I broke my rule for a touring show that has, apparently, been tearing up international stages — L’Effet de Serge from Vivarium Studios, which nearly didn’t make it to Seattle because of visa trouble.
The program for the show describes L’Effet de Serge:
This off-key aria by the French company Vivarium Studio maliciously turns theatrical conventions upside-down as it blends reality and artifice, superimposing varying levels of presence and questioning the nature of representation while taking a dispassionate look at human beings, their needs for each other and their reliance on a poetic spirit to transcend mundane lives of sometimes stupifying insignificance.
I don’t know who wrote that — Vivarium, On the Boards, a hired marketing director — but I disagree with the negative tone. The show is quirky, yes, and it is about mundane things, the insignificance of our lives, and the boredom and loneliness that are part of modern existence. This is very French, you think, yes? But it is not just about how bored and boring we all are. There’s plenty of plays that have covered that topic extensively, and frankly, those plays bore me. What this play did was not only highlight the ennui of daily life (ordering pizza, watching TV, coming home from work and getting a glass of wine), but the ingenious ways we entertain ourselves, both with material things and with each other’s company. L’Effet de Serge is a collection of moments in Serge’s life — Sunday evenings, when he entertains friends for between 1 and 3 minutes with special effects shows created with toys, sparklers, car headlights, fog, and music. The effects are much more simple than I originally imagined, but that’s not to say I was disappointed — rather, I was entranced and delighted by their simplicity, the hilarity of the size of the special effects versus the volume of the music, and the timing (when it was dead on, when it was slightly off). The play does not have a climax and a denouement, although I guessed it had come to an end when the entire cast came on stage for one last special effect (the previous three effects featured one audience-member on stage, Serge, the effect, and the other audience, us. Despite the size of On The Boards, it was incredibly intimate). A series of small effects accumulated to create an hour and a half of entertainment, and thus highlighted not just the banality of our lives, but also the moments of joy.
Think about moments of joy that you, dear reader, have had. Are they big? Usually they aren’t. Basking in the sun has become one of my favorite past-times, because there’s so little of it in Seattle. Most Seattleites tend to agree with me. Catching the cherry trees in full bloom at the UW is astounding. Being out on a boat, in the ocean or a lake, is also one of my favorite things. Cuddling with my love right as I’m about to go to sleep. Discovering something new while I read. These moments are, in many cases and quite luckily, frequent in my life, which in many ways makes them just as banal as organizing the files at work (again), cleaning the kitchen (again), getting on the bus and avoiding the stares of crazy people (again). But they’re not as wearying. The little moments of joy and delight, which often happen randomly, are what make our lives worth continuing, or remind us why we soldier on through the rest of the crap. If we’re lucky, we are able to give these moments of joy to each other.
The simplicity, the smallness, of L’Effet de Serge, both of the plot and the special effects that make up the plot, are what make it truly delightful. Theatre doesn’t have to be huge or make a grand moral statement to be enjoyable — in fact, I suspect that’s a major turn-off for many people. But theatre that makes us think and feel, regardless of size, is worthwhile theatre. This is worthwhile theatre. Serge’s experiments are also worthwhile theatre. The show expanded my personal definition of theatre while simultaneously commenting on traditional theatrical forms (setting the scene by having the actor who plays Serge come on stage and describe every prop and set piece on stage to us) and using these traditional forms (aside from the introduction, actors didn’t look at the audience, so they maintained an enforced fourth wall).
I’m reminded — probably because I just read it — of “Why Theatre Matters” from Omar Willey. In a grand and vague essay, Mr. Willey describes why theatre is important, and it is basically because everything that happens in theatre is real, and in real-time. Sort of. The actors are on stage for real, with us the audience being there for real. The plot doesn’t necessarily happen in real time — the passage of time can be shown artificially. But instead of dealing with people on tv, online, through text message, or whathaveyou, theatre is about real people being onstage.
