Thursday, October 18, 2007

THE STRANGE POWERS OF ANDRE BERNARD BERGÉ

The other night, I watched an ordinary young actor hyping his very ordinary TV series and referring to the showrunner as a “Genius”. Well, maybe in his world. But I have a feeling in his world, a guy who can work the Latte machine at Starbucks has a shot at the Nobel Prize in Physics.

A couple of years back, I saw a similar interview that featured Dakota Fanning sitting between Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise as they publicized “War of the Worlds”, both men reacting with resigned humility as she referred them as “Geniuses”.

Guys, for crying out loud! The kid’s eleven!!!

There are a lot of very bright and capable people in show business, few of whom, I think, feel they’re particularly gifted. And you’d figure the average audience member who has sat through a lot of ordinary television or Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” wouldn’t be encouraged to tune in again just because somebody involved is considered to be a genius.

But they do. And the scary thing is – nobody buys into the concept more than the media and the critics.

I tend to think it’s the desire among those fraternities not to be late for the next big thing. None of them want to be the last guy on the Sudoku bandwagon and I believe they receive some sort of professional bonus points for being the first with something.

It’s not unlike the way you just had to be impressed by the first kid in Kindergarten who actually ate a bug or later felt sorry for that geek in the lunchroom who was still trying, years after the fad, to get the sides of his Rubik’s cube to match.

The quest for the new, the ground-breaking, the “edgy” next thing is the critic’s job – and also their Achilles heel.

Nobody knew that better than Andre Bernard Bergé.

Bergé was a French Post-Existentialist writer obsessed with American cinema. He longed to write tawdry detective movies and taut thrillers in a post-war culture obsessed with Buňel, Goddard and Truffaut. Unable to find producers for his screenwriting, Bergé crafted a play entitled “The Theatre of the Film Noir” which became a critical sensation when it opened in Paris in the late 1950’s.

Unfortunately, Bergé did not live to enjoy his newfound fame. The morning after his theatrical triumph, he was crushed by a Citroën, while peddling his bicycle home from retrieving his morning baguette.


The only other thing you need to know about Bergé is that he didn’t actually exist.

In 1982, theatre Impresario Garth Drabinsky decided to organize a World Theatre Festival in Toronto. Over the month of June, more than a dozen of the planet’s National Theatres, along with dozens more of the most respected companies in the theatrical firmament, would descend on Toronto to present their best work. Famous names from the textbooks of almost any Drama 100 class would also be appearing and financing was found to make sure many of Canada’s theatres could be there too.

I was working with Toronto’s Factory Theatre at the time and we were going to do a new George Walker play entitled “The Theatre of the Film Noir”, a dark comedy set in Paris just days after its liberation in WW2. We’d been work-shopping the play for over a year and it was drop dead funny and a terrific evening of theatre.

Problem was, though barely into his 30’s, Toronto’s critics were feeling George was passé. His last couple of productions had been savaged. He just wasn’t staying within the genre box that they and the media had built for him. He was supposed to be Toronto’s quirky working class playwright. Nobody thought he should be directing, attempting larger themes or doing any of those things real artists do.

Imagine the art world if Picasso had stuck to Bullfight posters.

So, it was decided that in honor of the Festival, the Factory, which only performed Canadian plays, would, instead of riding one of its stable of writers, present the lost work of a lost genius, “Theatre of the Film Noir” by Andre Bernard Bergé.

Now, in the realm of World Theatre we were really small potatoes, made smaller in our home town by the arrival of international heavies our local critics and media hungered to embrace. And attempting a hoax like this could be seen as immature and inappropriate. But then – that’s what we mostly were.

We also knew George had written a really, really good play and that if it could get decent notices in the midst of the raves that would inevitably be given the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Steppenwolfe Theatre or the Seattle Rep, well -- we had a shot at taking the Gold.

To the flurry of press releases and background material being compiled for the throngs of arriving critics and media, we added a detailed bio of our deceased theatrical genius -- with pictures. The pics were snapshots of one of the Artistic Director’s relatives, who’d been obsessed with cycling and even included a shot of Bergé’s crushed bicycle – although I think the real one had been run over by a bus in Calgary.

One of my jobs was to go around to all the libraries and insert index cards for both the translation of Bergé’s play and his limited edition biography into the stacks. These cards indicated the volumes had been borrowed and unreturned. I also persuaded the French Consul and his wife to accept free tickets for opening night, a fact we also made sure got around.

With every available theatre venue booked, we ended up in a small 100 seat space that had once been a courtroom. And on opening night we peeked through the curtains to see those seats filled with 100 critics, our guests from the Consulate standing diplomatically at the back.

Now, having a couple of critics in the audience always makes actors nervous. Having an audience of nothing but was insane. We retired to the wings, wondering just what the hell we had been thinking. But we went for it – and the show was a smash.

The reviews were absolute raves across the board. Yes, this truly was a work of “Genius”, a silenced voice of the theatre that deserved to be heard. Yada-Yada-Yada.

The entire run sold out within a couple of days and the extended weeks in a much larger space not long after. There were actually editorials praising this plucky company of locals who had shown that Canadians could hold their own in such auspicious company.

We waited until the weeklies and the magazine reviews were in and then revealed the playwright’s true identity. Needless to say, it created a second wave of press and ticket buying. Some of those we had duped took it in a good natured way. Many even understood the point we were trying to make about homegrown talent. Others falsely claimed they’d been in on the joke. A few got downright nasty.

In the end, “Theatre of the Film Noir” toured across the country and all over the world. It’s become a popular piece in more than one language and is undoubtedly still playing somewhere tonight, more than 25 years after it made its debut.

Would it have been a hit without the foreign artiste who had ostensibly created it? I’d like to think so, but knowing Canada, I wouldn’t bet on it.

More than once, I’ve heard the marketing for the original production referred to as “pure genius”. But as one of the conspirators, I can assure you there wasn’t a genius in the bunch. It was simply a theatre company, a talented writer, a gang of actors and technicians who all had the courage to challenge the status quo, find the weak point of the system and exploit it.

Genius gets you nowhere in this business. Creativity can take you places you never imagined possible.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Spielberg is a genius filmmaker. Period, end of story.

DMc said...

Spielberg, that hack? My anonymous friend is full of shit. He couldn't be less talented if he was a hunk of polenta.

Oh shit. Is my name on this? This was supposed to be anonymous.

BECAUSE I WANT MY OPINION TO HAVE THE PARTICULAR WEIGHT THAT COMES FROM ANONYMITY.

Sheeee--it.

jimhenshaw said...

Yeah. I wish Steve would just get his own blog and not have to troll the net, looking to make people forget "Munich" and "Always" and "1941" and...

Gosh the list does go on, doesn't it?

Mef said...

great post.

and that someone would post anonymously that they like Spielberg is its own kind of funny.

Mark Edward Farrell

Ryan Hill said...

This is also tied into the idea of the story of the artist often being as important as the artistic work itself. See the documentary My Kid Could Paint That.

Jill Golick said...

That's a great story, Jim. Thanks for telling it to us.

Book of Don said...

Great post. thanks for putting in the time and effort into writing it. And unpaid too. What a guy !

dy

(thanks for your nice comments on my little blog, by the way)

Book of Don said...

Great post. Thanks for putting in the time and effort to write it. And unpaid too. What a guy !

dy

(also, a sincere 'thank you' for your nice comments on my little blog)