In Paris, I went up in a balloon!
At the Gate
First Row: Linda Salmon, John
"Firs" Vicich, Peter Salmon, Julie "Dunyasha" Siefkes, Russell
"Lopakhin" Hamilton, Lexie "Anya"Devin, Daria "Varya" (!)
Sanford, Jamie Yates
2nd Row: Kathy Ritter-Vicich, Tony "Simeonov-Pishchik" Pennino, Terri "Charlotta" Kelsey, Kip "Yepikhodov" Yates, Ken "Yasha"Legum
Not pictured: Ruthanne "Renevskaya" Gereghty, David "Trofimov" Fraioli, Ron "Gaev" Thomas--all arriving under separate cover--and Alex "Taking the Picture" Roe
8 November 1999
Russell says it has yet to sink in.
We're going to Paris, we're going to Paris, we're going to Paris. (This much is true. This entry comes from 35,000 feet (give or take) on Continental 54. 14 of us are in the air: most of the cast, the director, two spouses, and two friends. Ruthanne and her husband took an earlier flight, and David and Ron are coming tomorrow, as is William, the lighting designer, courtesy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.)
Friday's send-off, the last time we were all together, was a better presentation than we ever might have hoped. With an audience of over 40 friends and curious strangers, we ran through the production, without benefit of lighting or proper set, but with aplomb and assurance. New cast members, seasoned cast members, former cast members in new parts all came together like they had been playing this Cherry Orchard for years, and the audience left us with good wishes and high hopes. We called off Saturday's rehearsals, and crossed our fingers.
Meeting at the airport--not a surety on this, the day of the New York City Marathon, which blocks traffic and wearies the whole of the city--well in advance, we processed ourselves and our bags, which include a guitar, a mandolin, and a trunk. The latter 4 pounds overweight. Re-packing before a line of impatient international travelers is not fun. We repaired, severally, to a bar, where the drinks were practically at airport prices. But (in theory) all the props and costumes are in the hold under our feet.
The flight is . . . cramped. And we've been shushed. At least once.
Sadly, we are not all seated together. Lexie sits forlornly across the body of the plane, with a window seat but a stranger in the aisle. Russ hits the back Alex's seat, overandoverandoverandover. Alex considers re-casting. Tony stands, Daria chats, Terri sleeps: we fly.
On the flight are French travelers, a marathoner with her feet in plastic bags, a psycho-analyst who wants to know more about the show.
As do we all.
|A moment of reflection on the bus to the airport.||A lifetime of reflection on the plane.|
The Paris Metro is truly very easy to use, and it takes you wherever you want to go. Unless you have props and costumes and a group of 14 trying to get to a theatre you've never seen after you've been awake in front of a soundless showing of Wild Wild West on an airplane all night. The trunk (and its rotating Sysiphi) had the hardest time.
Approaching the theatre (up the hill, to the left, to the left) hearts beat faster; bags feel lighter. Well, no. And then, there, behind the Theatre Atelier (a most impressive place of "Off-Broadway" stature, was the Theatre Atalante: ours. Alexei (Something Russian)--as in reading Dostoevsky, we tend to go for one or two syllables and let the rest of the names fend for themselves--meets us at the theatre. He patiently waits as we scramble, like gerbils, into the dressing rooms, across the stage, up the front stairs and down the back. It's much fun. (This entry is written in its lobby, late late at night, the author surrounded by posters in French and Russian--notably those for our own performance. In the midst of the Cyrillic, "Millenium Stage". Then Alex descries his own name, practically unrecognizable, but certain in Russian. He recovers hours later.)
To the hotel: The Meliti has small rooms, but smaller towels, which
are almost as thick as the face cloths on the flight over.
It has television, which seems vaguely pornographic by our standards. It has a breakfast (What time, monsieur? Any time: we have lots of bread.) And it is, as Yvgeny promised, if nothing else, "clean." Not, very. But: home.
It is in a region of Montmartre that is mostly African, and has been a market district for ever and ever, we assume. Many streets are named for "marchands" such as the street of the fishsellers. The hotel itself is on Rue Poulet. Chicken Street. Still evidenced by the butchers next door.
Not far from the theatre, it is perfectly located, and very friendly.
The majority of us were not too tired to take a sight seeing trip on a bateau mouche. Not just a tourist must-do, but wonderful, beautiful, and the best choice. Then the best restaurant in the world. The others go to the theatre for a play, performed by our host and his wife, wholly in Russian. Three plays that have not been presented since the 1920's. Hard to follow for the English speakers, even with a brief plot breakdown before hand, but wonderfully acted. The best choice And then the best restaurant in the world.
