On the 13th of January, 2013 at the Cloister Cafe in New York City, I had the opportunity to speak with Simona Maicanescu, star of the one-woman adaptation of Wallace Shawn's The Fever opening on January 24th at LaMama's first-floor theatre.
From LaMama's website:
"In this new French production of Wallace Shawn’s gripping monologue, an upper-middle-class woman from New York wakes up feverish in the hotel room of a war-torn country. This Candide of our times begins probing the foundations of her privileged life, unable to keep pretending that, 'coats have no history, but just fall down from heaven with prices marked inside.' The humor is quirky, and the questions are unsettling. They are not meant to be answered, but to bring attention to the shocking landscape of social injustice through which most of us walk every day and almost all of us fail to see. Directed by Lars Norén, one of Sweden’s most prominent playwrights, and featuring acclaimed French-Romanian actress Simona Maicanescu."
Our conversation lasted for one hour and has been transcribed for your reading pleasure below.
JK: Sitting here with Simona Maicanescu [SM]. And we are going to be talking about The Fever. There’s a new production of Wallace Shawn’s The Fever opening on January 24th, 2013 at La Mama [first floor theatre], which is not far from where we are sitting now.
JK: The first professional performance was in November of 1990 and the first apartment performance by Wallace Shawn was in January of 1990. Now you play the traveller.
JK: And you’re on a journey in this piece. What has your personal journey been from growing up in Romania?
SM: What was my journey? Wow. Very long and I would say hard is the word but I was not aware of that then. And I suppose it was hard because, you know, it was a country under dictatorships. Every Eastern country had their own Communist and in my country it was a dictatorship so there was a long journey through…you know…trying to find the paths…not to be so under this dictatorship. Little by little, long story short, in an unconscious way in the beginning and then a conscious way later, I became a rebel. So I was against the Communists and I belonged to a generation who was supposed to be a member of the Communist party in order to get a good career. And I did my best not to and I succeeded in not becoming a member of the Communist party.
JK: So this is your first one-woman show from my understanding. As a performer, what is the experience of moving through a piece such as The Fever? What are some of the challenges of not being amongst other performers, to be unable to feed off of their energies and actions?
SM: Being alone on stage? You know, it is very difficult to describe the feeling but I do hope I make myself clear. I don’t feel alone on stage because…I don’t want to talk too much about the show, the performance, the way it starts and I think the way it starts is important and I don’t want to give away the codes of the performance because this is what Lars Noren, the director who is such a wonderful and famous playwright, did with me. But to come back to your question: I am not alone and I cannot do this as a solitary act. I am starting it as a solitary act—that was the way it was written—but still I can tell you from the very first second I am not alone and that is why the show cannot be repeated the very same way because I need the audience and every night the audience is different. I am a human being—I am different every single night of course but I am not as different as the audience is. I react…I am all the time connected to the audience so it is a dialogue. The way they breathe, the way they laugh (because they laugh I can tell you), the way they sigh…it’s a dialogue to me. I build the next moment according to what the reaction was that came just before it.
JK: I like that.
JK: Something that arises time and time again in the play are objects, whether it’s the gifts, the red and blue dress, objects in the office, the Christmas presents, the telephone—in short, commodities. So what role do objects play within the message that Wallace Shawn originally and now you are trying to convey?
SM: Wow. It is quite a question. Quite a question and I will try to find the right answer. I understood you perfectly and yet it is so hard to talk about it because those commodities are there all the time. What I can tell you right now: they are not concrete at all but they become concrete because of the way that I am talking about them. And I could say that the journey is built on those concrete commodities belonging to a privileged life. And then little by little—because you know he is talking about coats, t-shirts, and everything you just said before—and little by little, the traveller, my traveller, I…
I would say I. I get rid of them. And there are some concrete elements that I get rid of. At the end, I dare say that it is like being naked on stage but of course I am not naked…
It is my soul. Just the traveller’s soul, naked on stage. Talking to people and saying, “This is what I am, this is what I have become, this is what I would like to do or not do.”
JK: So as you just mentioned, we see the dissolution of a character as the play progresses…
JK: …and one that battles with the issues of alienation and modernity, the stifling hypocrisy and we see these in the past works of writers like Gogol, Dostoevsky, Melville and his Bartleby, Camus, Beckett—just to name a few.
