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Whimsy And Imagination In 'Aurélia's Oratorio'

Aurélia Thierrée delivers a dose of the surreal in "Aurélia's Oratorio."
The La Jolla Playhouse
Aurélia Thierrée delivers a dose of the surreal in "Aurélia's Oratorio."
Whimsy And Imagination In 'Aurélia's Oratorio'
La Jolla Playhouse hosts French circus artist Aurélia Thierrée's engaging and surreal show "Aurélia's Oratorio." Thierrée is the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin and her parents are creators of the famous Cirque Imaginaire, a small circus troupe credited with inspiring Cirque du Soleil. Thierrée's show is part circus, part magic, part vaudeville and chock full of surrealism. We'll talk with Thierrée about "Aurélia's Oratorio."

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): The world of illusion has gotten more and more complex as modern magicians routinely use high-tech devices to trick our eyes and minds. So in a sense, the show "Aurélia's Oratorio" takes us back in time when craft, showmanship and imagination were enough to transport an audience into an impossible world. The woman who brings that world to life has unassailable theatrical roots, from grandfather Charlie Chaplin, to her parents, the founders of the famous Cirque Imaginaire. Her show is now in special engagement at the La Jolla Playhouse. And it’s a pleasure to welcome Aurélia Thiérrée to These Days. Aurélia, welcome.

AURÉLIA THIÉRRÉE (Performer): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now your mother actually directs this production. How would you describe her as a director?

THIÉRRÉE: Oh, she’s very instinctive. She continually – she has ideas from morning till evening and some die out after an hour, others, you know, survive. She makes things. She has an imagination that is very fertile and…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes.

THIÉRRÉE: …and so she builds things, basically. She has an idea, she builds it and then she throws you in it and you have to find its logic and you have to find how to make it personal.

CAVANAUGH: Do you ever feel – she sounds like such a creative powerhouse, do you feel you ever have to rein her in?

THIÉRRÉE: No, I wouldn’t be able to. She – No, no, she’s – it’s her life and it’s her talent basically.

CAVANAUGH: Now, she conceived of this show.

THIÉRRÉE: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Do you ever collaborate, though, on the vignettes?

THIÉRRÉE: Sure. It’s a collaboration that is difficult to say how – to describe because sometimes – because we know each other so well that sometimes I know what she means before she’s going to ask or vice versa. But typically she builds the act, you know, and then I come in with whatever that can make it personal.

CAVANAUGH: Now for people who have not seen “Aurélia’s Oratorio,” there’s a series of set pieces, vignettes…

THIÉRRÉE: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …and in the show these set pieces, they’re – everything is topsy turvy. It starts out with you putting flowers in a vase upside down. And then later a kite moves along the floor of the stage and you’re the one that’s flying in the air, not the kite. How did you come up with these reversals?

THIÉRRÉE: Well, and I’m always, you know, I try not to describe the show too much because it’s so much based on surprise also, so they were drawings from the middle ages depicting a world upside down and they were very popular drawings that were sold on the street. Typically, they could be political as well, like things were reverted so a man would go – a woman would go to war as opposed to a man in those days, or a man would be carrying a horse and all that. And she thought these would make good visuals because they work on surprise and they – and so that was the initial idea, that and of a woman alone who’s either gone completely mad or ended like some kind of reversal. But it was interesting to toy with that.

CAVANAUGH: I won’t give away any more of the show, I promise.

THIÉRRÉE: Oh, that’s okay.

CAVANAUGH: But there are a lot of fabrics in the show, a lot of moving fabrics that come alive. Do fabrics and clothes inspire you?

THIÉRRÉE: Well, it’s – again, it’s Victoria’s universe.


THIÉRRÉE: It’s very central and it’s very feminine in a way. And she works with materials and fabrics and she has a – she builds things. She’s an inventor in that way. And in the same time, not to sound too – she uses tricks that are really, really old but she makes them modern in a way, and that’s what I like about her work, too, is that they’re musical tricks or, you know, from the variety days but they’re brought to our day and that’s interesting.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know the Victoria you’re talking about is Victoria Thiérrée Chaplin, who is your mother…


CAVANAUGH: …and the director of the show. You recently said in an interview that you are obsessed with repetition.


CAVANAUGH: Talk to us a little bit more about that. How does repetition inform your performance?

THIÉRRÉE: Well, we’ve been performing this show for the last six years and all over the world and I’m obsessed with repetition because it’s – no matter how many rehearsals you can have of a piece, there’s always a part of unknown and it’s – it remains fragile. And I love that – that fact about theatre, that it’s a live experience and that it can break. We can break. The props can break. The audience can break their concentration. So it’s – the repetition fascinates me because it’s supposed to be the same and yet it’ll never, ever, ever be the same.

