Natasha Lester talks about researching French archives and her latest book “The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard’

Reading Time: 20 minutes

Natasha Lester is an Australian author who writes historical fiction often revealing influential and important women who have otherwise been written out of history. Her latest book “The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard” follows three women: Blythe, Astrid Bricard and Mizza Bricard, who history has reduced to nothing more than the knickerless muse of Christian Dior. Astrid and Blythe are the fictional children and grandchildren of Mizza.

Natasha Lester

Natasha Lester, let’s start with the recent book, The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard.  How did you actually discover Mizza Bricard?

I discovered her when I was writing The Paris Secret, which came out in 2020, because that book has Christian Dior as a character, but it also has Christian Dior’s sister, Catherine Dior as a character. So, to write that book, I did a little bit of research around Christian Dior, and I came across Mizza’s name, and when I was reading the anecdotes about her and all the books about Dior, they all said the same thing. And then when I again did some more research for The three lives of Alix St Pierre, which again has Christian Dior as a character, I read those same anecdotes over and over again in every single book about Christian Dior.


When it talks about the four women that were around him Mizza Bricard was the muse and she never wore knickers, she wore fur coats and lots of jewellery that was furnished by all of her lovers. And she’d slept with everybody and was a demi-horizontale. So, that’s what I thought that she was, because that’s what was published in every nonfiction book, which is supposed to be truth. So, I was attracted to her because the all of the books also agreed that she was mysterious and as a writer, you always want to write about the mysterious people, not the ones about whom everything is known.

Natasha Lester
Image of Mizza Bricard from Natasha Lester – Author Facebook page

So, I’d been wanting to write about her since I was doing that research for The Paris Secret, but I just didn’t know what. I didn’t really want to just write about a muse that didn’t seem sort of strong and startling enough to me. And it wasn’t until I sort of began to find a little bit more out about the real Mizza that I thought, “oh, now I’ve got you”.


Click to reveal spoiler


There’s more to the story. You explained at the end of the book that some of the things that you had her do in the book were not necessarily fact, but they were very possible, such as Mizza’s involvement in the French Resistance movement.

Yeah. She had so many connections to different resistance figures that I just couldn’t believe that she sat around in her apartment in her fur and her jewels, doing nothing for the war. It just didn’t seem possible to be so well connected and so close to so many key resistance figures [and not have done anything]. I thought, “no, you did something.


And to actually have nothing to do with it.

And the fact that there is nothing on the record also makes me know that she did something, because if she had have done nothing, that would be on the record. But where there are gaps, it’s like, “okay, well she did something.


You think the gap in the records is explained by having done something.

Exactly. Yeah, definitely. I could find traces of Mizza throughout the 1920s, I had those shipping records that showed her going to New York and representing Doucet to the Harry Angelo Company to try and sell his designs. And there were articles about her then at the House of Mirande in the late 1920s. Pierre Balmain, in his memoir, writes extensively about her at the House of Molyneux, where he calls her Madam B, and then Balenciaga. She set up his millinery department during the Second World War but then he left Paris because he got closed down by the Germans because he was exceeding his quota.


And, I don’t know what she did. Then there’s a couple of brief mentions that she was a client at Lucien Lelong, a mannequin named Praline remembers her being there. And then she just pops up in 1947, obviously at Dior. So I was like, “okay, with all your resistance and allied connections you were doing something Mizza.”


And she was obviously super intelligent. Those articles that I found that named her quite clearly as the second most important person on the Dior staff, second only to the great man himself, and that she was his assistant designer.


So, she obviously was an incredibly talented woman, and there was that one obituary about her which said she was a greater designer than Coco Chanel. That was the one that really stuck in my mind [and made me think] she must have been so amazing. I just can’t imagine that she didn’t have something to offer and that she wouldn’t have offered that. She’d have clearly been an independent working woman since her early 20s, so it didn’t make sense for her just to be sitting around in the war.


Natasha Lester The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard cover

The characters of Astrid and Blythe in The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard are fictional. Did Mizza actually have a child?

No, Mizza didn’t have a child at all. Well, not that I can find.


Not that we know about..

