THE (SO-CALLED) ARTIST’S LIFE

Sinclair, Andrew; Theatre Scene; University of Dundee, Duncan of Jordanstone College Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/theatre-scene-91832

“C’est ça la vie d’artiste.”

Translation: That’s the [so-called] artist’s life.

I’ve heard this expression interjected into conversations for as long as I can recall, and like so many sayings, its meaning is slippery. In my translation of it, I added “so-called”, tentatively. C’est ça la vie d’artiste isn’t a completely innocent turn of phrase. There can be a little bit of Shakespeare’s salad days in it: hints of youthful idealism and inexperience minus, alas, the connotation of heyday. Usually though, it falls under the pall of “so-called”: the implication that la vie d’artiste is more pretense, posturing and bohemian conceit than it is an authentic way of life.

I recently stumbled upon Léo Ferre’s “La vie d’artiste”, a sad song about disenchantment and love gone wrong under the pressures of struggling to live when making ends meet is a daily grind, and it occurred to me that I had a bit of all of those elements on my mind when my son Christian arrived home last Thursday night.

Christian’s return sometime after 11 pm capped one hell of a day. Whatever else the artist’s life may be, it isn’t boring. On the program that Thursday, he was booked first at the McGill Simulation Centre, where he’s been working year-round as an actor since early 2016, slipping into the skin of every imaginable patient or person the job requires, and picking up more and more hours. Yesterday, Christian was again playing Pat, a young man with cerebral palsy desperate to maintain an autonomous life. He’s one of Christian’s favourite characters to play.

Moore, Albert Joseph; An Ancient Greek Audience Watching a Performance of ‘Antigone’ by Sophocles; Theatre Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/an-ancient-greek-audience-watching-a-performance-of-antigone-by-sophocles-32813

That work done, he was off immediately, with little time to spare, to an old church in Westmount a bus ride away, where he’s been performing in Antigone for over a week and still has a couple to go. The Greek tragedy is this year’s production by Raise the Stakes Theatre, a classical theatre ensemble with a shoestring budget whose limits are absolutely eclipsed by its passionate approach to up-close-and-personal theatre. But there’s no escaping the hard truth that no one does theatre to get rich. And yet still, it was possible to assemble fifteen actors, four musicians and a production team made up of a half dozen creative and dedicated people, and draw them to rehearsals as often as six times a week, from 6 to 10 pm—the quiet hours in the beautiful old church.

And this they did for a month of rehearsals: out of passion, out of commitment, motivated by a longing to create, collaborate and perform; out of a need that I think I understand, and also, simply, out of personal loyalty to the director, and/or to each other.

Bomberg, David; Ghetto Theatre; Ben Uri Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/ghetto-theatre-191300

But all of those extra hours that punctuate long work days add up, and not long after the play’s opening, Christian mentioned an infection spreading through the ranks (“a plague” was actually what he called it), causing fever, congestion and, worst of all, laryngitis. By Wednesday night, two actors, members of the Greek Chorus, were down for the count, leaving their mates, including Christian, scrambling to divide up their lines, drop some, and reconfigure the blocking of the affected scenes, all within hours of the performance. Then their director was hit with flu symptoms. And it began to feel like they’d all been cast, unwittingly, in a re-enactment of And Then There Were None.  Regroup, recover, perform.

I’m not making light of their predicament. I’m flabbergasted. What drives them all? It isn’t the money: there’s none, which is the usual case with small theatre companies. The costs of mounting a production, the time invested, the long rehearsal period and the fact that money only comes in with each performance at the end of a very long cycle of planning and preparation: these test the elasticity of the budget to its limits.

What drives them is something so strong that it interferes with self-preservation.

The show must go on.

That’s the thing about theatre: it’s alive. Whether Christian has transformed himself into a patient for some future medical doctor to learn from, repeating his performance as many times as necessary on any given day; or whether he has put himself out there on the altar of an old church on a weekday evening to bring to life ancient Greece with his fellow actors, he is embracing la vie d’artiste, in all of its poorly remunerated, often thankless, electrifying, anxiety-inducing, improvisational, collaborative and soul-expanding glory.

“Most of the truly remarkable experiences I’ve had in theatre have filled me with uncertainty and disorientation.”
― Anne BogartA Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre

“Movies will make you famous; Television will make you rich; But theatre will make you good.”
― Terrence Mann

Edwards, Joseph Byres; Chorus; National Museums Scotland, National Museum of Rural Life; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/chorus-183597

 

 

 

REHEARSAL

I’m past the midway point of my life (at least I hope the fraction isn’t much bigger than that), and it still happens to me.

