"No mime, or white face and stripped shirts. No baguette, no croissant. Maybe some nudity, and lots of cigarettes." That's what director Emmanuelle Delpech promises for Remember Paris, her entry in the magically unwieldy PIFA odyssey. With collaborators/conspirators organist Thierry Escaich, filmmaker Gilles Boustani, costume/prop designer Tara Webb and performers Nichole Canuso and Geoff Sobelle along for the ride, Delpech hopes to capture the esprit of Dada's free-fall aesthetic.
City Paper: This is the second time in three years — I'm thinking of Live Arts' Oedipus — that you've shied away from acting. Why?
Emmanuelle Delpech: Shied? OK. I am not scared. No. I love acting. I still do, in other people's work, like two years ago when I worked for Second City Chicago. I guess I got fed up. I realized that I actually had a sincere desire to be the guide. To create my rules, to choose my collaborators, to have a bigger say on the form and content of my work. And I can't be in and out for the moment. I don't know in advance what the final product will be. I have the beginning concept but then I need to witness the images to be able to shape them, guide the whole. Being in it, I would be schizophrenic, I couldn't be worried about my journey as a character and orchestrating a whole "dance."
CP: How did Remember Paris come about?
ED: Jay Wahl from the Kimmel Center called me and told me about Thierry Escaich and the organ series. He gave me carte blanche and his complete trust. Was it because I'm French and therefore the real deal? Well, perhaps. For once being French got me a job! I think he actually liked my Oedipus in the skate park and thought I could therefore handle the gigantic space that is Verizon Hall. I dreamt about it for a while. I let the idea come to me. At first I thought about a big group of people, like a chorus; I also wondered if I should perform. Then, I am not sure how, it all narrowed down. I thought of Nichole Canuso and Geoff Sobelle. She's a dancer and actor, Geoff is an amazing mover, magician, and they're amazing performers, creators. A man and a woman. That was a start. Later when I was in Paris staying at my friends' house, Gilles [Boustani] and Violaine [de Carne], Gilles showed me his work. And then I knew he had to be part of this. What better collaborator could I ask for? A French video designer who could also communicate and be the French liaison between Thierry and I. It all came together organically: an organist, two performers, in the Kimmel. Paris, 1910 to 1920. That could work.
CP: The notions of reminiscence and history, dreamy reimagining and a single musical collaborator — Remember Paris sounds a bit like Madame Douce-Amere. Any connection at all?
ED: I am only making the connection now that you mentioned it. It seems very different. Madame Douce-Amere is a story. Remember Paris is more like a visual concert. The music, the organ comes first. The show is not a narrative and the images are there to provoke a purely emotional and physical response. It will be funny sometimes — try to get Geoff and Nichole not to be funny — but in Remember Paris there is a distance between the audience and the spectacle. People will interpret everything differently; this show has space for the audience imagination and connection to the time period.
CP: What's your opinion about PIFA and its faux internationality?
ED: Is your "faux internationality" definition of the festival referencing the tendency to internationalize events that are purely American? Like the World Series? Am I the only French sista in the festival? The token frog? Truly, apart from my friends, I am not so aware of what else is happening. I do not take offense about these things. My expectation is not about a preconceived idea in my head of how people should interpret that time period. I am curious about it. These French years are very much about breaking rules. It's refreshing, provocative and inspiring. I hope there will be a lot of that in the festival.
CP: Paris, 1910 to 1920 — what was the historical element you focused on, that you hoped to wring theatricality from?
ED: The Dada movement fascinates me. How a group of artists destroys the rules of the establish conventions of art. It all started with a flood. Paris was covered in a deluge of water. Then the war covered France with in a deluge of violence. French soldiers left for war with flowers on their guns and smiles on their faces thinking it would be a quick trip. They returned either dead or with no limbs or one eye. With no hope, that's for sure. ... When you cannot make sense or give reason to the reality around you, you free yourself from it and break through by entering a world where reason is what makes no sense. So the show is filled with these images and principles propelled by the very physical force of the organ. I think Geoff and Nichole are actually going to fly like Chagall's lovers. Watch out, it might turn into Spider-Man, but a Dada-esque French Spider-Man at that. And, no, I'm not trying to be Julie Taymor.
CP: How are you, by the way?
