While completing the La Jolla Playhouse run of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I felt deeply compelled to return to France (where I attended clown school in 2012) for reasons I couldn't explain.
My bank account was not reflecting that of a jet-setter, yet the moment I arrived at Kennedy Airport and was switched to first class due to an overbooked flight, my journey as a spiritual millionaire began (or, perhaps, continued) — one of the most serendipitous of my life, with each bend in the road leading me toward the clues I had sought for playing Clopin, King of the Gypsies (or as they are more appropriately known, the Romani or Gitan people).
What follows is a glimpse of some of the gems that sparkled on that road from December 31 to January 15.
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Amazing encounter of the day (one of many):
While walking through a strange part of the city I had never been yesterday, I felt overcome by the sudden urge to piss! Not able to find a bathroom anywhere, I said a silent prayer and within a moment, a Port-o-Let, sitting on a truck and soon-to-be-transported, turned up to my left.
I zipped in (or rather, unzipped) in a hurry, and saw a wallet strewn about the (makeshift) sink. I sensed someone had been robbed, picked it up and realized this was the billfold of a high-ranking official from the office of the Prime Minister.
Through a series of hurdles, I located the gentleman. He called me back before I left for the Palace of Fontainbleu today (the Château of François 1, King of France). We arranged to meet as soon as I returned, and I could tell he was a bit nervous... wondering if it was perhaps I who had purloined it!
When he recognized it was not, he was so touched, he gifted me with a very rare bottle of wine by the same vintners who made the sole vintage that King François I himself would drink.
I love following the trail of life's little (and big) surprises.
(N.B., I drank the wine with my Couchsurfing host in Arles [Mathieu] and it was delicious!)
This odyssey grows richer by the day, like a tapestry revealing itself panel-by-panel.
First, poet extraordinaire Margo Berdeshevsky happened to see a Romani circus the night before we met, which I then saw (she was also given an exclusive glimpse of this nomadic culture in Eastern Europe, which she had photographed and shared with me).
Spent Epiphany, aka "The Feast of Fools" (January 6th, which incites the action in Hunchback), eating Galette du Roi pastry and touring Notre Dame Cathedral where I prayed and saw gargoyles I'd played with eight times a week in La Jolla.
After attending a poetry reading by Margo at Shakespeare & Co., my dear and beloved clown teacher, Philippe Gaulier, invited me to his estate in the marshlands an hour south of Paris to discuss the nature of bouffon and complicité — as well the power of an actor's "shit" to destroy their beauty. The whole encounter was the rarest of honors.
I felt moved to leave Paris a short breath before the Charlie terrorist attack this morning, which stopped our train but granted me a free ride through the Camargues' marshy plains. Along the way, saw wild white stallions, hawks, a flamboyance of flamingos and horned bulls streaking the Provençal countryside. Upon my arrival in Arles, I stood on the stage of their destroyed amphitheatre, hearing myself whisper from the audience, then visited a Santonniere show filled with gypsy miniatures in the cloisters.
It just so happens that Mathieu, my host, is not only a Clopin fan but also of Romani descent, so he brought me to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the site on the Mediterranean Sea where gypsies make their annual pilgrimage celebrating Saint Sarah, the "Black Mary" who walked with Mary and Mary Magdalene after Lazarus left them in Arles.
Mathieu then gave me two books on Gitan culture which I could not find in the U.S., one of which portrayed gypsies as hedgehogs. I had no idea that they have long been personified as such — their spines making them difficult to touch though their bellies are soft.
Before the attack today, I said a prayer asking God not to make me blind to the things that matter most. Everything I could not have possibly planned has lined itself up succinctly (this is just in the past 36 hours), and I am more sure than ever that there is an unseen architecture which embraces and sustains us all the more bravely we move toward it. I also recognize that this time, this place, will never happen again in the same way, so I'm keeping my eyes, ears and heart open to all of it.
Awoke this morning haunted by an image I'd seen yesterday of a toreador in prayer before heading into the arena. Unable to locate it in town, I make a split-second decision to visit a museum my host had encouraged me to avoid. When I walk in, I literally awaken the staff; no one is present in these halls but me and figures on canvas waiting to live through others' eyes.
The first painting leaps towards me is called, The Vision of Jacob, exactly the subject of the book I have just written with my father, Jacob. The second is an answer to prayer: the very essence of Clopin (by way of Picasso) hidden in a darkened corner.
One miracle after another: drawers filled with images of gypsies dancing, marrying. I bound through the rest of the rooms so as not to miss my bus.
