When I first came across Theatre Re’sThe Nature of Forgetting in Krannert’s season lineup I knew that based on its subject, and its innovative interdisciplinary dialogue between science and performing arts, it would be pick for my must-see list, and hopefully yours. The closer it got to the performance date, the more I began to think about memory, loss, and their role in sense of self. This is complex and rich terrain, and many an artist, in many an art form, has added their voice to this important conversation. As my curiosity grew, and my questions started to pile up, I was lucky enough to chat with director Guillaume Pigé about how this fascinating production came about, how exactly it blends science and art, and what we can expect as The Art of Forgetting comes to Krannert this Tuesday. I hope you will find our conversation as illuminating and inspiring as I did. And most of all, I hope it will convince you to join me for the performance this Tuesday.
Smile Politely: What can you tell me about the inspiration and origin for this work?
Guillaume Pigé: So, originally, the question that we were trying to answwer, when we started with The Nature of Forgetting was “What was eternal? What is true today, what was true yesterday and what will be true tomorrow? And little by little, as we began working on the project, our question became “What is left when memory is gone?” So that’s how we started. But that’s just one element. There were several things. I was also very interested in working around the question of memory. I was curious to find out how does it work, how does memory work? How do we remember things, but also how do we forget things? That was quite interesting. I was also very inspired by a Polish theatre maker called Tadeusz Kantor, who did two pieces, one is called The Dead Class, the other is Wielopole, Wielopole. And the world that he is exploring in these two pieces are childhood memories. So childhood memories were somehow very present at the beginning of the project. The first object, obviously we work a lot with objects because we work very visually, one of the first objects that I brought it was a wooden school desk. So these were sort of the anchor for the work and really everything started and sprang from these wooden school desks. I was also inspired by a book by a Polish writer Bruno Schulz and it’s called The Streets of Crocodiles. And again it’s a depiction of childhood memories. So at the beginning there was that question of “what is left,” but also that strong desire to explore childhood memories.
SP. I’m fascinated by how collaborative this production is, not just in terms of incorporating movement, mime, and live music, but in terms of working with an actual neuroscience. What was that like? How did change your original perceptions about memory? How did it change the production?
Pigé: We work very collaboratively as a company, that’s what we do. It’s one of our trademarks, really. We not only try to work collaboratively as a team, but we try to work with a wide range of experts throughout the development process, and we try to engage with experts in different fields. So for this project we collaborated with a neuroscientist Kate Jeffrey, and collaboration with Kate Jeffrey was really important because through it we were really able to find a performance language for the show. So to give you an example, we discovered that with memories, it’s not like a library where you take a book off the shelf and open it and here’s your memory. Memories are being constructed and reconstructed every time we remember. They’re new every time. And that’s really important, because if memory is about reconstructing, the forgetting is about deconstructing or mis-constructing. And suddenly it gives us a performance language to portray forgetting. To make visible the invisible. We would not have been able to make that leap without all of these discussions in workshop with Professor Kate Jeffrey. At the end of the day, it’s about creating discussions, finding ways to engage with people, people with who are not theatre makers themselves, to engage them in the process. The making of the show took over two years, and we engaged with a wide range of people in the process. And that in itself is worth it.
SP: What did the actual artistic/scientific collaboration process look like?
Pigé: It’s interesting. I think it was very organic. I think what made it work is that no one had an agenda. There wasn’t something particular we wanted to get out of the science. And I don’t think Professor Jeffrey had any particular agenda about what she wanted the piece to signify or how it would come across. It was just a generous and genuine to make something together. So in terms of what that looked like, it started as a discussion, for us to understand the basic principles of memory and forgetting, regarding the way things happen in the brain. Also, we would invite Professor Jeffrey to sit at rehearsals from time to time and we’d just get her genuine feedback; how it made her think, how it made her feel, what links she could draw between what we were doing and what we could be doing. So were getting her feedback not only as a neuroscientist, but as a normal theatre goer.
SP: What has been the biggest challenge in creating this unique work?
Pigé: I think the biggest challenge was to ground it. Very quickly, as a team, we developed a lot of material, and there came a point during the rehearsal process where we had to decide what we were going to use and why. And I think we were able to that because we ground the work somewhere. So, if you come to see the show, you’ll see there are two very different worlds that are being explored. There is the world of memories, the world of the past, where we’re inside the main character, Tom’s brain. And we explore and revisit all of his memories. And then there’s the world of what we call the present, the real world, we’re in his room, and it’s his birthday and he needs to get dressed. So we very rapidly developed a lot of material for the world of memory, a lot of objects flying in and out as memory gets constructed and reconstructed. About a year in we developed the world of the present to help ground it.
SP: What has suprised you most in either development or performance?
Pigé: There have been so many surprises along the way, but if I had to mention one, it would be that it forced us to really find what forgetting is, that thing that is not there, that is gone. We would commonly think if you forget you obviously you don’t remember anymore. That‘s what we commonly understand. But as we learned more, what I thought was absolutely mind blowing when we discovered it, was that in some instances, when we forget, we can actually remember better. So we have both-short term and long-term memories. If I have a short-term memory of say, what I had for breakfast, and a long-term memory, my first kiss at school, as I lose the short term memory, the long-term memory is going to become more prominent, more vivid.
SP: How has the reception changed throughout your tour and with different audiences?
Pigé: It’s interesting. We’ve been performing the show now 125 times in 10 different countries. And even thought people are reacting differently, some very demonstrably and others very quietly, I can tell after the show in chatting people – that’s what we do, we go through the audience after and talk with people that so far, everyone has been really moved by the show in a very inexplicable way. I was genuinely surprised to witness that. And it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to move people like that regardless of where they’re from, or whether they speak English or not. It’s been quite extraordinary and we feel really fortunate to be able to communicate with people on that level.
SP: What would you most like our readers to know about The Nature of Forgetting?
Pigé: That it is something different and something they will not forget, and will keep with them for a very long time.
Theatre Re’s The Nature of Forgetting
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin, Urbana
November 12th, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets available online
Learn more about Theatre Re here.
Cover photo from Facebook event page