Two Beautiful And Important Cinema Buildings In London And New Orleans

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The Rio Cinema’s 1915 “ghost auditorium”

The other weekend, I took a tour of the Rio Cinema as part of the Open House London initiative, and learnt some new things about this familiar landmark in my neighbourhood. Meanwhile, when I was in New Orleans a little further back, I stumbled across a magnificent building that I had certainly passed before but had never properly seen, which turned out to be former cinema and now theatre and concert hall the Orpheum.

The Rio was built in 1909 and was then fronted in the 1930s with a cool white Art Deco facade topped with three neon bars that shed what I like to think of as benevolent blue light into our Hackney evenings, which are quickly darkening now that autumn is here. While the Rio seems like a little taste of Miami-esque modernism in London, the 1918-built Orpheum in New Orleans contains echoes of old Europe. This can be found in both its name, which recalls the tragic musical hero of Greek legend, and its beautiful Beaux Arts structure, with its layered flavours of both nineteenth century Paris and imperial Rome, among others.

Both buildings started life as cinemas but can boast a very mixed bill over their long lives. Between them they have housed drama, vaudeville, orchestral performances, talks, immersive theatre, independent cinema, gigs, video art, birthday parties, Mardi Gras balls, striptease and the odd crowd-pleasing blockbuster.

As you would expect, both very much have their stories – and their secrets. The Orpheum played a starring role in quintessential New Orleans novel A Confederacy of Dunces, being where lead character Ignatius J. Reilly, having persuaded friend George to guard his hot dog cart, went to watch a film. The Rio, meanwhile, is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of its founder Clara Ludski, a enterprising émigré from Russia. It also, I discovered on my Open House visit, houses a spectacular hidden 1915 “ghost auditorium” under its roof, capped by a beautiful dome.

Restoring the Rio’s crowning glory would sadly be too expensive for its current owner, a not-for-profit charity, though a programme of restoration and improvements is planned for next year. This is part of the building’s ongoing structural and social journey – from ambitious commercial plans under Ludski’s entrepreneurial stewardship, down to a nadir that included time as a porn cinema, and then back up to today’s respectable bohemianism and valued status as a community resource – which closely echoes aspects of the story of the neighbourhood it is located in over the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The Orpheum has perhaps followed the fate of its environs even more intimately. After promising beginnings, its fortunes declined and it suffered from threat of demolition and financial crisis in the 80s. Having found some stability in the decades that followed, in 2005 it was flooded after Hurricane Katrina. Bought out several times since then, it has now happily been restored – chandeliers, pink and gold paint, original elevator and all – to French patisserie levels of perfection, and had its reopening in 2015 celebrated by a special performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony.

Cinemas might be palaces of dreams, but they are also a vital part of our real, waking lives in our neighbourhoods. If you have a building like the Rio or the Orpheum near you, visit it, cherish it and, just as it tells you stories, repay it by remembering and telling its own.

Death In London, And All That Jazz

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Death is something we all have in common, whatever city we live in. Yet even after we die, social divisions and injustices can still be very evident.

That’s true of New Orleans, an old city where contemplation of death is unavoidable for the living – it’s literally a place on the map. There are jazz funerals and magnificent above-ground tombs with their broken columns and staues of angels. But there are also sites like Charity Hospital Cemetary where thousands of impoverished victims of the city’s nineteen century yellow fever and malaria epidemics are buried in mass graves.

There’s the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, dedicated to “the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death” in the Treme neighbourhood of the city. And then there’s the bodies still unclaimed after Hurricane Katrina, now memorialised by a monument at Charity Hospital Cemetery.

London too has its own distinctive traditions for marking death – only today I saw a traditional East End funeral, horse-drawn hearse, black feathers, top hat and all, pass my window. And as in New Orleans, how you lived determines how you’ll be treated after you die. The number of “paupers’ funerals”, burials for those who die without resources to pay for their sending off, is on the rise in the UK.

This fact is the inspiration for a play I saw last Saturday (from which the image is taken): human rights-focused theatre company Ice and Fire‘s new production The Nine O’Clock Slotnamed after the unpopular time of day when those without friends or relatives to pick a better time tend to be buried.

The piece has a striking start. The venue, usually an art gallery, has been temporarily set up to look like a funeral parlour and action commences with the audience being welcomed by a presiding minister and then ushered into a narrow stairwell and towards an unknown underground zone for what’s been billed as a “a downward journey from the world of the living to the off-limits world of the dead and dying”.

The action that follows, covering the connected stories of four economically and socially impoverished individuals buried together, has excellent dialogue and is extremely well-acted. There’s interesting use of jazz music which, in London as much as in New Orleans, evokes the rich and bittersweet complexities of life, as lived by the deceased. Interestingly, the tracks used include “St. James Infirmary Blues”, in which living and dying in London and New Orleans are woven together.

