Two Years In Paris...Waiting for the Restitution
Jim's Musings from Paris July 2023
June was a full month. I made my debut on a Paris stage; we organized our theatre going into a mini-festival, including a chamber performance by a good friend in our own apartment; France erupted in more violence; Russia’s clown show took a bizarre turn; Pharrell’s first fashion show for Louis Vuitton tied up traffic in central Paris; Jairo led a Performance Ecology workshop in Poland; and Léo performed in several end of the school year activities and recitals. All in all, a very busy month here in the City of Light. July found Jairo and me both back in Poland, after an absence of about fifteen years. But Poland deserves its own newsletter. For now, let’s stick to what’s been going on in Paris…
Back in September, I enrolled in a weekly class called Chant Soul (Soul Singing), led by instructors, Stefan Filey and Badié, two extremely accomplished musicians from the Paris jazz, soul, and R & B scenes. Unfortunately, my winter health issues prevented me from attending class from November through mid-March. When I returned to the weekly sessions, attendance had dwindled to only about seven or eight devoted students. Since this was a “discovery” class, Stefan put a lot of attention on respiration exercises, freeing the voice, and finding the rhythm of each song. This approach made me feel right at home. We learned only four songs over the course of nine months: “Feelin’ Good” (based on Nina Simone’s version), Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” and Bobby Hebb’s classic “Sunny.”
In my first meeting with Grotowski in Irvine in 1983, after he observed my work with actors on a scene from Euripides’ Electra, he said to me: “You want to sing, don’t you?” Later, he handed me a copy of his article, “La Voix,” and told me to figure out how to do it. Since then, for 40 years, I conducted countless voice work sessions with actors, workshop participants, and students. I sang Shaker songs, shape-note songs, and American spirituals (and often taught them to others), but I never considered myself a singer and I maintain a deep respect for musicians and singers with more formal music training. During this course in Chant Soul, I enjoyed being a student again and restarting my voice training from the beginning.
The course culminated in what the French call la restitution. I like this word. It’s not a recital or a performance—it’s a restitution, a giving-back. In NWPL’s Performance Ecology work, we often use the word “rendering” to describe the structured improvisation that occurs at the end of a long sequence of work, to see where you’re at in the work, and go a little deeper while battling the challenges of the craft. A restitution is much like a rendering; it’s a chance to give back something; to take stock of what you’ve learned. When our instructor, Stefan, asked me to lead an improvised call and response to conclude our rendition of “Feelin’ Good,” I was a bit nervous that I would be doing a solo for la restitution.
In the last few weeks of class, I remembered how much musicians don’t like to rehearse. In my work with musicians over the years, I’ve often found that they are reluctant to repeat a song or musical moment over and over again, unlike actors, who relish repetition. I felt we were very underprepared for the public, but our instructors seemed totally at ease. Jairo was in Poland and not able to attend la restitution, but Kena, Raphaël, and Léo, and their friend, Alex, were there to cheer me on. It was strange to be back in a theatre, under the warm lights, and performing for a large crowd. Two other groups shared the bill with us, the Pop Songs and Advanced Soul Chant courses. We performed second. We opened our part of the evening with “Feelin’ Good” and I must admit that I felt good. We were in the groove and my improvised call to the rest of the group provoked their response in a way that was alive and in the moment. The backup and support of Stefan and Badié helped immensely to carry the song. The other three songs also went well. My “restitution” concluded when, after the show, Léo presented me with the blue-ribbon gold medal that he had been awarded earlier in the day at his tennis banquet. Of course, he told me he was just “sharing” it with me and that I had to give it back, but it meant a lot that he thought I had done a good enough job to justify the gesture. Thank you, Léo.
My plan is to continue some kind of singing work in Paris in the fall. I am investigating Abadaca, an acapella group in our neighborhood (auditions will be in September), and a few other nearby choirs. I’ll keep you informed of how things go.
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Spring Theatre Festival
In my view, seeing three theatre performances over four days constitutes a festival. Our mini-festival began with the latest performance by Complicité, a well-known group from the UK that was founded by graduates of the LeCoq School of Physical Theatre. I had wanted to see the work of the director, Simon McBurney, for some time. The production, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, based on the novel by Polish writer and Nobel prize winner, Olga Tokarczuk, was performed in English at Paris’ famed Odéon on the Left Bank. I felt there was too much dependence on narrated text and projections, which are both trademarks of this director, while the ensemble only moved furniture or created atmosphere using banal theatre tricks. I was left unmoved.
We also saw a production by Italian director, Emma Dante: Pupo di Zucchero. Her work has been lauded by many of our Italian friends and Jairo and I were both engaged by the performance from beginning to end. Influenced by the work of Polish director Tadeusz Kantor (who was a kind of rival of our mentor, Jerzy Grotowski), we found ourselves transported to familiar, yet alien, landscapes through a rhythmically exhilarating montage that often reminded us of renderings (there’s that word again) from our own Performance Ecology work or NWPL rehearsals. The acting, staging, music, and visual rhythm of the event catches the spectator in a whirlwind of joy and absurdity celebrating the human condition and our relationship with death and the dead. All in all, a very satisfying evening in the theatre which left me hungry to see more of Emma Dante’s work.