JK: Is this still a salient narrative? Is this a narrative that we have moved beyond or are these still struggles that we participate in? And if we have not moved beyond these struggles that are brought up in The Fever will we ever or does this touch upon the human element of the journey?
SM: You see my silence already because it is so hard to talk about it. What you are just saying…it is almost what I could have said. Because to me this journey is, as Wallace Shawn said, the state of the obvious…to make the obvious be watched again. My hope, and this is why I am still doing it and not putting it away and saying, “No, I won’t do that anymore”—my hope is that each and every person would think about it. I don’t have the pretension to say that I will change things but at least if every spectator thinks about it even for five minutes and maybe more the next day when they drink their coffee—maybe this tiny thought could bring something that will really change because we have to do that. Otherwise we do not live in a modern society to make it short. As I told you before I could have said the same things because my journey is like Mr. Shawn’s Fever, which became mine—a long journey, which can be transformed into a long question with many ups and downs and it is up to the audience to give an answer or not.
The Fever is just questioning, wondering about things. It does not give any answers. It sort of belongs to the audience. The audience can say, “No. I do not want to hear about it.” But I dare say that it is impossible not to have a reaction—impossible not to be touched in some way, angry…there is something. There is something.
JK: It just has me thinking about the title—more than I was before. The Fever. Transmitted from person to person, a sickness of sorts.
JK: Yes. But it also gets better.
SM: I do hope so. You know, just to give you a small detail, which I suppose you do not know: the original title is The Fever, right? As you know, I have already performed it in French many, many, many times. The translation in French would be la fièvre. But the show in French is called Fievre (Fever). Because when you say la fièvre it is a very physical thing and when you say just fever it is…
SM: …yeah. It’s above. And I think his text is above. It’s a sickness, an illness, as he says, a restlessness or fever, which is above.
JK: Sickness of modernity maybe.
SM: Yes, thank you.
JK: Shawn has described this as a piece that he wrote in response to his friends and their apathy and indifference and these are some of the very same characters that we see the character in The Fever responding to in a way. Also responding to the audience of course. He mentions at the end of the play that this is a piece to be performed in houses and apartments in groups of ten or twelve and one of the key themes within the play is wealth and its relation to poverty. What conflicts arise for you, if any, when performing this in an established theatre?
SM: Well, I have to tell you that I have never performed in apartments. I have never had the same type of journey actor such as Mr. Shawn’s. And as you said in the beginning he started performing it in apartments and the very last time he performed it was in 2007 and it was in a theatre. To me it was important to perform it in a theatre because people knew what they were coming for. I think that when you go and perform it in an apartment it’s more like a surprising gesture in a way and it’s this intimacy…I don’t know. I have never been through that but I try to imagine. This intimacy could be very surprising for both an actor and the audience because…maybe you are more protected in a theatre because people come to see a performance, a one-woman show.
To me it’s very important, and I can tell you from my experience of The Fever, is that I perform it in small theaters like La Mama where I am going to perform in the first floor theater of 100 seats but I have performed it for 300 and 400, which was far too much. And when you see the show you will understand better what I am trying to tell you right now. I think the right dimension is this 100, 150 maybe, but no more because this intimacy is very important. You have to keep the contact—almost physically touching the audience with my voice. Whispering in their ear as if I was speaking to each and every person and not to an audience watching a show. I am not interested in giving shows. I am interested about talking about things that are very deep inside.
And coming back to your question about poverty and wealth…I think one of the reasons I decided to perform The Fever is that in the beginning I was not interested in doing a one-woman show. I am not the kind of actress that is interested in showing her artistic tools. Not interested at all. I decided to do it because I needed desperately to talk about these things. I thought I had legitimacy in talking about that because I am a French Romanian actually so I am coming from a country that Mr. Shawn is talking about: a poor country. And I thought that somehow I know more than any other actress what I am talking about. And I am living in a privileged world. I live in Paris in this bridge, this in-between bridge that I am trying to build gives me the legitimacy to talk about these things. I know what I am talking about.