I’m writing fiction, which I love because it allows you to do all these kinds of things. And I thought the only way to really make people understand the legacy of how Mizza was reduced by the nonfiction books is to show how –


That travelled down the generations.

Exactly. And I think people are able to really relate to the way women are treated in contemporary times by the media. I wanted to have that woman in contemporary times who was treated in the way that a Taylor Swift or a Jennifer Aniston has been treated, because I think when we have something that’s so close that we can empathetically relate to, then it makes us more easily able to relate to Mizza and see how that happens.


In the very beginning of the book, before the actual story begins, you’ve thanked Dick Lester for hiring a chateau in the Loire Valley. Did you take the idea of having Blythe stay in a chateau from the Loire Valley from that experience? Or did you kind of say, why don’t we all do this?

100%? I always joke that my father-in-law loves a grand gesture, For all of his big birthdays, so anything ending with a five or a zero, he takes his whole family somewhere to stay for a week or so. And he’s got a big family, it’s 29 people in total.


So, the 23 or 4 in the book is similar.

Similar. So, he decided that for his 80th he would hire this chateau in the Loire Valley. And for a week and 29 people would go and stay there. His family and I thought, “yep, absolutely. I’ll be there.” And it was December that he had booked it for.


So it was freezing just like in the book!

It was freezing. It was really cold. It was minus five degrees outside. And we rocked up at the chateau in our coats, scarves, hats, scarves, everything because it was freezing.


Expecting that you could take all those off when you go inside.

Expecting that the doors would open and we would be kind of hit with this blast of warmth, and it was absolutely freezing. We think that the owners were literally sitting in the window watching for the coach to pull up in the driveway, and only then did they decide to go and turn the central heating on. French chateaux, being drafty and large, take at least a week to heat up.


So, we were wearing everything inside, and the chateau owner had on the big fluffy furry boots and the full-on coat, and we did nickname her the Yeti, as Blythe and family do in the book. And I just thought to myself, “oh my God, this is just too good not to write about“. But being the evil writer, I thought, “how could I make this like even worse than what it is?” And I thought, “oh, what if you were staying with your ex-husband and your ex-family in law and it was three weeks in a freezing chateau instead of one?” So that’s how I extended reality into something that was potentially even more dramatic.


You’ve done a lot of research for all of your novels, and that’s included actually going over to the places that you’ve written about. With your research about French people, have you gone to French archives and the like?

Yes. So, for the book I’m writing right now, I have literally spent my life in French archives. But for this one, I did get some documents.


I think you wrote this one during COVID, and you were having things photocopied and sent?

That’s right. So, I wrote this during 2020 and 2021, but then I went to Europe in October last year and visited many of the sites that I needed to, like Mizza’s apartment building and the Galerie Dior, and some places like that.


But the main thing I did in the archives was to use those for Mizza’s civil records. French birth certificates are these amazing documents where, at that time, they would go back and handwrite on the original birth certificate any other civil events that happened in a person’s life. So, any marriage or divorce is written on the certificate. So, one birth certificate provides you with a snapshot of all the different names that a person used over the course of their lives. That’s how I found everything.


French records are really hard to find, you’ve got to know the arrondissement that your person was born in and the Act number. But when you find the birth certificate, it’s a treasure trove. Thank God you don’t have to find the separate marriage certificates. You can once you’ve got the birth certificate, but you need that one document. So, it was a lot of civil records hunting because I wanted to know all of Mizza’s many names so that I could then put them into all the other databases to find.

Mizza Bricard Birth Certificate
Mizza Bricard’s birth certificate

Which is essentially what the niece does in the story.

Yes. So what Coco did is what I did.


Do you speak French?

Yes, I do.


You’re fluent.

Well, yes. I’ve done my DELFS and I’ve done past C1.


Did you have an interest in in history back when you were at school?

I did. I did history through to year 12 and I did French through to year 12 as well. And I loved history. It was one of the subjects that I could just have bathed in basically.


And women’s studies which kind of flows from that.

We did a little bit about women in the 1920s in America. And I remember particularly being fascinated by that. The only French history we did was Napoleon and there are not very many women featuring in Napoleonic history. There wasn’t that much of that. And I feel like with my age, I just missed all of that focus on kind of women’s studies and history.


