Tag Archives: Theatre

Pirandello in Paris

“But don’t you see that the whole trouble lies here? In words. Words! Each one of us has within them a whole world of things, their own special world. And how can we ever come to an understanding if I put in words the sense and value of things as I see them; while you who listen to me must inevitably translate them according to the conception of things you have within yourself. We think we understand each other, but we never really do.”

Imagine you are a writer. Or someone who creates characters in your head. Or anyone curious about how people react and interact in given situations.

Now imagine you are at home, enjoying a moment to yourself. There is a knock at the door. You answer. In walk a family of six. You ask them their business. They reply that they want their story told. You enquire further. They tell you that a writer created them, but abandoned them in the artistic process, leaving them to wander in search of an author. You ask them to tell their story. They do: a story of incest, prostitution, poverty and suicide. 

“Life is full of strange absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true.” 

“Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello was performed for the first time exactly one hundred years ago in Rome in 1921. It caused a scandal — one of those famous theatre riots where the author has to hide or risk confronting an outraged, bloodthirsty mob. Pirandello’s play is currently being played in Paris in a production by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota that was first performed twenty years ago and has since toured the world. If you have a chance, I would highly recommend it.

For my part, I first saw a student production of this at the Burton Taylor Studio in Oxford. The implications of the play — that the characters we create are in some sense real and that we are only ever our own story and nothing more — moved me. The chilling moment when the six characters seek audience in the theatre is the first gasp of surprise. They are a downtrodden group, dressed in black and wearing ghastly faces, a lady in a mourning veil, two children, one with a doll. The director doesn’t know what to do with them, thinks they are playing a prank and asks them to leave. But they insist on telling their story, which evolves bit by bit, sometimes interpreted by the troupe, but never surpassed. 

“I am an “unrealised” character, dramatically speaking…” 

Be careful, not of, but with the characters you create. It might be cliché, but you don’t know when they might come back to haunt you. Or someone else. Take time and care to give them proper rites and, if necessary, bury them as befits a human burial. The fictional world, one that we take so lightly and for granted, is our own creation and surely we must take pride in this. Right? 

“The human, the writer, the instrument of the creation, will die; but their creation does not die.” 

One hundred years later it seems hard to think that Pirandello’s interpretation of theatrical space could provoke anymore than mild intellectual titillation. But the theatre is a subliminal space, one that hovers on the border between fiction and reality. It can create moments of almost blinding sincerity, just to establish an overwhelming feeling of doubt immediately after. It is certainty — these are fleshy, breathing humans who act; it is uncertainty — what happens on stage is subject to the laws of chance, like any other human endeavour. 

“It’s really like that that it happened.”

Writing as passion

The nicest thing that my grandma ever told me was when I was seven years old, 23 years ago. She said that a poem I had written in her upstairs guest room was ‘actually quite good’. It was about cowboys, I think, and it was written in verse and in pencil in a spiral book. It marks the beginning of my writing ambitions.

The most unpleasant thing that has been said about my writing was just this week, when a friend said that the first chapter (and only one they have read) was clichéd, that I just didn’t have what it takes and seemed to suggest that I give up. This, however, does not mark the end of my writing ambitions.

As I became a teenager, I started writing poems – they flowed out of me. But I also wrote what I might call prose poems, because they told a story with a poetic message to them. I also, as any youngster with literary ambitions, started drafting a fantasy novel inspired by the Elder Scrolls computer game. The poetry continued and cumulated when I was 17 with a poetic anthology of maybe 100 poems. I say maybe because, when I moved to France in 2012, I burnt the original manuscripts and there are two printed copies circulating somewhere in the world – I just don’t know where!

While at school, I learnt the beginnings of essay writing, which then was honed at university, when I must have written close to 200,000 words on Golden and Silver Age Latin literature, Roman history, Ancient Greek and Classical French tragedy, 19th century literature, with a specialisation on Stendhal and Mallarmé, and edging up to the middle of the last century. This form then found a home in a first blog called ‘Paris Theatre’, inspired by my own theatre critiques for the university newspaper, and it continues to this day in this very blog you are reading. 

I have written short stories, inspired by Maupassant and Baudelaire. And I have kept a written diary on and off throughout my whole life. I have taught a class on literature, examining the works of Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood. And now I am writing a novel, for which I wake up at 6am and write no more than 300 words at a time, crafting each paragraph with care. It is the second draft of this novel and is the fruit of many years of reflection. It is a labour of love, but also an exploration of a stylistic philosophy, inspired notably by my readings of Wayne C. Booth and Erich Auerbach. 

I could go on, but you probably get the point now. I admit that other people’s writing lists may be longer than mine. But what I see when I look back at this reflection is development: from poetry to essays, passing by short stories and blog posts, there remains the novel form to tackle. 

So this is a message to my friend, or indeed anyone who might want to take a pop at my work:

My writing is here to stay. And this is just the beginning. 

Writing Pantomime: A Magical THANG

Some of you may know what Pantomime is. It’s not the silent version, where an actor pretends to be stuck in a chimney, or a very small lift. Pantomime bla bla bla is a comic British tradition bal bla bla that has it roots in Commedia dell’Arte bla bla bla and has been a big money maker for theatres in the UK for decades. In fact, most small theatres make their revenue over the Christmas period with Pantomime. This allows them to survive for the next eleven months: the Pareto principle applied to theatrics. However, let’s not talk about the impact of the pandemic on local theatre here…

Well, because I am a kind of bastard off-shoot of the British theatrical tradition, I also do pantomime. But I don’t do it in a proper theatre, I do it at a university just outside of Paris. I can’t follow the traditions ad litteram, because I have new students every year. And my endeavours to put on a performance have been threatened by social unrest, major logistical changes, and even a global pandemic.

