The Empty Space of the Telephone
By Brendan McCall
Les Consultations Poétiques
Theatre de la Ville (Paris)
This past Friday, shortly after 10 in the morning, my phone rang. Marie, a woman whose voice seemed to sparkle with her bright British accent, asked, “Are you ready for your poetic consultation today?”
One could speak endlessly about Paris, and the conversation would never exhaust its rich literature, dance, music, and theater. Like many cultural capitals around the world, this past year of the coronavirus pandemic has devastated the performing arts community here. At the time of this writing, all cultural venues that produce live dance, theater, cabaret, music (as well as cinemas and museums) have been shuttered since October. Notwithstanding some theaters being occupied by students in the past week in an attempt to pressure Prime Minister Macrón to reopen them (so far, the French government hasn’t budged), it appears that the theaters will continue to be closed until at least mid-April. Combined with daily curfews from six at night to six in the morning, the delightful din of the City of Light´s social scene feels muffled, muted by months of social distancing and isolation.
“How are you feeling today?” Marie asked.
One silver lining of this horrible year during covid is witnessing the many innovative ways performance artists have continued to create. And while many are creating live projects specifically to be seen on a computer screen, the Theatre de la Ville (Paris) has chosen to go old school. Spanning anywhere between 25-40 minutes, Les Consultations Poétiques is a free interactive experience between one actor and one audience member at a time through the telephone. Audience members can choose from twenty different languages, book a time, and then an actor calls you for this intimate and novel theatrical experience. (NOTE: if calling with a phone outside of France, your “poetic consultation” will come through WhatsApp).
“I´m tired, but I know that that´s not really an emotion,” I replied. “I guess the best word to describe how I’m feeling is….overwhelmed.”
Marie and I spoke for nearly thirty minutes, in a conversation that felt immediately intimate as well as welcoming–in other words, like attending a play or other live performance. We talked about some of the hardships over the past year during this pandemic, particularly the economic difficulties, and the loneliness. We compared responses to the pandemic by our country’s politicians. I mentioned how much I missed my daughter, and she encouraged me to move back to Europe full-time. Part of me was surprised at how quickly our “poetic consultation” got so deep and personal. But another part of me recalled hundreds of theatrical experiences from the past; how the theater is a space where each of us can be safely vulnerable, and affected by what unfolds onstage as well as between us in the audience. With Les Consultations Poétiques, Theatre de la Ville had taken that interactive nature of theater and stripped it down to its core, one actor to one audience member, mouth to ear.
“Based on our conversation,” Marie said, “I have a couple of poems I´m thinking of reading to you. Which would you like?”
Like most Americans, the one she suggested by Robert Frost was beloved to me, a poem no less dense for its brevity. However, seeking to take a road less traveled before the call was concluded, I opted for her suggestion of the one by Rudyard Kipling:
They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees…..
Peter Brook once famously remarked that if a man walks across any empty space, while being watched by at least one other person, that “this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged” (1). Arguably, the empty space Marie and I shared during Les Consultations Poétiques existed in the silences framing our voices. By listening to one another, who was performing and who was witnessing kept alternating. Or perhaps both of us simply connected, engaged in this brief exchange, a live theater moment created together.
(1) Peter Brook, The Empty Space. London: Penguin (1968, 2008), p. 11