Your recent books have been set in the fashion world and the House of Dior was one of pivotal fashion houses that the women in your books were linked to. I’ve really liked how you weave fashion terminology through your books. Not just when you’re talking about the dresses, but when you’re talking about people and the way that things are happening in their lives.

It seems every time you turn on the news, they will throw a pun in there. This is news! This isn’t meant to be full of puns!

You manage to do it in such a beautiful way that it adds to the story rather than seeming as though you’re just adding in these words unnecessarily. There’s obviously a balance, but how do you achieve it? How do you do that without it sounding corny?

People ask me that question quite a lot. I wish I had a better answer and I need to come up with a better answer. And but the honest truth is, I don’t really know.

The DIsappearance of Astrid Bricard quote Natasha Lester

It just flows that way?

Well, kind of yes. Which, I don’t know whether that answer makes it sound easier than it is. I do find there’s a little bit of a mysterious element to the writing process, and when you are really in the flow of it stuff comes out that you actually think, “oh, wow, that’s a pretty good sentence”. I don’t really know where that comes from.


I believe strongly that a lot of that does come from reading and internalising those words and phrases. I read a lot of fashion and fashion history, so the vocabulary is there. So, when I’m writing a sentence and I want to describe something and draw a comparison or make a simile, my mind immediately leaps to those kinds of words.


So, it’s not like you’ve got a list of fashion terminology we use in everyday language, and you’re trying to incorporate them.

No, it’s just kind of there. I do think that my mind is an avid collector of beautiful, unusual words. So, whenever I do come across those things, if I’m reading a fashion history book, it stores them so that they can then be retrieved. When I am writing something like that. I think it’s a big part of it.


I always say when I’m teaching writing “collect words”. There’s this piece of research that shows that most humans only use about 20 verbs, and the English language is actually a very rich language compared to some of the Scandi languages, for instance. And it just seems such a crime to only use 20 verbs when we have so many of them at our disposal.


I think as a writer, I’ve always tried to push myself to have a good extensive vocabulary so that it can perhaps occasionally feel that the writing is fresh and unique in some way.


It definitely does.

Thank you.


And again, something else that you’ve probably also been asked – in this book, you’ve got the three women, the three generations. And as a reader you kind of have a chapter about one and a chapter about another. And it’s often changes and sometimes you have a few about one to develop their story. Do you write them as we read them, or do you write each woman’s story separately?

In the past when I’ve written the dual narratives, the contemporary and the historical, I’ve always written them separately, and I would always write the historical narrative first and then the contemporary, because the historical is the one that is the grounding of the book. And then the contemporary is where the secrets or mysteries might get unravelled.


But in this one, because I was still only in the very early stages of finding out all those things out about Mizza, I didn’t want to start writing her into a version that wasn’t real, and that was too much like the injustices that had been done to her. So, I didn’t feel like I was ready to write her. And the 1970s was such a new period for me that I was feeling less confident about writing Astrid and Hawk. So, I actually started with a contemporary storyline in this book, which is the first time I’ve ever written a contemporary storyline first.


So, you started with Blythe

Yeah. I started with Blythe and I think that was because, you know, I’d stayed in that chateau like I could see it all. It felt quite achievable and manageable. So, I wrote the whole of Blythe’s storyline, and then I wrote Astrid and Hawk, and I hadn’t really intended for Hawk to have a point of view, but he decided that he needed to have one. And he was right. So, I let him have one as well.


Then I wrote Mizza. And then I tried a number of different ways of weaving them together. In my previous novels, which are all dual narratives I usually have about six chapters of historical, before I then have maybe four chapters of contemporary, and it kind of goes like that. But for this one, I tried that and it didn’t work. Structurally, it just didn’t flow, and it wasn’t helping me with the narrative tension and getting the reader to just really want to know what happened.


So, it took me a couple of goes before I landed on the way it is now, which is alternating. Astrid, Blythe, Astrid, Blythe, Astrid, Blythe. And having these slim chunks of Mizza at the end of each act like a kind of a bookend so that you believed when you began reading the book, everything about Mizza that I had believed until you got to the end of act one, when you had to say, “oh, hang on, maybe there’s a little bit more here than we thought.” And it just, you know, as soon as I did that, I thought, oh, this is obvious and this works. Why didn’t I think of this before?


