Blake in Europe: Avignon

Rhinoceros at Theatre des Halles

The final leg of this sabbatical finds me in France for the renowned Festival d’Avignon. Comprised of the official “In” festival and the “Off” fringe, Avignon boasts some 800 performances per day throughout the month of July. What a wonderful place to immerse myself in world theatre before returning home! I have some history at this particular festival having directed several “Off” shows in the past and co-produced a world premiere play, Babel, with my friend Alain Timar at his Theatre des Halles in 1999.

Round House audiences may remember Timar’s youthful re-imagining of Ionesco’s The Chairs in Silver Spring.  Well, he’s at it again, offering Rhinoceroswith a cast of Korean actors, subtitled in French for festival audiences. It’s a vibrant, modern take on the classic absurdist parable about authoritarianism. Transposing it to a high-tech office environment, one sees technology and corporate hegemony as the force in question.  The cast is young and snappy, with a strong sense of the ironies and absurdities of the text.

I Am the Wind at the Avignon Festival

Next up, I took in a play by modern European playwright, Jon Fosse, entitled I Am the Wind. Helmed by the great French director Patrice Chereau and performed in English by two actors from London’s Young Vic, it is a sparse meditation on survival and existence. Two men find themselves adrift in the ocean on a raft. We don’t know who they are or what happened to them. Together, they face the unknown with an image-laden conversation that touches on the sea, wind, water and air around them. Think Samuel Beckett on a raft. With excellent acting and an evocative design, it was delightful to see a rare English-language production at this most French festival.

Juliette Binoche as Miss Julie

The most talked-about production here is a new staging of the Strindberg classic Miss Julie, starring Juliette Binoche. Re-conceived in a modern setting by director Frederic Fisbach, it is a big, risky endeavor. I found it many things: bold in conception, flawed in its directorial impositions, refreshingly devoid of melodrama, yet lacking in the fire and passion that you want to see in the Julie/Jean relationship. The production has been filmed and will transfer to London’s Barbican Centre in 2012. I suspect it will be hotly debated wherever it goes.

Kristin: theatre and video in action

A companion piece to Fisbach’s marquee production is Kristin, a theatre/video project by Katie Mitchell and Leo Warner. This fascinating, hybrid event tracks the story of Miss Julie from Kristin’s POV with 5 video cams on a soundstage with live audience. It feels like witnessing the making of an indie film, and you find your attention split between the choreography of the various crew members and the resulting projection overhead. For me, it was a creative way to pull apart a well-known classic with surprisingly intimate results.

Nosferatu cine-concert

My final report from Avignon comes from the Off fringe. The Italian rock group Supershock has created a cine-concert of the classic, silent vampire movie Nosferatu. Clocking in at a clean 50 minutes, it is pure, kitschy fun. My 11-year old loved seeing the old movie for the first time (very tame and campy by today’s horror movie standards) and the live rock score seemed to grow out of the action onscreen. This would make a great Halloween treat for any regional theatre seeking to bring in young, vibrant audiences.

As my trip comes to a close, I challenge myself to articulate the profound effect it’s had on me. I’ve seen a wide variety of plays, designs, styles, actors, and cultures. The differences are notable, but the similarities ring out. There is a great need for theatre to resonate, to speak to us today, to address our modern lives. This need gives rise to a design aesthetic that places stories in a modern environment, whether they are new plays or classics from another era. Agree or disagree, it’s bold theatre that stakes its claim and demands to be relevant.

I believe that’s what we do at Round House. In just a few weeks, we begin work on our own re-imagining of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. And we’ll be using today’s most cutting-edge technology to bring his prescient imagination to life. Soon thereafter, we welcome ReEntry to our Bethesda stage. What could be more vital and relevant than this candid docu-drama about Marines returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq? Along with other new works like Next Fall and the world premiere production of Jason Gray Platt’s Crown of Shadows: the wake of odysseus, I couldn’t be more proud of our programming.

I’m going to draw a line that connects Bethesda, Silver Spring, and the many stages of our colleagues in Europe. Different cultures. Diverse audiences. And yet we are connected by our common thirst for a Theatre of Relevance. They seek it here aggressively. As do we, in our own particular way, back home.

At Round House, we tell the stories that people crave on a visceral, human level. Our theatre is immediate. It hits you in the gut. It feeds your head and squeezes your heart.  It questions, challenges, and uplifts.

Our plays are the ones that crack open the big questions by bringing them down to a personal level. We send people out the door with a new understanding of themselves and a little ray of hope for the future.

And our audience is one that looks to the theatre with eagerness, openness, and curiosity. Thanks for your adventurous spirit and your continued support.

I can’t wait to come home and get to work!

- Blake Robison, Producing Artistic Director

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