When I asked Montreal’s legendary playwright, director and performer Marie Brassard about her upcoming solo show, The Invisible, she laughed and replied: “It’s a very strange show.”
Fair warning, I guess, for a non-linear, experimental performance inspired by the Berlin Wall, literary hoax JT LeRoy and ectoplasmic apparitions. While her show may be strange, Brassard is no stranger to Calgary theatregoers. Her first solo show, Jimmy, was performed at the 2003 High Performance Rodeo, and just last year, she performed Peepshow at Theatre Junction Grand.
These shows have given local audiences a taste of Brassard’s wizardry, but she hints that The Invisible is a departure from her previous work. “I wanted to move into the territories of the abstract,” she says. “I wanted to lead myself into an adventure and see how far I could go.”
The Invisible uses the metaphor of a separate world, fractured from our reality. “When I started to work on this show, I lived in Berlin,” says Brassard. “When you’re in Berlin, there are two worlds. You can feel that the East and the West have two different ways of living. You can still feel the separation.
“After the Wall fell, it disappeared from the maps. After a few years, though, you could see its traces reappearing on maps, probably because tourists asked for it. I thought this was very strange, the fact that the Wall was still there, but invisible to the eyes.”
Inspired by the idea of an invisible world, Brassard’s research took a paranormal turn. “I found these tacky photos of ectoplasm, photos of people who supposedly have spirits coming out of their nostrils or ears,” she says. “Ectoplasm is a substance that emanates from the body of the medium, that the spirit can use to make itself visible. It could have a human shape, or it could take a strange form, like a curtain.
“Of course the photos were staged, but, in a way, they’re very beautiful. People want to believe there are spirits in the world, something floating around us that we don’t see. That’s what the show is about: hearing what we normally can’t hear, seeing what we normally can’t see. It’s about calling those spirits.”
As the show continued to develop, Brassard came across JT LeRoy, an eccentric transvestite and a rising star in American literature. For a time, Leroy was a cult figure in the U.S., and his writing was sometimes compared to a young William Burroughs. Then in 2005, an exposé in New York magazine revealed that LeRoy was merely a pseudonym for Laura Albert, a struggling sex writer. In 2006 the New York Times uncovered that Albert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, had portrayed LeRoy in his public appearances since 1999, wearing a wig and sunglasses.
“Many writers use a pseudonym, that’s not unusual,” says Brassard, “but to my knowledge, this is the first time that somebody embodied the pseudonym for such a long time. JT LeRoy was a created identity, but when it was discovered, he died. When his identity was revealed, he didn’t exist anymore, and his spirit went floating. In a way, maybe The Invisible is the spirit of JT LeRoy.”
Brassard rose to prominence through her creative collaborations with Robert LePage, and for this project she joined forces with Finnish artist Mikko Hynninen and composer Alexander MacSween. “Mikko creates environments by amplifying the noise made by electricity and light,” says Brassard. “We built an installation of different light sources, neon lights and incandescent light bulbs, and amplified their sounds. Our idea was to create a living organism onstage, an experience of light and music and sound.”
Most of Brassard’s Calgary performances will be in English, but on the evening of February 19 she performs L’Invisible in its original French. “It feels like doing two shows,” she laughs. “The rhythms of the languages are different, and it’s very pleasant to switch from one to the other. When I perform in English, my second language, it’s like wearing a mask. It puts a healthy distance between me and the language, and in some ways, it’s quite freeing. I don’t have the censorship that comes with your native language, when you know exactly where the word comes from and what it means.”