February 07, 2010

L'esprit de l'escalier

The French phrase l’esprit de l’escalier ("staircase wit") is defined by linguist Christopher J. Moore as:

A witty remark that occurs to you too late, literally on the way down the stairs. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations defines esprit de l'escalier as, "An untranslatable phrase, the meaning of which is that one only thinks on one's way downstairs of the smart retort one might have made in the drawing room."

There ought to be an equivalent term for theater-makers, maybe something like l'aperçu du rideau ("curtain insight") , to express the feeling of only having begun to understand a play as the lights come down on the final performance.

I was the assistant director for Carey Perloff's production of Phèdre at the 2009 Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and was proud of the subtle textures our hugely talented cast were able to weave up until closing night on October 3rd. But when we reassembled in San Francisco three months later to rehearse for the remount at the American Conservatory Theater, it felt like we'd been given the chance to take a 200-thread-count sheet and ratchet it up to 400.

Rehearsal time is precious. Like any investment in R&D, it's a cost with no precisely calculable return. The larger a play's cast, the bigger the payroll, and each day in the rehearsal room is a day without ticket revenues to offset that expense. While in Canada or the US it's not uncommon for a play to be staged after barely two or three weeks of rehearsal, different economic circumstances (including government subsidies and unemployment benefit rules) make it possible for some European theaters to hone a production over a period of months or more. Even in English-speaking Canada, we admire the results of the system that allows a Quebecois company like Robert Lepage's Ex Machina to devise its stage miracles during a research and development process spanning several years.

But no matter what your theatrical financing model, at some point rehearsals must end. The curtain must rise. Any further blinding insights a director might be planning on having become moot the moment the actors step into the light. And the cast themselves, after a few dozen more nights of the most inspiring discoveries of all, the kind made breathing shared air with an audience, will cede the stage to a new company, a new show.

At which point we will all find ourselves walking back down the proverbial staircase, braced for l'esprit de l'escalier to strike once again.

Phèdre's final performance at A.C.T. is this afternoon. I am extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity I had to work with members of both companies involved in its creation. Since today will also wrap "Phade Up," I figured it might be useful to index a few of the blog's greatest hits, to help orient any future visitors who may surf their way to these shores.

If you have only just joined us, please feel free to scroll down this page for the eight most recent entries, or check out the archives for the full table of contents.

But if your time is limited, here are my favourite posts from the past year's worth of "Phade Up".

Farouche: Phedre and the Half-Blood Prince
This one's a threefer. Originally three blog-posts long, and with lots of pictures, but it does manage to tie ostrich feathers to tall sharpened stakes and still make sense at the end.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Trezene
Anyone who's ever vented their spleen on the leaves of a myrtle will be able to relate.

Need to Know
For the fanboys and girls.

Clouds from Both Sides
Translation fun with BabelFish.

Alexandrine in Five Times
Wondering how Hippolytus would sound spilling his guts to Aricie in the language of love? Contains not one but two clips of Phèdre in the original French - one from 2003, and one circa 1968, complete with jaguar skin!

Shock Absorbers
On Squeamishness.

And a two-part look at a parallel story from Scripture, full of sex, lies and video of Donny Osmond: Hell Hath No Fury like Potiphar's Wife and When Love Gives You Lemons.


Posted by Alison Humphrey at February 7, 2010 01:46 PM