I’ll arrive home, get out of my car, head to the door, pull out my keys and, just as I’m sliding the right one into the lock, I’ll feel like I’m nine years old again, and that I’m playing house. I’ll remember how that felt, and how many times I repeated those gestures in play with my mother’s old purses and bits of junk that I collected: old lipstick tubes, random keys that had lost their use and discarded change purses, that created a simulacrum of the trove my mother had stashed in her own hand bag (minus the kleenex!).

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I’ll recall how the adult world seemed like a giant set piece. And in spite of the fact that I’ve been an adult woman for decades, there’s still a part of me that feels that it’s unreal and extraordinary that this is really my life, and not make-believe.

It can happen when I’m driving and I think: Wow! You’re really doing this!, or when I’m cooking and feel, briefly, like I’m aping TV cooks; like I’m playing.

It happened, of course, when I travelled to France and to London, England:  brief moments of stepping outside of myself and observing where I was and how close to fictional it all felt.

The term imposter syndrome comes to mind, but that isn’t right, because I don’t feel any sense of embarrassment or inadequacy. What I feel is closer to genuine delight and astonishment.

Showtime! With my grandson Graeme.
Showtime! With my grandson Graeme.

How do I do this? How do I simultaneously straddle the past and the present without feeling unnerved? What is this all about? It isn’t déjà vu. That’s more confusing. Déjà vu comes with a kind of a psychic whoosh, and a sense that the flow of time has been disturbed in a way that’s slightly jarring and puzzling, like a music track that skips.

I suspect—I hope—that I’m not alone in experiencing these moments.

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Princess Penelope. Who else?

I like when they happen. They usually make me smile (at least inwardly). I realize that I’m still that same girl—or at least, that she is still in me. Which feels impossible, because most of the time, I’m rather under the impression that I’m no longer even the person I was at 30, let alone 20 or 10…

This is some kind of paradox, I guess. That I can know that I am changing all the time and that I can never retrieve or return to what was and who I was even a few months ago, while at the same time knowing that I am still that child I remember.

 

Quantum theorists might have all kinds of ideas about this «phenomenon». Philosophers, metaphysicians or psychologists might approach it from the perspective of the nature of the self, or of consciousness or perhaps even of the soul.

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I was struck by the notion of play, as in play-acting.

Watching my son Christian go through the process of preparing for a production of Macbeth at a small downtown theatre, where he is presently performing, has got me thinking.

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Scenes from Macbeth, a Raise the Stakes Theatre production. Here: King Duncan and Lady Macbeth
Malcolm and Duncan, from Macbeth.
Malcolm (Christian) and Duncan, from Macbeth.
Macbeth and Macduff
Macbeth and Macduff

In spite of being a passionate reader and writer, as well as a devoted cinephile and lover of music and the visual arts, I’m steadily coming round to the idea that the greatest of all arts is drama.

The stage.

And not simply because of the glorious, vital, engaging, in-real-time feat of the end result, but much more because of the process of getting there.

Since December, I’ve watched the director and players at Raise the Stakes Theatre produce Macbeth from scratch (well, from the bare bones of Shakespeare’s words—a pretty great starting place).

 

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The planning, the audition process, the casting, the first meetings of cast and director, the first read-throughs, the acquisition of the text by the players, the rehearsals held in spaces rented all over the city, more rehearsals and more rehearsals, moving into the theatre space, the sets, the props, the costume fittings, tech rehearsals, dress rehearsal…opening night. And, blessedly, multiple performances after that, to fine-tune it; to make it better and better. To come as close as possible to an almost perfect work of art.

 

So many of these steps are repeated again and again and again, some from one dramatic production to the next, some within the same play. Over and over, the actors work. Rehearsing lines that are the same, but are expressed slightly differently each time; felt slightly differently each time; creating new moments and new ground within the familiarity of a process repeating itself.

The traces of each rehearsal superimposing themselves on the previous ones.

And we call them players.

How much of what they learn from their craft do they carry into their private lives? How different is this from what we all transpose from our past to our present, or from our private to public lives?

 

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I love to think that each moment that I live is simply a rehearsal for what will come next. And so on.

It feels right to think of life this way.