JK: So moving to the idea of adaptation. Very generally, what does this word mean to you—this word of adaptation with regards to this play? And in taking someone else’s work and adapting it, what is the process that you had to go through? Did you try to stay as close to the original text as possible or is adaptation the movement away from the original, enriching the original with your own experiences that you were just talking about?
SM: If you want me to give you some more details about my journey with Mr. Shawn’s Fever is that the moment I read it I was very…frightened is not the word…very disconcerted about everything he was talking about. I discovered the book in a library in New York many years ago and I was reading it and then I put it away because I was a little…I was scared. And one year later, I was shooting a movie and I got very bored and I wanted to have something else to work on. I grabbed the book again and took it with me every day to read it and there were like twenty pages at the end of the text that told me that I had to tell it on stage. I would die if I did not say that on stage. What to do? How would I make it possible? And then I started to work on that and long story short, there was a festival that I was invited to and I was supposed to present excerpts…that’s what I thought. And then there was some sort of misunderstanding because the Swedish do not use English as their first language of course so our common English was alright but still there was a misunderstanding and they told me they were inviting me for a show and there was no production. So at this moment, I spoke to Lars Noren about it and I told him I would come and he asked me, “Why?”, and I told him that there was an invitation and I told him about The Fever and he said, “Wow”…no I told him about a Wallace Shawn play and he said, “You’re not going to do The Fever?” and I said, “Yes, that is what I am going to do.”
He said, “You’re crazy.” And I said, “Would you be so kind to take a look at what I am trying to present and there was a misunderstanding and I have to present a show?” And he said, “Yes, let’s do that.” And Lars Noren is the kind of director any actor would dream of. He’s a very intimate director and the rehearsals with him are never long…two hours, three but never more. But you are so tired afterwards because he gives you so much. And he asks from you so much so by the end you are…you feel as if you have built a house yourself. And the moment I told him about The Fever he said that it was a brilliant idea but the text today is too long. You should adapt it and he told me something very beautiful. You know he used to be a poet? So he said to me, “Cut the flowers. It’s a garden but cut the flowers. Let the grass come up.” And I said, “I think I have already cut them.”
So I came with my adaptation and at that time I was not aware that…well I couldn’t have been aware of Mr. Shawn’s performance because what I am telling you about is 2006 and his updated version of The Fever is 2007. So anyway, I worked on that and presented something at this festival and the reaction of the audience was so strong that Lars said, “You have to keep on going and make it possible in French.” And so being involved in two languages, which are not my native languages that gives you, I dare say, the right distance to get the real value. You cherish more the words than in your native language. You try to get…
JK: You are a traveller of a different sort. Collecting…
SM: Travelling in languages. I was an actress when I was in Romania. The fact that I had to learn French very, very quickly because I did not speak a word and the fact that the only languages that I studied were Latin and English and then when I decided to take my long journey to France I had to leave my English and it was sleeping for many, many years. So I got more and more involved in the French language, which I didn’t love in the beginning. Not at all…really. And I can tell you that some years ago, maybe thanks to The Fever as I had to do the adaptation in French…to tell you the truth, I had no money to pay a translator as everyone was asking me for a lot of money. So I did the translation into French without being French.
JK: And how did that go?
SM: I would say well because people wanted to buy the text and that is quite a compliment. And it’s not a question of skills. It’s a question of feeling the language like when you smell things. French is like a huge field filled with corn and whatever. And you have the feeling that it is more or less the same. But when the first breeze comes, you see the poppies, you see the flowers, you see all kinds of things and all of a sudden it becomes so rich. And in the beginning, certain things bore you. Many, many words say nothing.
English is like the opposite. English is like a huge mountain and you have the feeling that you cannot understand it sometimes. And the moment you start climbing it you are more and more fascinated by it. That is the way I perceive the two languages. So maybe the fact that I am not English or French…I did something that is hard to do…so having the same amount of words in English and French I had to do it in both languages. I will show you the text.
JK: So we talked a little bit about home. And I want to return to the idea of home and the loss of a sense of home as it seems central to the play. Where is home for you now? And we have already talked about what drew you to this play in particular but in travelling around within languages around the globe and within yourself where is this sense of home?
