Written and directed by Victoria Thierrée Chaplin
Main Season · Roda Theatre
December 4, 2009–January 31, 2010
Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission
Welcome to Aurélia’s Oratorio, where the impossible happens before your eyes. Aurélia Thierrée literally grew up in the circus and has charmed audiences around the world with this dazzling display of stage illusion. Behind her velvet curtain lies a surreal world of surprises, a topsy-turvy time of tricks and transformations. “She does wonder wonderfully,” gushes the London Guardian. With dancing, puppetry, acrobatics and more, Aurélia’s Oratorio is an inventive adventure set to a quirky score of chamber music and gypsy jazz. Berkeley Rep unveils this 70-minute spectacle, a concoction of mystery and fantasy for the whole family.
Victoria Thierrée Chaplin · Director / Conception
Gerd Walter · Technical Direction / Stage Manager
Roberto Riegert · Lighting Technician
Nicholas Lazzaro · Sound Technician
Tamara Prieto Arroyo · Backstage Support
Antonia Paradiso · Backstage Support
Monika Schwarzl · Backstage Support / Costumes
Laura de Bernadis · Lighting Design
Philippe Lacombe · Lighting Design
Victoria Thierrée Chaplin · Sound Design / Stage Design / Costumes
Jacques Perdiguez · Costumes
Veronique Grand · Costumes
Didier Bendel · Company Management / Administration
Richard Haughton · Photography
La Compagnie du Hanneton · Collaborator
Théâtre L’Avant-Scène · Co-Producer
La Ferme du Buisson Cognac / René Marion · Co-Producer
ArKtype / Thomas O. Kriegsmann · Executive Producer–US Tour
“A whimsical feat for all…Part nouvelle circus, part vaudeville of illusions, part fantastical free association…The moment [Aurélia] makes her first appearance—one possibly disconnected hand, foot or leg at a time—she has the audience at her intricately inventive mercy…Oratorio is packed with enough delights for a show twice as long…It’s like a Christmas stocking stuffed with one gift after another.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Top-notch family entertainment…Not only is it tremendously well executed, but the various scenes are performed with a tremendous amount of ability and intense engagement with the audience…An effervescent blend of hilarious innovation and old-fashioned knock-your-socks-off entertainment!”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
“A delightful holiday production…A world of wonderment and impossibilities—from illusions, dancing, aerial stunts and puppetry to tricks of physical dexterity…And it’s all performed with plenty of great humor while keeping you mesmerized by the cleverness of the talented cast. I’ve never seen anything quite like it as it combines a bit of circus, magic and comedy in one show and performed at breakneck speed. It’s perfect for the whole family, and your little ones will never have an attention deficit—it really moves. Don’t miss Aurélia’s Oratorio.”—KGO-AM
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
For a number of years now, the circus, at least as we know it in America, has been undergoing a radical transformation. Beginning in the Bay Area with the Pickle Family Circus, whose legendary trio of clowns (Geoff Hoyle, Bill Irwin and Larry Pisoni) was at the forefront of the New Vaudeville movement, to the theatrically explosive productions of Cirque du Soleil, the circus has been experimenting with the number of ways that a story can be told.
Beginning with smaller vignettes and expanding to entire evenings framed by a central idea, clowns, acrobats, jugglers, musicians and physical specialists of every variety now find themselves in the middle of productions that are unified by concepts and themes. Instead of a collection of entertaining acts that have no relationship to one another, each act is now a show within a show, an element designed to resonate within a larger whole. While most of these productions would never claim to tell a single tale with a beginning, middle and end, they attempt to create a loose narrative, the frame of a story that uses visual, aural and physical elements to create a different kind of theatrical magic. Like the best of all performance art, the audience is charged with connecting the dots, with making up or completing the story. The results can be spectacular and exhilarating, validating our own imaginations along with those of the creators.
Aurélia’s Oratorio is part of this new movement. Using age-old acrobatic techniques married to a host of nonverbal narrative elements, the piece is a poetic exploration of what the world is and what it can become. Some would call its relentless spirit of surprise surreal or dreamlike. But the magic it employs is intended not only to astonish us, but also to have an emotional impact as well. It is not a cop-out to say that the dreamscape of Aurélia invents its own rules, because the rules it invents are not arbitrary; they have a singular logic connected to Aurélia’s imagination.
