Anyone who was in Seattle theater at the beginning of this century at least heard rumblings about the Ardeo Theatre Project. A group of intrepid Northwest performers took over a chateau in France to establish a theater that also would be a tourist and study abroad destination. The idea held the romance of the artists colonies of the 1920s, and the communes of the 1960s, but it quickly proved impractical to remodel 55 acres and a medieval castle formerly occupied by Benedictine nuns. Within a year, the Americans headed home.
Playwright Rachel Atkins tried life in the 12th-century castle near Poitiers, France, becoming Ardeo Theatre Project’s scriptwriter and dramaturge in 2000. Fifteen years later people still asked her about the experience, so she decided to turn her year in France into a play. “Voyage for Madmen: The Unbelievably True Epic Failure of the Ardeo Theatre Project,” opened last Friday (Feb. 20) and runs March 7 at Seattle’s West of Lenin performance space.
Atkins used her experiences along with pieces from the plays that Ardeo intended to put on in their first year to create her script. All the referenced plays, being rehearsed as the Ardeo participants dealt with the chateau remodeling nightmares, held some clues to eventual fate of this project, she said in a recent interview.
Why made you want to pursue this dream of theater in a chateau?
I think the dream really came out of that late 1990s heyday of Seattle—theatre companies and start-ups were popping up everywhere, life was booming, and we all had that feeling that we could do anything! The idea of going off together to a beautiful, romantic, dramatic place where we could live and work together, doing both life and art exactly the way we wanted, was exciting and thrilling, and I think most of us thought “why not?” We were all freelance theatre artists, so creating our own company with long-range goals and really building an ensemble was appealing. And châteaux are relatively cheap, believe it or not—because how many people would have something to do with a big, old building and 55 acres?
You picked the plays that Ardeo rehearsed to be part of this performance — how do you think these plays foretold …. or reflected … some of the trouble to come?
The real truth-is-stranger-than-fiction part of the plays we worked on in France is that we selected them with no awareness of how they were mirroring our own experiences: Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” starting with a storm and a devastating shipwreck, people at odds in and with a strange new world; Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and the many characters who give up everything (and are ultimately destroyed by) their larger than life dreams; and the true story of Donald Crowhurst, a British amateur sailor in the 1960s who set off on a single-handed round-the-world sailing race completely ill-prepared, yet completely confident of success. All these stories both foretold and reflected our own troubles: taking ownership of the château on the eve of a hurricane-grade storm in France; being Americans and suspected Scientologists (because we were American actors) in a country where cults are illegal; and all the many risks and sacrifices that we made both as individuals and as a company to leave our American lives behind and take this leap of faith together. All of these stories are woven together in a kind of vaudeville style in the play, both because that was another form of theatre we worked on as a company, and because the wild and wacky, fast-moving, fast-paced, frenetic and fun energy of that style reflects so much of the feeling of being there. I always tell people that Ardeo was both wonderful and terrible, simultaneously, every minute we were at Ardeo.
What do you think was the grandest moment in this venture?
While the grandest moments might be the nights we ate dinner under the allée of sycamore trees and played Hollywood Squares in the façade of the château, perhaps the most remarkable moment was the night of September 11, 2001. We had already made the difficult decision to close down, and it was already planned as our one and only performance night. [Then] we got the news about what was happening in New York. None of us could reach anyone in the US, and we didn’t know what else to do with ourselves, so we made the choice that the show must go on. Many of our French neighbors came to watch the performance as a way to give us their support, despite not understanding English. We laughed, we cried, we even had cake (September 11 also happens to be my birthday). It somehow felt a very fitting way to honor both this personal and national tragedy.
Could Ardeo have succeeded?
Absolutely, Ardeo could have succeeded. When we shut down, we were right on the verge of taking our first show on tour, and bringing over our first group of college students for our study abroad program. As with so many other things in life, it really came down to time and money. In that way, I think this is a universal story that anyone can relate to: most of us have faced one or both of those barriers at some point in our lives. We gambled and lost. But we also gained this incredible life experience that people still want to hear about, 15 years later. I’m not sorry I did it, and I think most of us feel the same way. It was worth the risk, as so many of the best things in life are. And isn’t it better to try and fail, than to never try at all?
“Voyage for Madmen: The Unbelievably True Epic Failure of Ardeo Theatre Project” plays at West of Lenin, 203 N 36th Street, Thursdays through Saturday at 8 p.m. through March 7. There will be a 8 p.m. Monday show on March 2 and a 2 p.m. matinee on March 7. Photos of the real Ardeo from Michelle Bates Photography are on display in the gallery. Tickets available through The 14/48 Projects website.