While the summer is often something of a dry spell for theatre, this month does see the world première of a new work by Calgary playwright Mike Czuba.
Called Satie et Cocteau, the play makes its debut as part of the Mountain View International Festival of Song and Chamber Music, much to the delight of Czuba.
“I’ve always wanted to work outside of the traditional theatre form, so to have my play presented in a classical music festival is absolutely awesome,” he says.
Appropriate, too, given its subject matter.
Erik Satie was a French composer and pianist who was born in 1866 and died in 1925. He influenced the work of many artists, like Debussy, and is considered the father of minimalist music. Despite his influence, Satie never achieved the level of recognition he deserved for his own oeuvre.
Jean Cocteau was a poet, novelist, director, playwright and filmmaker who had a colourful social life, complete with a string of famous male and female lovers.
“If there was a scene happening, he was in the middle of it,” says Czuba, adding that Cocteau was also known for discovering talent and bringing it to the forefront of culture.
“He took responsibility for bringing Satie out and making him more popular again near the end of his life,” Czuba explains.
The relationship between Cocteau and Satie — which was never sexual — lasted for about three years, until their personality differences and conflicting objectives made it difficult for them to work together.
While Cocteau was a “master of promotion,” and helped gain exposure for Satie’s music, the composer balked at any attempt to pigeonhole his work, and fame was not a part of his personal agenda.
“Satie didn’t care. He wouldn’t let Cocteau take responsibility for him; he would just change his ideas. He just wanted to make music. Cocteau felt he never got the respect he deserved from Satie,” says Czuba.
Before their relationship soured, the pair collaborated on a couple of operas and ballets, including one called Parade for Ballets Russes. Cocteau wrote the book, Satie wrote the music and Pablo Picasso designed the costumes and set.
Despite the intellectually heavy nature of the two titular characters, Czuba says he has crafted his play in such a way that an audience doesn’t have to know anything about either Satie or Cocteau to enjoy it.
In Satie et Cocteau, set in 1939, more than a decade after Satie’s death, Cocteau is directing a play he has written about his former collaborator in order to “memorialize him and exorcise his own demons about Satie.”
The audience meets both Cocteau and his lover, who is also playing the role of Satie in the play within a play. (Czuba says Cocteau was known for having relationships with many of his leading men.)
“The core story is the relationship between Cocteau and the actor... two lovers at the end of their relationship,” says Czuba.
As for Satie, the playwright says he first stumbled across the subject while taking a 20th-century music class at university.
Satie had lived in the same Parisian apartment for 27 years and no one was ever allowed to enter it during his lifetime. After his death, however, friends and relatives visited the apartment to clear it out and, inside, they discovered an absolute disaster.
“They don’t think he had even cleaned it for 27 years,” says Czuba, adding the room had feces in it, boxes of unpublished music, and two grand pianos piled atop one another.
This was only one example of Satie’s peculiar nature.
“All of these images started dancing in my head.... This idea, this character of Satie stayed with me,” says Czuba, who first chose to write about the composer for his thesis project while doing a master’s degree in playwriting. Upon discovering Cocteau’s relationship with Satie, Czuba says he finally had the “antagonist” he needed in order to write a proper story.
He completed Satie et Cocteau last year, and the play had a staged reading at the University of Calgary, where Mountain View festival artistic director Kathleen van Mourik saw it and asked him if he would be willing to hold its world première during this summer’s festival.
Directed by Barry Yzereef, the play features Trevor Rueger as Cocteau and Aleksander Ristic as his lover.
For tickets, call 403-240-4174 or e-mail email@example.com.