“All the World’s a Stage”: Niki does Theater

“Part of me wanted to be an actress, another part wanted to direct plays, a third part wanted to write and yet I keep on doodling all the time like in school…Some of my drawings look like those of mad people. Don’t we all have madness in us? Some of us are able to express it more easily."

In her book Traces, Saint Phalle remembered her childhood in the context of acting and role play. Having a reputation among the siblings for her creative imagination, she described play acting with them, and that her love for performing blossomed at The Brearley School, an all-girls private school in New York. She started reading Shakespeare out loud, performing in classical Greek and modern plays, notably in the role of queens. “Brearley encouraged me to write and act. My first play was about the Witches of Endor. […] I remember playing queen Clytemnestra in Agamemnon of Euripides. It was there that I wrote my first poems.”  

Photograph of Niki de Saint Phalle and siblings. Traces. Lausanne, Acatos Publisher, 1999.

Niki de Saint Phalle expressed her creativity through various types of art: painting, sculpting, shooting paintings, writing and theater. She created scenery for various plays, acted in some, and wrote her own as well. 

“Apart from as a source of inspiration for her own works, she regarded theatre and stage performance as an opportunity to trigger reactions in the audience and to have it play an active role. The biggest chance of winning a new audience that was unfamiliar with art, de Saint Phalle believed, was on stage.” (Kemfert, Beate  At last I found the Treasure, Kehrer Verlag 2016)

Saint Phalle’s first involvement with stage performance occurred in a small Parisian theater in 1961. This “avant-garde” happening titled “Variations II: Homage to David Tudor, 1961” was, indeed, a homage to the experimental music composer and pianist David Tudor. It was based on a musical piece that was given to Tudor as a birthday gift by American composer John Cage. The participants included Jean TinguelyRobert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. Rauschenberg shot at Saint Phalle’s Tir “Shooting Painting American Embassy”. In 2012, the Niki Charitable Art Foundation gifted this artwork to MoMA New York.

Photos (left and middle): Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust.
Photo (far right): Niki de Saint Phalle. Shooting Painting American Embassy, 1961 © NCAF

In 1962 Saint Phalle participated a play titled The Construction of Boston. The script was written by American playwright Kenneth Koch and directed by American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. This was a “one-night-only” showing taking place at Maidman Playhouse in New York, owned by John Wulp. Wulp himself was a scenic designer, director, and producer. Besides Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely and Robert Rauschenberg, notably Frank Stella, Henry Geldzahler and Maxine Groffsky joined this performance. “Rauschenberg chose to make the weather and the people; Tinguely chose to make the architecture; Niki de Saint Phalle chose to bring art to Boston; I wrote the text” (Koch, Kenneth, A Change of Hearts, Vintage Books: 1973).

Koch and the artist group were worried that no one would come to the play but the exact opposite occurred; the show’s 200 tickets were completely sold out within 1 hour and there was a strict policy that no tickets were to be given out for free or put aside for press, VIP or family. Many important persons in the art world showed up such as Marcel Duchamp, Virgil Thomson, Leo Castelli, and various art directors and dealers.

John Wulp described in his Esquire Magazine article, The night they all saw, at last, what was happening (1963), that once Senator Javits and his wife showed up demanding to get in, the theater doors completely opened, and that everyone waiting outside flooded in to watch the performance. The crew was completely surprised that a 15-minute performance with tickets being sold for $3 a seat would be in such high demand! 

The play was all over the place: Tinguely constructed a brick wall to obstruct the stage view partially, all while wearing a gown, channeling Mae West. Saint Phalle created a plaster object “Vénus de Milo” and shot at it, disguised as Napoleon Bonaparte. 

On the set of The Construction of Boston, 1962
Photos: Sam Kron/Courtesy of Joan Kron and Daniel Kron

A few years later, Saint Phalle ventured yet again into another creative field by lending her artistic abilities to create scenery and costumes for the ballet “L’Éloge de da folie” by Roland Petit, in March of 1966. 

