For One Night Only
My professor and I were back at the Théâtre du Nord-Ouest for Huis Clos, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist masterpiece about three people locked in a room for eternity, each torturing the others by their very existence, creating a unique form of hell. I hadn’t heard of most of the plays we saw that summer on our grant-funded research trip to Paris; Les Fourberies de Scapin isn’t exactly world famous. But even I had heard of No Exit. And, at first, it lived up to the Nord-Ouest’s reputation. The Garçon (renamed the Valet in English translations) delivered all his lines with an unnerving coolness as he escorted the newcomers into hell. Garcin alternated between moments of forced calm and small explosions of panic, and there was a certain raw hoarseness to his voice in his vulnerable moments that boded well for his breakdown through the rest of the play.
And I was even pleased when Love Bowman entered as Inès. Written in the 1940s, Inès is a troubling character for modern audiences—a stereotypically evil, man-hating lesbian who wants to bring all women over to the dark side. Though that’s not surprising, given the cultural context of the play, I was curious to see how a director and actor would work against stereotype. Bowman was dressed in a long black coat and dress. But she is fairly short and her coppery hair was gathered in a loose twist on the crown of her head. I nodded to myself in satisfaction. They weren’t setting Inès up to be the looming, black-souled character that she is in the play.
Then I noticed she was reading a book.
White cover, black-and-white picture on the front, title in green font, author’s name in black—it was the latest Gallimard edition of Huis Clos, the same one I had read that morning in preparation for the play.
As Bowman delivered her first line, her eyes left the page, but she didn’t put the book away. And her gaze kept flicking back to the script; she turned the pages at the right times.
She was actually reading from the script.
The Nord-Ouest was such a small theatre that the actors sometimes ran the box office before a performance, and the same set pieces kept popping up in different productions. But the acting always ranged from good to excellent. This production of Huis Clos had been running for a while. Shouldn’t this woman know her lines by now? And if she didn’t, for whatever reason, why hadn’t they canceled the performance? There were only three people in the audience—a man in the back, my professor and myself. We could just come back on a night when they had someone who knew what she was doing. Clearly, Bowman didn’t. She was half a second late on her crosses, reminding me each time she swept across the stage that she had read a stage direction telling her to do so. The erectness of Bowman’s posture, the stiffness of her neck and arms, everything I had taken to be part of Inès’ supreme self-control, seemed now to signal Bowman’s nerves.
Thankfully, I soon became aware of something else—the actor playing Estelle was brilliant. She was older than I had imagined Estelle to be, but she flounced across the stage, pouted like a little girl and whined languidly, reeking of privilege. Her age even added a new dimension to the character; instead of being a whiny young socialite, Estelle was now a slightly pathetic older woman, still caught up in the glory days of her youth. As I watched her fan herself with a hand, as if it was too much effort to move fingers through air, I relaxed.
And, curiously, Bowman seemed to be relaxing too. Inès spends most of the first half of the play behaving like a vulture seductively circling Estelle. This is torture for both of them, Estelle because she’s finally met someone she cannot convert, and Estelle because she is contemptuous of Inès’ middle-class background, but is slightly attracted to her anyway. As Bowman swept back and forth from confrontations with Garcin, and leaned over Estelle, the tightness in the lines of her posture began to feel more natural, more Inès. She still had that book with her but, so gradually that I can’t point to a specific moment, she made me forget it.
I don’t mean that I forgot temporarily, only to be painfully reminded later on. I don’t mean that I managed to block out the book and focus on the acting. I don’t mean that I accepted the book in her hand as part of the play.
I simply have no memory of the book’s presence.
There are several moments during Huis Clos when each of the three characters tunes in to what’s happening in the living world and narrates what they witness. These moments are among the most theatrical in a play that draws its power from the reality of the dialogue and the situation. And they just appear in the script with no transition. Smartly, these actors didn’t try to pass off these soliloquies as “natural.” They looked off into the distance (each had a specific point where they saw their visions of the living world), but they played these moments so sincerely, with so much disgust at what they were seeing, so much desperation to go back and fix the mistakes they’d made, that I couldn’t help but sympathize.
Bowman’s eyes widened as she saw a happy, heterosexual couple in the apartment where she lived with her lover, the woman caressing the man’s shoulders on what used to be Inès’ bed—her bed—while she was stuck in hell, powerless to do anything to spoil their happiness. I don’t remember where the book was in all this. I sit for ten minutes at a time, playing that scene over and over in my head, and I remember the look on her face (eyes popping with a mixture of anger and fear), the flare of her nostrils, the set of her chin. I don’t remember the book. I remember her fists (both fists) clenching, her neck extending as if she wanted to break through the time and space separating her from the apartment. I don’t remember the book. She was wearing black. The book is white. It stood out against her clothes and the black walls of the theatre. And still, I cannot remember how Bowman held it, when she looked at it for lines, when she raised and lowered it. That book has simply vanished from the scene.
