Alexander Burnett, in DC on a break from his studies in Paris, plays flight attendant Crystelle Desjardins, determined to win”Best Flight Attendant in the Fleet” for the 16th year in a row in the U S. debut of Unexpected Turbulence. The only things standing in her way? Just about everything aboard this flight from Paris to …. Ohio. Funny enough for you already, or do you want to know more? We did so we asked Alexander.
You tell us the play is part drag, part clown.
The piece has all the elements of a traditional drag show (a lipsync, makeup and fashion, etc) and at the same time it contains a lot of physical comedy and is very silly. Lipstick with slapstick.
Tell us a bit about the play.
The play tells the story of Crystelle Desjardins, a brassy French stewardess whose crusade to capture the title of “Best Flight Attendant in the Fleet” for the 16th year in a row goes seriously awry. I play her, along with a handful of other zany characters traveling on that flight from Paris to Ohio.
How did you connect with the playwright Steven Elliott?
Steven used to coach my Speech and Debate Team at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. He never coached me but we stayed friends. While I was studying in Paris this past year, I signed up for a “scratch night” where I had ten-minutes to perform something and I asked Steven if he would write something for me. I told him I was interested in playing a flight attendant due to a childhood obsession with aviation…and thus Crystelle was born!
The piece as it exists today has come together through months of inter-continental communication. Steven would send me drafts, I would test things out in Paris, and then finally we sat down in DC in July (with my director, Dylan Arredondo) and read through the final version. We were still making script changes that first week in July and then I performed the piece for the first time one month later in Edinburgh.
Tell us about performing this at the Edinburgh Fringe.
It’s utter madness as there are over 3,000 shows on at once. I was wandering the city by day in drag, trying to convince people to come see the show and performing at night in the basement room of a church in a venue fittingly named “The Snug.” It was certainly snug and my makeup was melting off under the stage lights every night, but the space lent itself perfectly to a cramped airplane cabin. I also did a teaser of my piece at the Edinburgh Airport, where they had set up a makeshift stage by the arrivals area. While I was there in my flight attendant costume, I got asked for directions several times, which I certainly took as a compliment.
I see you trained in the famous Jacques Lecoq style of movement in Paris. Tell us a bit about that.
The Lecoq training is very physical and very improv-based. Each week, the teachers give us a different theme and then we have to present a short play by the end of the week. The professors will cut you off if they aren’t enjoying it, so it can be quite brutal. But you also learn so much about the process of creating. You learn to go with your instincts and be less precious about what you create.
And what from that training do you bring to the performance?
A lot of the physical comedy bits and the miming have come out of my time at the school. And of course, I have been brushing up my French accent!
Now that you’re in DC, what’s next?
I’m actually heading back to Paris next week for my second and final year of training at the Lecoq School. After that, who knows! It’s been great collaborating with Steven on this project, so hopefully there will be more to come from us.
You are in The Fridge, a relatively small space, so let’s invite the perfect audience members. Who would that be?
Flight attendants, Francophiles, and drag queens. But everyone else 16+ should definitely come too.
As writer and performer, Steven and I are fascinated by the intersection of drag and theatre. Unexpected Turbulence is not a drag show but drag is at the center of this story and has allowed us to create a world that is playful, fabulous and, dare we say, unexpected.
Unexpected Turbulence is onstage Sept 26 and 27 at 8pm at The Fridge, 516 1/2 8th St SE, Washington, DC . Tickets and map are here.
Alexander Burnett is currently studying at the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. He has performed Off-Broadway with Potomac Theatre Project and in DC with 4615 Theatre and TBD Immersive. He is also a teaching artist and facilitates workshops on Theatre of the Oppressed.
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