From Paris, my entourage and I Chunneled our way to London to meet up with Christopher. My family watched Winnie the Pooh in our hotel room while I tubed off to North London. Nothing cuter than a toddler in a trench coat and I finally got to wear a scarf.
Christopher’s company, The Awake Project, opened a show at Jackson’s Lane in beautiful Highgate. It was wonderful to see the stuff of Christopher’s workshop: rhythm, gesture, song (and impishness) all work together so beautifully with writer (and RADA Director) Edward Kemp’s text. The show made me cackle, cry and become even more optimistic about work on The Réjane Project. The show moved on to Oxford and thankfully reviewers (liked the show as much as I did (Oxford Times and Daily Info, Oxford).
After the show, I got to see lots of people I hadn’t seen in a long time and meet some new ones. Over drinks and dinner, Christopher and I picked up a conversation we began in New York about fusing our teaching together in a workshop. For 13 years, I’ve taught Pilates and my work has evolved, living in a town filled with actors and being one, to focus on training the body so as to support, with alignment, creative and vocal expression. So much physical training is done in an effort to be skinny or fit with no regard for the body as a kinesthetic whole – especially with regard to the throat and neck.
In New York, I sat out a bit during Christopher’s Breathing Performer workshop and took notes about what I’d work on with each participant, given the chance, and why. The notes dovetailed very closely with what Christopher saw in their bodies, only from a very different, much more technical perspective. I think actors are often afraid of the technical, for fear their acting will become technical when really, good technique can be ultimately liberating. In London, we continued to discuss what our joint workshop could be and have since begun making plans to start teaching together.
Having the good fortune to be in Europe anyhow, I planned a week in Paris to meet people and do more research. As life goes, several of the things I had really hoped would come together didn’t and some even better ones did. Paris was sweltering. In October. (Sad, really.)
My daughter, 18 months, travelled with me again as did Stephanie, my mother-in-law (as the French say, belle mere). I met with Moulin Rouge Communications Director, Jean-Luc Péhau-Ricau, and toured their space. Jean-Luc was informative, lovely and very interested in the history of the Belle Époque, which, though not surprising, was heartwarming. I had just seen Moulin Rouge dancers perform at the Hollywood Bowl on my birthday in September, so the timing was à propos.
An historian who has been researching Réjane for 10 years and I had coffee. I got her perspective not only on Réjane’s work and life, but on why her story is being left behind. She gave me a lot to think about. I also reconnected with the Comtesse who now owns Réjane and Porel’s Hennequeville, Normandie house. She, her best friend, mybelle mere, my daughter and I all had ‘tea’ at the Hotel Shangri-La. (I use the term ‘tea’ loosely as Stephanie and I had champagne.) It was wonderful to reconnect with them and hear how supportive they are of the project.
A lighting designer-turned-writer I met two years ago and I also had coffee. Fabien Goiffon has been very generous in connecting me with the management of the Théâtre de Paris, which was once the Théâtre Réjane. I had already toured the space and seen a show there, which is when I met Fabien. I am in the midst of reading his play, Trait d’Union, with which I hope I can be of help. It would be interesting to create a periodic salon at home in Los Angeles featuring excerpts of French theatre, in part to cultivate a community of those Francophiles who are also in to theatre…
Paris is quite familiar now, and I’ve still never been to the catacombs or Versailles.
The four members of The Réjane Project team had never been in the same place at the same time before May. Christopher was in New York to teach a workshop, Adrien lives there, Tonia could take a few days off from her PhD (and own family), and I had enough miles. Together for the first time, we sorted through letters and photos, plotted a course for the project’s future, and Tonia began to archive and catalog materials in need.
The “Valse Réjane” was unearthed, and Adrien and Michael worked it out on the piano. A cheerful waltz, it will hopefully make its way into The Réjane Project show. Adrien, Michael and I also had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Philip Wilson, Réjane’s grandson and their great-uncle/uncle. Seeing the twinkle in Dr. Wilson’s eyes was like seeing Willie all over again; meeting him was an honor.
Christopher, Adrien and I were also plied with wine and cheese by Rehearsal Club alumni. Réjane’s daughter Germaine (Philip and Willie’s mother) was President of the Board of the Rehearsal Club (RC) for many years, and they have been very supportive of TRP. The RC was the basis for the play and film “Stage Door.” Christopher taught his Breathing Perfomer workshop in Brooklyn, which I very happily took. Oliverio Papi from Au Brana served as his assistant.
