Settling into Summer
Jim's Musings from Paris August 2023
This month’s newsletter was supposed to focus on our late June-early July trip to Poland. I even started writing it several weeks ago when we spent a few days in the country in central France, the former province, Berry. However, after composing the first paragraph, my computer began to behave strangely, powered itself off, and left me unable to recover my initial musings on Poland. After several other false starts, I decided that I’m not yet ready to shine my light on Poland. My relationship with my father’s ancestors’ homeland resides deep inside my soul and, clearly, the world and my computer were telling me I shouldn’t yet grapple with my feelings about this conflicted and complicated country. So here is a version of our summer so far without any Polish angst.
Our trip to Poland, after an absence of about 15 years, included both business and pleasure. Jairo conducted a Performance Ecology work session in Brzezinka, Grotowski’s mythic rural work space near Wroclaw. Jairo had spent many years in Brzezinka, laboring (often in solitude or with only Grotowski as his witness) through cold winters, in dark, kerosene-scented rooms, and hot, humid summers in the bright, sunlit meadows and dense, soggy forest. He has a strong relationship with the place and felt the need to return at this point in his life in order to bring some aspects of his personal work full circle.
Under the sponsorship of the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw, Jairo also participated in a conference on the Motions, an exercise developed by Grotowski and his collaborators over the last twenty years of his research. I attended the conference as a guest and to support Jairo as he courageously struggled to articulate his experiences working closely with Grotowski over a period of more than ten years. He gave a “bravura” presentation (as our Akron friend Chris Hariasz described it after watching the video posted on Facebook) and successfully started the journey to document his unique involvement in an often misunderstood and mysterious period of Grotowski’s research. We met many old friends, including Gey Pin Ang and Stefania Gardecka, and made many new friends. We also traveled by train to Olsztyn, in the north of Poland, where NWPL had completed a major training project with young people in the early 2000’s. The six hour train trip crossed much of Poland, and I observed the countryside still shuddering from the transition to a Western capitalistic society.
To reconnect with friends, collaborators, and colleagues in Olsztyn was extremely satisfying. We were welcomed with a lot of love, great food, several performances and demonstrations, and a fine Polish party with live music, singing, and dancing. The time in Olsztyn did a lot to feed our spirits and show us that the work NWPL did years ago still resonates. Thank you Rysiek, Viola, Marek, Alicja, Andjiek, Kamil, Przemek, and all the others who made our time in the north of Poland meaningful and memorable. And much gratitude to Jarek Fret, Monika Blige, Magdalena Madra, Przemysław Błaszcak, and others at the Grotowski Institute for making Wrocław seem like a second home.
And what about our first home—Paris? Or I should say France, really, because we’ve been spending some time traveling in these weeks since we came back from Poland. The time in Berry was blissful. We stayed in the country house that has belonged for decades to the family of Kena’s mother’s partner, Laurent Delachaux. Jairo and Léo roamed the pastures, waded across the creek, and discovered hideouts along the muddy banks. They even unearthed the skeleton of what we think is a belette (weasel). Back at the house, we washed the bones and dried them in the sun and Léo dreamed of how he would display the treasure in his Paris bedroom.
While in Berry, we took Léo to visit Drevant, a village from Gallo-Roman times, with the ruins of an ancient theatre, a small medieval church, and a bridge designed by Monsieur Eiffel, most known for his Parisian tower. We were not able to take the electric boat ride on the canal because the water was too low. France is still in the midst of a devastating drought. However, we walked through the town and, on the outskirts, while stalking a cat, we discovered an abandoned orchard, ripe plums hanging from the trees, and a bamboo forest nearby. We shook the trees, stuffed our faces with the juicy fruit falling to the ground, and then Léo led us through the bamboo labyrinth in search of errant knights and opportunities to engage in some bombastic swordplay with newly fashioned bamboo sticks.
The Berry is full of the spirit of the middle ages, a time which has always fascinated me. Jairo and I sometimes joke that in a previous life we were monks together in a medieval monastery. The lines, textures, and rhythms of our once upon time existence became more detailed as we walked through the Abbaye du Noirlac, an amazingly well-preserved monastic site, first started in 1150. Even Léo became more silent and subdued under the influence of the majestic gothic architecture and sacred spaces. The visit left a strong impression on all of us.