But I have come out of it bruised, but smiling and ready, able and willing to go forth with our fifth spectacle. For this year, I am looking for two things: first, to introduce elements from the last for plays and second to reconnect with a more classic pantomime plot, namely a love story thwarted eventually overs evil. It seems logical then to set the play in a context of elections, considering that France will see who the next president will be in May, 2022.

The gist then is this: in our fairytale kingdom (name suggestions most welcome in comments), the Prince has decided to throw elections, because he lost at a game of tiddlywinks. But there is a clause in the constitution stating that “a single voter” will cast the winning ballot. Everyone, however, in this dull kindgom is either married or engaged. Except for our young hero. However, his family is trapped by money issues and, though his goal too is to fall in love, he is tricked into a deal to stay single forever. Only with the help of Peter Pan, the Three Little Pigs and a great big Fairy Godmother will our hero lead the coalition agains the Prince and become victorious in the elections!

Now I have the plot. I just have to write the bloody thing now. 

How to do online theatre

As a play that I’ve been working on goes live tonight, here is a list of tips and tricks for putting on a play online*.

  1. Make sure there is a global pandemic for maximum disruption – nothing creates good theatre, as a total change in the status quo.
  2. Live in a country that favours its consumer and religious base – this way you will at least have something to fight against.
  3. Pick a script that was written for a live stage performance – as they say, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.
  4. Observe those running the country – they will be your best inspiration (applies both for tragedy and comedy).
  5. Select your online audience carefully – those with dogs, babies and loud streets are ideal.
  6. Make sure the actors have as little room as possible to perform in – who ever said the larger your plank, the better your act?
  7. Actually, don’t worry about that – just have them perform sitting down. Why walk when you can lie down?
  8. Choose a software that is adequate for the project. Surely in the space of less than a year the tech giants must have created something that can replace a millennia-old technique?
  9. Ensure that everyone in the troupe has different versions of said system, so that any directions you give get lost in the ether.
  10. Create a delay in the internet connection so the actors can’t pick up their cues and definitely have it crash just as you are about to perform.
  11. Remind the actors that it is good fun to wait at their computer for 40 minutes before they get to say their one line. (Like this was any better backstage either).
  12. Let audience members and actors know that they are separated by a computer screen, a series of 1s and 0s, and miles and miles of land and sea. I’m sure you can find other ways of throwing roses and underwear at them.
  13. And speaking of audience interaction, what better way to engage by turning off your video, lowering your mic level and typing into a gif-filled chat? Much more exciting than the aforementioned roses and underwear, I’m sure.
  14. Forget about supporting the wider artistic community through employing hair and make up specialists, costumiers and artists. Who says a low-pixel image can’t replace a hand-painted backdrop?
  15. Finally, keep the camera on as you change out of your happy mask into your sad one.

*I will write more seriously about this endeavour when there is more distance, as I am actually very proud of what our small troupe has managed to do in these circumstances.

This is just something to remember the thrilling experience, which has surely been the most beautiful part – creating memories to share with others.

Sein oder nicht sein

Das Leben ist ein Theater und ich war schon auf der Bühne im Mutterleib, weil meine Mutter in einem Schauspiel während ihrer Schwangerschaft gespielt hat. Nachdem ich nach der lebendigen Sensation süchtig geworden war, habe ich viel um das Stück herum getan: Schauspieler, Regisseur, Schriftsteller, Kritiker, Techniker, Bühnenbildner – fast alles. Vielleicht kommt meine Begeisterung daraus, weil das Kreative den Geist fördert, weil man mit kleinen Werkzeugen eine ganze Welt bilden kann, oder weil das Leben das Theater und umgekehrt ist (aber das ist für eine längere Diskussion). Hier würde ich mich darauf beschränken, eine kleine Geschichte über mein erstes Regisseurerlebnis zu schreiben.

Wegen meines Gefühls für die Bühne habe ich bald in der Universität solche Gesellschaft gefunden. Einer meiner Freunde hat ein Stück geschrieben und er hat mich gebeten, das in Szene zu setzen. Ich habe gerne akzeptiert. Zu dieser Zeit guckte man viele skandinavische Kriminal-Fernsehserien, oder besonders mein Freund. Das Stück nannte sich “Lars Sørken: A Norwegian Noir”. Die Handlung war typisch für diese Gattung: ein geheimnisvoller Mord, eine sexy Assistentin, und ein fast toller Detektiv. Ja ja…

Während all diesen hektischen Momente habe ich für das erste Mal die echte Verantwortung genossen. Ich musste nicht nur mit meinem Freund, dem Schriftsteller, sprechen, aber auch die Besetzung und das hochverehrtes Publikum kein Komma führen. Schließlich musste ich irgendwas, das auf der Bühne im Auftritt kommen würde, ausbaden. 

Ich habe mich neu erfunden. Die Mannschaftsarbeit war ganz wichtig. Zum Beispiel, wir brauchten eine künstliche Leiche für den Mord. Jemand hat seine Hose gegeben, ein anderer sein Hemd, ich habe das Füllmaterial gekauft und noch ein anderer hat sie zusammengeflickt. Ich musste die Leiche mit meinem Fahrrad durch die Stadt transportieren und die Passanten haben mich komisch angesehen. Das war ganz lustig.

Nach so vielen guten Erfahrungen ist es schade, dass ich mich dafür hier erst nach mehreren Jahren interessiert habe. Aber jetzt muss ich entscheiden zwischen einer bequemen Arbeit und einer vollgelebten Existenz. Soll ich eine gut bezahlte Stelle abwarten, oder werde ich immer die gleiche Wiederholung weiterführen?