SM: The truth is…as you know I am a child of Eastern Europe and also a restless traveller. And I suppose the actor that I have become lately thanks to this journey (taking the plane, coming to New York, going to Sweden, going to Luxembourg, going to my native country for fun or for work) so the answer? Home is on stage. The stage is home. I feel at home wherever I go. I see a theatre and what is beautiful about it whether in Germany or France…they are the same. What is wonderful about this work that we do is theatre…and I discovered this when I was travelling overseas to see theatre...the big discovery is that it is the same. You have a stage, you have almost the same superstitions, you have good theatre and bad theatre, good actors and bad actors and wonderful technicians and bad technicians…so that is why I feel at home on stage. I recognize everything. I know how it is.
JK: Let’s just return to adaptation and what that word means to you and maybe the process involved in adapting a work like The Fever.
SM: Yes, I remember that I told you about that story with those twenty pages that I wanted so badly to talk about and in fact, I had to do the whole monologue as it was obvious to me that this kind of monologue cannot exist on a European stage and so I said to myself, if it was to be considered too long…I said to myself, “You have to respect the core of the monologue but you have to focus on what he wants to talk about—like the essential ideas. And we were talking in the very beginning about the commodities, about the privileged life. That’s the main structure so why is he talking about these commodities? So I built the whole thing on the commodities and all other second or third paths that he was taking, I told myself it was a kind of distraction to the audience and you have to focus them without being too pushy in saying, “Look at what I am trying to tell you.” On the contrary, I was trying to make it lighter and lighter but keeping them focused so with all the respect and admiration I have for Mr. Shawn’s whole work, I told myself that I had to concentrate on that so when I was telling you that Lars Noren was talking about cutting the flowers, he was talking about the same thing but it was his poetic way of telling me to keep concentrating, keep concentrating. So I dare say that the fact that I was allowed access to the latest version of Mr. Shawn’s Fever…the idea of updating it was brilliant because in the 1990s, the moment he finished the work…of course talking about Communism did not have the same impact as in the 90s. So the adaptation was a very difficult process and I think it took me one year to be sure…and it’s a very hard thing to do in a way because you are dealing with someone else’s words and all I want to do is never betray the soul of an artistic act. And you have to be humble.
JK: It’s challenging. You’ve talked about this a little bit: Lars Noren, in pieces that he has written, talks about theatre and the home for theatre. Does theatre, to you, still have a home within our society or has that relationship shifted to television, film, or beyond (perhaps to the network—the internet and social media)?
SM: I think that theatre should work harder because I am a little afraid of what is going on all over the world. With television and film and everything that you are talking about…theatre has a very essential role in our society. It has existed for what, 3,000 years? And it will be there as people need this kind of story, which is delivered in front of their eyes. Television is not the same. Film is not the same. And this catharsis…we were taught in school it is a real thing, it is a real emotion and you cannot have it through a screen. You need that person there. Real life. As a spectator (because I very often go to the theater), you need that kind of strong emotion, which makes you realize better who you are, changing you and the way you think, controlling your emotions, make discoveries about yourself…to say, “Oh, I have this emotion. I can react to this thing with surprise or laughter.” So I do hope that theatre is doing its best to build, in a more solid way, its home.
JK: So I want to complicate a few things if we can. And it’s a few of the relationships that we see constantly featured within the play. So two questions: who are the rich and who are the poor? I am interested in complicating these terms that we use to blanket groups of people. What happens to this dichotomy in Wallace Shawn’s The Fever and your adaptation when we begin to look at relationships between people, not within these categories, but very specific occurrences, which he mentions a few within the play and they appear within your adaptation as well. But what happens to these terms of rich and poor?
SM: That’s a good question and a very hard answer. If I could say that the terms rich and poor depend from which point of view you come from. You can be very rich just because you are poor. Because you are poor, you lose nothing. A rich person could lose everything. And maybe that is the only moment that they will understand what it means to be poor. So in a way, maybe that is why poor people are able to be really happy. I suppose you know that in Africa, after some research, they discovered the happiest people that had nothing compared to those in the States and France, “civilized”, democratic countries. So rich and poor…you know I am so happy and honored to perform Mr. Wallace Shawn’s Fever and yet, I said to myself, “God. Things don’t change that much because today, this play is even more true today than twenty years ago.” In a way, it is frightening. So there are less and less rich people that are more and more rich (the few rich) and more and more poor.
