By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“You — you alone will have stars as no one else has them.”
— The Little Prince, Saint-Exupéry
And the space between them is yours to claim, too, as theatre artist Christine Lesiak has discovered in “the strange and wonderful adventure” of creating the play premiering on the mainstage of the SkirtsAfire Festival (Mar 2).
The Space Between Stars is Lesiak’s “radical adaptation” of the haunting and soulful 1943 novella The Little Prince by the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. One of the most translated volumes in the world, it follows the journey through the universe of a small grave visitor from a tiny planet, with its three volcanoes and one arrogant flower. The narrator, a pilot who’s crashed his plane in the Sahara desert, is remembering his wonderful encounter with the mysterious little boy, and the Little Prince’s bemusement at the absurd behaviour of grown-ups at every port of call.
In an eerie resonance of his literary hit, Saint-Exupéry, a pilot himself, met a mysterious fate. On a reconnaissance mission from Corsica in 1944, his plane went missing — vanished into a fathomless universe.
The impulse to adapt The Little Prince for the stage isn’t Lesiak’s alone, as she’s quick to point out: makers of theatre, dance, music, opera, computer games have found it irresistible. “It’s a cultural touchstone,” as Lesiak says. “But the adaptations I’ve seen skimmed over the essential sadness and feelings of loss. And for me, that’s the undercurrent of the whole story.”
The Space Between Stars, with its nexus of astronomy, cosmology and mythology, happens at an unexpected intersection: it marries Lesiak’s own rare and surprising skill set as a space physicist and theatre artist (with a specialty in clowning!). There can’t be many. For her part, though, Lesiak says “the essential soul of the artist and the scientist are the same…. They both require wonder, curiosity, the willingness to be wrong, to take a risk.” Ah yes, and “obsessive commitment.”
Lesiak arrived here in 1993 from New Brunswick to join the U of A space physics department. Her specialty: magnetospheric physics. Ah, not stars per se,” Lesiak points out. “But who does not stare at the stars? When you’re a kid out camping, who doesn’t lie back on the grass and stare up at the sky and try to find The Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt? And marvel at the insanity of the vastness…. The light we see left the centre of our galaxy 26,000 years ago.”
The road to clowning can hardly be considered inevitable for physicists. But since her arrival Edmonton audiences have been enchanted by Lesiak’s clown performances for Small Matters Theatre (For Science!, Sofa So Good). And she’s the artistic director of the international Play The Fool Festival of clown theatre and physical comedy.
“This has been a long time coming,” Lesiak says of adapting The Little Prince for the stage. Her attraction to the book goes back to her New Brunswick childhood. “I read it in French… My teacher was crying at one point (the universal reaction of every adult to the beauty and sadness of the little book), and I was super-confused by that!” she laughs.
Many enchanted encounters, in both our official languages, followed. “It’s such a profound read, and every time I read it, something new emerges….” And in 2016, Lesiak workshopped an adaptation of the novella she called The Object of Constellations, the grand finale project of a U of A master’s degree in theatre practice. Its academic premise: “the application of clown techniques, creation and practices into immersive and site-specific performance.” The Object of Constellations, an immersive installation, moved its audiences through the multiple domes at the U of A’s astronomy observatory.
The Space Between Stars, heir to that earlier creation, is a bona fide play, says Lesiak. “The desert is a metaphor for space. The pilot lost in the desert becomes, in the play, an astronomer (Lesiak) “who’s a different kind of explorer, lost in her own universe …. And our little prince, this mysterious, precocious, other-worldly, almost magical little philosopher becomes a more concrete, earthbound human. Her son.” The boy is portrayed in a variety of ingenious ways — “projections, object manipulation (by Sarah Emslie onstage), voice-overs.”
“We needed a way to navigate through the universe … to show space onstage,” says Lesiak of a theatrical challenge that is both simple at heart and dauntingly elusive. “In the original version, the night sky was a character, and we’ve gone through many iterations to make that happen.” The question Lesiak and her designers constantly volleyed amongst themselves: “is it even possible to do this?”
For one workshop, pre-COVID, the creative team led by designers T. Erin Gruber, an expert in projections, and Daniela Masellis, used the modelling software at the Telus World of Science. More recently Gruber has made use of the brilliant Space Engine software: “for 30 bucks you too can roam through the universe.”
“In this world,” Lesiak explains, “the characters the Little Prince visits (on his asteroid universe tour) are really elements of the astronomer’s self.… I’ve written myself a challenge for sure. It’s so technically complex … definitely a dance with projection as a character!”
“It’s very much a story about a child helping remind a grown-up what it’s like to see through eyes of wonder, to be wonder-struck…. For me, that’s why this is a sneaky clown story.” Lesiak quotes her clown mentor, the great Jan Henderson. “The clown is not about being the child we were but being the child we still are after all our experience…. “We’re not a culture that’s very good at encouraging our adults to be ‘childish’.”
In the novella, “the pilot and the Little Prince have very different views on what ‘matters of consequence’ are…. The same conflict is at the heart of The Space Between Stars.
The Space Between Stars
Created by and starring: Christine Lesiak, with Sarah Emslie and Sahl Wilkie
Directed by: Tracy Carroll
Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: March 2 to 12