Through a series of rather incredible and serendipitous events that began with a summer vacation to the South of France and a chance meeting with a friendly tour guide, Everyman’s Artistic Director, Vincent (Vinny) Lancisi had the opportunity in late June to meet Bernard Boursicot, the real-life man who inspired the character of Rene Gallimard in M. Butterfly.
Joining Vinny for this once-in-a-lifetime trip to France was Bruce Randolph Nelson (the Resident Company Member who portrays Gallimard), Kiirstn Pagan (our staff video producer and graphic designer) and me—an Everyman administration staff member of over 11 years, who documented the event as it unfolded.
We met with the 73-year old Bernard at his home, which is in a nursing home facility located just outside of Rennes, France (about two hours from Paris). His living area was a small room with no personal effects—only a hospital-style bed, a chair and a small bathroom.
For about two hours, Bernard entertained the group with stories and jokes, answering questions about his life, travels and experiences in China. Bruce and Vinny sometimes asked specific questions about his relationship with Shi Pei Pu (the real-life Song Liling) which revealed little—although he jokingly referred to Shi Pei Pu as “His Majesty.” Bernard told the group when he first met Shi Pei Pu, it was under the guise of learning Chinese. The two would go out to lunch every Sunday after Bernard went to church.
Later in the conversation, he told us that nothing surprised him about Shi Pei Pu. “Everyone has a story,” Bernard shrugged.
When asked about Shi Pei Pu’s son (who, it was falsely alleged, Bernard fathered), Bernard said the two had met but did not have a relationship. Bernard revealed that the son’s wife came to him once, years ago, and asked if he wanted to be a grandfather to their children—an offer he declined.
In the midst of sharing his stories with us, Bernard showed us pictures from his many travels from a tattered photo album, before pausing to present Bruce and Vinny with a pair of neckties embroidered with Chinese patterns—one with pandas, one with masks. It was a kind and heartfelt gesture that appeared almost ceremonious—as though Bernard was bringing Bruce and Vinny into his family or tribe.
We broke for lunch around noon. Bernard brought the group outside to another building where the dining hall area was located. Inside was a small, private room that had been carefully set for Bernard to host his guests. Ever the host, it was evident that he wanted us to feel comfortable and well-fed—a satisfied and attentive audience to listen as Bernard joyfully held court.
Bernard continued to recount stories, memories and photographs throughout our lunchtime meal. He told of his interview with Barbara Walters, his relationship with biographer Joyce Wadler, and what it was like for him to see the play and movie, M. Butterfly. Bernard said that he was “surprised, but not surprised” by seeing his life on the stage and on screen. However, he made it clear that his life and Rene Gallimard’s story are two separate things. “It is just a story,” he said.
Bernard told us about some his favorite movies—epic tales of romance and travel, including Gone With The Wind, Lawrence of Arabia (which he first saw right before a trip to Arabia) and Doctor Zhiavgo, (which he claims he has seen over 15 times).
Towards the end of the conversation, Vinny asked Bernard, “Are you happy?”
Bernard smiled, and answered, “About 75%.”
He then talked about his suicide attempt—the details of which differ from what the play depicts. He explained that he had been taking many medications at the time, without which he would become delirious—at one point going so far as to cut himself and write on the cell walls in blood. We observed a faint scar on the side of Bernard’s neck.
Eight years ago, Bernard suffered a stroke. The incident brought him to the assisted living facility where he lives today. He continues to travel, including trips to Paris every couple of months—however, this rest home is the longest he has ever lived in one place.
Throughout the five or so hours spent with Bernard, Bruce sat dutifully, facing his subject as Bernard spoke—as if noting his gestures, mannerisms and speech patterns to let the real man soak over him before preparing to play Rene Gallimard.
After snapping some photos and exchanging farewells, the Everyman team returned to Paris on a late afternoon train, minds swirling with what we had just witnessed—what an unbelievable experience, meeting the subject who inspired the play we were about to produce.
At dinner that night, I asked Vinny if he ever dreamed that he would be on a European research trip to prepare for a show at Everyman.
He laughed heartily, “No!”
This experience has enriched our appreciation and understanding of M. Butterfly more deeply that we could have ever imagined. Subtle acting choices have been made and important conversations have been discussed between Bruce and Vinny during the rehearsal process that have led to a richer, fuller and more authentic performance than we could have ever anticipated. The privilege of meeting Bernard has brought Everyman’s quest to find truth and authenticity in performance to an unbelievable new height.