This morning, we were invited to hear a harp recital at the Conservatoire Rachmaninoff--the oldest conservatory in Paris, and recently bought by the Russian government, rather than rented. It is a beautiful old, weathered French building, and it resounds with piano practice. We are greeted through the window in its courtyard by a courtly and gracious gentleman--the director, one thinks and must ask--perfectly kindly. Then, he is told we don't understand Russian,and so repeats himself before we enter.
The recital, with the Seine out the window, and the Eiffel Tower a little farther on, is very fine. "I could spend my life doing this," we think.
|Our champion, Yvgeny Lukoshkov, brings us around a corner of New York Street for natural-looking approach (now on video.)||Our host at the Conservatoire Rochmaninoff (M. Chermediev) interviews the harpist (Helen Bellius).|
Afterwards, we are interviewed for Russian television. Igor (truly) turns the camera on us and Yvgeny asks questions about Russian culture. Alex stammers about heart and expression; Terri speaks to the point about identity; Daria observes strength and humility in women; Tony makes geo-political generalizations; and Russ says he would like to play some Neil Simon next go-round. He'll be getting a call.
The rest of the day is devoted to building the set and running the play with sound cues (and the valiant Sandrine, who, in spite of the fact that she does not speak English often, does almost perfectly the first time round.)
The run, by the end of which we are all laughing too hard to get the lines out, goes well.
But tomorrow, we open.
First time on the set.
We have opened. And the reception from our Russian hosts, their guests, and the theatre is beyond words. Perhaps the best illustration come from the director of the Conservatoire Rachmaninoff, who came as our guest, and who stood, leading the applause in the lobby of the theatre as we emerged from the dressing rooms: He was for some time silent, once the clapping died down. Then: "I am astonished. That you could understand so well, that you could capture this. Chekhov writes at a period of Russian history when many things are ending, dying. He is nihilist. And you, who come here from so far, from a country that is so optimistic, and so forward moving, can present this play, and--I am talking, and maybe I cannot speak for all Russians, but to me--that you can understand this. I am astonished." And the applause begins again.
Alex replies that he is a very negative and sad person. For a moment, there is another silence, and then the laughter. "I do not believe that," responds the conservatory director.
We could hardly wish for a better opening. Well attended, well received, and practically flawless. (A sound missing here, a prop breaking there. Ce n'est pas grave.)
The day leading up to it was not so easy. Kip braved a French Builder's Square -- "Castorama"--to buy cornice molding and paint for the set. John found a new wig. The whole cast scrounged Paris for leaves to strew about the set. And the final dress, first time with lights and sound, went slowly, though surely, at 2:30 the afternoon before we opened.
Then, it was time to paint, filling the theatre with that distinctive and welcoming perfume that defies even the best ventilating systems. (L'Atalante's is not the best.) It's a good thing the French smoke in the theatres.
William has done a fantastic job with the lights, though. And Francois (an old friend of the director) puts some finishing touches on the set that make just the last bit of difference. It is (as we are told by many of the audience) beautiful.
Here, a word in praise of Stephane Deschamps, the technical director of l'Atalante, who has made everything possible. Not only has he allowed and helped with every quirk and query as we have overrun his theatre, not only has he built much of what we need himself and taken us into the catacombs below the neighboring theatre l'Atelier to pilfer their prop supply, but he has pointed us to an excellent Arabic restaurant for cous cous and selected the best wine (though pas tres cher) we have had yet. He is a surprise and a dream, and he laughs at most of our jokes as well.
It's also our good fortune to have impressed into service Sandrine Goullencourt--recommended to us by Francois--who is running our sound and lights. Not facile with the language, which is even harder to follow from the booth while the actors inflect and emote and whatever else it is we do, she reads word for word the script and has learned to run the show as fast as anyone we've ever worked with.
Now the trick is to attract an audience. We have designed posters, and found a place to print them from a computer disk. Off to paper every place we imagine Americans and English-speakers will ever go in Paris.
Francois and Sandrine;
Stephane and Raphaelle
Gentle reader: a confession. This journal masquerades to be an objective report of the adventures of the Cherry Orchard company in Paris, but it fails miserably. The charade must end. This is MY report of what I see and hear, and we all do so much across the city, that I cannot pretend to give a full account.
