Not long ago I finished working with the amazing actor Lorri
Holt on the script of a one-woman show called Colette Uncensored
, about the life of the French writer Colette. The
play is currently running at The Marsh theater in Berkeley, California, with
Lorri in the title role.
|Lorri Holt as Colette|
Lorri and I worked on the script extensively with the
director David Ford. I feel as if I learned more about writing in those rehearsals
where the three of us took the script apart and put it back together than I
learned in most of the rest of my career as a writer, thanks in great part to two
The play originated almost by accident. I had always wanted
to translate a book by the great French writer Colette that had never appeared
before in English. Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, 1873–1954) is the author
of the works of fiction that the movies Gigi
and Cheri are based on, as well as
fifty other books and plays.
When I sat myself down more than ten years ago and actually
looked through Colette: An Annotated
Primary & Secondary Bibliography, I realized that every single
full-length book by Colette had already appeared in English translation.
That was extremely disappointing. Years later, though, I
went back to that bibliography and read more carefully. I started to match the
shorter works of Colette with their English translations and discovered that
many of her short stories and her magazine and newspaper articles had not been translated into English.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Brown Foundation Fellows
Program at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, I spent a month in a villa in
France that used to belong to Picasso, and then his lover and model Dora Maar, reading
through all the untranslated short works of Colette. I found 200 pages of wonderful
short works by Colette that had never been translated into English—a dream come
true! I created a rough translation, but wasn’t satisfied that I had done
justice to these stylish works, with their many nuances of meaning and their
numerous references to French art and drama.
Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island
I contacted Renée Morel, a friend in San Francisco who is
absolutely bilingual in French and English. Renée is a walking encyclopedia of French
culture and history. She also loves Colette’s writing. After some discussion, Renée
and I agreed to finish the translation together, and out of this collaboration came
Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island and OtherPreviously Untranslated Gems
by Colette, published by State University of
New York Press.
When Shipwrecked first
appeared in October 2014, Renée and I asked the actor Lorri Holt to do several
readings in bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area. Lorri, who never does
anything halfway, bought a wig to turn her straight blond hair into Colette’s
brunette perm, dressed in period clothes from the 1920s, and read all the
passages from the book with a polished French accent.
Wait a Second—How Did
the Kennedy Center Get into This?
Lorri’s creation of the character of Colette was so engaging
that audience members at the bookstore readings suggested we turn the project
into a one-woman show about the author’s life. At the same time, Lorri
mentioned to me that the Kennedy Center in Washington DC was about to stage a
revival of the musical Gigi, based on
a novella by Colette. The next day, just out of curiosity, I called the Kennedy
Center. “How would you like a staged reading of a play about the author of Gigi to coincide with the revival?” To
my amazement, the Kennedy Center agreed. There was only one problem: the play
didn’t exist. Lorri and I had to come up with a script in the space of a couple
It was incredibly exciting to travel to the Kennedy Center
for the first staged reading of our script in February 2015. Not only did they
give us the red-carpet treatment—the space where the reading took place
actually had red carpets!
The version of our play that Lorri performed as a one-woman
show that evening was very much a work in progress. Lorri read beautifully that
night, but the script was not yet theater. Pieces from the book were loosely stitched
together with passages of exposition where the character of Colette recites her
life story. In a couple of places, we had Lorri take on the voice and gestures
of another character and speak a dialogue with herself.
That was the state of the script when Stephanie Weisman
founder and executive/artistic director of The Marsh
theater in San Francisco,
invited us for a one-night trial performance of the play in October 2015 as
part of their Marsh Rising series. We were extremely lucky that Stephanie
paired us with their director-in-residence extraordinaire, David Ford. David
has collaborated with many of the leading solo performers in the San Francisco
Bay Area, including Geoff Hoyle
, Charlie Varon
, and Marga Gomez
. San Francisco
media have labeled David “the dean of solo performance.”
|Director David Ford|
Since David’s reputation had preceded him, I was somewhat intimidated
when Lorri and I met with him for our first rehearsal/script workshop in the
small theater upstairs in The Marsh’s San Francisco home. Lorri, with her innate
stage presence, immediately placed herself in a chair at center stage. I sat in
the front row, facing her. David chose to sit all the way in the back of the
theater—not that it’s a big theater. But his presence there behind me, more
felt than seen during Lorri’s reading of that early draft of the script, was
Like the schoolteacher who doesn’t crack a smile till
Christmas, David sat through the first read-through without chuckling at a
single joke in the script. Even the most moving sections produced no reaction.
When Lorri was done, there was silence. To fill the gap, I raved about her
reading. David remained stone-faced.