I saw that someone on Instagram had a copy of your book and they had bookmarks all through it, which made me wonder whether they’ve actually gone and bookmarked each of the chapters by person to go back and read it that way.

No. There’s this new thing on TikTok now, and I’ve seen quite a lot of these books now at signings because people have brought them along where they highlight and colour code tab quotes from the book that they like and the colour coding stand for different things like blue is for key quotes, pink is for romance scenes. And then there’s green and you’re like,”wow, they’re all different.” It actually looks quite beautiful when you look at the pages and you see all these little tabs sticking out.


But I hadn’t come across it until at the start of the tour when a 17 year old girl bought her book in and I was asking her about it. And then Kate, my publicist, said, “oh yeah, it’s this thing on TikTok.” So I asked my kids, they said, “oh yeah, it’s this thing on TikTok”. And at every event since then I’ve had people come in [with books like that]. So now that I understand what it’s all about actually I really love it.

Coloured book tabs in a set of books
From instagram @readwithyes


I thought maybe it was someone has gone through and tagged all of the Blythe one colour, all of the Astrid another, etc. It made me wonder whether it would be interesting to go back and reread the book rather as its written but one character at a time.

I have had people in the past tell me that that’s what they do. They don’t like to read it mixed up. They like to read one narrative and then the other. So, they just skip and they do that.


That must be so strange. It’s not how you’ve intended it.

No but I do think that once you finish the book and it’s in the reader’s hands, then it’s for the reader to do what they like and they’re able to do that. But I do think that the best reading experience comes from reading it the way it is set out.


I’ve only read the last one and this one. So far. They’ve both portrayed strong women, but there’s also been a bit of a romance side. Do you always intend to have the romance side? Do you do you aim to have a romance in your novels?

Yeah, I always like having a romance subplot because I think everyone loves love. Who doesn’t love reading about love? And I feel like it’s such an integral part of life in all its different facets, whether it’s love for a child or parent or lover, it’s just something I really enjoy exploring.


I guess as part of that constant debate when it comes to women, about having it all, I’m hoping to show people is that there’s not an all or a kind of a goal, it’s Just that women have lots of different things going on in their lives that they are juggling and trying to manage and trying to do their best with. So, if I was just kind of focusing on any one of those things, I feel like it wouldn’t be reflecting how women’s lives really are. That’s why I like having it in there as well.


You spend a lot more time with the characters than any of us get to. So, if when I was reading it over the course of four or so days and nights, I was dreaming about the characters, wondering so what’s going to happen next, I thought that must happen to you, right? And they feel like real people to you by the end.

Yeah, they do. And I guess it’s that they’re always in the back of your mind, which is a good thing, because the real work of writing is sitting down at the desk and typing out the sentences and paragraphs. But a lot of the ideas come when you’re not at your desk writing.


Yes, I was reading about all the inopportune moments that you get the ideas

It’s like [when I’m] running or washing the dishes or driving without the kids in the car. And that can only happen because they are in your mind. When you’ve got that quiet moment and you’re doing something monotonous and your brain is unoccupied, it can be imaginative about these people who are kind of occupying your world at the moment. And I really like that and really enjoy those little sparks of “oh, yes, that’s a good line of dialogue” or “yes, I need a scene that does that or something like that”.


Do you find yourself talking to your husband about the characters in the books when you’re researching them?

Not, he’s not a big reader. He likes non-fiction. So, as he would say, he’s got nothing to offer. I also think that I don’t know whether there’s anyone I know that I would toss ideas around with because they’re my characters. And of course, I know some people do things like that with plot and stuff. It’s just not ever been a way that my writing practice has worked.


I guess because they get to feel so real, I wondered if it was kind of like, “oh, today, such and such did this.”

You said you did French in school? Through to year 12? Was there something about France and the French language that grabbed you back in high school? Or was it compulsory?

I think we had to do it in year eight, but then after that we could choose whether or not to do it. And I just really enjoyed it. I don’t really know why. I think I found it easy too. Some people find maths easy. I’ve just always found languages easy. You know, English was easy and so was French. So, I think I liked it from that perspective. And then I just kept I kept doing classes at Alliance Française, and then I worked for L’Oreal for a few years, and obviously we spoke French there.


