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.
August again in Bennington. Michael, Adrien, Tonia, my mother Alice, and I began to go through Réjane’s letters and photos, and articles about her. We learned that both Réjane’s career and life were wholly ground-breaking and that her handwriting was largely indecipherable. We found addresses of the theatres Réjane played and some of her homes, including a country home in Normandie.
An east-coaster by birth who lives most of the year in (offensively sunny) Los Angeles, I relished the opportunity to spend some time in New York working and eating real bagels.
Before she passed away, Willie told me that the only film of Réjane is held by the MoMA Film Library. Apparently Willie’s mother Germaine, Réjane’s daughter, hadn’t liked the film because she thought it was an inaccurate depiction of Réjane’s work. (This tidbit becomes très important later on. Think academic cliff hanger.) I was on eggshells.
A very nice man, Charles Silver, at MoMA’s Film Library arranged a screening of the film, “Great Actresses of The Past,” for me. I invited Tonia N. Sutherland, a dear friend from college and archival librarian, who had selflessly volunteered to be the kind of Dramaturg I could afford. Tonia came up from Pennsylvania, where she was working as the Records Coordinator at Bucknell University, having happened to have finished a Masters in Archives Management. (She is now pursuing a PhD in Archives and Performance – more later. Think Academic Cliffhanger.) Michael Finckel and his younger daughter, then 21/2, joined us from uptown Manhattan.
We watched the film, which was amazing. The film also sparked discussion of the comment Germaine (Réjane’s daughter, Michael’s grandmother) made about not liking the film. Germaine said the film was overly theatrical in style and an ill representation of her mother’s groundbreaking, naturalistic acting style. Discussion of a research trip to Paris was also sparked.
It is worth mentioning that I was also writing and writing – heaps of monologues based on, and quoting letters from Réjane to Germaine. I was writing a one-woman show about growing up, about mothers and daughters, and about how this daughter chose a life that was the exact opposite of her mother’s in every way. It was like chewing glass trying to make these monologues interesting. While the research part of this project continued to have a light, serendipitous rhythm, my show did not.
Réjane sauntered into my life through a happy serend-accident. My husband was writing plays and my dear family friend, Marianne ‘Willie’ Finckel (pictured) mentioned that her grandmother happened to have been a world famous actress in the Belle Époque, which happened to be my favorite era ever. Then Willie pointed to a drawing, nonchalantly propped on a small table in her living room which happened to be by Toulouse-Lautrec, who happens to be my favorite painter ever. Then she said: that’s my grandmother. Réjane.
Now: my grandmother was fabulous, but she had more than one name. Who was this woman? Every summer of my life (including the year I was a fetus) Willie’s family and mine played poker and music together, just inches from that drawing, in Willie’s Bennington, VT home. And Willie told my husband about Réjane. Then she showed him us the Boldini, the Chartran, show programs, a menu with an homage salade on it, and so on.
All world-class classical musicians, I knew our families had all been artistically impressive since at least the 1940s: Willie was a professional pianist who married a professional ‘cellist, George Finckel. With their sons Michael and Chris, and their nephew David, George went on to form the Finckel ‘Cello Quartet. Chris is the ‘cellist in the Manhattan String Quartet; David is the ‘cellist in the Emerson Quartet and his name is on a poster outside Linclon Center; and Michael is a celebrated performer, recording artist, conductor and composer in New York. Michael’s daughter, singer-songwriter Adrien Reju plays all over New York and Philadelphia, and has thankfully agreed to create music and sound for what is now ‘The Réjane Project.’ My Dad, violinist Joel Berman, opened the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, played with YoYo Ma when YoYo was a 19-year old sprout, and is a retired Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland. But this – this was a bigger, better, somehow more nostalgic life, career and story, set in my favorite time period since just after I was a fetus: the Belle Époque!
Willie whole-heartedly supported my sudden, euphoric and voracious interest in her grandmother’s life and work. She answered questions and granted me access to a wealth of family archives. When Willie passed away in August 2007, the rest of the family graciously continued that support. Then I tried to write a simple one-person show based on some letters the family had. After all, I was an actress in need of a vehicle.