It is not common for us to present this type of work, work that does not adhere to all of Aristotle’s dramatic requirements, within the body of our regular season. But at Berkeley Rep we love to expand the definition of what is commonly considered “regular.” From the writers we commission, to the directors we hire, to the performers we employ, the artists we are interested in challenge us to think differently about theatrical possibilities. Additionally, the Roda Theatre, with its fly lines, trap doors and state-of-the-art technical equipment, has allowed us to dream in different ways.
We thank you for dreaming along with us.
All the best,
Prologue: from the Managing Director
I recently attended a dinner for members of our Michael Leibert Society. Named for Berkeley Rep’s founder, the Society is that special group of people who have included the Theatre in their estate plans. In other words, they’ve made gifts that will benefit Berkeley Rep after they are gone, ensuring that their children and their children’s children can enjoy the Theatre for generations to come. I was struck by the forward-thinking nature of these generous people and by how their long-term view mirrors the long-term vision of the Theatre itself.
At Berkeley Rep we honor our past, and we value our artists and our audience members who have helped us to become an institution of regional and national stature. And yet we are keenly aware that our real legacy, and the legacy of those who know and love us, will be our capacity to encourage new generations of artists, audiences and theatre practitioners. That legacy involves producing and enjoying work that is meaningful, compelling and relevant long into the future.
As we come to the end of 2009, I hope you will give some thought to helping Berkeley Rep secure its legacy. You can do so by supporting our Annual Fund and our Michael Leibert Society. With your help, we will continue to educate the youth of our community at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, train future leaders of the American theatre in our fellowship program and encourage the great writers of tomorrow by commissioning and developing their work today.
With warm wishes to all of you for the New Year,
Beyond words: Nonverbal storytelling on stage
By Madeleine Oldham
Aurélia’s Oratorio conjures an undeniably singular world that defies traditional notions of what one might expect to see on stage. The show asks its audience to shake loose any and all preconceived ideas and expectations and approach the experience with minds free and imaginations ready.
Though this might seem an unusual request to ask of contemporary theatregoers, there does exist a long ancestry of nontraditional performance. For example, the foundations of non-western theatre do not lie in realism and naturalism. From the high stylization of Japanese Noh and Kabuki plays, to the dazzling feats of Peking/Beijing acrobats in China, to Indonesia’s intricate Wayang Kulit shadow puppetry, to the exquisite gestural detail of Kathakali dancing in India, the cornerstones of Eastern performance embrace storytelling that goes beyond verbal expression and literal representation.
In the European tradition, however, theatre is generally thought of as a verbally oriented art form, where words comprise the spine of what a production is built around, and scripts are sometimes studied like literature. But a closer look at Western theatrical history reveals a robust stage tradition that uses a non-text-based vocabulary as its primary language. Visual imagery or an actor’s physicality might tell a story, while words take a backseat in the narrative’s momentum. These other methods of communication serve to showcase the medium of live performance and celebrate what makes theatre unique.
As early as there was theatre in Greek and Roman times, there was mime. In recent years mime seems to have acquired a somewhat negative connotation, but historically it did not carry such a stigma. In Greek theatre, the chorus often incorporated wordless gesture and movement into its storytelling. Mime evolved in Ancient Rome to give birth to the pantomime: a story told primarily by an actor’s body using facial expression and dance. (The panto transformed much later into the more elaborate version still popular in Britain today.)
The Middle Ages saw the development of masques, or entertainments for court, that emphasized dancing and music, as well as intricate costumes and sets. These proceeded to become fashionable in the English Renaissance. Also during that time, wordless interludes would often be written into the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the most famous appearing in Hamlet (Act II, scene iii, where Hamlet stages a play to gauge Claudius’ reaction). Such interludes were called dumbshows, and consisted of actors communicating ideas purely by gesticulation.
At the same time in Italy, the commedia dell’arte emerged as a form that prized physicality. Stock characters would improvise much of the dialogue around a familiar story structure, and though a quick verbal wit was essential, the audience also came for the lazzi, or comic routines, which centered on what the performers were able to do with their bodies. For the most part, actors wore masks, so the tool of facial expression was deprived them, and they relied on physical skills that might involve juggling, slapstick, clowning or acrobatics. Lazzi required an actor to have detailed command over his or her every movement with astonishing bodily precision. Commedia planted the seeds of the contemporary “new circus” movement, which helped to inspire the development of worldwide sensation Cirque du Soleil.
