France Finally Called, and Marty’s Doing a Whole Lot More Than Listen

You never know where the world’s leading historical figures will materialize, let alone when. Jesus Christ, after all, was a junior carpenter as a kid. William Shakespeare hit his share of pubs and actually co-owned one for a while. Thomas Edison was a paperboy in his youth. Pope Francis frittered away the hours as a bouncer cum janitor in his native Buenos Aires before he found Dad.

Come to think of it, Jesus would have made a decent bouncer Himself. Just ask the money-changers.

Depictions of the life of the god Apollo flank the chandelier on the ceiling at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, the city’s anchor performing arts venue. Courtesy photos.

You might as well add André Antoine to that list. Antoine was a lowly gas company clerk when he founded Théâtre Libre in Paris in 1887, producing 111 plays over his first seven seasons. His was the definitive workshop stage as he sought to mount naturalistic pieces whose authors eschewed traditional theater instruction at places like the Paris Conservatory.

His maverick spirit moved France into a strange, freewheeling theater mien — and by his leave, I’ll shortly experience a scintilla of his legacy for what’s likely the rest of my days.

That’s because I’m leaving San Diego Story effective immediately and assuming the semiretirement mantle for good as of Feb. 15, relocating to Bordeaux in search of the definitive wine list and the live theaters that serve its entries at intermission and beyond. I’ve already found a couple cool neighborhood restaurants (out of about a skwajillion), and Social Security will couple with a hefty and portable part-time editorial job as solid means of support.

Not only that: I’ll live just off the city center’s Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, a live-stage flagship and the anchor venue for the Bordeaux National Opera.

I’ll be very well taken care of, indeed.

…[M]y French sounds like a boat motor without the governor…

It’s hard to count the number of theater companies in a place like Bordeaux, because, as it should be, theater is a transient local entity. Bordeaux’s 250,000 residents include about 73 million college students, many of whom crank out plays for school projects, for a lark or for deeper exploration of the nearby performance scene as they seek a permanent base.

Others volunteer at English- and French-language companies solely to improve their language skills (something I intend to do, as my French sounds like a boat motor without the governor). You can be a one-man theater company one day and fly the coop before intermission on day two.

But that’s OK, see. France is one of the world’s elite nations, and it didn’t get that way by sitting still. It was shot out of a cannon with the Treaty of Verdun in 843, and it still squabbles with itself over the elements of nationhood, like any authentic aspirant to true democracy.

André Antoine founded France’s Théâtre Libre in reaction to the country’s conventional instruction in the performing arts.

Problems from within and without? Of course, and scads of ’em (read: the highminded but unorthodox Yellow Vest protesters). Are things any better there than here? It’s been four years since I last visited, and I’m no closer to answering that. But given America’s slow and steady decline as a world power, that’s hardly the point.

“Wonderful France,” swooned the central figure in an article of mine a while ago. “Pianos in train stations. Pianos in restaurants. Pianos on sidewalks. Everybody’s going to concerts during protests in the streets, or they’re (writing plays or) painting. During (a recent flap in) Paris, people were serving food and trying to write a new constitution. Others were playing in the orchestra, and the audience listened! It was the most beautiful thing I’ll ever witness.”

And so it is with Bordeaux theater, positively loony with playwrights, actors, stage managers, directors and patrons whose faces you’ll never see twice at the same venue.

My teeth chatter at the prospect of life abroad, although I admit that that’s from a colossal case of nerves more than anything else. I will be checking in here from time to time on that part of my journey, with theater stories that complement those about life on the San Diego stage.

…[Y]ou’d have thought that theater was a mere commodity, like money and bananas and hay and pot.

This city is the only one I know of, outside New York and Chicago, that has not one but two regional theaters (i.e., businesses that produce their own seasons).

The Old Globe Theatre, with a $30 million annual budget, is the city’s largest arts employer.

La Jolla Playhouse has sent 101 plays to Broadway and in 1993 won an Outstanding Regional Theatre Tony Award (to be followed in 2017 by artistic director Christopher Ashley’s Tony for Best Direction of a Musical, Come from Away).

Those are but incidentals to a city with a proud recent theater history. When I landed here in 2003, you’d have thought that theater was a mere commodity, like money and bananas and hay and pot. Companies came and went as day turned to night; they’d left so little dust that cleaning supply vendors beat a hasty retreat to Arizona, home to a perpetual layer of soot that colors the sun.

Dusk descends on the Place de la Bourse, Bordeaux’s main city square. The miroir d’eau, designed to reflect the faces of the 18th-century mixed-use facilities, is in the foreground.

These days, San Diego’s theatrically underserved neighborhoods are few and far between. The play choices aren’t always agreeable, but at least the stages are occupied. The big-budget Broadway shows may not come through quickly enough for everybody’s taste, but at least they get here. University-level theater could do a better job with its PR machines, but at least the next Tony candidate is getting an education.

And the final product may or may not meet with critical acclaim, but at least it gets a hearing amid a terribly public enterprise. San Diego is an ideal steward of that commerce, mounting show after show with laughably little public funding and dauntingly loyal patronage. It’s been an absolute pleasure serving the latter, about whom I’ll boast until I get on the Bordelais’ nerves.

Meanwhile, I offer my heartfelt thanks to the two editors most responsible for my copy the last 16 years — Dave Rolland, who so marvelously helmed San Diego CityBeat while I was theater editor there from 2004 to 2011, and San Diego Story assignments editor Bill Eadie, a publication co-founder alongside publisher Mark Burgess and correspondents Welton Jones, Kris Eitland, David Dixon, Janice Steinberg and Ken Herman.

It’s been a singular privilege sharing their space the last five years — now, if I can just find my passport, I’ll cheerfully go return the favor.

Salut, tout le monde, et à bientot!

Marty’s e-mail address is [email protected].


  1. Jerry Pilato on September 19, 2019 at 3:00 pm

    You will be missed. Always enjoyed reading your reviews. All the best!

Leave a Comment