Sunday, August 7, 2016

Working with Director David Ford on Colette Uncensored

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 wonderful collaborators.

An Accidental Play

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 of months.

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. 

On to The Marsh

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 somewhat scary.

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 critical acumen.

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.

Cut, Cut, Cut

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 daughter.  

Trust the Actor

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 crumbling marriage.

“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.

From PG to Uncensored

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 and interest.

“Find the Darkest Hour”

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

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
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: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry


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