To finish our mini-festival, our friend, François Kahn, performed his solo piece, Le Chien, based on Franz Kafka’s short story, Investigations of a Dog, in our apartment for a small group of spectators. Franio worked with Jairo in Theatre of Sources and I first met him when I worked with Grotowski in Pontedera, Italy, and Franio was also there acting in and directing a variety of theatre productions for Teatro Pontedera. We enjoyed hosting Franio and his play for a small group of Parisian friends and family. The intimate and detailed style of acting created a perfect vehicle to meet others and exchange ideas.
A bizarre coda to the performance of Le Chien occurred several days after Franio left Paris when we heard a commotion on the street outside our apartment. We went onto the balcony and saw a dog lying dead on the sidewalk outside the building across from ours. It was unclear what had happened. Had the dog been hit by a car or ferociously attacked by another dog? Strangely, it looked almost like he had thrown himself from the window of the apartment above in an act of suicide. After a few minutes of discussion among those who had gathered around the dog, the owner carefully picked up the lifeless corpse from the blood and urine soaked pavement and carried it inside. Later, he and a friend returned with a hose and casually washed the concrete.
I’ve been haunted by this episode for three weeks now. Happening so soon after Franio transformed our apartment into a theatre space and transported us artistically into Kafka’s surreal canine culture, I was shocked by the violent reality of the dog’s world breaking through like a nightmare on our quiet Parisian street. And then some days later, the fragility and brutality of daily life in today’s human world invaded the television and radio waves, the social media sites and neighborhood chats, with images of a young man shot point blank in his car by a French policeman. Of course, there’s no need to even say the boy’s background was Muslim and African—raised in the Paris suburbs by his Algerian mother. The incident sparked several days of violent demonstrations across France, protesting the police force’s brutality and discrimination against minorities, in a country already fatigued by a spring heavy with labor strikes and political unrest. We were in Poland during the worst of the protests, but the corruption of the French police system and its history of violence and bigotry has become impossible for the world to ignore.
In my experience, the French don’t like to admit that bias and prejudice against minorities even exist in their culture. However, the evidence and anger is mounting. Certainly, what’s happening in France differs profoundly from the problems of systemic racism and intolerance in the US, but the hatred is very present and provokes a great deal of constant anger on both sides. One of the worst incidents of racial violence I ever witnessed was on the RER from CDG airport when a young, African man was chased through the train and kicked and beaten by three French policemen. Recently, on Paris boulevards, I’ve seen cyclists shouting at bus drivers, bus drivers screaming at pedestrians, and incensed dog walkers raising their voices against other folks passing by, just on the street outside our apartment. The last incident occurred in the exact spot where the neighbor’s dog died. Maybe that particular place on the sidewalk hides some kind of Hell-mouth hole to an underworld bistro, where Kafka and Beckett play cards, Jean Genet sings, and Edward Albee tends bar, while writing scenarios for the final restitution.
A Brief Digression
The Ukraine war had a quasi-restitution these past few weeks with the antics of the Wagner group’s leader almost marching Russia into another revolution. It was like a scene from Dr. Strangelove. Where can this possibly go from here? We need some better scenarios to end this war. There is way too much improvisation going on and too much reliance on those patriarchal power templates.
The Final Restitution
Back to Paris: France prides itself on not being multi-cultural. Everyone who is French is French. To become French, though, you have to learn the language and pass a course in French history and culture. Diversity means something very different in this context; holding onto one’s language and traditions is not necessarily celebrated in this country. And yet, African-Americans have always felt more welcome and at home in France than in the US. It seems to me, however, that North Africans, Senegalese, or Congolese don’t feel the same way or get the same treatment. There is a long history of Black Americans finding creative freedom in Paris, from Josephine Baker and James Baldwin to Lenny Kravitz and Akron-born filmmaker Zach Miller.
I recently attended a talk by American writer, Jake Lamar, who has lived in France for thirty years. The meeting was organized by my alma mater, Macalester College, and took place in the Montparnasse neighborhood, at Le Select, a brasserie where Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald (speaking of patriarchal power templates) used to hang out. Lamar spoke passionately about the freedom he found in France as a human being and a writer. He discussed each of his books and also introduced our intimate group to the work of Chester Himes, an exceptional writer about racial issues and detective fiction, who is said to rival Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and consorted in Paris with the likes of James Baldwin and Richard Wright. I am currently reading Lamar’s latest novel, Viper’s Dream, a detective story rife with the rhythms of jazz and yesteryear Harlem, and I have placed some noir classics by Himes on my Kobo reading list. (Kobo is the French equivalent of Kindle).
This month Paris also welcomed American artist, producer, and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams, to the echelons of haute couture. His first runway show took over the infamous Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge over the River Seine. Traffic came to a standstill in central Paris and the likes of Lebron James and Béyoncé applauded Pharrell’s new men’s line for Louis Vuitton. All this brouhaha was going on, while on the outskirts of Paris and in Dollar Store parking lots in cities like Akron, young people are being shot for little or no reason. Is there only degradation or glorification? No in-between? Can’t we find a way to live together? End the violence? Achieve some equilibrium? What do we need to do to bring the earth back in balance? What could be the structure of our final restitution?
Will we find the answer in the voices from the past? What if we let them stay in their hell-mouth café, playing cards and drinking cognac, and search for the voices that have been silenced? Let’s listen to those whom we never let speak. Perhaps they are writing the scenarios we need. Maybe right now we only have a fragment. In any case, let’s start rehearsing and repeat it over and over again, one more time, (even if the musicians don’t want to), amplify it, until something begins to change and we finally get it right.