Wednesday Night at the Home of Michel Leiris a Reading of the Play “Desire Caught by the Tail” by the Painter Pablo Picasso, produced by Brimmer Street Theatre Company in association with Bootleg Theater. Opens June 12; plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; through July 24. Tickets: $29. Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; 213.290.2782 or brimmerstreet.org.
For three days on a sickbed in 1941, Pablo Picasso wrote his first play, Desire Caught by the Tail. Some three years later, Picasso’s friend, surrealist Michel Leiris and his wife Zette, produced a reading in their Paris home during the Nazi occupation. The cast included the playwright, Simone de Beauvoir, Valentine Hugo, Raymond Queneau and Jean-Paul Sartre. Albert Camus directed it.
With a play written by a brilliant man and the first production done with so many of the century’s most influential minds, Brimmer Street Theatre eagerly decided to produce the play. That is, until they actually read it. Writer and director of Leiris/Picasso David Jette recalls his initial reaction: “When you read it it’s very lyrical, it’s very descriptive – but it’s kind of ridiculous. I didn’t read the play immediately and I think this speaks to why I thought it was a really good project.
“When I first [got] the play, I thought, oh my god Pablo Picasso wrote a play. I read six or seven lines and thought, this is great! Then I read the introduction of the play where it talks about the first reading in Michel Leiris’ home and who was there. These were people I had studied in college and admire.”
He continues, “When I brought the script to the company and we actually read it aloud, it was so over the top and long… really pointless and repetitive. It became obvious Picasso was not a playwright. Obviously everyone respects him as a genius; he wrote a lot and people think he was really good. But comparatively to the other people in the room he was a terrible playwright.”
During this initial reading of Picasso’s play, ensemble member Patrick Baker (who plays Jean Paul Sarte) read the play with such disdain. “He really can’t stand things that don’t make sense,” says Jette. “I think there were a few times when he looked up and said, ‘We can’t do this play.'”
So instead of producing the play, Jette decided to write a play about the reading at Leiris’ home. “My first instinct was to write a play about all of these intelligent people resisting the war and making a statement on struggle and beauty in the face of tragedy and brutality.”
After much thought, the ensemble began to wonder why these French literati were risking their lives to come to a terrible play. So they thought it would be funny to make fun of them instead of revere them.
Jette and other company members did extensive research on the French Existentialists. “There’s nothing these people haven’t already said about themselves. And that’s another reason why parody was our only option. They’ve already dealt with themselves very seriously. Especially Michel Leiris – all he did was write about himself.”
He poses the question, “So how could you write a play about him?” In comparison, Picasso barely wrote. Which is probably why there are so many plays about him. “People take his name in vain as much as they can.”
The philosophies of the time are integral to the personalities of these characters. “The way they argue is through far too many words. This play is too long,” he admits. “There are a lot of words in this play because these are wordy people. It’s wordy people expressing base needs. There’s the juxtaposition.”
Last year, the company had a very successful reading of Leiris/Picasso. However there was a complaint that it took too long for Picasso to get there. Jette laughs, “So I’ll warn people now. It takes too long for Picasso to get there. We’re parodying a very existential play by a man who doesn’t happen to be on stage.”
He adds, “I think most Americans have an impression of these people. You have an idea of what a French Existentialist looks and sounds like. That’s what we’ve put on stage. This play is really American; it’s not a European [style] play. It’s about Americans looking at the French and making fun of them for risking their lives in the middle of an important war to do a play. And that’s the most fun part for me.
“It’s ridiculing everything I do and everything the people I love do for the sake of entertaining people. People are going to come and laugh, and the artists can come laugh at themselves.”
Although Jette has sole authorship, he gives immense credit to his Brimmer Street ensemble. During the development process, “everybody played all the parts. Right up until the reading. I try not to lock the actors too early. Everybody has a different take on a part … So if you get a lot of actors to play the same part, each of them will have a part of the play that they’ll have a really good instinct for.
“Then you get to add them all up and put them into the character. Then you cast the person who you think will make the best production with the whole cast. Getting everybody in there is the best part of working with Brimmer Street because they’re all capable of doing that. We all show up to every studio session and everybody is creatively responsible.”
Brimmer Street is a company without an artistic director. They began in 2005 when the group of Emerson College grads wanted to continue developing their acting and further their training experience. “It’s a very communal atmosphere, based on our ensemble training,” says Jette. “When everyone has an equal part, everyone chips in. Everyone does what they can.”
When working as both the writer and the director, sometimes the two roles can get muddled. But not for Jette. He admits, “I want to be able to change the script but you kind of can’t. If the cast sees me change the script then they think they can change it too.”
Jette and the ensemble believe people are going to be thoroughly entertained with this world premiere. “That’s been our 100% focus throughout the entire [process]. When we figured out it wasn’t a pretentious play about France and the war, we said we need to go the other way; actually entertain people.
“Make people really happy they spent however much on a ticket to come see a play in LA. I love theatre and I love even the worst theatre because at least I can sit and reflect and zone out, have some sort of experience with other people,” he states.
“I also think theatre is used as a dumping ground. A place where people that have stories or feelings or ideas come to get them out there and to receive some praise for that. I don’t begrudge anyone [who does] that. That’s kind of the kindling for culture.
“The problem, I think, is the general public only gives things a certain amount of chances. And if, in their lifetime, they’ve seen about five to six plays and they’ve all been stark minimalist self-involved dramas, I don’t blame them for disliking the theatre.”
Leaning in, he smiles, “But if you delight them, they come back over and over again. That’s my favorite thing about this play. I think it is funny. And there’s plenty of red meat for [those] who want comments on these people. I haven’t glossed over any of it.
“It will also please someone like me who wants to see something difficult and ambitious.”
After a brief pause, he adds, “But we can also fall flat on our face.”
Considering Picasso, Leiris et al. risked their lives to produce Picasso’s play in which the cast of characters includes Two Doggies, Fatty Angst and Lean Angst, Fat Foot, Onion and Curtains – Jette and Brimmer Street already have the upper hand.
Production photos by Michael Lamont
Article by Ashley Steed