Interview with Natacha Astuto – Playwright of ‘The Last Train’

Natacha Astuto has a habit of speaking while her hands move with the passion of her words.  When she’s thinking of what to say she glances at the right corner of her face, like she’s tickling her left brain.  During the hour that she and I conversed via Skype last Monday night (10 pm PST which was 7 am in Switzerland) she was eager to express as clearly as possible what I tried to draw from her.

The Last Train (La Dernier Train) is debuting in its English translation production at the Hollywood Fringe Festival this year of the Horse in Chinese Zodiac.  She got connected with James Svatko through Stage32.  He came upon the story, read it and called her to say he wanted to produce the play and wanted to play the lead.  As a most weathered playwright she accepted his interest with politeness while maintaining an arms’ length perspective of ‘well, let’s see’.  It’s a natural self-preservation reaction to wanting to be swept away with grand dreams and emotions, but wanting a cushion landing if it was only a dream.

That encounter happened last year.  When January 2014 rolled around, he called her again, and this time he said it was really going to happen, and Natacha decided to invest emotionally into the project which brings us to today.  It was 7am in Switzerland, and Natacha looked a little tired from last night’s performance, but she was alert and wasn’t missing a beat.  I posed my first question- what motivated her to write the play with this dark and sinister theme?  “To be honest” she started, and I thought this was already telling that something unexpected was coming forth.  She said there was not any particular personal or newsworthy event that inspired the writing.  It was simply that two actors approached her with the parameters to write a play with 4 characters. Natacha added her own curiosity to explore a setting that was enclosed, or in other words limited input and output. In French, the expression is Huis Clos, which translates to “No Exit”.  Jean Paul Sartre wrote a play by the same title and told the story of three people in the afterlife forever together in hell.

So this was her spring board, and what caught my attention was the setting of a jail cell and its literal and figurative analogy to our own personal selves – the prison of our minds limited by our mentality and imagination – if we are so inclined.  In a play of 4 characters the idea of lead and supporting seems to be grey.  I think it’s becomes a constellation of individual characters revolving around the theme of where does evil lurk.  This is my take on it, because I’ve been on the hunt on this topic.  The play is not bounded by that theme alone. Art is alive.  What the seer brings into the chemistry or the formula will influence what they get out of it.

Natacha meditated upon the parameters and she came up with a story of two men who had been incarcerated for twenty years in the same cell for crimes we are not privy to.  She wanted to know what happens to people who’ve been removed from normal society for such a long period of time?  My initial take was that she had come upon a story that touched a nerve in her soul and the catharsis of understanding the events came through in writing the The Last Train,  and I found out I was wrong.  Her process of creating The Last Train was internal and organic, which is what makes this story original, and the story telling so provocative.

She covers a lot of ground in 1 hour in the English version.  The French version that is playing in Europe is 75 minutes long.  What translation differences occurred?  It was mostly colloquial references, for example, using ‘Alex Trebek’ of Jeopardy.  Did she change the names of the characters?  (I found that the character of Jack evoked the spirit of Jack the Ripper, and that Louise resembled Clarice (Silence of the Lambs)  in sound .  ‘No,’ replied Natacha, she did not even catch on to those nuances.  I’m esoteric in my beliefs that storytellers are channels of a story, and this came to the playwright in her deep meditations to evoke a story of 4 people in an enclosed chamber.  That is a formula for explosive cabin fever.  Louise was shortened from the original form of Heloise.  Historically the name is attached to Heloise d’Argenteuil who was the lover of Peter Abelard, a scholar and theologian from the Medieval period.  She was also a scholar and her beauty, insight and intelligence sparked a deep stroke in Peter’s heart, who belonged amongst the ranks of the church.

Natacha created characters with whom she can relate to.  There were aspects of each person that she can identify with either personally or through stories she had brushed with and absorbed into her own being.  Jack and Robert are cellmates and they relate to one another similarly as a married couple.  They take care of one another in their own terms.  Though bound by the cell and the daily routine of prison life there are still secrets that each person carries, and neither has the willingness to expose what lies beneath the façade.  But how long can each person bear the weight of the masquerade?

Secrets have a strong sinister voice that is unspoken, but yet very powerful. The idea of caching secrets into the play is a tool Natacha has used in this play and her other plays.  In writing secrets into the story, she gives a loud voice to victims who have not been able to speak of the unspeakable.  There have been people in the audiences who have found consolation in seeing her plays, and came to talk to her to express their gratitude for giving them a voice.

In this story, the two jailbirds are under the care of a woman, Marianne.  This is an unusual compensation in a male dominated environment.  As a former employee at a women’s prison, she was selected for an experimental exchange program recommended by psychiatrists during the nineties.  She found she was more suited working in the all-male environment and remained in her post.  Jack, Robert and Marianne had created a functional triad with the two men acting as subordinates under the authority of a motherly figure.  She is kind and vulnerable, and the two men perceives this, but do not abuse it.  Her language is soft.  When she leaves them, she says ‘See you guys later.’  She unwittingly exposes her vulnerability by confiding that she’s worried and senses Jack’s fear, and this is the feeling-nurturing behaviors associated with women.

The men bide away their time in their own ways.  Jack has a snowglobe and becomes curious about its self-contained environment.  ‘Where does the water come from?’ he asks Robert who becomes exasperated with Jack’s inane conversation about a stupid snowglobe when he only wants to get out.

You don’t give a damn about anything! You don’t even look up

when I talk to you! You’re just here, waiting to leave fucking

feet first!

Act 1 has very strong overtones of Waiting for Godot, I told Natacha.  She chuckled.  She said that James Svatko made the same comment to her.  “What?! I’m not a Samuel Beckett’, she said amused, both thrilled and humbled to be compared to a wholly alive artist/playwright.

The monotony and bubble of the cell is cracked open by a female visitor, and the hidden thoughts and motives of the men rise to the surface. The stakes are heightened and we are drawn in closer to witness the unveiling of secrets.

Natacha is a bright artist and I am very lucky that I had the opportunity to speak with her about herself and the play.  One of the other questions I posed to her was if she found any disparity between men and women in having exposure as a playwright.  She pondered this question deeply.  Her first response was no.  She explained that she already thrives in a man’s world working professionally as a mechanical engineer.  Being in a man’s world she behaves simply as a person doing the work that is mostly filled by men, but it’s not about the gender.  It’s about doing the work.  She is aware of a common theme in comments by other people that they were surprised that a woman had written a play in a setting that was primarily male oriented and about two men in a prison.  Storytelling is a vocation.  It’s a job that can be done equally well by any man or woman.

Natacha has written 6 plays in total.  The Last Train is the first one to be translated into English.  Her storytelling and writing style is purposeful and engaging.  Get curious and thrilled!  Go see The Last Train.

The Last Train is playing at the SCHKAPF, formerly known as Artworks Theatre.  ADDRESS: 6567 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90038. tel. 323.871.1912

The schedule is:

  • Thursday June 05 2014, 10:15 PM | 1hr
  • Saturday June 14 2014, 6:30 PM | 1hr
  • Thursday June 19 2014, 10:15 PM | 1hr
  • Saturday June 21 2014, 6:30 PM | 1hr
  • Thursday June 26 2014, 10:15 PM | 1hr

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