When an Actor Calls With a Poem to Share

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Critic’s Notebook

When an Actor Calls With a Poem to Share

A Paris playhouse has developed a program of one-on-one “consultations,” delivered by its artists while the theater is closed.

Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

  • Feb. 25, 2021, 3:31 a.m. ET

PARIS — “I am calling you for a poetic consultation,” said a warm voice on the telephone. “It all starts with a very simple question: How are you?”

Since March, almost 15,000 people around the world have received a call like this. These conversations with actors, who offer a one-on-one chat before reading a poem selected for the recipient, started as a lockdown initiative by a prominent Paris playhouse, the Théâtre de la Ville, in order to keep its artists working while stages remained dark.

It’s free: Anyone can sign up for a time slot, or make a gift of a call to someone. The exchange generally starts with simple questions about the recipient’s life, then ranges in any direction; after 20 to 25 minutes, the actor introduces the poem.

As coronavirus restrictions in France stretch on, the program has become such a hit that the Théâtre de la Ville now offers consultations in 23 languages, including Farsi, its latest addition. It has also been expanded to encompass different subjects and formats: Since December, the actors have held consultations at a hospital and at emergency shelters run by the city of Paris.

When Johanna White, the comedian who called me, asked how I was doing, I answered honestly. We may tell white lies to reassure loved ones, but there is no reason to skirt the truth with a kind stranger. White and I shared our pandemic coping strategies and talked about the ways in which theater has adapted in the past year.

And then White picked my poem: “Incantation,” by the Polish-American poet Czeslaw Milosz. “Human reason is beautiful and invincible,” she began after a pause.

A year into the pandemic, I’ll admit I had my doubts about the healing power of yet another replacement for live performance. Yet when I hung up the phone, I felt a little lighter. White, who has a rich, deep voice, was adept at putting an audience of one at ease, and Milosz’s words held hope.

“Through the phone it can be intimate, because generally you’re isolated,” White, a trilingual voice actor, said in an interview the next day.

Credit…via Théâtre de la Ville

She estimates that in the past year, she has talked to between 400 and 500 people, from places including Wisconsin, Los Angeles, Chile and Niger. A man based in Beirut told her about local riots in which he had lost half of a hand; from Mexico, an 85-year-old woman shared her grief about being separated from her 92-year-old lover by pandemic-mandated rules.

Consultations involve a great deal of improvisation, White said, including choosing a poem for a person you’ve only just met. “Each of us has our own method,” she added. “I file them by emotions, by feelings.”

For the director of the Théâtre de la Ville, Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, the idea of individual consultations with actors didn’t come out of the blue. In 2002, when he was at the helm of the northern French theater La Comédie, in Reims, he initiated in-person sessions at a local bar. Passers-by could meet an artist and leave with a poetic “prescription” — a printed version of the poem that was read to them.

Last February, he revived the concept at a Paris shopping mall, Italie Deux, where visitors could drop in for a chat between errands — and then the pandemic struck. The Théâtre de la Ville immediately pivoted to phone consultations. “We were ready,” Demarcy-Mota said in a phone interview this month.

Other institutions have taken an interest in the program’s popularity. The Théâtre de la Ville has partnered with a handful of European playhouses, including the Teatro della Pergola in Florence and the Orkeny Theater in Budapest, to expand its roster of actors. Additionally, Demarcy-Mota and his team are in the process of holding phone training sessions with around 100 actors from nine African countries, including Benin and Mali, so theaters there can replicate the program.

Demarcy-Mota acknowledged that the consultation format didn’t suit all stage actors. “Some were scared. You’re no longer performing while someone else watches: Instead, you’re in the position of listening to someone.” It involves a degree of psychology, White said, but “we’re not psychologists,” she added. “People need to feel that they’ve got a real person with them, that we’re in the same situation.”

The Théâtre de la Ville now employs a total of 108 “consultants.” While most are actors, they also include singers, dancers and a handful of scientists, who share their knowledge via “scientific consultations” as part of a program started in December. (These are being offered only in French for now.)

Most of the scientific consultations are also individual and take place over the phone, but the Théâtre de la Ville is testing group sessions over Zoom. Last week, I joined one with the astrophysicist Jean Audouze.

To explain the relativity of time, Audouze suggested that when we talk via videoconference — that is, over electromagnetic waves — there is an infinitesimal delay between the moment someone speaks and the moment the other hears. “We’re all on our own time,” he said, something to bear in mind, perhaps, the next time a Zoom meeting descends into chaos.

While remote sessions are the most virus-averse format, the Théâtre de la Ville also brought back in-person consultations this winter in partnership with public institutions. The Charles-Foix hospital in Ivry-sur-Seine, a Paris suburb, was the first to allow performers to come for conversations with staff members and patients. (Several other hospitals are scheduled to follow in the coming months.)

Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

On a recent afternoon, the actor Hugo Jasienski and the singer and musician Dimitra Kontou went from room to room in a residential care building at the Charles-Foix for elderly patients, known as L’Orbe. As on the phone, each encounter led to a poem or, in Kontou’s case, a song.

For some residents, especially those with dementia, the performances were adapted: Instead of asking questions, Kontou sang to them directly, in a transparent mask so they could see her mouth. Still, the music inspired interaction. At one point, a 97-year-old woman, Simone Gouffe, almost rose from her wheelchair and started singing, her voice powerful despite her slight frame.

With other patients, the kind of conversations that flow so smoothly on the phone proved tricky to navigate. “What do you enjoy in life?” Jasienski asked one resident, Éliane Le Bras, 88. “Walking,” she said dryly. “But I can’t walk anymore.”

Still, Le Bras lit up when the conversation turned to her great-grandchildren, and listened closely to a poem by the early 20th-century writer Anna de Noailles. “It’s nice,” she concluded. “A woman wrote this?”

After the visit, Jasienski said that working on the consultations had been a unique experience for him as an actor. “The verdict lands immediately,” he said. “When you go back to the stage, you’ve learned a lot.”

And while in some ways the consultations are more impromptu therapy than theater, now has been the right time for artists to embrace social responsibility, Demarcy-Mota said.

“We need a new alliance between health care, theater, culture and education,” he said. “It’s time to take care of one another.”

Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times


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