Preview: Parisienne

Sahil Sama 12 November 2019
Image credit: Jay Chiswick

“Behind the scenes”: It’s a phrase appropriate to Parisienne in more ways than one.

For starters, it describes my position, granted exclusive access to a rehearsal as I’m sat at the back of the dimly lit Pembroke New Cellars. It’s also where the protagonist Ashley [Zoe Belcher] is, monologuing to the audience from her dressing room in the aftermath of a show. But, more fundamentally than these, Parisienne gives us a behind-the-scenes look into the scattered mind of its protagonist, wracked by one defining question:

“What if you did it all differently?”

I watch as Sasha [Siobhan Corbey Tobin] poses this question to Ashley [Zoe Belcher]. It’s the question which forms the basis of the play, but it’s also a question posed outside the play: everyone has regrets. At some point in our lives we’ve all asked that exact same question. What if I’d said this differently, or I’d done this differently, or I’d gone to this place instead of that, met this person instead of that one? Parisienne is a play which spotlights these concerns, but in a way which is pointedly applicable to our own lives.

The premise of the play, as Zoe explains, stems from Ashley recounting important moments in her life from her dressing room, not just re-living these experiences, but re-writing them: “She wonders what might have been different if she had made different decisions, and we see these two different versions of her life play out”. So while Zoe plays Ashley, Katie Chambers plays Ashley Two, an alternate version of herself living out her (supposedly) ideal life. The play is defined by the tension between these two figures; I’m struck by the dejected bitterness of Ashley One as she observes Ashley Two living out her ideal life on the same stage.

It’s this tension which draws out one of the most major elements of the play. As Zoe continues: “One of my favourite themes about the play is the interaction between how much you can change yourself and how much your choices shape you;  the extent you have control over your life, and who you are, and how you appear to people. I think my character is very aware of how she appears to people, and, in a lot of ways, she isn’t very happy with the image people have of her, and even the image she has of herself. There’s a lot of bitterness, and a lot of insecurities there.”

As director/ writer Cadence Ware asks, “Do you ever really stop acting?”

Again, in a way that’s deeply personal (as well as “intensely metatheatrical”), Parisienne explores the different versions of ourselves we project to the world, and the different versions of ourselves the world moulds onto us. This idea heavily influenced the sound design of the play: “Someone offered to compose me some original music for this play a while ago, but I said I don’t think it really needs that, because Ashley’s is so embroiled in an already existing culture”. Parisienne plays on this relationship, using the silence of the dressing room as an escape, behind-the-scenes, away from the world and liberated from the need to act; and yet it is precisely within this liberating space where the entire performance of the play takes place. Cadence elaborates:

“It’s one of the major themes, theatre, and performance. The show starts at the moment that you think you’ve come off the air, the moment that you think the audience has gone away, and yet, the audience is still there, and Ashley is still performing to an audience, even when ostensibly she’s just crashed out in her dressing room with some wine”. This gives the audience a much more active role: “They’re always implicated in the decisions they make about the play, because the play doesn’t tell the audience much – they have to interact with it, and form their own opinions about Ashley, and other characters. That was really important to us, getting the characters, especially Ashley, to play to the audience a lot, and play with the idea of acting”.

Oftentimes people are put off by the idea of a student-written play, but with Parisienne, this is actually one of its major appeals. Katie describes how this first drew her to the play: “I found the idea of being in the room with the playwright really exciting; you can know what they meant or wanted, you can ask them questions, it really adds to the whole process!”

Moreover, as Zoe points out, it adds to the personal feeling of the play: “You can tell a lot of it obviously comes from a very personal place, because the character feels very… real. There’s a lot that [Ashley] talks about that can I can relate to in my life, and that the audience can relate to.”. What could be more appropriate for a student audience than a play written by a student, addressing the very specific concerns of people at this place in their lives; from sexuality and relationships to personal image, a student audience would most definitely not feel alienated.

The cast were clear to emphasise the brighter elements of the production. While Cadence points out that the play is by no means a comedy, it is also by no means a tragedy: “It’s been really important to me, in rehearsals, to really bring out the humour… it’s not a play that takes itself very seriously”. Moreover, she was keen that it ended on a note that was essentially optimistic, “It was really important to me that people come away from this play feeling that sense of hope. At the end you really get the sense that there is a way forward, that although it remains in the setting of a dressing room, she’s not trapped: it’s not static”.

In the depths of week 5, a little bit of hope and optimism is certainly much in need. To finish with the central question of the play, “What if?”: “What if you choose to stay home instead of seeing Parisienne next week?” That’s one choice you may well come to regret.

Tickets for “Parisienne” at the New Cellar, Pembroke College (Tues 12th – Sat 16th November 2019) are available here