Read highlights from the Warren Gerds (wearegreenbay.com) interview with James Valcq about the upcoming world premiere of VELVET GENTLEMAN.
STURGEON BAY, Wis. – James Valcq is doing what he’s never done before as he performs as Erik Satie in the one-man show “Velvet Gentleman” starting this week at Third Avenue Playhouse.
How could Regular Joe connect with “Velvet Gentleman”?
James Valcq: I think anybody can connect with it. Do you live your life like other people expect or what’s expected of you, or do you do what you want to do? Do you live it in the way you want to live it? And what is success? Did you accomplish what you set out to do? How important is other people’s recognition of that or acknowledgement of that? Is that an intrinsic part of being a success or is that sort of a fringe benefit, something that’s layered upon that? I think anybody can relate to that.
James Valcq was born in 1963 in Milwaukee. From his time as a boy soprano on, he has been involved in performing, composing, directing and many other elements of the stage. Since 2011, he has been co-artistic director of Third Avenue Playhouse, a two-stage, year-around theater in Sturgeon Bay. Valcq has created works for the theater, including “Madame Sherry” and “I Love a Piano.” Along with “Velvet Gentleman,” active works that carry Valcq’s name are “The Spitfire Grill,” which has had more than 600 productions worldwide; “Victory Farm,” which will return to Northern Sky Theater’s outdoor schedule this summer; and “Zombies from the Beyond,” which Skylight Music Theatre will present in early 2018.
James Valcq: About 80 percent of the show is [Erik Satie’s] words with the rest filled in by me channeling him, I hope. He has a lot of writing besides music – prose, poetry, all kinds of things. There’s quite a bit of autobiographical material describing his life, describing his work habits, his living habits. You have to take a lot of it with a grain of salt. Some of it is absolutely ridiculous. But this is how he presented himself to the world and how he lived his life. So I treat everything as if it is the truth.
Why is the show titled “Velvet Gentleman”?
James Valcq: For quite a long period of Satie’s life, his entire wardrobe consisted of seven identical velvet suits. Reports vary on what the color was – were they brown, were they gray? – so vague, and they were all the same. He had one for each day of the week. I guess this way he didn’t have to worry what he put on but always felt that he would be well dressed.
So you have a velvet suit?
James Valcq: I’m not playing that part of his life. This is slightly more dapper (costume by Karin Simonson Kopischke). He basically had three looks. He had the velvet look, and then had a very Bohemian sort of scruffy look, but that was a younger Satie, and I’m not a younger James. So I’m opting for a rather dandified version of himself that he sort of assumed later on in his life. When he was about 50 is where we catch up with him in the show.
What is the structure?
James Valcq: There is a beginning, a middle and an end. I begin with Satie’s own description of is birth, and I end with something he wrote very near the end his life, sort of a summation of and questions of what life is about. And there’s a middle. There’s a vague chronological order to it. But Satie incorporated elements of Dadaism and surrealism before those concepts were even invented, which is whacky, and anything can happen.
So at certain points in the show, the narrative or chronology is in one place, but I can step outside of it and talk about hair or invented musical instruments or just anything. If you read his writings, this is much the way they are. They seem to be following a pattern and just when you think you know where he is going, he’s talking about something else entirely and with tongue-in-cheek – not anything that’s real or serious.
How did you make a first connection with Erik Satie’s work?
James Valcq: Oh gosh, it was a long time ago. I was probably 10, and I heard a fellow piano student play the first “Gymnopedie,” and I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard at age 10, and I still think so now. It’s just beautiful.
And yet I never really played any of his music until I was in my 20s. At the Skylight Comic Opera, there was a French program that was put together, and I was the musical director for it. There were two Satie pieces that I played in that show, and they were very different from the “Gymnopedie.” One of them was a beautiful waltz, and the other was in sort of a ragtime style. At that time, I went through a little bit of a Satie phase – reading about him.
At that time – this will connect to why I’m doing this show here – I found in a music store a set of 20 pieces by Satie called “Sports et Divertissements,” which translates in English as “Sports and Diversions.” They are very short pieces, each of them accompanied by a beautiful drawing – sort of post-Art Nouveau/pre-Art Deco line drawings with watercolors and then Satie’s own calligraphy of the music with these bizarre, sort of surreal poems written between the lines of the music. This was 25 years ago, and I have always been fascinated by this piece. Now I’m not the first person to say this, but it’s sort of a miniature gesamkunstwerk. That’s the term coined for (Richard) Wagner’s operas, which combine all of the arts – visuals, text and music. But this little book with 20 tiny piano pieces does the same thing. It’s got the visual, it’s got a text and it’s got music. Satie left no instructions of how to present it or perform it, if, indeed, it was to be performed. People speculated that maybe it was the musical equivalent of a coffee table book, and was something to be enjoyed looking at it.
He wrote a lot of pieces that have poems in them written within the staffs, but he expressly forbad anyone from speaking them out loud while the pieces were being played. But they are such a huge part of what the pieces are about – a huge part of my enjoyment of them, anyway, is this text.
In the last year, I was looking at these pieces and thinking, “God, it would be so much fun to figure out a way to present these. I would love to play them, I’d love for people to enjoy the images and these poems.” Thinking about how it could be done, what would I do? Give a recital? I’m really not that kind of pianist. It’s not false modesty, but I would never presume to give a piano recital as its own event. So, just thinking about it, I thought, “Well, his life was so interesting. What if it was some kind of a play and I could incorporate these pieces, other pieces, into it?” And that’s sort of how this actually came to be. And even then, it was just a vague idea of something I might maybe do some day, not knowing when. I had planned a completely different play for this time period – a play that was already written, already had a script. I was just going to direct it, but I couldn’t get the cast I wanted, and I thought, “Well, maybe we should substitute the Satie instead,” and in a moment of madcap abandon decided to do it.
