James Thiérrée is a multi-disciplinary performer (actor-trapeze artist-acrobat-clown-illusionist-violinist) as well as a director and constructor of deeply mysterious, shifting play worlds/landscapes. He and his crew design, construct, and build these worlds in a very intense two to three month period on the actual stage where the first performance of the show will occur using only the basic mechanics of the theater: pulleys, ropes, weights, and counterweights. Part of Thiérrée’s fascination with the construction process is to solve every problem that may come up with the tools at hand and in the simplest way possible.
For me Thiérrée’s work is completely experiential, it is difficult to talk about. Much occurs on the level of sensation and so the work enters the viewer’s consciousness in different ways—the outer geography he constructs enters the inner geography of any given viewer at a different place and sets off whatever stories, whatever sensory memories there are in the blood. He describes himself as someone who works at the crossroads of several disciplines including dance and theater—that this crossroads is his ground. As I try to envision this ground from where the work springs, I vacillate: sometimes I see it as a sort of Place de la Concorde (but where 8 huge boulevards merge), other times as the spot high above the New Mexico desert where Interstate 25 meets Interstate 40 via a steep, deep blue ramp.
In seeing his work I think about the great playwright Sam Shepard and his words in the essay “Language Visualization and the Inner Library”:“…the real quest of a writer is to penetrate into another world. A world behind the form.” I think I understand intuitively what Shepard is talking about, but I could never put it into words. And even Shepard, though he is talking about writing in the essay, chooses to place this statement in the context of a discussion of his involvement with music (and a certain kind of “jazz sketching” with words) and a discussion of myth. My experience of seeing Thiérrée’s work, and part of the shock–and here I mean the shock of Recognition—is that for long stretches, and even when the construction of the dream/stage world is revealed, his work has somehow penetrated into another world, in Shepard’s words—“A world behind the form.”
In talking with him I wanted to find out about the process, the values, and the spirit that go into creating that particular illumination—the movement, the constant, interesting glow, in the pieces he creates.
It also became clear in the course of our conversation that I have (thankfully) never fully recovered from my initial experience, in the early nineties, of seeing The Invisible Circus. At that time The Invisible Circus was made up of James Thiérrée (a teenager at the time), his mother (Victoria Chaplin), his father (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée), a group of the most brilliant ducks I’ve even seen and the myriad of transforming objects and metamorphosing creatures created, constructed and so beautifully performed by Victoria Chaplin that Ovid, had he seen it, would have thrown himself over the theater balcony in an ecstatic fit.
I spoke with James Thiérrée on the phone from Montreal where he had just opened his solo show RAOUL, which is coming to BAM’s Harvey Theater starting November 5th.
I. The Stage
Thiérrée: What is perceived is important, but what is felt is more important than what is perceived—what is felt is most important. I think you were touched [when you saw The Invisible Circus] by things you didn’t even see. And I’m sure, I do believe—and I’m not really a believer of g-ds and things like this—but I do believe that whatever attention and love and passion has been put into constructing something, into everything onstage, it comes out to the audience and they can tell if it’s been taken care of by someone, and you can feel that attention of that someone on the props, and that beauty I think is very powerful, and it’s not seen and it’s not told and yet it’s there.
Thiérrée: Music is really the one most important [influence]—I listen to music all the time and it really feeds the ideas and even the wholeness of a show. In Raoul, for example, you’ll see, Schubert is very present and it was very important, I knew that Schubert would become the kind of godfather of the show because there’s this intimacy in Schubert and this melancholy that was perfect for Raoul, for that lonely character. I really have conversations with music about the shows. Sometimes people use music in that way that they put music—like in movies, because the scene is not so emotional and then they will just add beautiful music to boost it up. And I hate this. I say that, but maybe I do it—I don’t know, I really try not to. You’ve got to respect the immense genius of these composers by not just throwing their work like butter and jam on toast.
Mostly I use a lot of classical music—it becomes the voice of the show. It’s the voice of Raoul, this character doesn’t speak, but the voice of his soul is the music.
Thiérrée: Well the thing is, when you interact with words they are so powerful, so intricate, so complex that you can lose yourself in the words of…of human anguishes and desires. It’s such a vast terrain that I guess you must lose contact sometimes with the more abstract and more immediately accessible things of beauty and of flesh and yes… instinct.
Greenfield: The mind becomes a parasite.
