Finishing the Story: Le Theatre du Soleil

Les Ephemeres by Ariane Mnouchkine
Les Ephemeres by Ariane Mnouchkine

Okay, so I’ve got to finish the story that I seem to start for everyone, including the congregation yesterday morning, but never seem to finish.

If you’re following me on Twitter, you may have noticed a series of tweets on Saturday related to my daughter Amy and a particular theatre production in New York.  Les Ephemeres is the latest work of one of the real giants of world theatre, Ariane Mnouchkine, and her French theatre company of some 40+ years, Le Theatre du Soleil.  (Mnouckine was just awarded the 2009 International Ibsen Award, and the jury noted that everyone who experiences one of her plays “leaves with the feeling of having been part of a tale of enchantment”.)   I happened on the news that they were in New York a couple of weeks ago, and immediately called Amy, who is there working as an intern for a casting agency for the summer.   I told her I’d buy the tickets…just go.

I’d read a bit about the production, that it was full of the ordinary moments of life, done in a tennis court arrangement, stages slowly rolling through the middle of the space, rotating as their scenes unfolded, propelled not by hidden conveyor belts, but by actors.  But frankly, I wouldn’t have cared what they were doing.  My first instinct was that my daughter, who is studying to be an actor, probably wouldn’t come across this production in her daily rounds, so I just wanted her to know about it.  I knew there was a possibility she might just find a moment of magic with Mnouchkine’s work, and I wanted her to have that chance.

Just as I did 25 years ago.

I wrote about that experience somewhere in my journals from those days.   Le Theatre du Soleil  brought 3 Shakespeare productions to Los Angeles that summer (1984) as part of the Olympic Arts Festival.  I had a friend from grad school who was working for the festival, and he scored tickets not only to Mnouchkine’s company, but Tadashi Suzuki’s company as well.  Heady, exciting stuff.   Not to be overly dramatic, but Mnouchkine’s Richard II was literally life-changing. (The YouTube video is the first entrance of Richard…30 seconds of tiny, halting video is better than nothing, I suppose.  You get a flavor of the idea.)  The production was athletic, imaginative, theatrical, and demonstrated a level of artistry that I had never experienced.   The post-modern collision of various aesthetics (Indian dress, Japanese Kabuki, presentational French–who knows what all) produced four hours of explosive theatre that bypassed my intellect and went straight into my heart, which was odd, given that I didn’t know the play or the language or the artistic symbology of these traditions.   It was as close to the discovery of a truly new thing that I had ever experienced.

Richard II - Le Theatre du Soleil
Richard II - Le Theatre du Soleil

At the time, I was working as a directing intern at the Old Globe Theatre, under the direction of Jack O’Brien, assistant directing a solid, but rather mundane production of Othello.  A few months later I moved on the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where I worked on a beautiful, but again, somewhat unsatisfying production of Our Town, directed by another A-list director, Dan Sullivan.  To make a long, long story very short, after several months at the Rep, restless and unsatisfied, and convinced somewhere in my heart that I could somehow make a theatre, I turned in my resignation to go chase a different kind of work.

Ahhh…as the proverbs say in chapter 16, verse 9, we make plans, but the Lord directs the steps.  Or here’s another one: Proverbs 20:24 – A man’s steps are directed by the Lord; how then can anyone understand his own way?  True enough…I was clueless.

Needless to say, my theatre career was completely derailed, and I spend the next five years wandering in the proverbial desert, neither seeing or doing much theatre.  I was trying to make money so I could do theatre work the way I wanted to do it.   Alas, money-making was not my gift, and things did not go as I’d hoped.  But that, as they say, is water under the bridge.

My point is not to cry in my beer, but to simply say that I was foolish at the time, not realizing what the discipline, the art, and the process demanded.  I laugh at myself now, all those heady, arrogant dreams of mine.  Not that they were bad–secretly I still hold some of them (not exactly secret though, huh?)–but brashness, fear, lack of understanding counsel, impulsiveness (Proverbs talks of all of these) can waylay the best of plans, and so it went back in the late 80’s.

But still, grace has held me up, and who knows what I would have missed if things had gone differently.  A beautiful marriage, two unbelievable children, years of traveling to churches to touch lives in ways only God knows, and finally, to reach out to young artists of faith, and try to encourage them to not be as dumb as I was, to make their art for all they’re worth, and to trust it to God.

So I sent my daughter to an experience that I knew would not be the same at all, but would at least be analogous.   She texted me at the end of the first act, and it was just as I expected.

“It’s intermission of part one….I never want to leave.”

I felt the same way.

Enchantment, indeed…

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