The 18th and 19th centuries moved away from stage spectacle and more toward naturalism, but the pendulum began to swing back the other way in the 20th century. In the early 1900s, Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold looked back to commedia and circus arts for inspiration and guidance about how to make theatre more vital. In the 1920s and ‘30s, he ran his own theatre while developing a philosophy of acting that focused on gesture and movement as a way to find character.
France proved an epicenter for 20th-century theatre that embraced a more visual and less verbal approach. Seminal directors Jacques Copeau and Jacques Lecoq, like Meyerhold, also turned to commedia and physicality as a key to realizing their visions of a play. Lecoq opened a school to teach students his acting method that relied on mask and movement. This school proved highly influential, turning out such visionary and talented artists as Ariane Mnouchkine of Theatre du Soleil, Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicite and Broadway and Hollywood director Julie Taymor.
Antonin Artaud was another hugely influential theatre practitioner from France. His Theatre of Cruelty put forth a philosophy that theatre should be more than an intellectual exercise, and it should affect people in a visceral way. He felt this should be accomplished by relying less on the text and focusing more on the language of the production as a whole.
Arguably, the most famous playwright to push beyond the boundaries of words may have been Irish writer Samuel Beckett, who, incidentally, spent a good deal of his life in France and wrote many of his plays in French. Beckett experimented with writing the physical lives of his characters into the texts of his plays, most notably in his short works, Act Without Words I and II, which do not contain any spoken dialogue at all. One of the four main characters in his best-known play, Waiting for Godot, only speaks once, and the two leads have frequently been called “metaphysical clowns.”
The legacy of making highly visual theatre continues today. Theatre de Complicite, now known simply as Complicite, and Theatre du Soleil are still going strong. For American companies like Blue Man Group and Philadelphia’s Pig Iron, the creation of any production starts with the physicality of their performers. The Bay Area is home to the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the New Pickle Circus (formerly the Pickle Family Circus), two longstanding ensembles that can trace their roots to nonverbal stage traditions. Aurélia Thierrée, while adding her own unique voice to the canon of visual and physical storytelling, is in good company.
Some questions for Aurélia Thierrée
You’ve worked in film and theatre. Do you prefer one over the other?
They are two separate languages; they have their own vocabulary. I love both.
How did you learn to do what you do?
I’m still learning. I trained in trapeze, dance and acting. I like that I don’t fit in any category. I try to serve a language. Victoria’s language is one that requires flexibility of mind and of self. I also have a great partner on stage, namely Jaime Martinez.
You’ve spent much of your life on the road. Do you ever have the urge to stay in one place?
Always. Everywhere I go, I fantasize about staying. When I am on a train, passing different buildings, houses, apartments, landscapes—their mystery appeals. There is an urge to stay and another to go. It remains the big adventure. Opposites can be so close to one another. I was asked where my home was in a previous interview. My home is wherever the people I love are, in moments that I recognize, in details. It is in the chest of drawers, a few minutes before the show starts.
What is it like to be directed by your mother?
I often joke that my mother conceived everything in the show, including me.
If you weren’t a performer, what would you be doing instead?
How do you prepare before a performance?
I do a warm-up. I remain acutely aware that all can fail, aware of the fragility of it all, but I stay hopeful, excited.
How would you describe your visual aesthetic?
I prefer to hear others describe our show. I’ll say that the primary purpose is to entertain.
Who are some of the performers you admire?
Anyone who makes you a part of something you recognize intrinsically—who transports you, moves you…keeps the legacy alive.
Do you ever get inspiration from the non-artistic world, like from politics or business for example?
Inspiration is a wild animal. It comes from all over. You get inspired first and foremost by the world you live in, by life. It’s an exchange, a mutation of sorts. In the world upside down: the drawings from the Middle Ages were often political and provided relief, as in inverting a situation. Imagining what the opposite of that situation would be must have been beneficial. The concept was even tried in science.
Do you notice a difference between European and American audiences?