You worked for L’Oreal in Paris?

No, here in Melbourne, actually, but the French people would come out, of course, from Paris twice a year, and we would present to them and all of that kind of thing. And we had classes. So, it enabled me to keep up the language, which has actually been fantastic, actually.


It’s helped with the research. I look back on teenaged Natasha and I say thank you teenaged Natasha, thank you for doing that, because that was a really good idea!


How do you get access to the French archives?

Pretty easily actually. Yeah, just as easily as any other archive.


Is it because you’ve got a publisher behind you that it’s easier?

No, I mean, anyone can access archives. Sometimes you have to make an appointment, and sometimes you have to request the documents in advance to be there waiting for you when you’re there. But any member of the public can go into most archives and request documents and look at documents. Once you’re familiar with how an archive works, it’s pretty easy. The first time you do it, it’s all a bit like, “well, what am I doing?” I really enjoy archives.


It would be really Interesting. Do they have a French equivalent of the trove website that we’ve got here in Australia?

They’ve got some. You can get some copies of Le Monde and Paris-Soir online. I think Le Monde actually has its own database. One of my biggest finds was the French equivalent of Ancestry, which is the family tree, which is where I got started to get all the Mizza information from. And when I found that, I was like, “oh my God, now this is gold, now I’m onto it.” So, I had a subscription to the French equivalent of Ancestry for the whole time I was writing the book.


Similarly, you speak the language, so it’s probably fair to say you’re a bit of a Francophile. Is that why your last few books have had at least one of the characters set in France? Or was it just because it flowed from the research about Christian Dior that you thought there were all these different women?

A lot of the time it’s because I’m writing a book, and I find something in the research that I haven’t been able to include in that book that I’m writing. So, with Alix, I had long wanted to write about the post-war period, because what happened to women post-war was pretty shocking, and also something I really wanted to unpick. And I wanted to do that since I wrote The French Photographer, which was inspired by Lee Miller because she had a really hard time after the war. But again, I didn’t know what the story was.

The Three Lives of Alix St Pierre
Natasha Lester’s previous book “The Three Lives of Alix St Pierre” Photo from Natasha Lester’s instagram page

Then, when I found out that Dior’s first Director of Publicity was an American – he was a man – I thought, I’m going to make him into a woman, and I’m going to have some fun with that. Sometimes it’s just you hold on to the idea, but you just need something else to stick to it and go, “okay, now you’ve got the story.


And same with Mizza. I’d had her since 2020, but I didn’t have the thing that I needed. And it was when I discovered the Battle of Versailles that was “ah now I know what I’m doing”. So, I think that’s why the books then tend to be set around France, because it’s come out of previous books’ research.


Is the next one, that you posted finished manuscripts of the other day, set in France?

The next one is entirely set in France.


You said that that Mizza was there from 2020, in your mind, how far in advance do you choose the historical women that you’ll be writing about?

Probably about three years. Each book takes about two and a half years to write. So, the one I’m writing now, which I’ve got to hand in at the end of this month I’ve been working on for about a year now, and that will come out in 2025.


Can you tell us anything about who the next one is set around?

There was a woman who is mostly now known by her name, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. She was the only female leader of a French resistance network during the Second World War. And she’s very much been forgotten by history. And she was probably the most remarkable woman I’ve ever written about in my whole life. So that has been a really heartbreaking story to write.

The Secret Life of Marie Madeleine - manuscript
The Secret Life of Marie Madeleine – manuscript from Natasha Lester – Author Facebook page


When you’ve been doing research – such as researching the women in the post war period where anyone that was seen to be a collaborator had their head shaved, stripped, naked, beaten,  how do you look after yourself when you’re delving into such darkness?

] I guess having three kids really helps because, you know, they come home at 4 o’clock and they’re so rambunctious and full of life and wanting to chat. And so, you have to obviously give them your attention and that is kind of a part of that. I think in the early years I found it quite hard to switch over. But I think you get just get better at that through practice, like you do with everything.


What do you do when someone’s not very widely known? Is that where you get the creative liberty or like for with Mizza so for example, you started with the birth certificate?