Today, I stayed inside (after sleeping till noon--which is 3-6 o'clock your time, most probably) all day working on publicity. The most of the rest of us were off at the Arc de Triomphe for Armistice Day and the attendant parade. Can I speak to their feelings there? to the fun of going up into the arc? To wondering why they copied the one in Washington Square?
No. I cannot. I can say what fun it was to meet the guy at "Cyber Cube", the computer-time rental and internet connection place Francois suggested for printing. An odd transaction with a pleasant enough guy who may come see our show. Who knows?
Or the happiness at being recognized well enough by the man at the streetside vendor to grab a sandwich and coffee without paying, because? I had only a large bill but the knew I'd return.
A young fan of the production, or of the actresses at least, asked me last night if I found the French "cold." Obviously not, young interviewer. Though the extraordinary thing is the impenetrability of another culture when you are not involved one-on-one with your native guide. Two Parisians speak in front of me, and the one who has been my best copain just till now becomes a complete stranger in his own tongue to his own countryman. The speed, the inflection, the posture . . . everything conspires to defend against my integrating--even if that is not the intention.
But so it goes. Vive la diference.
Tonight's show was, sadly, underattended. But one of our guests was a Russian author and reporter who lives in Paris, and who allowed that it was the best Chekhov she had seen in Paris. We allowed her to think so. It is certainly the best Chekhov we have ever performed in Paris. But her praise was deeply meaningful, and fortunately, she spoke with everyone.
It was, as I may judge, a tremendous show--the best yet, without a doubt. And even the handful of spectators called us back for a second curtain.
The wonder of travelling is to gain a new perspective on one's own life it by immersing in another. But to travel for such a reason is infinitely better. One is reminded--particularly if one is at a harp recital yesterday--that we live at our best like harp strings: they become invisible when they are plucked, as if their whole being becomes their sound, and all such self-conscious poses such as style and desirability disappear.
I hope to call the consulate tomorrow, that we all may sing a little louder for more people.
|Actors and friends--including one we met on the plane on the way over (!)||The director, late at night, at 90°. (Alex took this, Amanda, so in a way, I stuck to your interdiction.)|
Tonight, instead of watching the show, I went to a presentation of Pushkin's Don Juan--not at all dissimilar to the Dom Juan of Moliere or the Don Giovanni of Mozart, of course--but rendered in such a way to be all but unrecognizable. Which is to say, despite the formidable talents of the actors and the elaborate finesse of the decor and costumes, the mise en scene (if I may) was so heavy-handed as to overwhelm the show. And of course, I am biased. BUT, I will offer as the only truth that our very simple presentation of the Chekhov, which is certainly closely manipulated by the director (modesty not withstanding) allows for a telling with rather more heart.
A long and impassioned conversation with one of our audiences after the show suggests that theatre, an art form in which the audience/viewer has no control over the passage of events and the time of the presenting, resists all but the conservative norms of presentation; otherwise, the auditor feels alienated, even abused. And so, I fear, I did by the Pushkin. I was more sad than angry, which was the feeling of our Russian host.
The cast traveled about Paris, cresting Montmartre, plumbing the catacombs, admiring La Gironde. Paris is their oyster.
The show, I am told, but do not for a second believe, was less than average. However--and friends, take heart and believe along with me--they are quite good, if a little feisty, and so I am sure they were excellent.
But I'll watch tomorrow.
During tomorrow's day, some are off to l'Opera, some to Versailles, some to shop.
And then the inconvenience of performance (for a host of American friends, in fact) before we get to eat and drink.
|A Certificate for our participation.||A vase for . . . vodka.|
Out papering the town, seeking cafes and bookstores in which to drop leaflets, I manage to wander through the Marais, and admire the intricacy of its impossibly curvy streets. (Sidewalks are a sort of Gallic joke on the rest of the world, which is of course to say America, where sidewalks are built by a people who anticipate endless sides to walk on. Not trotting in the confines of a small continent overcrowded by advances city-states.)
Wandering, then, to search out an envelope for a letter I will not send for days! To meet with two American friends who have arrived and to treat them to coffee and Ameri-Franco posturing. To hand off a flyer to a young woman who actually comes to see the show two nights later!
At Shakespeare and Company, the genial proprietor--or man at the desk, but shouldnt we imagine him the proprietor?--encouraged me to leave affichettes anywhere. He then suggested San Francisco and the Village Voice, as well as a Canadian bookstore not 100 meters away that I NEVER FOUND. Even though Russ is of Canadian extraction. (Or distraction. Whatever.) The "American Cathedral" urged by Francois also never showed up, and by then I was hungry.