I don’t remember it during Inès’ final attempt at seduction about halfway through the play, when she and Estelle were sitting on the same couch, when she offered her own eyes as a mirror in which Estelle could put on some makeup, giving her an opportunity to stare deep into Estelle’s eyes. I remember the hunger in Bowman’s gaze, the magnetism that seemed to hold Estelle captive, flailing uselessly, the magnetism that made me think that, if Bowman had been Estelle in the first iteration of this play, Sartre might have written the whole thing differently. I don’t remember the book in her hands, in her lap or on the couch.
I remember a moment when Bowman came up behind the actor playing Estelle and, her hand half an inch away from the other actor’s skin, caressed Estelle’s shoulder. Estelle, although otherwise occupied at the time, shivered. I shivered too. But I don’t remember the book peeking out from Bowman’s other hand.
There was no sign of it through the rest of the play, as Bowman’s eyes bulged with mixtures of fear, desire and hatred, as Estelle tried to flee into Garcin’s clutches. There was an increasing sense of desperation, a loosening of Bowman’s movements as Inès realized that she was not, could not be, in control of what was happening in that room. There was a change in Bowman’s voice, from low and controlled to loud and rough. There was a final moment when the three actors circled each other like hungry beasts, Bowman’s eyes hard and glittering, her lips curled back into a smile that was almost a snarl as Garcin said, “Eh bien, continuons . . .” and the lights faded to black.
The book only made its reappearance when the lights came up after that, as the cast was taking their bows, as my professor and I were applauding frantically, trying in vain to fill the theatre with gratitude for what we had just witnessed. The actors bowed three, four times, and I saw on Love Bowman’s face that mix of exhilaration and exhaustion which accompanies a particularly excellent and difficult performance. Her hands were folded in front of her, one finger still marking the last page of the play.
Finally, the actor playing Garcin stepped forward and gave us an explanation.
“We thank you for your patience,” he said. “There was a mistake in our schedule for alternances, and we ended up with two performers to play Estelle and no one to play Inès. We thought about cancelling the performance, but we decided to go ahead. Thank you.”
The actors bowed one last time and walked off stage.
As my professor and I walked in silence out of the Nord-Ouest’s courtyard, I finally realized what en alternance—the words I’d been seeing on the Nord-Ouest’s posters—meant. There was a pool of actors, some to play Garcin, some the Garçon, some Estelle and some Inès, from which the four for each night’s performance were drawn. Tomorrow night, three entirely different people might be doing Huis Clos. I shook my head in wonder as our steps echoed off the slightly uneven sidewalk, off tiny shops selling cheap models of the Eiffel Tower emblazoned with “I Heart Paris,” now closed for the night. A low buzz of conversation was emanating, even at nine-thirty, from the tightly-packed tables outside a brasserie on the Boulevard Poissonières, right next to our Métro stop. It seemed to jolt us out of our individual reveries.
As we got onto a train packed with tired, late night travelers, my professor asked, “So, if they had two Estelles for tonight, she was supposed to play Estelle?”
“I really can’t see her as Estelle,” I said. She wasn’t frivolously pretty in the way Estelle is supposed to be; she had too much charisma for that.
“No, I can’t either. But that has to be it. She had to be familiar with the production somehow.”
Would she have been so nervous at the beginning of the show if she had been familiar with the production? I didn’t think so. If she’d been playing Estelle regularly, she would be familiar with the timing, if not Inès’ lines. It would have been relatively easy to turn out a passable performance, one that melded well enough with the other actors that it didn’t ruin their timing. But Bowman’s performance was the best one I’d seen on the trip. The physicality with which she played Inès, the progressive loosening of her body and her voice, the finesse with which she manipulated the fire behind her words—all of it would have been, under any circumstances, a complete display of what it takes to act. The book made it luminous, transcendent. There were no other words for it. The energy on that stage had changed once she relaxed into her role. The light and energy that suffused her performance seemed to lift the actors playing Estelle and Garcin as well.
For, I supposed, their work deserved praise too. They were used to an Inès, maybe even a few different versions of Inès. They had next to no practice with this one. The actor playing Estelle had to allow herself to flow with Inès’ attempts at seduction, choosing when to be captivated, when to struggle, when to tear herself away, stand up in a rush and stride to the opposite corner of the stage. The actor playing Garcin had to manipulate the mix of anger, fear and wounded pride in his reaction to Inès’ constant needling. But for them, it was a matter of adjusting levels to suit the flow of the performance. Maybe the actor playing Estelle allowed herself to be captivated by Bowman for a little longer than she had with another Inès. Maybe the actor playing Garcin reacted with less anger and more wounded pride to Inès’ venomous use of the word “coward.” They had still played those emotions, that physicality, those vocal qualities, in similar circumstances many times before. They had had time to find them.
