Opera House

On Saturday night, I walked in the footsteps of Emperor Napoleon III. Sort of.

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The central staircase, where once upon a time the rich elite came to be seen.

On Thursday, I met Victor, the guide on two walking tours I took, on the steps of the Opera Garnier. He gave wonderful details about the history, the design, the architect, and the sculptures of the building. He told us funny stories about the bees on the roof, the carp in the lake under the opera house, and the ballerinas in the attic. He made me feel like I knew the building, like it was a friend, and I found I really wanted to see the inside as well.

Part of me wanted to pay for the tour inside the building, but a little voice in my head piped up: wouldn’t it be better to go in and actually see a show instead? So when I got back to the apartment that night, I hopped on the internet and looked up what was playing.

The Opera Garnier was designed more to be a place for the rich and famous to show off their new clothes and jewels than to host performances (if you look at the floor plan, the space devoted to the actual theatre part within the building is relatively small given the building’s overall size) and apparently the acoustics aren’t great. These days most operas are performed at the new opera house across town and the Opera Garnier is mostly used for ballets.

I found one I liked the look of, and on Friday morning I stopped in to the box office. I was expecting to just ask the clerks about the various price options – a quick visit in and out. Like any normal box office. Little did I know. I ended up standing in line for an hour, and at that point I almost felt obligated to buy something to make it worth my time. Luckily they had restricted view seats for 12€. What I wanted was the experience of going to this fancy-pants opera house – restricted view was fine.

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No one does over-the-top gilded opulence quite like the French.

On Saturday night, I went to see a ballet called Rain at the Opera Garnier where the French glitterati have gathered since the 19th century. I felt deeply embarrassed that I didn’t have anything nicer than jeans and a sweater to wear, but it turned out I was hardly the only tourist there.

I arrived early to find a party happening on the steps of the opera house. Students and tourists milled around, some taking photos and others just sitting on the stairs chatting, entertained by a variety of buskers. None of them seemed to be there to see the ballet, though, they were just soaking up the atmosphere.

It was quieter inside. Tourists took photos of themselves posing on the stairs or sipped wine while gazing down from the balconies at the grand staircase and the people filing in. I ducked into every gallery, stepped out onto the balcony above the entrance stairs (and listened to a busker below sing Set Fire to the Rain by Adele in a thick French accent), and climbed to every level of the building to take photos back down over the central atrium.

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The view from my box.

My seat, it turned out, was in a box on the first level. I presented my ticket to a man dressed in black tie and he used a little key to let me into the box. There were six seats inside, and mine was the worst. Only a sliver of the stage was visible when I sat down. The clerk at the box office had assured me I could stand if I wanted to, and when I tried that the view actually wasn’t bad. When the show started, though, the two front seats in the box were still empty, so the rest of us all shuffled up a row and I ended up being able to sit and still see everything.

I really enjoyed the ballet. It was modern – the dancers wore loose clothing in neutral colours and their feet were bare. The music was largely percussive, made up of two grand pianos and several large xylophone-type things, as well as shakers and other pieces. The musicians played this steady, modulating rhythm non-stop for an hour and ten minutes, and at a certain point I was convinced their stamina must be as great as the dancers’.

The dance was simple, not fussy at all, and joyful. Like children playing. It seemed to span a day, from morning through until nighttime, judging from the lighting and some very subtle changes in the dancers’ costumes. I won’t pretend to understand all the symbolism, but I really enjoyed sitting there and soaking it in.

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The Chagall ceiling above the auditorium. Also, the famous chandelier – which did not, in fact, fall during the ballet.

The man with the key came back at the end to let us out of the box. I lingered a moment when the others left so I could hang over the edge and take a photo up at the ceiling. The frieze surrounding the chandelier was painted by Chagall, and I love his work.

It was a lovely evening. Very civilized. I’m very pleased I didn’t give up on the line at the box office when I was first tempted to.

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Elektra at the Old Vic

My day job is in the theatre. And when you work in the theatre there’s a strange thing that happens when you go to see a new production of a play that you’ve worked on before. Continue reading

Circus Life – moving to London

I moved to London, England, after I graduated university.

My degree is in Archaeological Sciences, but by the time I graduated I knew I didn’t want to be an archaeologist. My only marketable skills were clerical in nature, acquired during various summer jobs – I once spent three months typing (on a typewriter) endorsements for a large insurance company[1] – and I decided if I had to have a boring office job, I was going to go and have it in London.