But there’s much about the play that’s not assured. After the promising beginning that makes full dramatic use of the building’s twists and turns, the work settles into trotting through a one-location incident-packed narrative that sometimes, because of a few overblown set pieces and unnecessary plot twists, resembles an episode of Eastenders.

I’d also add that there are sections that could be unbearable for anyone who’s endured or contemplated the death of someone close to them – there’s pain to be felt here that I don’t think a theatre company should set out to induce in its audience.

But maybe I didn’t really like the play because I simply don’t believe in death. Let me explain. It’s become somewhat fashionable for morbid contemplation to be fêted as a signifier of the value of life, a view I can sympathise with but am now coming to think I can’t fully subscribe to.

I think if you take an audience down into the grave, you need to let them rise out of it again. Thinking about death is an important part of life, but life should be the point – once you’re dead, you’re dead, in this world at least. In a play like this one, and in our lives in general, we should remember the dead but ultimately focus on the living.

 

The Drowned Man: “This Will Keep You Safe”

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My very first post for this blog was about my visit to see the “trailer” for the new(ish) show from immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, which found me stumbling down into a dark Dalston cellar and having a somewhat mystical and almost completely mystifying experience.

So it seems only right to report back now I’ve seen the full version of The Drowned Man, once as the guest of Punchdrunk and once having gladly paid for the privilege. And, even though I’ve now seen it twice, I have to admit that I’m still mystified in some ways, but so impressed and intrigued that not only have I booked to go again next month, but have also bought my parents tickets as their Christmas present (please don’t tell them!).

There are so many aspects of this amazing theatrical experience, very loosely based on Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, that I could write about. The trailer’s careful creation of an atmospheric environment and intriguing characters has been amplified on a massive scale. The production consists of four floors of intricately bedecked, and occasionally startlingly empty, spaces through which actors roam, who you can follow, or not, as your whims dictate, to create your own narrative. Moments from my two visits that have stayed with me: witnessing the murder of a red-sequinned woman; stumbling on an almost entirely empty cinema; following a witch in the desert.

These were all powerful experiences, but what I want to focus on is what the show is saying about power itself. The Drowned Man is designed so that everyone who sees it has a different story to tell afterwards, but I think its message about power is ultimately the same for everyone, and its lessons apply everywhere, not just in London. That includes America – Punchdrunk is knowingly transatlantic; its hugely popular version of “the Scottish play” Macbeth reimagined as a Hitchcock-esque drama is going great guns in a Manhattan warehouse. Meanwhile The Drowned Man is currently playing in London, but has an American context, being set in 1960s Hollywood and engaging with that most quintessentially American of artistic forms – cinema, and its production of visions ostensibly for the purposes of entertainment but always with political implications.

So what are these universal lessons about power? Well, I think that however you experience the play, and there are many ways to do so, you become engaged in a process of hiding and finding, of being lost and of revelation. This operates constantly through the individual experiences you might have at The Drowned Man. For instance, at one point I found myself wandering into a forest of someone’s starched shirts at the back of a shop that went on and on, eventually into a totally different space. At another point, I spent a good twenty minutes locked in a diner phone booth which, I think, contained a secret way out that, despite a bit of bashing, I was unable to open.

This process is also encoded in the overall structure of The Drowned Man (and other Punchdrunk works). “Audience” members are not guided as they are in seated and even in conventional promenade shows, but are given the chance to make their own choices and to be lost. We’re given masks, which both take way our identities, but also liberate us. Go missing and you could find something special, or just miss out.

These themes are even found in the four-floor structure of the mammoth set. “The show goes vertically down as well as horizontally,” said director Felix Barrett at the beginning of the show’s run. “You can follow the story of our Woyzeck and it will be a great night out or you can go vertically down, lift away the topsoil and get to the other, hidden narrative underneath.” The show’s middle two floors host the main characters and the central pieces of action, or at least those that initially appear most closely linked to Woyzeck, while in the basement and on the top floor you’re liable to encounter secret societies, magic, religion, cold baths, line dancing and all manner of other marginal and mystical activities.

So I think part of what Barrett means is that these two floors function as a kind of unconscious or dreamscape for the show’s main plots, where meaning becomes crystallised, but also more unfathomable. The four-floor structure therefore makes physical the simultaneous revelation and concealment of higher – or should that be lower or deeper? – knowledge that all art purports to enact. And that’s very physical, I’d add – to get the most out the show’s huge space, be prepared to do an awful lot of pushing at heavy doors and scrambling up and down stairs, and to be shaking sand and glitter out of your shoes the next morning.

Now I have a confession to make. I am a member of a secret society. I’m not at liberty to say any more, but when I walk through the world of The Drowned Man, I do so as someone marked, as someone in possession of understandings that will keep me safe from the very real terrors that lurk there, just as they do in what we think of as “real life”.