Thiérrée: It doesn’t have to be. Certainly I don’t have anything against words…I just know that in my work, I’m kind of shooting somuch visually and physically that words would just make you sick…I think it would make the audience sick, you know it would make them sick…
Greenfield: You mean like the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Thiérrée: Yes—because there needs to be space where an audience can actually project what they are about—not just what the show is about, but what they are about and how the show makes them react and their own intimacy to that— that’s very important, and for that you need to leave a bit of space—and I like the fact that the words come in the audience’s mind—that the words will come as a reaction in the audience’s mind.
Greenfield: Do you dream of flying?
Thiérrée: Yes, like everybody else.
Greenfield: You do! I just wondered because if you really fly—I mean, I know it’s with ropes—but you’re awake and you’re flying, I wondered if you would still dream of it, and you do.
Thiérrée: Yeah, I do, except I don’t use any mechanics in my dreams in order to fly—and in my dreams I know how to fly and I tell myself, “remember it for when you wake up” and the madness of it is that in order to fly in my dreams I have to feel my weight. If I feel my weight, if I feel my weight in the ground, I fly—isn’t it strange? So the more I feel heavy, the more I fly—
Greenfield: —that’s the sensation in the dream—
Thiérrée: —that’s the sensation and that’s the key, that’s the secret, is that the more I feel my weight and my center in the ground, the more I rise, and if I lose it, if I start to feel light, then I fall. It’s mad and strange...I have no answers why, but….
Greenfield: Maybe part of it is that when you’re actually up there, when you’re awake—I mean with the ropes—perhaps you feel your body weight in a particular way.
Thiérrée: I think probably, it’s true, it must be partly a result of the fact that when I fly in the show I do feel the weight because as you’re pulled by the rope, you feel the discomfort of the belt under your legs stopping the blood and all that. But I have to say that I neither really enjoy nor suffer. It’s very strange. I’m just…on this…ride. I disconnect after about ten to fifteen minutes of the show—I mean I’m present in the show, but I disconnect from my own thoughts, and that comes through the breathing. I mean just the fact that everything is so physical, that’s a real drug for me, and I know that I make all my shows... all my shows are exhausting. Like I get off the stage and I’m just wasted and every time I ask myself WHY, why did I construct this show this way, why do I have to be WASTED at the end, just totally on the ground lying flat and out of breath. And I realize that I’m hooked on it—I’m just hooked on the feeling of....as if you’re running for your life, you know, and just running and it’s your instinct, it’s your animal instinct and you’ve got to run because you’ve got to save your life—and on stage I love to have that feeling.
Greenfield: But there also must be some sense with that kind of exhaustion you feel after the show…There must come a sense of just sort of utter being. I mean, you’ve been in this continuous very intense present, and then with that kind of exhaustion there’s nothing else—for those twenty or twenty-five minutes or however long that state lasts—and isn’t it between breaths, or is it between thoughts that the Buddhists say that’s when you are really your essential self? I can never remember. I think the Buddhists might say that’s the way to enlightenment. I mean, I genuinely think there is something to that state…
Thiérrée: There is meditation and I don’t practice it and there are different ways to get out of our condition, and I guess yes, that’s perhaps one way .
Greenfield: When you say “get out of our condition” you mean the human condition?
V. (The Duck Digression)
Greenfield: I’ve always wondered about the ducks in The Invisible Circus—were they your ducks?
Greenfield: Part of the family?
Thiérrée: Well no, we didn’t live in the house with the ducks…
Thiérrée: No, when we went back to Burgundy there was a farm really close by and we were really close to the farmer who was a really amazing woman…and she was holding the ducks.
Greenfield: She was the duck keeper—
Thiérrée: You know my parents are touring, still touring The Invisible Circus—
Greenfield: —with the ducks?!
Thiérrée: With the ducks.
Greenfield: Because I went once more in the late nineties, you were no longer in the show, but your parents were performing—and of course I went and it was amazing, but there were no ducks…
Thiérrée: No, but I can’t believe it, they never left the ducks—
Greenfield: It was...it was...a disappointment.
Thiérrée: Maybe, maybe it was just a problem of having to bring the ducks to America and something must have gone wrong—otherwise I tell you they’re still there, the ducks are there—
Greenfield: So, meaning the ducks are kept in this farm nearby—
Thiérrée: Yeah, but obviously now it’s not the same ducks.
Greenfield: Oh—you mean—
Thiérrée: Yes, if you wanted to see the same ducks that would be difficult…
Greenfield: Well, but I guess it’s the children of the original ducks….an ancestry—
Thiérrée: You could say that.
