Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: The Outré Trappings of Outrapo

Resident Francophile Marissa Skudlarek continues her exploration of the Parisian avant-garde.

Last Friday, a co-worker challenged me to see if I could have five adventures over the weekend. My calendar was otherwise open, and the weather was lovely, so I eagerly embraced the constraint. After all, my experience as a playwright has taught me that you often have more fun, and are more creative, when you have a challenge or limitation to live up to. I’ve written before that “the blank page can be daunting” and I still believe that’s true. “Live life to the fullest” is an impossibly abstract maxim. “Have five adventures this weekend” is pleasantly concrete and tangible.

(And if you’re a playwright who agrees with me about the value of a challenge, why not write a play that follows the constraints for Theater Pub’s 2015 Pint-Sized Plays festival, and submit it before May 15? Full guidelines here.)

I ended up having four adventures this weekend. At least, I think I did. Because when you start counting your adventures, you also start making philosophical distinctions, asking ontological questions about the nature of adventure. If I rent a bike to go tooling around Golden Gate Park, and my phone flies out of my back pocket and pops out of its case when I coast down a hill (my phone’s fine, don’t worry), and I become so tired trying to pedal back up said hill that I get off the bike and walk it back to the rental shop, is that three small adventures, or one big one?

So constraints make you creative and philosophical and self-aware, which is to say, they make you feel rather French. Maybe that’s why the artistic movement that explores how art can be produced under various types of whimsical constraints started in Paris. Circa 1960, a group of French experimental writers formed the Oulipo (“Ouvroir de littérature potentielle,” or Workshop of Potential Literature). Oulipo writers have composed 300-page novels without the letter e and sequences of sonnets whose lines can be interchanged with one another. Artists in other fields then started to get in on the action, founding their own workshops. The workshop that deals with theater is known as the Outrapo, which stands for Workshop of Potential Tragicomedy. It’s a great name because it sounds like “outré” (Oulipians adore puns) and because the word “tragicomedy” is less neutral than a word like “drama” or “theater.” “Tragicomedy” evokes emotions, highs and lows, grandeur and farce, in a way that appeals to me very much. (Not to toot my own horn, but sobbing in an alley after a postmodern vaudeville show strikes me as very Outrapian.)

As soon as I heard about Oulipo and Outrapo, as a high-school student under the influence of an English teacher who loved everything “postmodern” and “meta,” I was intrigued. However, there’s not too much about these movements – Outrapo in particular – online, and the best sources seem to be in French, which I did not start studying till college. And not just any French: pataphysical French. Oulipians have their own calendars, codes, shibboleths, patron saints, heresies, and orthodoxies. Their overriding philosophy is called “pataphysics,” defined as “what comes after metaphysics.” (Don’t worry, I don’t quite get it either.)

For an example of pataphysical humor, here’s my translation of the opening text on the Outrapo website: “Stanley Chapman committed the gesture of dying, 9 Shritt 136 (May 26, 2009). Exit. Applause. Curtain. It was on Stanley Chapman’s initiative, thanks to his pataphysical spirit, his passion for theater, and his vital poetry, that the workshop was founded in London with Cosima Schmetterling and Milie von Bariter. Then Jean-Pierre Poisson, Anne Feillet, Félix Pruvost and Sir Tom Stoppard quickly joined the group. Stanley Chapman is therefore now excused from meetings and public presentations.”

Anyway, when I was studying in Paris in 2007, I was poking around the Outrapo website one night, and saw that the address of their headquarters was not far from the university where I went every Wednesday to take a course on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and not far from my favorite bistro. (Le Petit Cardinal, right by the Cardinal Lemoine metro stop. You can feel the trains rumble beneath your feet as you eat. I highly recommend it.) Instantly, I resolved to try to meet the Outrapians when I was next in the neighborhood. I had wanted to connect with French theater-makers when I was abroad, and what better group of theater-makers than these? I also thought that this could be a potential (no pun intended) way for me to achieve my life goal of meeting Tom Stoppard.

That Wednesday, I visited the building, which looked like an ordinary Parisian apartment house. There were no indications that pataphysical activity was taking place there. Nonetheless, I was undaunted. I waited for someone to come out of the building, slipped in the open door, went up the stairs, found the apartment in question, screwed up my courage, knocked… and received no response. So I sat on the narrow little staircase, ripped a page out of my cahier, and in my best schoolgirl French, wrote a brief letter to Milie von Bariter, the leader of Outrapo. This is the part of the adventure that embarrasses me the most in hindsight. I should have written a bizarre Outrapian letter, not a polite schoolgirl one. How the Outrapians must have laughed when they received my earnest missive! Yet perhaps, in its very absurdity, my letter fulfilled the Outrapian spirit. I slipped the letter under the door, then slipped out of the building.

In retrospect, I cannot believe my daring. Sneaking around apartment houses, trespassing where I should not have been! I think, too, about how I assumed that my privilege as a young white girl would protect me. It was unlikely that anyone would stop and question me; and even if they had, I could probably have gotten away with a white lie (e.g. “I am visiting a friend”). Even telling the truth (“I am a playwright trying to get in touch with Outrapo”) might’ve been OK. One likes to think that the French have such reverence for art and literature that even the gendarmerie couldn’t argue with such an excuse. Maybe they’d think I was weird, but they wouldn’t think I was dangerous or criminal.

I had provided my email address in my letter to von Bariter, and that evening, I did receive a response from him. He thanked me for the letter and I think there was some brief talk of meeting up for coffee, but that never came to anything. I didn’t want to bother him again. My courage started to fail me. The adventure petered out.

I’ve been thinking about Outrapo lately, not only because my attempt to get in touch with the movement is one of the most adventurous things I’ve ever done, but also because the show that we’re producing at Theater Pub come Monday sounds rather Outrapian. According to the blurb on our website, Steven and Megan in Megan and Steven Present a World Premiere by Steven and Megan deals with the nature of constraint. Steven Westdahl and Megan Cohen will be repeatedly presenting a new 5-minute play, while simultaneously adding more and more elements (props, costumes, blocking) and chugging booze. As the constraints get tougher, their minds will get foggier. And what could be more adventurous, what could be more pataphysical, than that?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She’s wonderign if we should start a branch of Outrapo in the Bay Area. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

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