Lorri and I waited that day to hear David’s reaction to the
script we had poured so much of ourselves into. Finally David looked up from
his ever-present iPad, where he is constantly taking notes and sending emails,
and peered at us through his round, T.S. Eliot glasses. “Well,” he finally
said, “it’s episodic.”
Neither Lorri nor I knew what to make of this cryptic
utterance. “That’s not good,” David added, aware that we were not understanding
his comment. He explained that the story lacked a unifying theme and an arc. “I
think the arc might be personal freedom,” he suggested, with his characteristic
Now, I knew all about story arcs, but somehow it’s very easy
to lose track of that basic component of plot when you start with material that
has its own logic and integrity, such as the chronology of a real person’s
life. How can you tamper with facts and stay true to the story?
After that rehearsal, Lorri and I had many discussions on possible motifs that
recurred in the script. The more we talked the more we became convinced that
David’s intuitive suggestion of personal freedom was the unifying theme—Colette had moved away from the little town
in Burgundy where she grew up in search of more choices, she had left more than
one life partner in pursuit of that quest, she had explored her bisexuality, she
had eschewed the traditional roles of woman and mother, and she had resisted
the Nazis’ deportation of her third husband (a Jew). So we reworked the script
with the author’s pursuit of personal freedom as the bridge among the episodes,
staying true to fact, but inventing scenes that fit with the historical record.
The theme of personal freedom felt
extremely familiar to both me and Lorri, since we came of age during the
freewheeling 1960s. But the script was still far from done.
The more we worked with David, the more he insisted we cut
the script to the bare bones. We were chopping so much that Lorri consulted
Geoff Hoyle, who had also worked with David. Geoff reassured Lorri, joking that
the director’s name should be David “We Don’t Need That” Ford. We certainly
heard those words from David over and over, till we learned the knack of what
we could cut ourselves.
Not that our script was overly long, but the excess
exposition didn’t leave room for what was alive in the story to emerge. You
have to prune the dead leaves before the plant will grow new ones.
Much of the most vital material in the script was the dialogue
where Lorri played different characters interacting with one another. Once we made
the cuts, other characters began to appear. The more characters we added, the more
Lorri rose to the challenge and created new gestures, voices, and personalities
for important figures in Colette’s life, from her utopian socialist, bossy
mother; to her sophisticated player of a second husband, the Baron Henry de Jouvenel;
to her gangly stepson/lover; to the author’s angry and estranged grown
David made me see that an actor like Lorri could do much of
the heavy lifting merely by saying one word with the right intonation. For instance,
at the point where Colette’s marriage to the Baron Henry de Jouvenel is
breaking up, I had written a rather long explanation where the character of
Colette tries to connect an advice column that she wrote with the author’s own
“Just say one word: Henry,”
David suggested. “The audience will understand.” And they did, thanks to Lorri’s
skill at making that word represent an entire period in the author’s life.
Part of the play’s unusual origin was that it began at the
Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center, a free venue where the public is
welcome. For the reading in DC, Lorri and I had to agree to produce a version
of Colette’s life that would be appropriate for all ages. But much of the
author’s life is not very suitable for young people, including her multiple
affairs, her various divorces, and her complicated intimate relationship with
her own stepson.
Not only that, there was the issue of Colette’s questionable
activity during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Colette’s
husband at the time was Jewish, and he was nearly deported to a death camp, but
her personal intervention with the German ambassador’s wife spared him. Colette
also continued to publish during the occupation, unlike some writers who went
underground and joined the resistance, or fled the country.
In leaving out ethically ambiguous or risqué episodes in the
original PG version of the play, we had cut out much of the story’s complexity
Here, David Ford’s insight also proved invaluable. When he
heard our revised script, he still was not satisfied. “You’re going to have to
show us Colette’s darkest hour,” David insisted in his paradoxically
soft-spoken manner. We had gotten close to that by including the moment where
the Gestapo arrested her husband. But we had skirted the depth of her despair, both
during her husband’s internment, and during the five-year Nazi occupation of
France. We had also avoided dealing with her complex affair with her teenage
stepson, and her conflicts with her grown daughter.
It was only when we found Colette’s bleakest moment, during
the air raids in the midst of World War II, that the play was able to rise to her
later triumph, and the ending surfaced.
David’s ideas, often delivered in crisp, Zen riddles, were crucial
in helping us create a finished script that Lorri turned into a five-month
run at The Marsh theater in San Francisco, to great critical acclaim, as well as runs in London and Portland, Oregon. In the end,
Lorri, David, and I had great fun working together on the play. I hope you get
to see it!
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris
by Isabelle Stibbe
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How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka, The Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry