that brings an audience, but if you are not good enough this is also something that can destroy you forever. And I don’t think the theater was full because he is the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin, because he has been on the stage for many years. So probably in the beginning the theaters were full because he was the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin, but today if he wasn’t good enough the theater wouldn’t be full.
Q.Were there areas that disappointed you?
A. I don’t know if “disappointed” is the right word. But one flat point was the story. It is true. I don’t know if it was because we missed the beginning or not. Another thing, and I asked myself this: “Why are you not doing this guy??!” It was a moment when the house lights were turned on over the audience and he stared at us, and I thought, “My God, use this! Now you see us, and you are trying to interact with us. But do this for real. Come to us and use this other part of the space.” In fact, he did do that, but just one time. When he entered from the door and walked directly in front of us. But it was just one time, and it was so quick. Just a moment like that! (Ornella snaps her fingers.) So not disappointment, but…it could have been more.
And also, I think this show was all about teamwork, and I would have loved to see more of the other participants. As well as their names on the posters, etc., being more recognized for their contribution.
But the rhythm of the show was amazing. Because it was a very long show. And without a structured story. So it is difficult to keep an audience seated down like that for 1 hour and 40 minutes. So the rhythm was amazing.
And the meta-theater aspect was interesting too. To show the show being made was amazing.
Q.You mean when they were fake hiding the members of the cast and crew with screens as they came out to set up the props, pretending that they were not there, etc.? But much of the show was “meta” stuff. It is external appreciation of what was being done, as opposed to really entering into the character, no? How much were you involved personally in the character?
A. I can honestly say to you that I was moved. As I am moved every time that I work with Claudio Madia in Milan and he really becomes a child, and the tenderness, and the innocence comes out…. At that moment I am completely with the character and I am moved. Because the theme of the innocence of childhood is personally something that touches me a lot. Was I with the character? Yes.
Q.We are living in a world where anything is technically possible in film, on the internet, in YouTube, and here is James Thierrée’s show with traditional gags, the flesh-and-blood live performance of an individual, and nothing that you can see in the way of the technological achievements that even a knowledgeable home video editor can do. What place does a show like this have in today’s world where our senses have been numbed by anything being visually possible on YouTube?
A. I think, honestly, that shows like this, and not even just this kind in particular, but the theater in general has a very important place in our contemporary world. I really believe that it is the future of this world. Theater is a meeting. But for real it is a meeting. It is a meeting between the audience and the actors and it is a meeting between the daily life of the audience and the life of the show, of the stories of the show. It is a meeting between the audience and the audience. It is work that you do in a team. When you are working in a show you are not alone. Your show depends on other people. So theater is a meeting, and it is made by people for people. And it is the future. And its place in our contemporary world is very, very important. Wherever there are two people in the same spot that want to listen to each other, there is theater. It is up to theater today to save human relationships and humanity.