Alan was the Paris bureau chief for The New York Times and then its European arts correspondent.
Alan has traveled the world as a correspondent, covering the United Nations in New York, military regimes and revolutions across Latin America, and the collapse of the Soviet bloc. In the late 1980s, he was named the Paris bureau chief for The New York Times and later its European arts correspondent. Alan shares with you his deep passion and love for the “Luxembourg Gardens” and the "Versailles Palace."
Alan, you’ve spent your career as a journalist and author telling stories from all over the globe, and now you’ve transitioned to playwriting. In your opinion, what does it mean to be a storyteller and what responsibilities do you feel come with that role?
To be a successful storyteller means above all holding your audience’s attention. Guests expect to be informed about a place or topic, but they will never forgive a boring speaker! The key, then, is to sound both authoritative and entertaining. For example, there’s no point in telling people what they can see unless you can reveal the hidden story behind it. And if that story is somehow amusing, bizarre or even shocking, they will remember it. It’s not so different from playwriting: if someone in the front row falls asleep, you’ve failed!
What makes the Palace of Versailles Secret Journeys so special compared with all the other tours and visits at the palace?
Put simply, during our Secret Journeys, you see parts of the palace that the vast majority of its eight million annual visitors never see. A special security guard opens locked doors and you pass into the quiet and exclusive world of the three French kings and queens who made the château their home. For instance, on one of the possible Journeys, by visiting the private quarters of two of the most famous royal mistresses, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry, you come to understand the immense power that the women of Versailles exercised behind the scenes.
Paris is home to many of the world’s most beautiful gardens, but what is it about the Luxembourg Gardens specifically that appeals to you?
I live on one side of the gardens and work on the other, so I cross this privileged corner of Paris every day. It is there that I follow the changing seasons, there that I watch the gardeners prepare their floral creations, there that I observe Parisians at play and at rest. There are in fact three gardens: a formal French section; a more relaxed English version; and an amusement area with playground, tennis courts, pony rides and chess games. And don’t forget the bandstand. In the summer, you can be serenaded while having a picnic lunch.
Secret Journeys recently launched a journey that takes visitors through all the grandeur of the stunning Opera Garnier. As one of the storytellers for this new journey, how do you hope to introduce visitors to a side of the Opera that they likely haven’t seen before?
The Palais Garnier is steeped in history: it is the successor to the Royal Music Academy founded by Louis XIV; it was commissioned by Napoleon III and inaugurated in 1875 after his overthrow; it was even Hitler’s favorite building, which he toured at dawn after the fall of France in June 1940. The theater’s grand staircase and elegant auditorium are what operagoers see, but there is far more to be discovered: the Foyer de la Danse behind the main stage, workshops for costumes and wigs, a grandiose library, a dance rehearsal room under its coupole and even a subterranean lake which controls groundwater and helps support the building. On this journey, however, a sighting of the Phantom of the Opera cannot be assured!