JK: Reading the play…I love the play…
SM: Good to hear it.
JK: …and I cannot wait to see it and your performance. It reminds me of…like I mentioned with all of the other authors that have written on these types of relationships before—whether it’s Marx, whether it’s Beckett, Camus…there are so many. There are a lot of people today working on rethinking the idea of wealth, the idea of richness and poverty and it’s not to say that poor people are happier (maybe this is true sometimes) and rich people are less happy. I have met rich people that are happy, I have met rich people that seem to be sad. I have met poor people that are miserable and poor people that are very happy. I am interested to know…and you have talked about it…but it is an interesting idea to think about: if, in the next adaptation, whether it’s ten years down the road…because you will do this again ten years, twenty years down the road…
SM: I do hope, not because I would get bored—you cannot get bored with this text—I do hope that something will happen in ten years and the text will hopefully seem old. I believe in human being’s ability to overcome. But coming back to what you were saying about giving a new dimension and revisiting what wealth means. The thing that really convinced me that I had to fight to do Shawn’s Fever is the latest version. He changed things and why I was admiring him for it is that he is even more sharp and more direct in saying, “Guys, you haven’t changed a thing. What to do about it?” And I said…you know chapeau [hat or also used to signify the act of taking one’s hat off as a sign of respect]…I have to…you know when you feel like you have to do something? You’re not allowed to stay home. You have to fight for that. So in my humble way I am trying to revisit this dimension of what to do about it today.
JK: If anything, the play itself works at complicating these categories. I think already a lot of work is done in complicating poverty and the relationship between wealth and poverty.
SM: Yes. You know there is a line in one of Shawn’s texts about one of his friends that thinks that performance is an opera and that opera and ballet can change individuals and through them, society. But what does it mean? Does it mean something? It’s a question, you see? I am asking you for the answer now. Does it mean something to change individuals and through them, society?
JK: Yeah. I think it has to do with the energy that you talked about and transferring the energy of a performance into the thought processes of a person watching it. Yesterday, I found an art exhibit where you put headphones on (this is just a side story but it relates) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and you listen to these sounds that people have pieced together and you watch these visual images [binaural audio and stroboscopic visual effects]and it disrupts your brainwaves and induces hallucinations of sorts [see Squareeater website at www.squareeater.com]. You’re not taking drugs or anything but it just shifts your brain enough to where you start to think differently in that moment [brainwave entrainment]. And for me, to answer your question, that’s what theatre does if it is good theatre—it disrupts you enough to start thinking about yourself and society in a slightly different way. Maybe it is an opening.
SM: Thank you for the answer.
SM: What I would like to hope for is an opening. Opening if not new doors, then new windows. More windows to go out. Then to trying to see bigger and try finding the door.
JK: You talked about the fields with regards to French language and Deleuze and Guattari refer to the rhizomatic eruption. So if we are talking about French language and you see the grass and flowers, what is also interesting is the area right below the surface: the seeds maybe.
SM: The seeds, yes. Absolutely.
JK: The openings, possibilities.
SM: And also the tiniest beings like the butterflies and the ladybugs. I am crazy about ladybugs. That very tiny world of being a ladybug…that’s why I was talking about mountains because in English you have so many…you have the same verb “to come”: to come in, come out, come off…god, sometimes you get lost on the paths of the mountains. And all of these options are so different, meaning something totally different. That’s what is wonderful about this language.
JK: We keep talking about travelling in some way or another but in this play we see the character questioning…always questioning…himself, society, relationships. And we witness this unraveling of the character, this throwing away of objects that we talked about. Let’s talk about the feeling that one has at the end of Wallace Shawn’s original and compare it to your adaptation. There is a feeling of closure of sorts at the end of Shawn’s play. In the adaptation, there is the feeling of an opening or an openness. What was the thought process involved in leaving it with a feeling of openness other than the sense of closure that we seem to get from Wallace Shawn’s original?