Greenfield: So these ducks they lived nearby ….I mean you were not strangers to these ducks….
Thiérrée: What are you saying?
Greenfield: Oh I’m so sorry, it’s my own obsession, I’m going on and on about the ducks—I’ll stop…. But I mean they were in your life—they weren’t like ducks that were—
Thiérrée: No, not like ducks that you just pick up in every city.
Greenfield: Like everything else in your show they were cared for—
Thiérrée: Right, they were there, they were our ducks—
Greenfield: Oh, I’ll stop, I’m so sorry—
Thiérrée: I loved those ducks—[ok I will tell you about the ducks] they have very specific codes with the males and the females –there’s always one male and he’s got five or six wives and um the wives are very –yuh, well, they talk a lot—and the one who was singing when they [my parents] were playing their harmonicas—she was… we would always take the loudest one because there’s always a dominant one, a dominant female, and she just screams to call the others cause if she gets lonely, if she’s alone on stage—she would call, and that’s why she was singing. People would think she would sing with my parents—but she was just calling the other females.
So you’ve really got an answer here.
Greenfield: Thank you, I really do apologize for going on and on about the ducks.
Thiérrée: [Not at all.]
Greenfield: What was it like as a young child to be involved in this work, flying, watching your mother on stage literally transform before your eyes. What was that experience?
Thiérrée: When you’re a child and you see your parents do all sorts of things on stage and where life is mixed in with work so much—my parents are on stage and they love each other and they perform together and they each have their own identity on stage and that becomes life—it’s actually not an experience, an experience is when you are fresh from something. But when you are actually bathing in that pool ever since your first memories, then it is just your reality.
But you know when I told you of my love for theater mechanics, it comes from them. I saw my mother build these creatures and she has always built everything she performs—every costume, every transformation, she just sews and constructs everything. And my father also [prepared] his things—everything was handmade, and that for sure I have taken and I have been influenced by. I know that I cannot bear the idea that something will be built outside of the stage where we are rehearsing. Sometimes I am tempted to try and bring in some kind of complex system that will make something work—and then I just say forget it, we will construct it with what we have, I will perform it and I will believe in it and then everyone will believe in it and that will be fine.
Greenfield: I think it would be felt immediately if something was brought in.
Thiérrée: There’s a spirit there and if it’s avoided, if its….denied—if you deny the fact that things have to be taken care of humanly, everything we construct,if we construct buildings just thinking of how many people you can get in them and you deny the fact that everything has importance, because it is a place where people will live—if we construct without care, we construct places where people are unhappy—and that applies also to the theater, to constructing shows.
Greenfield: Here I wanted to express how very sorry I am that due to print deadlines I can’t see this work before speaking with you. The press release says, among other things, that the piece is a “meditation on home and identity.” Can you speak a little about that?
Thiérrée: As I built the show I wasn’t thinking about that at all—that’s what I have to say to the theaters, I have to make it look like I constructed the whole thing because I wanted to say that or to send that message. And no, it didn’t happen like that.... I’ve put on a show where it’s mostly unconscious delivery of a certain sense of what needs to be done at that moment on stage. But then the whole thing about identity, if I look at it now I can say yes, perhaps there’s that. In the piece, Raoul meets creatures and… he could be one of these creatures—Raoul doesn’t really know who he is or that he’s a human being, because there’s no one else. He’s closed in his tower and he tries to forget about these questions, and of course he’s going to have a visit—and little by little he’s going to be forced to take a look outside and see what’s going on and to get rid of his armor and of his fear and of his desire to not be disturbed. He’s going to have to be disturbed.
On the subject of home, identity—perhaps what the piece says is home is not where you are dwelling and identity is not the one you think you have. We start with someone who is home, who is staying home, living home, and he will have this home destroyed by himself in order to get to the next level which is whatever it is—I’m not specifying, and I don’t want to specify. But the whole show, it’s not about home, it’s not about houses, it’s about the soul and it’s about what goes on in the brain and the infinite ways of overcoming whatever obstructs.
The U.S. premiere of Raoul, by James Thiérrée, will be performed November 5 – 14 at BAM’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn). For tickets ($25 – 60), visit www.bang.org or call 718.636.4100.
Elana Greenfield's book At the Damascus Gate: Short Hallucinations is published by Green Integer (2003); she is a recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award.