Thankfully, my parents came up from Maryland to help mind my daughter. Even so, the struggle Réjane faced in trying to be a mother and do, not even her best, but anywork became all the more evident daily. While Réjane’s emotional struggle in the play requires almost no imaginative leap these days, actually writing the piece – and even more so, accomplishing the other ten bizillion things required to launch, fund and produce an independent art project – sometimes feels nigh impossible.
The day after R&D-dux, I flew to meet Tonia in Seattle to present our paper at the 2010 American Society for Theatre Research/Theatre Library Association/Congress on Research in Dance. All about how our Réjane Project research informed the creation of a new work, we wrote and presented “Madame Sans Genre: A Unique Collaboration Between Artist and Archivist.”
The paper was well-received and is available by request. (Madame Sans Genre, by the way, is a play on the title of Réjane’s most famous role and play, “Madame Sans-Gêne,” which translates to ‘Madame Who Gives a Damn?!’) Our presentation featured slides and was recorded for podcast, though I’m still tracking down a link.
Tonia, who is working with performing arts archives as part of her PhD at the University of Pittsburgh, is incorporating her work on The Réjane Project into her program. At the Seattle Public Library, we found an original edition of “L’Oeuvre,” a magazine edited by Réjane’s colleague, Aurelien Lugné-Poe.
We geeked out. And, having just finished a week of intensive script overhaul with Christopher, I kept running to the hotel to write a new scene or weed-whack an existing one, all while wrangling my now 8-month old daughter. Thankfully, my husband Daniel was there and we even got to see a bit of Seattle for the first time.
I continued writing, albeit at a pace slowing in inverse proportion to the growth of belly. In my third trimester I found it physically impossible to create anything but the baby. Cliché maybe, but true. I felt like my work was going the way of vanilla cokes, the dodo and everything being Jake – that I’d never be able to work again, or even want to. At least I had some real insight.
Somewhere amidst the fog of late-pregnancy, Tonia approached me about writing a proposal for an academic paper for a fancy academic conference based on our Réjane research. I agreed, we wrote the proposal and then I slept some more.
I had my baby and, it was crazy, but within 24 hours the creative juices started flowing back north through my brain. I had to type one-handed while holding my new daughter, Ridley. I also learned to make coffee one-handed.
The proposal Tonia and I wrote was accepted and we set to work writing our paper, “Madame Sans Genre,” about how our historical theatrical research contributed to the creation of an original work. The Réjane Project made it to second and final rounds for several grants, but the most successful fundraising continued to be private. Still, enough funds were raised to support another week of R&D in Los Angeles. So I wrote a lot, academically and artistically, to make two impending deadlines.
When Christopher arrived, he and I worked tête-à-tête on the now full-length script and drinking a lot one-handed coffee (that’s a lie, he helped). We made a lot of headway on the script, especially Part II, so we invited original workshop members Garth Whitten and Cecilia de Rico to read aloud with us over snacks and more coffee. We recorded the reading. Enough about the play worked well that we brainstormed about development, but there was some work to do on its infrastructure.
Upon my return from France (then Italy, where my parents were villa-ing), I got pregnant. Thinking (as every pregnant woman does) about physical theatre, it hit me like that bolt of lightning propelled Marty McFly back to the future: Christopher should come to Los Angeles to direct a workshop of the text I’d written so far.
Thankfully Christopher had a small opening in his schedule, and being a Norwegian based in Sweden, wanted to see some palm trees. With fiscal sponsorship from Fractured Atlas, I successfully raised funds to support a week of research and development (R&D) in Los Angeles. Thanks to the generosity of resident company ARTEL, we had space to work at Art/Works in Hollywood.
Together, Christopher, Adrien and I worked with a small company of actors for a week to breathe life into The Réjane Project script, now a piece for seven actors playing multiple roles. I recruited actors Cecila de Rico, Garth Whitten, Tina Van Berckelaer, Max Faugno, Jeff Atik and Beatrice Rose Casini. After the week, we showed an audience of 50 hand-picked fans selected scenes, tied together with music and movement. The actors and the audience liked the material a lot. More importantly, they had useful feedback.
Christopher graciously agreed to join The Réjane Project as Director.
We decided the story needed a Part II (because ‘Act II’ sounded “too ‘80s.”) As the play continued to grow, so did my belly.
The idea that for Réjane, life really did equal art, had me hooked. At light speed, I culled the larger-than-life pile of plays Réjane performed for scenes that mirrored what happened in her life. I began to weave these found scenes with some of my original text. A whole new play began to emerge, now with multiple actors, their implied salaries, and some real action to watch.
Back in Bennington with the Finckels, Adrien and I read aloud a very early version of what would become The Réjane Project for family and friends. A staggering amount of work remained, but the combination of new and extant text worked as my one-person version never had.