So I applied for my work visa, saved a little money, packed my bags, and left.

Because when you’re twenty-two, it doesn’t occur to you that an international move might be a complicated undertaking. And I’m so glad I went ahead and did it when I was young and stupid, because if I had known how hard it would be – to open a bank account, to find a doctor, to get an interview as a foreigner – I would have just stayed home.

My cousin, a single mother and putting herself through university at the time, lived in London, and she invited me to stay with her while I sorted things out in my new city. I shared a bunk bed with her six-year-old daughter and lived out of my beige vinyl suitcase tucked in a corner on the bedroom floor. It was a cozy and welcoming place to land, but I was anxious to start building my own life.

I had saved just enough money to be a little choosy about the jobs I applied for. Even back then, just out of university and hunting for an entry-level admin position, my work had to be something I could love. It had to be something I could take pride in. I pored over the Media section in The Guardian every Monday and applied for anything even tangentially related to theatre or publishing. My two loves. I was very clear about that, even then.

Every potential job in my chosen fields gave me a little thrill. I daydreamed what my life would be, going to work every day in the offices for the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Judi Dench’s name was listed on the theatre’s letterhead as one of the trustees (my mom and I watched As Time Goes By on PBS together for years), and I imagined I might get to meet her one day while I was sitting in a board meeting taking the minutes. I imagined going to the opening night of a play or a musical and knowing that I had some small part in bringing it to life.

I waited for weeks, impatient for the application’s closing date. I waited for weeks beyond that. And finally, when I had forgotten the application, given up the daydream, the rejection letter arrived to remind me of my failure all over again. Every position I applied for played out the same way.

The only responses I got in the first couple of months were from the positions advertised through employment agencies. A handful of agencies called me in for interviews, although they turned out to be interviews not for specific positions, but for representation by that agency. I wore my grey wool suit and too much liquid eyeliner (I was twenty-two) and took the tube into central London to run through my tricks like a show pony. Speak French, typing test, Excel proficiency, and so on. Three agencies signed me on, and it felt like my first success.

In the meantime, I investigated London. The tube terrified me the first time I had to ride it by myself. I ended up going completely the wrong way at least once, because Earl’s Court Station makes no sense. But there is no alternative to the tube in London – buses are slow and taxis are expensive – and I learned there is no shame in pulling out a map to work out where you’re going. Locals do it, too.

I began to learn the different neighbourhoods; which ones I could afford to live in (very few) and which ones I shouldn’t even dream of (pretty much anything convenient to any of the jobs I was applying for), which ones I loved (Camden) and which ones I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole (Seven Sisters).

In the end I fell in love with Stoke Newington, a really lovely pocket within the scuzzier borough of Hackney. My cousin took me there for a visit and a wander. She suspected I’d like it. The neighbourhood felt villagey, in an indy-lesbian-vegetarian sort of way, with cafes and bookshops and lots of green space. I liked the vibe. And the lesbians.

I made the mistake of daydreaming all over again. I started looking at listings for rooms and apartments to let. I started going to view them and fell in love with one in particular – a shared loft conversion that was being made over into a kind of artists’ commune. I imagined myself living there, spending lazy Sunday mornings in the nearby cafe, meeting a nice girl over a cup of hot chocolate on a damp afternoon. (I tried to ignore the fact that the only transit option was an overcrowded bus to the tube stop in Seven Sisters.)

But I couldn’t do anything to make my dream come true. After two months in London, I still had no job  and only slim prospects on the horizon. Without a regular paycheque, I couldn’t take the risk of signing a lease. Someone else rented the room in the artists’ loft, and I continued to spend my nights in a bunk bed.

I don’t remember if I was homesick, if I was lonely. I must have been both. Did I worry I had made a huge mistake? I know I believed that having to go home when I ran out of money would be abject failure. I don’t remember, though, if I wished I’d made a different choice in the first place.

I had lived at home through university, lived in the same hometown my whole life. Now that I had this degree I couldn’t use, now that school was over and real life had begun, I still felt as directionless as I had at thirteen years old the first time the guidance counsellor asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I still didn’t have an answer. And I think I felt there wasn’t anything more for me to learn in my hometown. I needed to go someplace new to work out who I would become.

So I had made my big move. I was ready for my big adventure, for my new life. Ready to define myself. I was in London now! And yet, my life was still on hold.

