I am currently in Perigord Noir, a very beautiful region of France! Just have a look:
I am here to witness the Oghmac Theatre Festival, which is this year celebrating women! YES! The festival is brought on by Compagnie Oghma, who I have come to know very well in Paris due to my boyfriend’s being part of the company. The company produces and presents Baroque theatre, which I had never heard of before knowing my boyfriend. It is a stunningly beautiful theatre practice, a mix of ballet, clown, and text whose closest English equivalent would be Shakespeare. Baroque theatre includes texts in Alexandrian verse by such renowned writers as Moliere and Racine, but there are many other source materials that provide fuel for Baroque theatre. What is most important is that it be from the correct time period, the 17th century.
Now we are about halfway through the festival, and I have to say, I could not be more impressed. I have watched the artists in this company working hard to create a special atmosphere for every single person they encounter (including me!)
The most impressive thing to me is that these artists are doing everything without a stage manager. They attempt to work collectively to make sure that everything gets done- from doing the dishes to building a new theatre space each night to getting everyone to and from the train station as the different artists arrive and depart throughout the two weeks. It is an incredible feat of organization to make a week long festival happen in multiple locations across multiple small towns. To have this duty shared by artists who are performing, directing, cooking, running the box office, maintaining the online presence, and making sure everyone can find every performance space is truly impressive. That’s a special part of the process that only I get to see though. Let me tell you about their incredible dedication within their public performances.
Monday night was the first show, Cendrillion et Autre Contes. My boyfriend and I arrived that day to be able to see the whole festival, though he didn’t begin working until later in the week. Every performance is in a different area of the region (within a ~15 minute drive of each other), so we are getting to discover a lot of beautiful outdoor locations. We arrived early to the play and realized that the parking lot we were using was a little hidden away. More than that, once people parked, they could either walk or take a shuttle down to the location, which was hidden away behind a beautiful cover of trees. So he and I and others went out to the parking signs and stood at the side of the road with a big sign, waving at every passing car and letting them know where they could park. Someone was stationed in the parking lot to direct people to the shuttle as well. It was so much fun to see everyone arriving for the show! There was quite a large crowd- about 80 people all told. The outdoor theatre space was at maximum capacity! But there was one small problem: it was windy.
See, in the 17th century, plays were lit by candle light. This is still the tradition for Baroque theatre. But when it is windy, the candles (set on top of highly reflective tin foil and mirrors to best light the performers) get blown out. At the top of the show, during the welcome speech, we were all told that they would attempt to light the candles halfway through the show, but that because it was only an hour long show, they anticipated we would continue to have sunlight for the duration of the performance. The attempt to light the candles was made, with the utmost haste from the artists in the festival, and we were back into the show. This is where the live theatre magic truly began.
One of the performers noticed that the candles at the front of the stage were not lit. Always keeping the traditional Baroque stance, voice, and gestures intact, he attempted to light more candles. The bats had begun to emerge, and we knew that it would soon be impossible to see the stage and actors if the candles were not lit all around. He was not successful in getting them to light. So the actors adjusted their blocking to be closer to where the lit candles were (it was not apparent as an audience member that anything was happening that was not planned- I only know they made these adjustments from speaking with them after). Then, in the final story, Cendrillion, a great gust of wind came and suddenly we were all plunged into complete darkness. And then the voices of the actors cut through that deep darkness and kept going. We were all there, together, in the dark, listening to and/or telling a story. Their voices rose and fell in the melody of Baroque verse, which is rather different from the flat tones of contemporary French. I was captivated. I thought “this is what live theatre is for”. I didn’t mind so much that I could only make out their silhouettes at times. I just felt a deep admiration for the fact that they, too, were blind but that they never let it stop them. But this was only the first night, and the company was provided another chance to prove to their audience the extent of their dedication.
The second day of the festival I participated in a workshop presented by the three actors who had performed the night previous. I won’t go into detail about it here, but it was great! Here’s a little peek at it:
On the third day, another company was welcomed to the festival to present an original play based on a novel of the Baroque period: Les Precieuses. A company of all women, who created a Baroque piece about women, who are in turn discussing the status of women in France in their time, was the perfect thing to celebrate women! It is often difficult to find multiple believable, three dimensional female characters in classic texts owing to the former practices of not allowing women on stage or to write plays. I was delighted to witness both the production and the talk about the novel that preceded the show. Unfortunately, the skies had other plans.
The outdoor location was beautiful. The stage, though, had been entirely put together by the company (the other piece used an existing structure). There were also some electrical elements of the show, in the form of reading lights for the musician and actors. And it began to rain. It was a soft rain that would come and pass so quickly you almost weren’t sure it had happened. It was almost a mist- it felt more like your arm was numb than it was being rained on. After a few quick spurts of this, about halfway through the pre-show conference, the rain became steady. The audience took out their umbrellas and stood under the closest tree. The audience impressed me first, by never breaking attention from the woman teaching them about the novel and the state of life for women in the 17th century. The speaker, too, impressed me by soldiering on. And the company impressed me as one member came up and simply held an umbrella over the speaker and her papers, and other members of the company quietly came to the stage and audience and started taking the benches, set, and props away. The conference ended and the audience was told that the show would be going on, but inside. We waited a few minutes as the candles were moved inside and lit, as the actors checked how to change their blocking, as the owners of the house moved furniture and hid personal affects. The audience then squeezed themselves into a room to watch the show. We were all at least a little damp, at least a little cold, and yet there was excitement palpable in the room. The candles cast beautiful shadows over the oil paintings and taxidermized owls, and then the violist came out and the show began. It was a very intimate experience, and must have been very different than what was planned for the outdoor version. But to me, as I watched these four women proclaim that there are three types of marriage, as I watched the audience make room for the man in the wheelchair, as I saw two young boys stand through the whole performance listening to the text and asking for autographs at the end, I thought, this is how a community comes together.
This whole festival has been a beautiful experience. Theatre artists, the world over, are tenacious. They will go above and beyond to give the audience the experience that they deserve, and when they do, the audience meets them with faith and appreciation. I cannot wait for the rest!