SM: That’s a very good question and I do hope that my answer will not be disappointing. First of all, one of the differences between English and French is that in English you do not have this difference between human beings. If you say, “I am sitting,” as a man and, “I am sitting,” as a woman it’s the same. In French this is not possible. The moment you say, “I am sitting,” in French [Je suis assis/assise] people know it is a woman or a man. So when I did the adaptation I had to be a woman. I was not a “human being”. When Wallace Shawn wrote the text, he was a “human being”, (the traveller) so the way I read and we read today (Lars Noren and myself) we do hope that a woman would always be not more naïve but optimistic; to leave the doors open, the windows open, to change. So it is about openness rather than closing any possibility. And as we were talking just before about adaptation, I would never dare any playwright’s words or meanings. So the adaptation, when you read it, sounds like something changed but maybe when you see the show, you’ll understand that every word of Wallace Shawn’s play, even if it is not physically there, it is somewhere beyond. So it is about openness and yet it is about us having to do something because otherwise we will hit a wall.
JK: I wanted to talk about the idea of repetition because it occurs often within this work. The character questions and then re-questions modes of life, purpose, pursuits, fetishisms of the commodity or the commoditized so what do we gain from this cyclical approach? Do we run the risk of becoming trapped in the cycle? I’ll just add one more question: while we question constantly, do we run the risk of life itself passing us by or does it drive us deeper into this thing that we call living?
SM: I hope it drives us deeper. I am fighting for that.
JK: Deeper or crazy?
SM: No, I don’t want people to go crazy after all. To me it’s not a cycle. It’s more like a spiral; a spiral that frightens at the beginning because it looks like a spiral going down. And the thing about spirals is you are never sure where you are on the spiral as it depends on where you are—your point of view. So in the very beginning I hoped people could say to themselves, “God, I am going to go deeper and deeper and if ever it happens, I am going down with them.” But then I am trying to tell them all the time that we have to go up, up, further and further into a kind of openness. And it’s okay because as you know I am French but I am Romanian too. I am coming from a country that is disconcerted today, a country which is lost. All of the other Eastern countries are more or less in the same situation. I live in a very civilized country, a powerful country so I am in between those two walls in a country that wasn’t mine, savage Capitalists, you know? France or the States…Western countries which are questioning their tired democracies and I am just trying to push the questioning, to change the speed, to serve those questions a little bit quicker…to still be alive and see the change. So this kind of democracy, which is tired by itself in a way, the theory about what a democracy is…it was like Communism. You know, what Karl Marx was saying and Wallace Shawn is talking about: the Capital. Capital: Volume I. I’ve read all of it as a student. In a brown paper bag [a reference to The Fever]. Did someone leave it as a joke?
SM: Did someone think that I should read it? And you know, I read it. Because I had to. I was in a Communist country.
JK: Did they give it to you in a brown paper bag as well?
SM: No, no. It was given to us in the schools. No paper bag.
JK: So other than Wallace Shawn and Lars Noren, who are a few of the other living playwrights that you respect today?
SM: Wow, the list is long. I am sort of addicted to monologues. And I am at a certain age where if you do a monologue it’s because you want to say something about it, not to show your skills as an actress. I am not interested in this kind of stuff at all. The star system and all of that is not at all my cup of tea. I am interested in that kind of theater that makes things happen; a good glass of emotion, a cute cup of love or tenderness or—that’s the kind of theatre that interests me. Beckett, for instance, has some texts that are less known. He has a text called Not Me. You know it?
JK: I don’t.
SM: It’s a very short monologue. It’s so brilliant and says so many things about human beings and who we are deeply inside of ourselves. There is another Swedish playwright that I am very fond of…I am interested in texts by Bertolt Brecht. I would love to see or perform it today. There are so many [see the end of the interview for a partial list of playwrights worth reading]. Lars Noren, you know, I fear is much more known in the States for his ancient plays but lately he’s more involved in social/political speech. I would love to be involved again in a Lars Noren play. If I hear myself, I am talking only about something that provoked a change. I’m still a rebel. I’m very fond of Shakespeare but I would prefer to see things changing. As you were asking me about theatre and its home: theatre is much more powerful than it thinks it is. And we should fight for that.
JK: I think that is a great place to stop.
SM: Yes, I think so.
Follow JK on Twitter @JKFow
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The Fever at La Mama (opens January 24, 2013)