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1. I’m still proud that I did not at any point hurl myself out the window of the 18th floor fluorescent-lit cubicle farm I worked in. (BACK TO POST)

Writing Around a Day Job

In August, writer Tom Pollock contributed a guest post to one of my favourite blogs, Terrible Minds, on the topic of writing around a day job. Given that’s something I’ve been struggling with all summer, I was curious about his recommendations, and it turns out I have a few things to add.

Mr. Pollock’s first piece of advice is: Plan Your Time.

“If you’re effectively trying to do two jobs at once, then time is likely to be your scarcest resource, and like any scarce resource, you’ll need to budget. Plan your week ahead, know when you’re writing.  Have a routine.”

A very good piece of advice indeed, except when it’s impossible. Not every job is structured and stable. Not every job is 9-to-5. Not every job is left behind at the end of the day. Mine isn’t.

Now, fair warning, my situation is unusual. My ‘day’ job is in the theatre. I love what I do, and I have no intention of giving it up, but the hours can be all-consuming and irregular (the drama school application pack called the schedule ‘anti-social’). Which means a routine is something I just can’t create.

I work six days a week, and since March I’ve worked upwards of 55 hours in those six days. But the configuration of those 55 hours within the week is different every time. I can’t say I’ll write for two hours every Wednesday night, because I might never get two Wednesday nights off in a row.

(This is also why taking classes of any kind – dance, yoga, writing, whatever – is challenging to the point of impossible. Hobbies are for the down time between contracts, and you just hope that the start and end dates of the classes line up with your schedule.)

The other issue I have with Mr. Pollock’s advice is that time is not the only resource that’s scarce. Even working nutty hours, I can find the time to write if I need to. I managed it up until July and wrote three short stories in that time in addition to keeping up my do-it-yourself writing course. The resource that is most scarce for me is energy. Mental real estate. Passion.

And it’s not about laziness or lack of commitment, it’s about being wrung out. It doesn’t help that I’m an introvert by nature. Being around other people requires energy, and I burn through everything I have in a 12-hour day. What is left, then, to put down onto the page?

And, going back to the question of routine, I can’t always plan for how much emotional investment a day will require. Let’s say I decide to write for two hours on Wednesday evening. Great. Some days the show goes well, and I bounce out of the theatre with a bundle of energy to sink into my story.

But if during the matinee on that Wednesday we have an understudy go on at the last minute because the principal actor got trapped in traffic on the highway (last month), or there’s an accident backstage (two days ago), or we get nailed by a huge storm and spend the whole show bracing for a possible power outage (last night), or the lead fucks up a line onstage and takes it out on everyone backstage when he or she comes off (oh, so often), or an actor is performing while sick or injured and requires extra care… Any energy, any bounce I had at the beginning of the day is gone. I’ve spent my passion at work, and there is none left for my writing.

And exhaustion is cumulative. I managed to keep writing from March through into July, but by then my reserves were spent and there was nothing I could do but hang on by my fingernails until the schedule eased up again. Which it did, two weeks ago. I’ve been building my reserves back up for those two weeks, and only in the last couple of days have I been able to start writing again.

In short, sometimes all the planning in the world still can’t make it happen.

So what did I want to add to Mr. Pollock’s advice?

Know your limits and work around them. I know my schedule is going to ebb and flow in this way, which is one among several reasons why I’m not writing a novel. I can start and finish short stories and blog posts in smaller bursts of time. I’m less likely to run out of momentum in the way I would on a longer project.

Keep good notes. Even if I’m not writing, I try to jot down ideas as they pop into my head. My brain often kicks up the best stuff while it’s busy with other things. I keep a file for each story I’m working on and collect the notes there so it’s all in one place when I’m ready to come back to it.

Don’t force it. Discipline is one thing, torturing yourself is another. If you’re running on empty, give yourself a break. For me, the very last thing I want is to end up dreading writing the way I dreaded doing homework in school. If writing is your passion, you’ll come back to it when your energy levels rebound.

And I’m curious now about how other people balance writing around jobs that don’t fit the standard 9-to-5 mold, jobs that require a piece of your soul. Paramedics? Parents? Lawyers? Shift-workers? How do you handle it?

 

Righting an old wrong

Once upon a time – back when I was in theatre school – we put on a play about Orpheus and Eurydice. (The story is a part of Greek mythology, and I’m sure wikipedia has all the details.)