This isn’t always what theatre was about, but it is what theatre is becoming as it regroups in the “digital age.”
And L’Effet de Serge, much like the flash mob above, is not only real people creating a plot in front of us in mostly-real time, but it also, to me, answers Omar Willey’s thesis much better — theatre is important because we are always theatrical, we are corporeal, and we need to do these things to make our lives better, in some small way. We need to feel something, even if it’s not “real” but an imposition of the plot, out there in a space away from our computers and televisions, in front of other people, because we are also performing for each other.
An exerpt from the transcript of “Words,” one of the episodes of Radiolab:
ROBERT KRULWICH: You wonder, like remember our program began with that the story of Ildefonso?
JAD ABUMRAD: Right which he heard from Susan Schaller. Ildefonso was the guy who, for 27 years, had no language, at all.
ROBERT KRULWICH: So you kind of wonder like what happened to Ildefonso once he got language
JAD ABUMRAD: Right and after that first breakthrough where Ildefonso realized things have names, Susan ended up leaving for a few years.
SUSAN SCHALLER: Let’s see…it was about four years, I think, four or five.
JAD ABUMRAD: But then she decided to write a book about him.
SUSAN SCHALLER: And so I went and found him again. And he had language and I could ask him all kinds of questions . . . One area that everyone wants to know about is what it was like to be languageless. You know, what was going on in his head.
ROBERT KRULWICH: But there was a day she says when she was writing the book and she met Ildefonso in a restaurant and there he was sitting with his brother Mario, who should never met before. And she quickly learned that Mario also was deaf.
SUSAN SCHALLER: And languageless . . . So I was shocked and because I was so amazed going I can’t believe you have a languageless brother, that’s when Ildefonso said “Well let, let me introduce you to some of my friends.”
ROBERT KRULWICH: So they get in the car and they drive for awhile we stop at this apartment. We walk into this small little room and there were these six Mexican men doing this mime routine.
[. . . ]
SUSAN SCHALLER: They had no language . . . They were all deaf and they didn’t know they were deaf . . . One man would stand up and he would start miming. He would just start acting out a bull fight. So he’d be the bull and he’d be charging and then he’d be the matador and then he’d be somebody in the crowd watching. And then he would add a detail . . . A hat.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And then they would swap so then another guy would get up to take over the story.
SUSAN SCHALLER: Then they’d start miming.
ROBERT KRULWICH: They’d reenact the matador, describe the hat, but now the second storyteller would add a new detail.
SUSAN SCHALLER: Like another person with a pair of glasses or something.
ROBERT KRULWICH: So each one would stand up take the bullfight, the same bullfight to a different point and add a detail?
SUSAN SCHALLER: Exactly, exactly . . . In other words it would take them maybe 45 minutes to say, “Do you remember the time when we were at the bullfight and this woman did such and such?” It was like drawing a picture.
And being in that space while that plot is happening and forcing us into feeling around everyone else, brings out parts of us we probably didn’t know we had. If it’s a really good play, or a really controversial play, it’ll bring out incredible reactions in us. But another part of having that experience is having it with other people. It is being able to talk to people you went to the play with about the play. We can’t not be theatrical for each other, and we can’t avoid reflecting on that theatricality.
That is what L’Effet de Serge was. It was a conversation with the audience about our lives, and how much they need theatre, they need real, solid matter right in front of us. Our lives need the convergence of interesting things really there, with timing, from music or whatever source. And this makes up narrative. And then we re-experience that narrative with our fellow humans. We explain the experience to them and that is another experience, a continuation of the narrative. It can’t be condensed into 20 minutes (for commercials) or 2 hours (for movies) and then it ends, and it’s left behind. Real, live, in-person theatre is not so pre-packaged and consumerist as that. It can’t be. I mean, if it sucks it can be. But it shouldn’t be that.
L’Effet de Serge is not about ennui or triviality; instead, it is the essence of why theatre really matters.