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One man show takes teamwork

Professor Simon Piasecki and Dr Shelley Piasecka, Flight to Arras, Cornerstone Festival Monday 17 November 2014

When performance artist and Drama Professor Simon Piasecki needed a director for his latest one man show, he knew exactly where to look. 

Flight to Arras is a collaboration of husband and wife creative team Professor Simon Piasecki and Dr Shelley Piasecki. Simon is a performance artist and Head of Dance, Drama & Performance Studies at Liverpool Hope. Shelley is a theatre director and is a Senior Lecturer in Drama and Theatre Studies at the University of Chester.

Simon adapted the book for theatre and will perform the play, whilst Shelley is the director. As well as it being the first time that they have worked together in fifteen years, their children have now got in the act. Being present at some rehearsals, their eight year old daughter took charge of the prompt book, and even wrote detailed notes for improvement after each rehearsal.  

“And she didn't hold back!” says Simon. 

However, Flight to Arras has a connection close to home that goes even further back than this performance.  

The original book on which the play is based, is a poetic and moving retelling of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s penultimate flights and thoughts as he flies over occupied France in World War Two. 

Whilst Saint-Exupéry is best remembered for The Little Prince, a favourite book of Simon's childhood, he wrote a number of philosophical books as a postal and later as a military pilot, including Flight to Arras. In both the book and the play, the audience is taken on a sortie, looking down at the terrible beauty of a culture that is in flight, of villages, families, war, desperation, love, life and death.  

Saint-Exupéry was later to be shot down and lost over the sea. 

Simon’s paternal grandfather was a Ukrainian Polish refugee who in 1939 fled the Nazis, on foot through Europe and came to Britain where he went on to fly for the RAF. He was killed in flight in 1944, the same year as Saint-Exupéry.  

Simon said: “Saint-Exupéry’s work really brings home the plight of the individual sacrifice for the greater good of humanity. He was interested in landscapes, the act of fleeing and all that that entailed with regards to identity. He was fascinated by what happens when communities leave, move and become ‘vagabonds of the road.’ These are all themes that I explore in my own research practice, and they are also issues very close to home with regards to my own family history.” 

When Saint-Exupéry published Flight to Arras, one reviewer said that he was a man ‘more awake than anyone else.’ Yet he was known as a daydreamer by his friends. 

The staging of Flight to Arras has this same daydream-like quality. Although the whole piece is framed by the plane in which Saint-Exupéry is flying, the play forays into his childhood, into village life and that of the refugees, using a series of simple props - a school desk, a blackboard and a bed. As an added challenge, Simon also plays multiple characters. 

How did the couple find the challenge of staging the combination of real and ‘imaginary’ landscapes? “We come from two very different disciplines,” says Shelley. “I specialise in theatre work, whilst Simon is a performance artist. Simon’s work tends to evolve, whilst in theatre, everything is rehearsed to the very last. However, I think we have managed to get that balance right between intuition and direction. We both want to let the text breathe.  Exploring Saint-Exupéry’s work in a theatrical dynamic has also brought out the vulnerabilities of the original text; it brings to the fore questions about how our matter- of-fact daily life becomes memory.”

Simon added: “When I asked Shelley to direct me, she said that she didn’t think I would let her. However, it has been a fantastic opportunity for us both. We have learned from each other and she has really pushed me to focus on the specifics of Saint-Exupéry’s text. We hope that what we have produced will do justice to the way that Saint-Exupéry manages to marry his own imagination with the reality of war and create something beautiful and relevant.” 

Flight to Arras: Saturday 29th November, 7.30pm.   

Tickets £10/£7 Buy tickets 

Free to Liverpool Hope University students. Booking still required: email cornerstonefestival@hope.ac.uk

Cornerstone Arts Festival 2014 - full programme

 

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