In theatre, one of the main activities on the first day of rehearsals, after going around the room and introducing ourselves to the group, is a read-through of the play. We sit around a table (or, more often, several tables pushed together) and all the actors read their parts out loud, with scripts in hand. It always starts a little flat, with actors feeling awkward and self-conscious with all these new people. It’s not intended to be a dramatic reading at all, just an introduction, but by the end of the play there’s usually more acting going on, more emotion in the voices. This is the first time we hear the play, the first time we get a sense of what it will become, of who the characters will be. It brings the text alive for the first time.

For this play about Orpheus and Eurydice, we did the read-through in a classroom, not in a rehearsal hall which is the usual setting. I can’t remember why. This classroom was on the top floor of the school, only just big enough to fit us all in. It was a warm afternoon in early summer, and we could see the dust motes in the sunlight pouring through the windows. We kept the overhead fluorescents off, and the whole thing felt more comfortable, less formal, than our usual read-throughs.

The text of the play was quite stylized, and something about the warm, somnolent feel of the summer afternoon melded with the words to create a thing of beauty. The reading was quiet and understated, but that allowed the tragedy of the story full reign. This interpretation of the myth was grappling with why Eurydice would choose to go back to Hades rather than escape with her lover, Orpheus. The idea was that her father was in Hades, having died when Eurydice was little, and the relationship between them was beautiful and heartbreaking. And that reunion was held up against the anguish of Orpheus at Eurydice’s death on their wedding night and his attempts to get her back.

There were a number of symbolic elements in the play, but in this perfect, nebulous read-through, everything fit. Everything worked. It became one of my favourite plays of all time on that day.

And then the director got hold of it.

The result was awful. Just… awful. None of the symbolic elements worked. The beautiful stylized language became flat and awkward. The character of the father, who I had loved, was pushed to become a hard, nasal, accountant type. It broke my heart.

I wasn’t in that production. I ended up working as crew backstage. I operated the stage left elevator door, and my friend operated the stage right elevator door (the characters entered and exited Hades via elevator), and between cues we sat backstage together in the dark. Half the time we mimed slitting our wrists to the play’s incredibly depressing soundtrack of French accordion music. The rest of the time we talked about how the play should have been done. We both had a LOT of opinions.

I’ve always wanted to see that play done properly. I nearly booked a trip to New York for it, once, but in the end I couldn’t make the dates line up with my work schedule. One day, though.

All of this to explain, really, why I’m writing a re-telling of the Orpheus myth for this week’s challenge over at Chuck Wendig’s blog: “I want you to write a story about Hell.”

 

Mary Stuart

First of all: Oh. Dear. God.

Second of all: I would say run, don’t walk, to see the Stratford Festival’s production of Mary Stuart at the Tom Patterson Theatre, except that it has sold out its run, been extended by four weeks, and sold that out too.

I’ve wanted to see the show since the casting was announced last year, and it did not disappoint. Seana McKenna, as Queen Elizabeth, and Lucy Peacock, as Mary Queen of Scots, going head to head was a sight to see. I adore both of them, and would watch either or both of them read the phone book with complete delight. Here, as two of history’s most powerful women, they shone. And they were ably supported by a strong cast, including Ben Carlson and Geraint Wyn Davies, who are two more of my personal favourites.

I didn’t love the way the script dealt with Elizabeth, especially toward the end, but Seana McKenna had me absolutely riveted with her performance. And in a situation where these two queens were facing off, bound in conflict, the audience never picked sides. We loved both of them, empathised with both of them, and we were rooting for them to put aside their pride and come to some kind of understanding. All the while knowing how it would end.

The audience was on board from the beginning of the play. They laughed in all the right places, and there was a low, delighted tone to it, of absolute complicity. During the pivotal scenes, the audience was silent – no rustling, no fidgeting, no coughing. We hung on every word. And during Mary’s last rites… I gasped – actually gasped – when she came out with her head shorn, and I dripped tears into my lap as she said her goodbyes to her servants.

The man sitting next to me was, I discovered, a fellow theatre professional. And there were a couple of moments we shared, when I felt a low hum rising in my throat and then heard him next to me chuckle softly. Both were sounds of utter satisfaction at a piece of staging so perfect in its moment, so simple and yet so effective, that it took us with surprise and delight. I was in love as much with the staging, with the lighting, with the music, as I was with the performances. This was one of those rare productions where every single aspect hit the right note at the right time. This is what theatre is meant to be. It doesn’t need to be expensive razzle-dazzle. It just needs to be done well, and with love.