Scurrying past one of the many "Je Suis Charlie" signs on doors, this one was fastened to that of a drama school. Next to it, a window with full view of a class in session. Watching these young actors learn to speak the unspeakable, to defy terrorism of the soul, my eyes well with tears.
Around the corner, the image of the matador presents itself.
/ / /
Yesterday I climbed the mountain to Les Baux, a glowing white village sequestered atop all others in the region, abandoned, for the most part, in winter. I remember a friend telling my sister, who then told me: It is easy to love in summer and spring, but to be an adult, one must learn to love in winter. The bare bones of this town offer themselves to me for loving, and I accept them*.
Hitchhiking back to Arles with a gorgeous 24 year old housekeeper, I am moved by the simplicity of our contact, faces and gestures, the odd word threatening to disturb this charm. At home, my host and I welcome another Couchsurfer from Korea, and we make a meal together, relating through Google Translate, passing a laptop as if it were a joint. Remembering again the delicacy of first contact.
[*While in the fortress atop the village, I notice two images which illustrate how soldiers fought intruders: by pouring hot oil through tiny apertures in the wall, and by throwing interlopers from the highest of walls, both methods used in the climax of Hunchback.]
/ / /
Barren fields, which flank the bus to St. Remy (from where I write this), demonstrate hope more than fulfillment — seeds of promise — and are of comfort to me. The white horses of the plains turn to schoolyards filled with boys and I think how lucky they are to live here. Looking skyward, I understand Van Gogh's clouds. I walk his footpath from the sanitarium where he was hospitalized, touching a tree he painted as a sapling 123 years ago which now offers shade to dozens of other trees. It is all unspeakably moving.
I pass a shop window with a sign which reads: Accept the Mystery. Walking inside, the tiny boutique is filled with old maps, advertisements from 19th century magazines and illustrations from antiquated childrens' books. I ask the shopkeeper au francais: "Do you have any images of gypsies? Bouffons? Harlequins?" Three nods to the negative.
Something pulls me to a tiny stack of gravures. Three images into the pile, there sits "Clopin Trouillefou, King of the Gypsies," an original 1844 gravure from Hunchback of Notre Dame.
I am beginning to think that "trying" might be the greatest insult before God, an accusation of a lazy universe unwilling to meet us. Every step of this journey has proven me otherwise.
Over the last six days, I have traveled through 15 villages in the south of France and, in the process, found what was looking for me.
The past three days, in particular, have held a special magic as I rode my bike through five of these tiny jewel boxes, from the halo of dawn through the hush of dusk, entirely alone, save for white goats and geese I fed, and blackbirds by the hundreds who swarmed the ashen skies. With no map, my eyes entered my feet.
The landscape, a combustion of color in summer, exhales only ghosts of lavender now. The power of nature's intention is never more palpable than in winter; the power of human memory never more viable than in such a present. An echo so resonant it carries my thoughts greets me in an abandoned abbey where human voices seem designed to reach God directly.
Doorways — mint to periwinkle — crest these villages, the distinction in color being the axis on which Impressionists built entire careers. Candlelight laps at the panes of a tiny bistro, the first I have seen open in days. I sit by a fire as an elderly couple sends coffee to my table while three men test 14 vintages at the next, sending me their unfinished bottles.
To travel, I now realize, is to stay young, which is to say, curious. Unfettered by past breakage, we grow privy to the whispers our soul utters as it works its magic in reverse: fooling us into feeling lost, it coaxes us toward our destiny. The future, it seems, feathers our present.
As I watch the sun slowly rise over New York on my first morning back, I am reminded of a quote I once read indicating that we have only one choice: "Great art or great life." Sadly, I believed this for a while.
Actor friends (hell, all my friends), please, never put your soul on hold by thinking you can either "be successful" or "live your life." The two are, in fact, synonymous. I have been offered six jobs since following my calling to go to France and I suspect that without the enrichment of this voyage, I wouldn't have been able to do justice to any of these opportunities.
One of my teachers, Monsieur Gaulier, said ever so piquantly: "You can say, 'I am an actor! I am an actor!' Yeah, you are an actor, but first, you must be a beautiful human person. If you just say, 'I am an actor! I am an actor!' but are not a beautiful human person first, then you are just a pain in the ass." In my own, gentler way, I said to a student recently, "You've got to have something to sing about."
I think the quote should be amended to read: "Great courage yields great life which is great art."
Before leaving France, my poet-friend, Margo, related a story that forged the credo of her life: "Never hurry."
Now I, too, have adopted it.
We must constantly remind ourselves to slow down enough to see what we can see, hear what we can hear, and touch who and what we can for this brief moment designed not only for our savoring, but for our evolution itself.