That’s annoying, isn’t it. What am I talking about exactly? I’m not going to say anything other than what you just had is the kind of experience the piece gives you on a massive scale. You realise that in this life some people have power and some don’t, and this difference is codified by rituals of knowledge. Either you don’t have knowledge and you want it, or you have it and conceal it from other people, and most of us are engaged in both processes. Whatever you stumble on at The Drowned Man (and, believe me, there’s no shortage of things to trip over, metaphorically and literally) you’re going to come out feeling that you’ve learnt some secrets, but that there are plenty you don’t know, making you conscious of a power structure you slowly realise you’re embedded in, outside the play’s universe as well as inside it.

And as I’ve been reflecting on my experience of The Drowned Man, I’ve realised that there are connections with what I know about New Orleans. The trappings of the play set off echoes for me – we were officially in California, but the masks and voodoo altars took me east to Louisiana, and in the bar at the centre of the set they were even playing James “Sugar Boy” Crawford’s carnival classic “Jock-A-Mo” at one point, which I thought perfectly matched the mood of decadence laced with power plays that I think Punchdrunk is trying to evoke.

At a deeper level, The Drowned Man’s lessons about power are as evident in New Orleans as anywhere else. Mardi Gras is surely a perfect example of how art represents the simultaneous showing and hiding of potent secrets, and how something that appears to be about entertainment can also have deadly serious political import.

In conclusion, it’s hard to really explain what The Drowned Man is all about as, like Mardi Gras and all art to a certain extent, your own individual response to it is what makes it work and become comprehensible. But there are still plenty of tickets left and I’d highly recommend you get your hands on one. Just be warned, the more you see of this show, the more you’re left wanting – it’s a very effective trailer for itself and its own processes of generating significance. That means on a practical level that, with tickets at up to £85 a pop, you’re liable to find yourself a bit out of pocket come December when its run ends. But on the plus side, I’d argue that the show, in the sense that it deepens your understanding of the power structures around you, is really a fantastic trailer for life outside its confines, and in this sense can’t fail to leave you richer than you were before you saw it.

I Was In A Cellar With A Strange Old Man…

Voodoo Ray's

I was in a cellar with a strange old man. Earlier, in the curiosity shop up on the ground floor, full of verdant house plants and empty but intriguingly-shaped glass bottles and jars, I’d been passed a letter to take down to him.

After pushing aside a red velvet curtain, stumbling between some empty cardboard boxes on a dark staircase, and calling hello in what had become a shaky voice, I’d found him in a tiny workshop, squinting over a trunk that served as a bench by the light of a single lamp. He pointed at an old suitcase opposite him, inviting me to sit down, and pushed a cellophane-wrapped barley sugar across to me.

First, he showed me the innards of an old camera, extracting a paper chain of gingerbread man-like figures. Then he guided me through to another, much bigger, underground room and shook me by the shoulders as loud black and white footage rattled past on a big screen. He was also shouting something into my ear, which I suspected was crucial, but couldn’t really hear him because, as it was a cold March day, I was wearing a hat that covered my ears.

Finally, the film and the shaking stopped, and he opened the envelope I’d brought down. I wondered whether it would have been wrong to have opened it myself earlier and whether I was actually supposed to do so. It was too late now. I caught a glimpse of a closely-typed page, but he didn’t let me read it, slipping it away somewhere.

But there was something else in the envelope: a pendant of three silver discs with holes in the middle attached by a small safety pin to a green and white stripy cord. This he put round my neck, where it hung awkwardly over the bulk of my purple down jacket.

Then he pointed at a door. “Find your path” he said. I opened it, went up some stairs and emerged into a side road, round the corner from where I’d started. I suddenly wanted to go back, worried I’d missed something, and thinking that I should try to get the letter to help me remember what had happened. But when I pushed the door I’d come through, it was locked.

It had started when I was waiting for the bus one day. In the window of an formerly empty shop a sign had appeared: “Psychic” it said, in purple neon letters. I noticed it, but wasn’t that surprised. Like parts of New Orleans, Dalston has a rich seam of gothic mysticism. Other people have Pizza Hut and normal green spaces; we have Voodoo Ray’s slice shop and spooky Abney Park cemetery, where the ghosts of religious non-conformists and abolistionists are rumoured to roam.

My experience, however, wasn’t really a mystic one in the conventional sense, being a pop-up trailer for a show being put on by an east London-based immersive theatre company that’s about to open. And I went there because I’d read about it in Time Out rather than because I’d stumbled into the shop hoping to contact a dead relative.

But the experience did reflect something real about Dalston and the way that things that happen to us anywhere can’t be revisited, but leave traces for those who wish to perceive them. The sign, the shop and, presumably, the old man are long gone but, in the drawer where I keep my keys, I still have the pendant and the barley sugar.