By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It’s not random chance that the role Gabby Bernard wrote for herself in her first full-length solo play is an artist character. It’s a sign of the age.
After all, theatre artists have had two years of punishing isolation to wonder, to doubt, to reassess their profession, their talent, their place in the world. And the 19th century French sculptor Camille Claudel, we meet in Stone and Soil, opening Sunday at Nextfest, spent years in self-imposed lock-up in her studio. Not only did she doubt her own work as an artist, she destroyed it, over and over.
“What drives a person to destroy their own work? Where does that anger come from? What level of loss and grief, and not getting the life you think you deserve?”
Bernard discovered Claudel on an art museum immersion trip to Paris just before the pandemic. It was a tiny sculpture in the Musée d’Orsay that caught Bernard’s eye. Of the three figures grouped in The Age of Maturity, the one in the middle, as Bernard describes, ‘is a young woman reaching out to a man who’s turned away. Over their shoulders is an older woman hunched over above them….” The blurb below explained that Claudel was a brilliant artist in her own right but better known as a more famous artist’s lover and muse.
“The image really struck me,” says Bernard, most recently seen by Edmonton audiences as another troubled artist character, in Michelle Robb’s Tell Us What Happened at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. The piece, she says, “is often interpreted as (representing) the relationship between Rodin and Claudel; the looming figure is the woman he wouldn’t leave for her, the woman who tore them apart.”
A MacEwan University musical theatre grad with a BFA in acting from the U of A, Bernard tucked the character into the back of her mind. Or perhaps Claudel invited herself there, and moved in. And when the pandemic struck down live theatre in early 2020, Claudel and her tragic story were Bernard’s inspiration to turn to writing.
“At the time I was heartsick about not being in a theatre with others, not knowing when the next project would be, thinking if I could write a role for myself, what would it be? I kept coming back to her….”
“I was drawn to her boldness, her sensuality,” says Bernard. “And there was a stubborn-ness about her. You had to be so settled in your convictions, so passionate … there were so many obstacles.”
Claudel’s story, in movies and novels, “is always structured that she fell in love, had her heart broken, went mad, locked herself away, got dragged away to an asylum” where she spent the rest of her life…. I was interested in picking that apart a bit.” What she was moved to explore was the way “history has often shortchanged talented opinionated women,” relegating them to the male shadow. “They’re not taken quite seriously, not given the support they need, ultimately shunted off to the side.”
Bernard has found Claudel “a big challenge to embody… as an actor and a writer.” She fashioned Stone and Soil, workshopped online in last year’s digital edition of Nextfest, as a ghost story of sorts. A ghostly incarnation of the artist returns to her final studio, smashing her sculptures over and over.” In the play she’s addressing “the other woman,” the lover Rodin wouldn’t leave — and the audience is collectively cast in that role.
Stone and Soil isn’t Bernard’s debut in writing. “I wrote a lot as a kid — short stories, poetry … my introduction to storytelling.” Then acting took over. “And in the last couple of years, I’ve picked up writing again,” she says of the challenge of “adapting narrative storytelling into theatrical storytelling.”
The proverbial “learning curve” and “journey of self-discovery” find a natural home at Nextfest, as Bernard has discovered. She’s been at the festival before. First it was as an actor: “my first Nextfest show after graduating (in 2018) was Mark Vetch’s Pretty Boy The Musical.” In 2019 she co-wrote a small cabaret piece for Nextfest’s clown festival, exercising her attraction to “bouffon style clowning,” dark and satirical.
“There are so many creative young artists in this city, And Ellen (Nextfest director Ellen Chorley) and the whole team create an environment to try things out,” says Bernard. “It’s great to have the support and the platform to take artistic risks…. A lot of things are taken care of at Nextfest. So we have more time and room to do the creative things!”
“My first full-length piece in a brand new theatre! How exciting is that?”
Stone and Soil runs Sunday, and also June 7, 11 and 12 on the Lorne Cardinal stage in the new Roxy Theatre. Tickets and times: nextfest.ca.