That night, the performance was attended by a very happy and enthusiastic group, including old and newish friends. No second curtain call, but the show! The show is just better and better.
You will not, you cannot trust me on this, I am deprived the right to comment on the progress of this play--I, the one best and least able to do so--but the cast simply discovers more and more, remakes the play in their own image night after night: multiple variations on the same motif, and each night, specific only to that nights performance, is a whole new terrain, as yet undiscovered and to be left behind, a memory of a place to which we cannot return: subtle and shocking surprises of recognition (in a play that has but one plot twist!); the sudden freefalls of the heart, as if a door opened and let in a gust of February in an August afternoon; the dizzying realizations, like the sand pulled away under the soles of our feet by the receding waves; the little whispers of hope defeated by a chance (inevitable) habit.
That is why we do it, if you have asked again and again. Because it is like that.
This is a play of emotional pratfalls, and it is only funny in direct proportion to its aching sadness. In the end optimistic, I think (and insist against the doubts of the more traditional Russians)--but I begin (take heart solid workers on the net--it is true what you are about to read about the heroic director/narrator; it is even source of a certain pride in sympathetic availability otherwise masked in fierceness) to cry at the end of Act III--Ruthanne is looking on as Russ crows about having bought the orchard (Sorry. Surely youve read the play by now!) and as he pours out years of resentment and admiration, longing and fear, arrogance and shyness--as he triumphs!--she wears the expression of a little girl, shown up on her birthday to find the party is for someone else, and she is forgotten--and I do not cease till John lies, dead and at peace at last, at the end of Act IV.
Right through Tonys elated and uncomprehending discovery of blind luck in the face of ruin; through Terris momentary revelation of need when she abandons one trick for a plea for support; through the melting of Darias tightly bound love for the only man worthy of her character and devotion--a softening which lights up her face in a joyous and unexpected laugh--only to be shattered (like the ice she has finally shed) when he runs away in his own nervousness; through Kens delight at giving the whole damned thing up, and through Julies histrionic plea for his one look ("I loved you . . . terribly!") and her subsequent coquettish gracing of Kip with her help with the trunk; through Kips proud and clumsy defiance of scorn when he crushes his finger and his hat because he seems appreciated; through Davids courageous and righteous blessing of Lopakhin with "sensitive hands"; through Lexies officious maturing as she takes charge of a life long led as a precious little girl; through Rons helpless glee and distress when he tries to justify his happy future and his long lost past; through Ruthannes smile as she takes his shoulders, looks out the door to the world calling her, and asserts, as if it was her idea all along: "Were coming."
Then a long bout at Felix (for some) eating and drinking and Cafe No Problemo (for others.) The latter has become a regular haunt, of ours, of a few who now recognize us, of Sylvie--an expatriate American who lives in the quartier and indulges us night after night. Also of William, the equivocally inviting proprietor (really) who sometimes laughs out loud with us and other times seems about to throw us out. (In a few days he will simply pull the shutters and not open the doors when we arrive. But not yet.) This night, as we drift in from the here and there, we being together a happy band of Americans and French.
As the doors close behind us, we are heading off to a night club--ultimately too crowded, but enticing on the march to find it (Sylvie navigates by magnetic fields.) We pass by some of our number, out with air force pilots at yet another place. (Theyre relatives; its not come to THAT.)
And the morning crawls over the Eastern skyline, and we are sleeping at last.
Before Sacre Coeur is a terraced set of steps, and on the upper (though not utmost) terrace is a small tent, faded by weather, in which a spectacle lurks. The tent itself is inviting. You wait for it for some time, wondering whether you really shouldnt be going along, but this is your profession, after all. So you remark how big the Beaubourg looks from here, and how Paris, seen from a height, with its chaotic white and gray buildings, all of a height themselves, but a different, lower height, looks like a casually strewn handful of trash. You dont say this to anyone for days and days, and then you publish it on the 'net.
Music is broadcast from the speakers on either side of the little tent, and a man in an oversized red--costume--comes out to invite all spectators (many have gathered) to come closer. Why do French actors wear such things, you think. He disappears before you can ask, or take a photo. Then the curtains part, and there is his costume, reclining, now with a great trolls grinning head justifying its proportions. Of course. The troll waggles his feet a little, and then the curtain closes. Ahah! A warm-up. A "Hows everybody doing?" (Messieurs Dames--ca va?) The curtain parts, and the figure is now standing, notably slimmed down, with a narrow clown face. It waves a bit. It waves some long fronds with chiffon sleeves. It stops. The curtain closes. The man comes out again, with a great smile, and asks for money.