CAVANAUGH: When I read that you were obsessed with repetition I thought, well, of course, I mean, to get something that works so precisely you have to do it over and over and over again. But I’m wondering…

THIÉRRÉE: It doesn’t work that precisely. Every night there’s something that breaks or that refuses to work. But it’s what – what theatre taught me in a way is to deal with failure and to – Nothing is a failure unless it stops the show completely. You can use everything to sort of enhance, hopefully, the performance but you have to deal with these things that do not work.

CAVANAUGH: Now do you get to the point where – a great musician will rehearse a piece so often that his or her hands kind of know the piece.


CAVANAUGH: Does your body know this piece by now? Can you check out mentally at all?

THIÉRRÉE: It does and in the same time you have to keep on your feet because the minute you’re too self-assured about something, it will prove different, you know. So the minute I think, oh, this I have in my body and I know – it will resist and – and the – so – and it’s in such a – Yeah, it’s been interesting. That’s how I keep it fresh anyway, is I can’t rely too much on anything too long.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. How do you physically train for a show like this?

THIÉRRÉE: Well, you do have to keep in shape because there’s some aerials and…


THIÉRRÉE: …it is a physical show in that way, too. You keep in shape. You exercise and you have a certain discipline.

CAVANAUGH: But is this something that you do – is there a certain routine you do before the show or…?



THIÉRRÉE: Yeah. A warm-up.

CAVANAUGH: Like a dancer.

THIÉRRÉE: Like a – Yes. A warm-up. I wish like a dancer. But I do have a warm-up and all that that…

CAVANAUGH: Now as you’re – as I was saying, with the show and you go through the routines, the timing is so important and every once in a while the timing breaks down, how long would you rehearse a show like this before you would bring it before the public? I know you’ve been doing this show for a while.

THIÉRRÉE: We’re still rehearsing it. I think we have a saying with Victoria that the minute we’ll understand how this show works, we’ll have to stop. And it’s what keeps it alive to some extent so I don’t know how much you rehearse something before you bring it to the audience because with the audience you still develop it.

CAVANAUGH: Develop it, yes, yes.

THIÉRRÉE: And so it – it’s – it will die the moment we won’t be able to rehearse it.

CAVANAUGH: Have you ever gotten hurt doing it – this show?

THIÉRRÉE: No, touch wood. No, not that I know of. No.

CAVANAUGH: But you have had a career doing shows that are very physical since you were a child.

THIÉRRÉE: Well, I think it’s our way of keeping together as a family. We work together. The physical, pffff, the first act I did I was in a suitcase with only my legs coming out, so I don’t know how physical that is. You know, it wasn’t necessarily that demanding. It does teach you a certain discipline but other than that, it was more fun than, you know, physically demanding.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Aurélia Thiérrée and we’re speaking about her show playing at the La Jolla Playhouse, “Aurélia’s Oratorio.” And we have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue with our conversation. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is Aurélia Thiérrée and we’re talking about the show that she’s putting on at La Jolla Playhouse, “Aurélia’s Oratorio.” And I’d like to talk a little bit more about your background because I just find it fascinating. Your mother, Victoria Thiérrée Chaplin and John Baptiste Thiérrée were, your parents, of course…

THIÉRRÉE: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …with the Cirque Imaginaire. And you grew up, you and your brother grew up performing in that circus. And not only was that a brain child of your parents’, having this imaginary circus, but I’m wondering what is it like to grow up in a trunk, as we used to say in the United States.

THIÉRRÉE: Well, I thought it was normal.


THIÉRRÉE: I thought, you know, everybody lived like that to some extent. And also we’d meet other circuses on the road and they were – they had children, too, and so it wasn’t – it didn’t feel that unusual to some extent. And I think also as a child when you’re with your parents, this is your world and so as long as you’re with your parents you’re – it didn’t feel, you know, so unusual in that way.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, are your parents still performing?



THIÉRRÉE: Sure, my mother still does tightrope and they’re still – they’re still performing that same show to some extent. It started with the four of us then I left and my brother left, and now it’s the two of them again. And they’re still performing it, absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing. Now I’m – Your manipulation, I don’t think I’m giving anything away…

THIÉRRÉE: No, don’t worry.

CAVANAUGH: …when I talk about this chest that people see you in where your face is in the bottom drawers and your feet are on – in the top drawers. I think everybody’s seen that picture…

THIÉRRÉE: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …advertising your show. A lot of people, critics, have compared your manipulation of reality to Houdini.


CAVANAUGH: Now does that surprise you?

THIÉRRÉE: Yes and no. It’s a big compliment. Again, our tricks are so simple. Like if people really look, they can outguess all of them. The challenge and the beauty of the performance, when it works is when people decide not to figure out how it works because it’s really people pulling on strings and timing and everything is handmade and handcrafted and some things are very fragile. But it’s really, yeah, it’s really about the – when an audience will decide not to really figure out how it works. Houdini, on the other hand, he did things that – his illusions were spectacular, you know, some of the – and he’s still known to this day for things that he did that people can’t – still cannot figure how he did them. With this show, you absolutely can figure it but the interesting part is when we all decide to deny, you know…

CAVANAUGH: Not figure it out.