The show is about the inherent conflict of having a career and a family, in an epoque when women didn’t really “juggle” such things. No wonder the subject was captivating: I had a husband, a career and I would soon have a baby of my own.
The realization that my work had grown so intellectual, so unphysical was stark. Living in Los Angeles and working in front of a camera had led me far from my roots, what I had initially loved about acting: theatre. Physical theatre, to be exact. Weird, stylized, vaguely acrobatic physical theatre.
I knew my acting had gotten (purposefully) smaller, but I didn’t know all my modes of expression had. I applied to, and was accepted for, a Master’s Program in European Theatre at the University of Kent in England, because I thought it would help lend what I now called The Réjane Project more weight. I deferred for financial reasons, but also because it was an academic program and maybe more research and theory was actually wrong for me. On the University’s website, though, were links. One link led to another and a few months later I was in France again.
Au Brana (pictured) which offers physical theatre workshops with the best in the business, is located in Southwest France, just outside of Lectoure. It is a stunning place and its proprietors, Kate Perry and Oliviero Papi, are lovely, talented and gracious. I took workshops with two fantastic practitioners, one of whom was Christopher Sivertsen. Christopher’s work is both physically stylized and grounded in emotional realism. Rooted in rhythm, his work is inherently musical and very technical but is, at its core, easily emotionally accessible. The duality of Christopher’s work mirrored the duality in Réjane’s work and I heard a (very rhythmic) ‘ding-ding-ding!’
Between workshops, I popped up to Paris overnight to see a Sardou play at the Théâtre de Paris. Victorien Sardou penned Réjane’s most famous play and though I had toured the former Théâtre Réjane, standing on the stage isn’t the same as seeing a play on it. (Would that I could pop to Paris more often.)
In addition to writing and re-writing, I continued reading the multitude of plays Réjane premiered and performed. It became very clear that everything Réjane did in life, she did on stage and vice versa. It also became clear that Réjane bridged a very interesting gap in theatre history: her work was at the forefront of realism. Réjane ushered in a whole new style of acting and performed a whole new style of play.
I spent October in New York trolling the New York Public Library (NYPL), the New York Historical Society and watching the film again at MoMA Film Library. Réjane played in New York a lot, and the NYPL holds quite a collection, including press clippings and argumentsof her plays. These summaries were handed out to English-speaking audiences at Réjane’s American appearances to help them bridge the language gap. (Réjane only spoke and performed in French.) Reading them cleared up a fewtriple entendres I missed when reading the original French plays.
I completed the first draft of my one-person show, based on the relationship between Réjane and her daughter, Germaine. Though ‘done,’ it lacked the joie de vivre Réjane had and felt suffocated by the ever-unwatchable researchand history.
As an undergrad at Hampshire College, I’d been lucky enough to work with a guest professor named Peggy Shaw. She, and her work, had made a big impression on me. Her company, Split Britches, was renowned for solo shows, and Peggy agreed to work with me. She booked space at La MaMa. Her advice was invaluable and made abundantly clear how heady and unphysical my show was. For an ex-professional figure skater with a dance background who attended circus school and teaches Pilates, my show was remarkably unphysical. Unstageable. I had a lot of work to do.
Weeks later, Adrien and I went to Paris, addresses in hand. Adrien’s boyfriend Owen Biddle, who plays bass for The Roots, was playing at Rock en Seine. We missed his set entirely, getting lost in the Paris Metro. We did made it in time to see both his bus leaving for Ireland, and the Raconteurs.
The next day, we got down to work. We dug through two different branches of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), unearthing articles, more photos and playscripts. One librarian complemented my French. I was so stunned and thrilled I blurted, “je t’aime!” She was embarrassed. I was embarrassed.
Owen came back to Paris, as he had a few days off. The three of us visited the Théâtre de Paris, (formerly Théâtre Réjane), Théâtre de l’Odéon (which her husband Paul Porel had Directed), the Vaudeville (now a movie theatre) and the Variétés, which was still closed for the summer.
We rented a car and drove (pictured) towards the tiny, seaside town of Hennequeville, in Normandie, with no real address or plan. Réjane and Porel’s country house, and what it represented to them, plays a big part in the story of The Réjane Project. More than half way there, Adrien said, “do you have an address?” I did not, but I knew what it looked like. It took asking some old guys in bathrobes by the side of the road, who actually lead us there in a two-car convoy, but we found the house. The current owner, a Comtesse, invited us in for pretzels and champagne. We poured a glass for Réjane.