La MaMa Blogs: Coleen MacPherson on 'This Is Why We Live'

Monday, September 9, 2019

Coleen MacPherson on 'This Is Why We Live'

Photo by Stefan Łazarski

By Coleen MacPherson

After leaving Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris in 2014 I rallied a group of like-minded actors I had met at the school to form a company called Open Heart Surgery Theatre. At the school you work with theater makers from all over the world, and embark on a journey, experimenting with the dynamics of movement and improvisation in a rigorous search to create original theater.

For Jacques Lecoq, who was a prolific teacher of movement, mask and mime, and a man of vision, it was the journey itself that was of the utmost importance -- in searching for the truthful moments through physical exploration on stage and searching for who you are as an artist. Although Lecoq is not alive anymore, this has stayed grounded in the school’s pedagogy. There isn’t a specific style. There isn’t a method. It is about seeing the world around you and responding to it.

At Lecoq you begin to see the world differently, you take time to observe, to see through the lens of movement and stand face-to-face with that astonishing ability children have before language: they mime, they play. We mime the world before we have language and therefore this becomes the basis of our learning -- we listened to words and found their movement before we ever began making a play. I distinctly remember the two weeks we spent exploring poetry. Each student brought in a poem from their home country and we explored these poems through movement – an incredible thing happened, for you didn’t need to know the meaning of the words to understand the poem -- we found their movement and therefore found their essence.

Poet Wisława Szymborska
Photo: Ela Lempp

This is the artistic lens in which Open Heart Surgery Theatre was born and I feel strongly that theater’s role is to connect across all cultures, while also acting as a kind of ‘social acupuncture’ (to steal a term from Canadian theatre-maker Darren O’Donnell). A theatre that provokes us to imagine another world, or another way of seeing that disrupts the everyday …

So in this spirit, my company began making This Is Why We Live using the poems of Polish poet and ironist, Wisława Szymborska, the ‘reluctant’ winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, as our inspiration …

Reading the poetry of Wisława Szymborska is like having a conversation with the poet herself, with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, while glancing at life through an onion. The power in her poetry is her ability to write about everyday things like stones and onions; first love and statistics; a cat in an empty apartment … Her ability to notice the world around us, a world that we too often fail to see or have time to see, is her gift. There is an elegant power in her poetry; she balances the heavy and light simultaneously; drawing on history, biology, emotional and cosmic contexts while maintaining a sense of irony, wit and precision. I’ve never laughed out loud while reading a poem in quite this way nor have I met such a kaleidoscopic conversation about existential questions of life and all its complexities until I came across Szymborska’s words.

I am not Polish and nor was I born when she was, but I feel strongly that her words speak across time.

Having lived through Nazism, Stalinism and Communism, Szymborska witnessed firsthand the tragic failures and fragility of human life – from the atrocities of genocide of World War II and the disillusionment in its aftermath, she still managed to look at life with irony and lightness without denying its harsh reality. In a time where we have global uncertainty and environmental collapse, where reality and fiction have switched places, it feels all the more pertinent that we stop and slow down and listen to past writers like Szymborska. I feel her wisdom rings true in a line she wrote in a letter to her friend and fellow writer, Anna Frajlich:“sometimes I think the absurd is the most essential ingredient in reality.”

In Polish her work reads differently, it rhymes and swings and dances, it moves in a way that the English and French translations do not. When developing this work we read her poetry in all three languages, and this gesture of experimenting with multiple languages on stage began as way into her words and the movement that lay underneath them and also a way to bring our three cultures into dialogue (Polish, French and Canadian). Elodie Monteau (France) and Alaine Hutton (Canada). Music for the play is created and performed live by Polish cellist Dobrochna Zubek, based on the original score by Tatiana Judycka (UK/ Poland).

Szymborska’s poetry is the very heart of our play and the poet’s sense of wonder at its core; no word spoken, no note played, not a single gesture or texture of this play has not been inspired by her work. We bring to life 21 of her poems through movement, through clown, performing in languages (with subtitles for the Polish and French). Live music weaves throughout the work by cellist Dobrochna Zubek, creating an emotional arc for the play.

And as we prepare to embark on our journey from Toronto to New York City tomorrow, to share our work to US audiences for the very first time, this line from her Nobel Prize speech in 1996 continue to remind me of why we made this work:

“Whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose life span is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world – it is astonishing”

And, it is this feeling of astonishment we hope to invoke in our audiences.


This Is Why We Live
U.S. Premiere
September 19 - 29, 2019

Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm
Tickets & More Information at

The Downstairs
66 E 4th Street, Basement Level
New York, NY 10003

Director Coleen MacPherson
Coleen MacPherson is an international theatre artist, based in Toronto. She trained at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris and was part of a year-long programme connecting movement-based theatre practice to playwriting. She founded a company called Open Heart Surgery Theatre. As a half Parsi-Indian and half Irish theatre maker in Canada her work engages with ideas of cross-cultural collaboration and experiments with multiple languages on stage. She has worked with Tinderbox Theatre in Northern Ireland, Wet Picnic in the UK and has toured work to Egypt, Poland, France, UK and China. She directed This Is Why We Live which will hold its US premiere in New York at La MaMa in September 2019 . Currently she is developing a new play with Factory Theatre inspired by Glenn Gould and devising a new work based on Leonora Carrington with theatre creator, Martha Ross.



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