“The aim was to create a contemporary ballet, ‘made in 1966’, in which modern follies were to be visualized and made tangible, not only through dance…the visual artists de Saint Phalle, Raysse, and Tinguely not only designed stage sets and costumes in the classic sense, but also brought in their ideas and images, which became part of the overall concept.”  (Kemfert)

Lysistrata, also brought to the stage in 1966, was based on the classical Greek comedy by Aristophanes and tells the story of the women of Athens uniting to rebel against their men as a way to stop the ongoing war. It was directed by Rainer von Diez and performed at the Staatstheater in Kassel, Germany. Diez was introduced to Saint Phalle’s art through her HON exhibition in Stockholm earlier that year. Diez (a.k.a. Rainer von Hessen) would later commission her to build her first architectural Le rêve de l’oiseau in the south of France, and play the main character in Saint Phalle’s film DADDY (1972). Here, for Lysistrata, Saint Phalle produced the scenery and costumes for the play, cleverly creating a version of HON…: a walk-in torso as a symbol of the Acropolis in Athens…as the centerpiece on stage.

The actors and stage set of Lysistrata. Photo: Sepp Baer
Photo courtesy of NCAF Archives

Niki de Saint Phalle collaborated once again with director Rainer Diez on her first own play titled “Ich” (also known as Me, Moi, All About Me), also performed at the Staatstheater in Kassel, in June 1968. It premiered at the opening of “documenta IV“, a prominent German exhibition featuring contemporary, avant-garde art that is still being held every 5 years. The script was co-authored by Saint Phalle and Diez, with the main subject being a young woman’s journey of self-realization as she revolts against her family. During the play, a projection of drawings is shown while the main character “Ich” narrates a fantastic story. 

Sequence from Ich

Clark Cooldridge contre l’Assemblée des femmes d’Artistophane was Saint Phalle’s final theater collaboration, once again with Rainer von Diez. The theme of this play was a modernized version of Lysistrata. Saint Phalle and Diez approached Laurent Condominas to write the adaptation. 
The plot involves “…a fictitious character by the name of Clark Cooldridge, a lost spaceman who lands on a desolated planet. Cooldridge gradually discovers that he has actually returned to Earth, which has been devastated by a nuclear war. The primitive population lives in holes in the ground and caves, and worships a giant stone phallus.” (Kemfert)
Condominas described the play as “a sort of science fiction adaptation of Aristophane’s famed sex war when women decided to stop men from starting a war by declaring they would go on a sex strike”

Saint Phalle created the stage settings and poster, while daughter Laura Condominas designed the costumes.

The actors and stage set of Clark Cooldridge contre l’Assemblée des femmes d’Artistophane. Photo: © Rico Weber

The show played for a month in 1974, in a theater called “The Palace” which later became “the most famous, scandalous and trendiest nightclub; a Parisian equivalent to ‘Club 54’ in New York City,” as Condominas notes.

Niki de Saint Phalle was very vocal in describing the remarkable, family-like relationships she formed with her assistants and work crews. With as much support Saint Phalle had from her colleagues, she greatly supported their endeavors as well.

When Marcelo Zitelli, then assistant of Saint Phalle’s and a lifelong friend, returned to the theater, he said Saint Phalle was ecstatic for him. Zitelli, a life-long actor and director, produced a play in 1998 titled La Tragedia Comica (The Comic Tragedy). 
It was based on the original 1988 French play by Ives Hunstad and Eve Bonfanti. Saint Phalle was not only familiar with it, she was also very fond of the story it told. It was a tale of a fictional theater character (with a large wooden nose) that was searching for a human who was fated to become an actor, and who would be able to embody his character. The play involved audience participation, and was recognized for its humor and poetry. 

Poster for La Tragédie Comica 

Saint Phalle designed the poster for Zitelli’s version. Unfortunately, she was not able to see the production because it was shown at the Teatro Concerto in Argentina. Marcelo Zitelli affectionately recalls how supportive Saint Phalle was, and that their connection was so strong because of their shared love of the theater. “We had a lot of conversations about theater. We even started a project for a film and began writing the script for her to act in.” 
He remembered Saint Phalle telling him on several occasions that “my sculptures are connected to the theatre because they have always told a story”

Men say she has a magic pistol. 

Which can turn plain glass to crystal.

And can change an apple cart 

to a splintery work of art.

Shooting at a person she 

makes him a celebrity!

Everything she does in not what it was –

Niki, bring us beauties virtue!”

-Kenneth Koch