ED: Busy. I'm doing an M.F.A. in directing at Temple. So, grad school. I'm having a great time with my son Hugo, he's 3 and a half. I was just a mime coach for a new play by Anne Washurn directed by Steve Cosson at the Humana Festival in Louisville. I'm directing my thesis, Tartuffe, which opens June 25 at Temple University and will be done with the school in September. And next year is looking very exciting. Teaching in the Pig Iron School, the Headlong Institute and making new works with James Ijames, Charlotte Ford and possibly collaborating with Jennifer Childs. So I'm good. I am in a new phase of my life. Things have shifted radically these last two years. I've grown a lot, especially as a director and a teacher. I'm excited about all the encounters and the discoveries I am making. I feel awake.
CP: You're still teaching Lecoq technique at Temple University, correct? How does that inform everything you do — direct — how you look at your actors in the PIFA piece?
ED: Yes. Lecoq informs everything I do. It's definitely a starting point for me. I'm a real disciple of Lecoq and it is a part of everything I touch. Lecoq had taught me a sense of theatricality, of spectacle. I think about shapes first, about external attributes, gestures, and pictorial codes of everyday life or epic moments. I like geometry in a space, in an emotion. The Kimmel is a big place and this show requires a specific organization between body, space, music and images. The Lecoq method of performing asks the performers to go beyond their own body, the givens of an everyday, rather small, casual and boring body when on stage, on a big stage. Lecoq calls the body of an actor an instrument. The vocabulary we use in rehearsal is very much a musical vocabulary. We talk about rhythm, suspension, accents, crescendo. My actors/performers/creators are not just interpreters. They are makers. They own the writing of the piece more than I do. Improvisation is the key of that work. Who's improvising? Them ... I provoke them, tease them and finally guide them once we have material. That is very much part of the Lecoq school. We are all makers. We make the show together; it's a collective creation.
Lecoq has also a sense of playfulness. It is often associated with clown. Because performers that have been through that training know how to be elegantly awkward, vulnerable and raw. But it's not just about that. It's playing with the idea that the stage is an arena. It's a magnifying glass with a focus we control to create a poetic space. By poetic I mean emotional, sensual, extraordinary, dangerous. It has nothing to do with life's rhythm; it is always choreographed, conscious of its unique rhythm. It is about life, yes but it is not life.
CP: I get that much of the work with Thierry Escaich is improvisational. How often have you guys met or talked and what have your conversations been focused on?
ED: Thierry will not only be improvising. We have a set list of classical repertoire, like Stravinsky's Fire Bird or pieces from Vierne. There are also long improvisations but they have a structure and he already has timed them out. Thierry is thrilled about the show. I have the sense that he understands theatricality deeply and that he will be watching and following the performers as he plays. Right now it is a bit of a puzzle ... traveling through air between continents. Soon, the pieces will rejoin and the show will be, for one day only. I first met him really early on in person when I was traveling in Paris. We talked about the time period, the different parts that he was interested in, about movies of that time — which will appear in Gilles video. We came up with a first draft of ideas to explore. Since then we have been emailing, Gilles who also leaves in Paris has been the liaison and has met with Thierry sharing his video and letting him know what came out of our fist workshop which was in October. So, our collaboration is like a long distance relationship, when Thierry arrives in Philly it will be a real celebration. He will be here five days before the show so we will be able to rehearse together, which is a huge relief. I guess this show is truly international, thanks to Skype for meetings, Gilles watched rehearsals on Skype the other day, and all our meetings are on Skype.
CP: Can you describe — without giving away the game — the ideas behind Gilles Boustani's projections? I get the period element, but surely there's more than old cafes, war battered buildings and such.
ED: Gilles uses still pictures, painting and clips from different cinematographer of the time like Man Ray, Jean Renoir, the film noir or Grand Guignol style to create a layered, animated montage that is dreamlike and surreal. The video sometimes is the set for the performance on the stage and at other times it expands the performance beyond the stage. So yes, there will be archives of war images and old cafes but they will not be nostalgic or clichés. Gilles is not interested in glorifying a memory but rather using these images to create a contemporary vision that can be accessed by a modern audience. (To get an idea of Boustani's esthetic, check vimeo.com/user1257990.)
CP: Nichole Canuso and Geoff Sobelle — the choice of that pair throws me. Is it more movement than acting?