So our work is a little different. The trouble with theatre is that it is rarely worth the time. Rarely is it fun, moving, or anything but anti-climactic. And the whole enterprise seems bankrupt, in front of bad theatre. (Not this garden variety CHARLATAN in his tent. Hes kind of cute. But the disappointment of the build-up--the tent, the long waiting, the music--that proves a road to nowhere is familiar.)
Nothing breakfast doesnt chase away, and so its off to the Jardin de Luxembourg--long a favorite.
William (our William, the lighting designer) leaves us today, with a reminder to take his gobos from the lights. (These are tin patterns inserted into the instruments to cause artful shadows. Not whatever you were thinking.) I do remember.
The rest of the company is roaming and touring likewise. And that night, the show again. I do not see it, whispering with the stage manager in the lobby, but it is clearly only improving.
The photo shoot is abandoned because no one has the camera they want, and Stephane wants to go home.
So its off to a happy night out. This may be the night that some are off to the musee erotique. Mothers, cover your eyes. It is said to be a little nothing, in the end. But what else could it promise? There is a satisfaction in the affirmation that, for years and years, predating all but the very first, there has been sex.
This is the closing night, before which we are all helpless. Happy to stop doing a play we have worked on for a year, now? Sad to see it go? Indifferent to its plight? Enthusiastic about re-mounting it in the US--or in St. Petersburg (the careless offer of our host)? All of the above.
Last night, or this morning--about 2 AM, Lukoshkov and I talk for an hour about future plans, plans for the company, for an international theatre school, for collaborations and festivals and the need to always look for more.
The day is beautiful--the Place des Voges, symmetric and brick and lovely. (It is the first place I ever came in Paris, years ago, I am surprised to remember.) Then lunch. Then a wander through the streets--the Marais again--with a dear friend from America, come to see the show and the city again. It is cheaper to get envelopes than post-card stamps. We pass a school with bronze plaques, bas relief, reminding us and urging us not to forget the children from the same school who were taken to Auschwitz.
It is as chilling now as every time.
We reach Notre Dame, and climb its tiny and narrowing stair cases. We make jokes. (About what?!) And the view is marvelous. From here, the city looks just lovely--not at all cast aside.
We have a drink in the Quartier Latin, around the corner from the Rue du Chat qui Peche. As cats will do.
To the theatre, where the show makes its final bow. (I miss the beginning, needing to argue for some time with the hotelier about our bill. I find that choosing to become angry does not make ground in this context. Note to Americans.)
And we close.
Photos, wine, toasts, thank-yous, gifts to the ladies (little statuettes) and the director (a bouquet of daisies) and soon, the set is torn down, the costumes folded, the theatre black and empty, and--as is stunning to anyone who has ever been a part of this action: it is all as if it never was.
Things gathered. Bills paid. Hair cut. Souvenirs bought. Luggage packed.
And the RATP to the RER to Charles de Gaulle, for 12 of the 18 who make up our party.
Ken, Daria, Lexie, and Alex stay behind, a fluke of the group reservation, and Ruthanne and her husband are off to travel a bit more before returning to the US.
The trip, they say, is uneventful. Or they dont say what the events were. A lost bag.
The four who remain amuse themselves variously. I pursue presents for our hosts, and I happen to see a little of the rehearsal for the show to follow ours:
In an iron cage, a woman dressed in a habit slit and modified to be seductive enough for Pigalle, sings in Russian. She is lovely, her voice like that of the Bulgarian Womens Choir, and amplified. Wind howls over the soundtrack behind her, as does the echo of "Ave Maria" (Bach/Gounod's). Not all plays are the same. And while there is something parodic about this avant garde Russian art, it is complete and striking for itself.
We have had our turn, and we are gone.
Dinner that night at Francois for Lexie and me. Discussions with architects about French chauvinism (their assertion) and the interdiction against certain cheeses in the US because of their high bacteria content. The cheeses, not the states. Though imagine! (Note: write to FDA requesting fuller explanation.)
Ken and Daria out to a restaurant with Darias sympathetic friend Oralie.
And soon, we, too, are waking to pack, make the last visits, the last purchases, and board the last metro.
For a time.
© 1999 Alex Roe