What do you want the audience – the world – to know about Erik Satie through this piece?
James Valcq: He was completely misunderstood in his lifetime. That being said, he had friends and champions such as (Claude) Debussy and (Pablo) Picasso, who, at least for periods of their life, thought Satie was brilliant. But he never vacillated, he never wavered. He did exactly what he wanted to do. He did strive for acceptance in his adult life. I don’t talk about this in the show, but he did attend a very conservative school – Schola Cantorum in Paris – in middle age. At the same time, he was writing these very bawdy cabaret songs and performing them in Montmarte – kind of leading this double life.
Are you asking yourself to do anything in this production that you haven’t done before?
James Valcq: Yes (laughs). I’m asking myself to be comfortable with things that are not in my comfort zone. It may surprise you, but playing piano is really not in my comfort zone despite how much I’ve done it and for how long I’ve done it. It really makes me nervous. I have been practicing these pieces daily about an hour a day for the last six months. And it’s amazing when you practice – (chuckles) – you actually gain confidence. (Laughs).
I’ve always been very facile at sight reading, sort of faking my way through things, and I have done that a lot. But I think that has been a source of some of my nerves because I didn’t really feel like I was on top of what I was doing. I was just kind of getting through on the seat of my pants. Now I do feel more confident about and more comfortable with the pieces in spite of the fact I haven’t played serious piano music in a long time.
I’m singing a piece in French. Not that I’ve never done it before, but I haven’t done it since my aria from “Faust” in college. And singing also is totally out of my comfort zone. I wasn’t going to do it but Bob (Boles) found out that one of these pieces I was practicing actually had words. It was published both as a piano piece and as sort of a cabaret song. He encouraged me to sing it in the show. I said, “Well, I’ll try it twice in two different keys and see if I have any idea at all that I could do it. Otherwise, forget it.” And I tried a couple of keys and thought, “Yeah, it’s worth a shot.” It’s been a long time since I tried to communicate in French, so I thought that would be a nice challenge for me.
And I’ve never done a one-person show before. I’ve never wanted to or dreamed that I would. But here I am.
So, yeah, I’m absolutely doing something I’ve never been done before.
What dictated your choice of material?
James Valcq: Satie was very prolific, incredibly prolific. Some of the piece are a page long – literally 30 seconds – but nonetheless there are thousands of these pieces. I’ve listened to probably five or six hundred pieces, some of them 30 seconds long, some longer, and narrowed it down to what I thought would be entertaining because this isn’t a recital, it’s a theatrical piece. Things needed to work in some sort of context. Then, when I picked out 300 pieces that I like, I had to try to play them, too. That narrowed it down because my technique is gone with the wind or it seems to be on some of these pieces. But you can tell pretty quickly whether something is in your wheelhouse or not, and that did eliminate a lot of things. But there were some pieces even that really didn’t seem like I would be able to master them that I really liked and really thought should be part of this, and I’m very proud to say that I stuck with it. I can think of two things off the top of my head that I thought I was not going to be able to use in the show and – “You know, I really want to those” – with perseverance they are coming through. That’s musically.
As far as the text goes, he wrote so much. One technique for memorizing a play or anything that’s been written is to record yourself saying it and listen to it in a car, etc. So I thought, “Okay, I’m making a couple of trips back and forth to Milwaukee, I better have this recorded to listen to it and learn it.” So I recorded what I had written of the text, and it was almost 90 minutes long. I thought, “Well, for Pete’s sake, I have 30-40 minutes of music. What kind of epic is going to be? And it’s only me. I wouldn’t want to see anybody up there for that long.” So I realized that even some of the things that I had my heart set on being in the show I had to trim it down. I had to edit because it was just too long. But I think it’s better to have too much than not enough.”
James Valcq: You won’t hear a note that isn’t written by him. It’s all him.
What about Satie’s music was influential?
James Valcq: Satie’s music, in studying it and working on it as hard I have, there’s enormous form to it. What I love about Satie’s music is he’ll take the tiniest idea, and it’s like looking at it through a prism. It’ll be a melodic idea or a rhythmic idea or a harmonic idea or some kind a combination of those three things. Looking through a prism at every possible way that it can be explored and reflected is put into this music. Yet, it’s not so cerebral. It feels very natural.
The visual aspects. Are those choices yours, too?
James Valcq: Yep… I directed Katherine Duffy [performing with the Peninsula Players this Summer] in “The Amish Project,” her one-person show, last year… I thought, “I will never do this. I will never do a one-person show.” So you see how long that lasted. All of the stuff that went with her acting and with the tech – it was a rather elaborate lighting plot in that show, and there was sound and there was music that came in. Just the idea that all of those elements helped tell the story and that, yes, ultimately of course it’s about the actor who’s up there – and you are up there; you’re the one up there. But there’s all kinds of other elements that are a part of it that are working with you to tell the story. So, yes, that was a lesson learned definitely from “The Amish Project.”
Okay, you’re doing this as a world premiere one-man show. But given the rest of your life, does that preclude performing elsewhere? Is this going to be a one-off for James Valcq?
James Valcq: I have no idea. I have no idea. It’s not something I can just pack up and do in the church basement. It’s a very heavy technical show. There are over 300 projections in it. That’s how we do the text and images and all these things that go along with the music. So it’s a very visual show as well. It’s not just I can carry my outfit in a suitcase and go and do it somewhere. It’s a pretty elaborate setup. But I can’t say. A couple of people have asked me that question, and I have no idea. For now, I’m just doing it for us.