I had been doing theatre long enough to know that the majority of the rehearsal process is spent growing three-dimensional characters. As the actors and director work with language and memorization, sketch large-scale movements (entrances, exits and crosses) and work towards small-scale ones, they also work, all the time, on developing character. There are exercises along the way; each director has their own style with these. I’ve had to write journals from my character’s point of view, improvise a scene at a bar as my character, think about which part of my body stored my character’s energy. I’ve worked individually with directors on moving, thinking, being a character. And I’ve seen that it’s only in the last week or so of rehearsal that the focus shifts primarily to integrating technical elements.
I didn’t know whether Bowman had rehearsed as Estelle, or when the director had made the decision to have her play Inès, but she couldn’t have had more than a couple of rehearsals to cultivate that character. And before she could worry about physical and emotional choices, she would have had to get Inès’ lines right, remember her blocking and manage the book as unobtrusively as possible, so that she wouldn’t interfere with the other actors’ cues. She didn’t have weeks to mesh with them, make mistakes and refine movements, notice gestures and motivations that didn’t work and find ones that did. Yet, for the majority of the show, she made outstanding choices. Leaning in to Estelle and staring unblinkingly into her eyes, allowing a rawness to creep into her voice as she lost more and more control over her situation, lingering over the l in the word lâche, loading it with as much venom as she could before lobbing it at Garcin like a cannonball.
Her performance shone so brightly that, as we got off the Métro at our stop and walked past the nearby crêpe stand, I wanted to forget about croissants and cobblestones and return to the scuffed floor of my college’s black box theatre. I’d spent so long learning about my chosen arts—writing and theatre—that I’d half-forgotten the soaring sensation of pure creation. I wanted to attend an early rehearsal filled with an infinite number of possibilities, write a first draft that flowed effortlessly from my fingers, feel those bursts of luminosity that had become rarer as inspiration became linked to practice and craft.
Instead, my professor and I turned into the beige lobby of the Comfort Hotel Gare de l’Est, took the elevator up to the third floor and turned in opposite directions towards our rooms. “Well, at least we’re going back,” said my professor. “And since the Nord-Ouest is so small, there’s a chance we might see her again. You always see the actors hanging around.”
Two days before we flew out of Charles De Gaulle, we were sitting in the warm orange glow of the Nord-Ouest’s lobby one last time, waiting to see our last show there—an adaptation of the memoirs of Liselotte, a German princess and sister-in-law to Louis XIV.
“Wait a minute,” I said, as I glanced over to the doorway. “Isn’t that her?”
It was. Love Bowman’s hair was loose this time, curls hanging over bare shoulders, making the lines of her face look far softer than they had as Inès. She was wearing a white dress printed with small green flowers. We stood up hurriedly and made our way over. As usual, when faced with a conversation, I forgot all the French I knew.
“Vous étais Inès dans Huis Clos?” I asked, wincing inwardly.
Bowman nodded, looking confused for a second, then seemed to recognize me. We had been sitting in the first row, after all.
“C’était étonnant, incroyable,” I stuttered.
Thankfully, my professor had caught up by then. She allowed me to stammer out a few more compliments before taking over the conversation and giving me time to gather my vocabulary. Between us, we managed to find out that Love Bowman had not been part of the pool of actors for Huis Clos. She hadn’t acted in another production of it somewhere else. She hadn’t read or seen the play. She had received a call from the director the night before the performance we saw, rushed out to a bookstore, bought a copy of the play and read it overnight. She had one rehearsal with the other actors the next morning. And then they had performed.
“Et après, le metteur en scène m’a offert le rôle,” she said, looking slightly embarrassed at our continued compliments.
“Et c’est bien mérité, madame,” my professor said, beaming.
She thanked us once again and invited us to a reading she was doing in half an hour, but we apologized. We were on a schedule and had to see another show. As she hurried away down the stairs to the big theatre, we returned to our couch.
“I guess you were right,” said my professor.
I shook my head as amazement settled over me again. I had favorite actors—Aamir Khan, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Konkona Sen Sharma—whom I had dreamed of meeting. But suddenly, I knew I would treasure meeting Love Bowman far more. I admired those other actors for the ease and completeness with which they inhabited characters, the energy they brought to any role they played. But none of them had inspired me the way she had. None of them had (as far as I knew) distilled an entire rehearsal process into less than twenty-four hours, and produced a performance so stunning that it would remain, gilded, in my memory forever.
Rukmini Girish is working towards her MFA in Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. She writes about theater, performance, identity, and the intersections between those topics. Her work has previously appeared in East End Elements and on BUST.com.