Yes. But further, I notice a difference from one night to the next.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve been reading short stories in view of our next show. Maupassant right now.
What do you find most fulfilling about your job?
That it remains fragile and difficult to explain. It is a collaboration between us, on stage, and the audience. The audience brings a story, their story, and I hope, each and every night, that this story will meet ours, and mine. That it sometimes does. That it also remains, hopefully, entertainment.
I like the theatre because it is about repetition. I am obsessed with repetition, and yet it is never the same. The elusive pursuit of moments. The infinite possibilities within those moments. The intensity it provides. Suddenly, one night, you realize there is a different way of saying something, of doing a move, and it clicks into something so logical and revelatory that it makes you feel alive and content for a little bit.
What haven’t you done yet that you would like to do someday?
Go on living.
Beauty and magic for everyman
By David Gothard
A creative explosion of visual theatre in our time has surprising antecedents. Many of them are visual geniuses, to deliberately use that precious word. They would include the likes of Grimaldi, the bridge from Elizabethan clowning, and Little Tich in Music Hall. They are often as surrealist as Spike Mulligan, let us say, yet always of the people. Always, they express beauty. All are assumed to have disappeared with their visual and comedy language to the land of dodo. Federico Fellini, himself, in his final films, recorded the waning of the visual joy in variety and music hall (a quintessential English term despite Paris), for example. Indeed it is as if their relative weakness as great films was born of the elusive nature of the subject matter that Fellini, like his sensitive audience, seemed to believe would never be seen in any recognizable form under the takeover bid of technology as entertainment. For Fellini, the desire to capture for us all and forever the poignancy and transience of this was on par with Tarkovsky’s quest to capture spirituality in film language. We now sadly realize that relationship is a fine one. The issue at the heart of the matter was the impossibility of the magic of performance if technology, particularly television, overexposed the familiarity of the nuance including the edge with the audience. The subtle humanity of the séance, if you like, explodes with the neon.
Ironically, Fellini’s elegiac celebration in his own television film, Clowns, nips in amongst the legendary families over generations of the greatest circus artists, a young couple, Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thierrée, in a successful attempt to add youth and hope to the line-up of matriarchs and patriarchs. His casting and judgment were superbly accurate, of course. The former was from no circus family: gypsy and sad casualty of music hall more like. The latter was a leading classical and film actor adored by Roger Planchon and Alain Resnais and his Burgundy country folk were not so far from the roots of Genet.
A few decades on, like Franca Rame and Dario Fo, their lives are packed with intensive touring in European theatres and beyond to Japan and America in small towns and big cities where they help to keep alive the crucibles and jewels of performance, the very buildings themselves. You have only to imagine the touring opera houses, the 18th-century theatres of Bari, Mantua, Florence, Hamburg, Stockholm, a hundred others, and their modern counterparts. All of them need the oxygen of their touring. Above all, the mystery of the performance remains.
In recent years, they are celebrated as the blessed godparents of what is seen as “new circus” in Europe, but their kingdom of the imagination is far broader. It is neither “new circus” nor “new vaudeville.” It is not even circus or vaudeville without the “new.” As Fellini understood it, it happens in the moment and purely as live performance that creates beauty and magic for everyman. It is then gone till the next tour. Franca and Dario know just how to keep alive the same secret, night after night, stand-up after stand-up, giving us the closest we shall ever see to what “commedia” really meant. In them all we are blessed. We never thought to see their likes.
Soon after the appearance of the young couple in that film, two pairs of bandy legs appeared with them through battered suitcases, running around the stage just a couple of times before their father, Jean-Baptiste, picked them up and dumped them in the wings to get on with their homework. Those tiny legs became a Hammersmith institution year after year at Riverside Studios in seasons shared with Kantor, Miro, the Bread and Puppet Company and a thousand other bastions of the world’s visual performance. A plaque should mark the spot. Thus was born the magnificence of Aurélia and James Thierrée.
David Gothard is the former artistic director of Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, England, where his pioneer work with Tadeusz Kantor, Miro, Shuji Tereyama and many others bridged performance and theatre with contemporary movement and the birth of Dance Umbrella.
Just in time for the holidays comes this internationally acclaimed theatrical treat. See what wonders await in Aurélia’s Oratorio!