Thursday, January 29, 2009
Backstage at La Comédie Française
The big news in France today is the general strike affecting pretty much everything: transportation, banks, schools, post office, you name it. I hear even the clerks at the big box supermarket Auchan are joining in on the fun. But since I'm lucky enough not to have to go anywhere and my kids are in private school, I'm hoping that it's just a blip on the radar screen.
So while all the other Paris bloggers may be sharing their tales of woe, let me instead tell you about something else entirely. Yesterday, I had the incredible luck to go on a backstage tour at the venerable Comédie Française, the theater company that's been putting on shows since 1680 and working out of its current quarters from just after the French Revolution. Beth Thompson, an American woman, is the relatively new head of the hair and makeup department, the first woman to hold this position, and she was kind enough to provide a view behind the scenes to a number of other Americans. Although the company does its share of the French classics -- Molière and Rostand to name a few -- they also present contemporary works so the demands on the hair stylists and wigmakers are varied and considerable. The recent production, Hommage à Molière, had a cast of over 50, each requiring a handmade and hand styled wig. Ms. Thompson showed us some of the 5,000 wigs she has on hand and described for us the artistic process from production design through the day-to-day details of getting the cast ready for action.
She also took us to see the repassage (ironing) department where several ladies were hard at work, readying garments for the next performance. Who knew that ironing could be so fascinating? I'd never given a moment's thought to those stiff collars from the 17th century but now I'll never look at one the same way again. The collars are laundered and starched after each performance. Then the folds must be put back in, uniformly, using hand tools that are heated in an oven. Each collar can take several hours to finish.
Difficult and tedious? Perhaps, but the woman who was demonstrating the technique was swelling with pride. A modern production is quick work for the repassage ladies. If the actors wear t-shirts or even a dress shirt, these can be laundered and folded or ready with a few quick strokes of a standard steam iron. But, she added, the ironing team likes the traditional plays best because it gives them the satisfaction of practicing their special craft.
Tickets to see the specially laundered collars and carefully designed hairdos in their proper theatrical context are available on-line at the company's Web site. Seats for Cyrano de Bergerac are pretty much gone but there's plenty more to see.