The following day we ventured a bit further from the farm and explored George Sand’s house. George Sand is a popular French writer who also is known for her amorous relationships with other famous artists like dramatist Alfred de Musset, actress Marie Dorval, and musician Frédéric Chopin. She spent a great deal of time at her house in rural Berry where she often entertained the intellectuals and artists of her time. Only guided tours of the house were available and we felt that Léo was a bit too rambunctious on this particular sunny day to succumb to the rigidity of a stuffy house tour, so we spent our time playing cache-cache (hide and seek) in the exquisite gardens and adjacent woods, eating ice cream in the courtyard, and listening for the ghostly tinkling of the ivories. Apparently, George Sand had numerous panels installed throughout the house to try to muffle the sound of Chopin’s incessant piano playing. We strained vainly to hear the echo of the many masterpieces he composed while staying with her in this isolated house. Maybe next time. There is much to discover in the Berry and we will be back.
We returned to Paris by train from Bourges, the historic capital of Berry, which boasts an amazing cathedral that is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. We gazed at the beautiful stained glass windows and lit candles in front of several altars. Somehow, though, I missed the facetious buttocks mentioned on the tourism website. The rain drove us to get to the gare early. We said our goodbyes to Mami-Do and Papi-Lo (Léo’s names for Dominique and Laurent), thanked them profusely for sharing their country home with us, and caught the next train to Paris. As the much-needed rain pelted the windows, we settled into the two hour trip—with Léo raptly listening to a radio version of The Adventures of Tintin.
Summer in France is very good.
To be continued…
A few other thoughts as I prepare to publish this late summer newsletter:
I read both editorials (one in The New York Times and one in the Washington Post) about the death of the American regional theatre. I think the two writers make excellent points about how the movement has become institutionalized, run by out of touch boards, and fails to reach both its audience and the artists it supposedly supports. I have long said that the non-profit structure spawns dysfunctional organizations and the trend that funders determine the artistic agenda of theatres more and more drives the system further and further from any creative sources. The only solution is a complete rethinking of how theatre gets made, who controls the funding, and how spaces and resources are allocated. It’s a grave problem and I don’t envy those of you who have to grapple with its many complexities right now.
Other things I’m looking forward to for the end of the summer: reading some of the books on the Booker Prize long list; listening to the Hot Sardines new album; and watching the new season of Heartstopper (it’s so sweet), Warrior, and the amazing Meryl Streep in Only Murders in the Building (although the two Martins (Steve and Short) grew somewhat annoying in the second season. Before our summer ends, we are also planning a quick trip to Deauville on the coast of Normandy and a few days in Madrid in early September, which is officially already after la rentrée, but I’ve determined that we can extend summer as we wish.
One last thing: Do I need to weigh in on Barbenheimer? Okay, yes, I do. I don’t think anyone should critique something that they have not seen or experienced. I saw the films and there are certain objective facts that should be acknowledged:
They are both films made by master filmmakers and accomplished with a high level of intelligence and craft. This is a positive thing for Hollywood and American movies in general. Even if you don’t like the films, you can’t quibble with their quality as works of art.
They are getting people into the cinemas. People are seeing the movies and talking about them and talking about the ideas presented in the films. And they are two very different movies. They cover a lot of ground.
They are not Marvel movies or sequels. They are both original films and, while they may also reek of the worst kind of American consumerism, especially in the case of Barbie, they also highlight something precious and vital about American culture, its ability to critique itself, and to laugh at itself. That goes a long way in my book.
For me, personally, Barbie went on a bit too long. Something more than the initial joke needed to take over at some point and that didn’t happen for me. The same joke (and therefore the same point) kept being made over and over. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, carried me along as the main character struggled to come to terms with the result of his actions. Was it necessary that the film show us more about the results of the bomb’s destruction? I don’t think so. I think the final images brought us exactly where we needed to be—to today’s world. Oppenheimer’s personal moral dilemma doesn’t matter any more. We are the ones who must decide the future of our world.
Let me know your thoughts.
Have a great end of the summer.