Taking Risks

As a student studying abroad, I started my own personal online journal to (1) have the ability to look back on things and remember them and (2) to practice my writing. But why I’m sharing one of my entries here is because I believe its content relates to theatre and our ability as artists/writers to take risks and present a work as a form of protest, warning, or general message. Granted, some message-art can be overbearing, preachy, or, worse yet, boring. But when you can take a risk and see it succeed, I think there is something truly satisfying in that for all involved: the playwright, the direction, performers, and audience.

At Working Title Playwrights, I have had the privilege and pleasure to witness other playwrights work on how to convey their particular message(s). The moments of listening to a script and having an “a-ha!” feeling, connecting the dots of the text to the idea of the subtext, those moments really are something special. During the critiques and workshops, you can watch your own message grow and evolve. I think, for me, it is the most rewarding when I have an "a-ha!’ feeling about my own work. Those feelings and moments are easy to come by with WTP.

I like to think I was able to spot the message here in the modern take on La Juive:

“3 FEB 2017

*BEEP*

My ticket is scanned. My ticket, the one I only had to pay 6€ for because of the Carte Culture discount. I walk through the doors into the antechamber that half-encircles the orchestra seating area of the opera house. The carpet is a lush red, the walls and ceiling match. The trim is an ivory white. Along the walls are more than a hundred golden coat racks. It looks like some sort of art installation all on its own, so many golden handles. After finding the one reserved for my seat and hanging my coat and scarf, I walk through one pair of many double-doors into the Opéra National du Rhin’s orchestra seating area. My seat, 14-3, is toward the back and right, stage left, but I can still see all the stage and the supertitles screen that hangs high above the stage.

I am right away immersed in the sounds of the pre-show: The people who have not taken their seat and are trying to find them, the people who are getting situated, the people who have found their seats and are now talking jovially, the shuffling of movements, the echos of occasional laughter, a single stifled cough, and the orchestra providing what I call “elevator music.” It is where the orchestra produces a cacophony of sounds by having each musician each play random bits of random songs making sure their instruments are tuned properly, passing the time, and making sure it isn’t awkward for anyone uncomfortable out in the audience. It seems as if there is no rhyme or reason to the sounds coming from the orchestra pit, but in its own way, it is a fun song that I enjoy.

The three colors of the opera house are the same as the coatrack room. Floors and walls are primarily a velvety red. The larger bits of trim are ivory white. The smaller, more detailed trims are in gold. Along the banisters of the balconies are incarnations of cherubs playing instruments and the classical theatre masks of comedy and tragedy. The ceiling is a circular scene of gods and goddesses wearing their white robes and laurels wreaths, eating grapes and enjoying the hours of the day. Though it is we who are here to see the opera, it seems as if all the while, the ceiling figures are watching us, amused. If I were a god from on high, I think I, too, would be quite amused at the array before me filling the the room. We certainly are a mix of characters.

The cacophony slowly begins to quiet, signalling that the performance is about the begin. The audience responds in kind. A man walks out on stage with a microphone to introduce to us La Juive. This is a grand opera, recognized as such by its large cast, done in five acts. The music was prepared by Fromental Halévy and the libretto (operatic lyrics) by Eugène Scribe. The world premiere was in Paris, 1835. The story is set in the year 1414, but we are told this performance takes a much more modern approach.

The black curtain rises, revealing the set. An incredible, large stained-glass window is illuminated from behind by bright halogens, changing colors every so often to reflect the mood. The performance area in front of this 1414-throwback piece is set with six-or-so metal scaffolding structures that house more halogens that decrease and increase with intensity depending upon what is happening in the story. The bulk of the cast, most of whom represent the chorus, are on stage dressed in all black, not the typically elaborate opera costumes, but very simple black slacks and black long-sleeve shirts. Their hands, though, are painted blue. Enter Rachel and her father, Eléazar, with their simple black outfits. Their hands are painted yellow. Right away, the mass of blue-hands mocks and ridicules and persecutes the yellow-hands. This is to represent the central tenet of the 182-year-old opera, the conflict between Christians and Jews.

In operatic fashion, a man in disguise woos and falls in love with Rachel. But he is not Jewish. He is Prince Léopold, a Christian. Their love is forbidden, and they are found out. The punishment for the Christian is excommunication. The punishment for Rachel, and subsequently her father, is death. The modern take, I believe, points toward how such persecution can happen in any time, in any culture where there is division. The performers are not adorning the costume of 1414, nor are they wearing contemporary fashions. The only thing that separates them visually is the color of their hands.

Where the direction team could have retold an old story using an old play using fancy costumes, they have risked a modern interpretation turning the tale of persecution into a timeless act, art with a message, art with a warning. They succeeded. Roy Cornelius Smith as Eléazar and Rachel Harnisch as Rachel stunned with their individual performances. The Chœurs de l’Opéra National du Rhin and the Orchestre symphonique de Mulhouse and the supporting character performers were great. I must give my highest praise to, once again, the direction. Reflecting on it now, my favorite part was when the chorus left the stage to walk among the audience members. And not just to sing and perform along the sides of our seats, but to the point where they moved through the audience making people stand so that they could pass. This, of course, was all a part of the performance. It was fun, we were laughing, and standing to try to keep seeing what was happening on stage. It was a blast. They were all waving around blue flags, and Rhett from our group was even given one by the performer closest to him. We all laughed a lot.

But. But now, I think I see, more clearly than when I was there, what was actually happening. The chorus represented the persecutors who were laughing and mocking Eléazar and his daughter Rachel. Then they entered into our space. In effect, we became a part of the chorus. Laughing, pointing, having a great time… while the yellow-hands were being mocked. Our collective views in the orchestra seating area were obscured by the invasive chorus, so we were laughing, and agreeing, with something we could not necessarily see. I think this was a key moment in the performance. The audience had participated in the mocking of, the persecution of, the yellow-hands, and we did not even know it. Because it was easy to laugh, but difficult to see.

It is easy to do what everyone else is doing, because it is difficult to see what is really happening.”

– Justin Beaudrot

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