THIÉRRÉE: That’s it.

CAVANAUGH: Talk to me a little bit, if you could, about your collaboration onstage with Jaime Martinez.


CAVANAUGH: How important is that to the show?

THIÉRRÉE: Oh, it’s very important. He’s – when we started working on this show, Vicki kept on saying I see someone like Jamie Martinez in the part of the man. And after a while, I said, well, let’s get in touch with him, you know, like maybe he’d be free. And they had met years ago because he was touring with David Parsons and when we contacted him, he’d retired…


THIÉRRÉE: …believe it or not, at a very early age. But he’s had such an intense career as a dancer and we were lucky enough that he agreed to come and join us and he’s a wonderful, wonderful performer and actor and dancer to be sharing the show with.

CAVANAUGH: It has to be so precise each night, you and he.

THIÉRRÉE: Hopefully, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Music is a big part of this show…

THIÉRRÉE: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …and I’m wondering if – maybe you could tell us about one piece of music that you chose and why you chose that particular piece?

THIÉRRÉE: But most of the music – actually all the music was chosen by Victoria.


THIÉRRÉE: And so she’s – it’s – again, she works in a very visceral way. She puts music and images and she puts them together and it’s only at the very end that the whole show is visible. But at first, it’s really just throwing out ideas, building them and putting them together as a – in a very instinctive way, you know. And music, she would put different pieces of music for different acts until they fitted. And so…

CAVANAUGH: And is some of your – is some of your collaboration with her improvisational then in the beginning?

THIÉRRÉE: Sure. Sure. I mean, yeah. But also the act dictates itself sometimes, the chest of drawers or the train. The train, I knew it was going to be the end and that is was going to be sort of dark to some extent. It made sense. And it sort of – At the very beginning, we had the beginning and the end, basically. That’s how we started this show.


THIÉRRÉE: We had the chest of drawers and we had the train in the end.


THIÉRRÉE: I’m sorry.

CAVANAUGH: …how much does the audience contribute to each show?

THIÉRRÉE: A lot. A lot because they have to be willing to suspend – you know, they did this article, the title was “Suspension of Disbelief.”

CAVANAUGH: Exactly, “Suspension of Disbelief.”

THIÉRRÉE: And it’s really what it’s all about. And they bring their imagination to the piece, they bring their own interpretation of the piece. And it’s been interesting in that way to hear the stories that they see that can be very different but sometimes also very intricate and very personal. And they bring that to the piece.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I’m wondering, this must just be a magical show for children.

THIÉRRÉE: For children as well but as long as they feel it’s not a show for them. When they’re watching it with the feeling that they’re watching a performance that’s for adults but they get to watch it, they’re completely entranced. I mean, most of the time.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. You’re modest.


CAVANAUGH: But I heard someone went to your show and they brought their child and after – afterwards, the child was trying to put on the coat backwards and…


CAVANAUGH: …and hide their head.

THIÉRRÉE: Well, that’s a big compliment but my friend also, she brought her son. I think he was seven or something like that. And he started putting all the flowers upside down.

CAVANAUGH: Now I have heard that the circus arts are having – becoming very popular in France right now. Is that true?

THIÉRRÉE: It’s been more or less ten years now. There’s a new move – I mean, new movement. There’s a movement called New Circus and a lot of companies, some of them really interesting that are mixing – that are recreating circus, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Is it true that your parents’ company was sort of the inspiration for Cirque du Soleil?

THIÉRRÉE: Oh, that’s what I heard too. I don’t know. But it’s true that they started when they started their own circus, it was early seventies, before anyone else had the idea really.


THIÉRRÉE: So, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I wonder why now, do you think, that this new circus movement has started? Is it some – being just enchanted with, as I said in the beginning, such high tech manipulations that we’re all subject to?

THIÉRRÉE: Yeah, I don’t know why. I think it’s great. I think it’s totally open right now so it’s always exciting when there’s an art form in which you can experiment with everything and try to build a language that is going to be translatable to an audience. It’s always exciting.

CAVANAUGH: Now you’re traveling all around and have been for quite some time with this show. What makes you feel grounded?

THIÉRRÉE: I don’t know that I’m grounded.

CAVANAUGH: From your childhood of traveling around, is traveling around something you thrive on?

THIÉRRÉE: Yeah. Yeah. No, I joked once that I feel home probably in the chest of drawers two minutes before show, that you know this is the – But I don’t know. Yeah, I’m – I love traveling. It’s where – This is what grounds me, actually so far.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.

THIÉRRÉE: No, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Aurélia Thiérrée and “Aurélia’s Oratorio” is currently onstage at the La Jolla Playhouse through February 28th. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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