Inspired by dreams, performer Aurelia Thierree believes, “There’s logic when you’re in the dream, and you can embrace things that others might call absurd.” She is very careful in describing “Aurelia’s Oratorio,” her performance piece that will open McCarter’s 2010-’11 season, with previews starting on Friday, September 10, and opening on Thursday, September 16. She doesn’t want to infringe on the audience’s discoveries during the performance. “When you do a show that’s full of optical illusions, magic, and surprises, the audience makes the ‘trip’ with me,” she says in a phone interview. She worked collaboratively with her mother, Victoria Thierree Chaplin, to develop this production. “Vicky,” as she calls her mother, also directs.
Working with one’s mother certainly has its built-in handicaps, but Thierree says that the important thing is their mutual passion for the project. A plus: “The luxury is that we know each other, and we save time.” Noting this shorthand in communication, she adds, with lightness in her voice, “Vicky is very direct in what she wants.” This sounds like a unique mother-daughter relationship, and they’ve been working on this project for seven years. “In the beginning there was one act, then two acts” (“acts” as in vaudeville, not “Hamlet.”) While Aurelia performed in various productions, they continued to build “Aurelia’s Oratorio.” “The title is my father’s only contribution. We didn’t want to upset him. So we embraced the title.” As she has learned through her own performance, she feels that every one of us has an oratorio.
She continues to explain: “It’s not circus. It’s not dance. It’s a theatrical experience for an hour and 10 minutes. You hope you have an exchange going on with the audience. It’s a hybrid of different forms of expression that uses everything but the (spoken) word. There is no text; it’s a visual language. It is entertainment, but I love it when people see more than entertainment in it.”
In addition to dreams, the performance piece was inspired originally by a book of medieval drawings of a topsy-turvy world where everything was upside down. Theirree says that the pictures were very popular when they were first done. “Everything was reverted — such as a man carrying a horse or a kite flying a person, or they could even be political but they showed situations of everyday life in a totally upside down way.”
Theirree has been performing all of her life. Her father, actor Jean Baptiste Thierree, with his wife, developed a new kind of circus, Cirque Imaginaire and Le Cirque Invisible, unique in that they featured neither animals nor the traditional three rings. It is often stated that they foreshadowed the popular Cirque du Soleil. Thierree and her brother, James, were always in the act. “Nothing difficult,” she assures me. “We were in boxes or in a suitcase with our legs coming out. It was a way to keep us close, to keep the family together.” No babysitter needed, the parents just brought the children along on stage. Both of them had fun as she remembers, and they also learned a bit of discipline as they had to be there every night to do their bit. Since both of them have continued to be performers, they were obviously inspired and found the work/play and touring appealing.
Her parents still tour with their invisible circus and, at the same time, are developing a new show. Her brother is also on the road with his show, “Raoul,” about a castaway who returns home to find a stranger has taken his place. “My brother’s performances are more physical. We use the same language, but we express differently.” A peek on YouTube at his performance in Athens reveals a performer with an uncanny resemblance to their grandfather, Charlie Chaplin.
Their family heritage traces an auspicious lineage. Victoria’s parents were silent screen icon Chaplin and his wife, Oona, whose father was playwright Eugene O’Neill. Being a very in-the-now person, Thierree doesn’t want to discuss this or her off-stage life, which she clearly tells me is “private.” And although she travels all over the world performing on stage and in film, she does call Manhattan her home. With film location work, touring “Aurelia’s Oratorio,” and working on a new show, there isn’t much time when she isn’t working. But, she admits, “I’d be really unhappy if I had too much time off.” She isn’t married and doesn’t have children. “If I did, I would have to adapt. Actually, I have no idea what I would do.” That’s it for personal info.
While touring with “Oratorio,” she is also putting together a new performance piece called “Murmurs.” “It uses the same language,” she says, and is again directed by her mother. “The setting is quite different, but we’re still playing with perception and logic. In a way, it’s a continuation of ‘Aurelia’s Oratorio.’ We start where this show ends.” When they have it ready, she plans to continue touring, alternating the two illusion-filled pieces.
Both shows use music as their “spines.” She and her mother have selected classical music, tangos, gypsy jazz, and one piece by the British group Tiger Lillies. For a while Aurelia toured with their company in “The Tiger Lillies’ Circus.” She isn’t on stage alone in “Oratorio,” but shares it with dancer Jaime Martinez. There are also six people in the backstage cast, or as she terms them, “the real spirits” who support the show’s magic.
Other than a break for a little teen rebellion, she has been traveling and performing. But even those few “off years” have informed her work. “The more you live, the more you have to bring to your work. I am a performer, but I still feel that it’s something that is never completely acquired. And I’m a bit superstitious that way; I think that the moment I think I know the craft, I would have to stop. For me it’s constant research and continually evolving in one way or another. There’s a difference between being a performer and feeling like a performer.” She doesn’t think she’s the one to judge this and is quite philosophical for someone of her age. A little snooping around the Internet suggests she’s in her late 30s.
In additon to continuing touring with “Oratorio” and then with “Murmurs,” she expects to take a few pauses to make another film. “I love films,” she says. She has made a number of independent movies. Among her credits are two films with director/writer C.S. Leigh and two with director Milos Forman, including the 2006 “Goya’s Ghost” with Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, and Randy Quaid.
Whatever comes next, the theme of her “Oratorio” affects her decisions. “I have a lot of dreams, but they often change,” she says. Her dearest wish is to “never lose my ability to dream.”
Aurelia’s Oratorio, Berlind Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Previews Friday through Wednesday, September 10 to 15, opening night Thursday, September 16. Runs through Sunday, October 17. Aurelia Thierree stars in a topsy-turvy works of stage illusion. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.