It’s just a matter of following the research. Every document that you find, there’ll be something in that document that you don’t know about. So, then you go on and track that down and then that leads you to something new. And looking in the bibliographies of any books that you might be reading. That is how I came across Praline’s memoir about where she mentioned Mizza. It’s just following every single end, I suppose.


You did a Master of Creative Arts before you published your first book. What do you think that taught you about writing?

It just taught me that there isn’t one process for writing a book, and that to write a book, you actually just have to sit down and write something, and which kind of sounds silly, but it’s actually really true. Being crippled by self-doubt and worry that you’re not doing it the right way… All of those things that get in the way and stop you from sitting down to write are kind of the enemies. And if you get caught up in those, you will never be a writer.


It was my supervisor that just said, “no, just sit down and write something.” And that was her only advice. Just sit down and write something. And if you just do that all the time, then you’ll get a book in the end.


It will come more naturally. How do you think your writing has evolved since your first book to now?

I mean, I hope it’s gotten better. I try to write a better book every time. You’re just always trying to write a better book and a more complex book. Maybe you think “I didn’t quite get there in the last book. I’ll try and get there in this book.” It’s hard for me to tell how my writing’s evolved. I feel like that’s more of a reader question, because I can’t really look at it objectively, other than to say that I’m always just trying to write a better book.


Any tips for anyone that wants to write historical fiction?

You have to love research. I think it’s not just writing a story. You actually need that grounding. I don’t think you can write historical fiction unless you love research. So, if you don’t, then you shouldn’t write historical fiction.


The biggest skill of a historical fiction novelist is to understand how to balance fiction and fact. And remember that you’re writing a story first and foremost. If you’re writing historical fiction and the research is just there to enhance the story, you always start with the story.

We thank Natasha Lester for this interview and can’t wait for her next book to be released– hopefully sooner rather than later!


You can purchase Natasha Lester’s latest book The disappearance of Astrid Bricard from all good Australian bookstores.


You can also follow Natasha Lester on Facebook and if you like historical fiction you may also like to join the Book Club that Natasha Lester and Belinda Alexandra have set up.


For more articles with literature links, check out the below:

Australian author Pip Drysdale talks to us about The Paris Affair

My Sweet Guillotine: an absorbing memoir about a city that almost killed its author

BabelBooks, an online second-hand bookstore selling books in French and English

Ma Petite Librairie: buy French books in Australia

Guillaume Besson chats to us about his novel Le rêve australien  


For events with links to France and the Francophonie happening in Australia this month, check out our What’s on in November



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Secret of the Raft brings Théodore Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa to life

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Australian Louise Howlett and her ReAction Theatre are creating an immersive work entitled Secret of the Raft inspired by Théodore Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa, which in turn depicts the sinking of the Medusa off the coast of Africa, and the people left to die at sea. Louise Howlett recently returned from France where she was granted a one month Odyssée residency in Rochefort by the ACCR – Association des Centres culturels de rencontre. We chat to her about her research, her time in Rochefort, Théodore Géricault’s painting and Secret of the Raft.

Secret of the Raft

Louise Howlett, thanks for talking to us. You are the Artistic Director of ReAction Theatre in Melbourne. How long have you been in this role?

Thank you for having me. I’ve been the Artistic Director of ReAction Theatre since 2011 and it’s been a fascinating journey, working alongside talented teams and collaborating with many amazing artists. I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to shape and guide the artistic vision of the company. It’s a role that constantly challenges and inspires me.


Tell us a bit about ReAction Theatre and about your background.

ReAction Theatre is an independent theatre company based in Melbourne that I founded in 2011 and we work with different artists on a project by project basis depending on what is needed. At the moment, we have two projects in the works, a French/English bilingual production called “Secret of the Raft” that uses 3D projection mapping to bring Géricault’s iconic painting “The Raft of the Medusa” alive, and a play reading coming up by an exciting Maltese playwright, Simone Spiteri. Whether working with scripted plays or creating original devised works, we are committed to an inclusive approach that invites everyone to be a part of the magic of theatre. We believe that theatre has the power to touch hearts, provoke thought, and ignite the imagination.


Le Radeau de la Méduse. Artist, Théodore Géricault. Year, 1818–19. Medium, Oil on canvas. Dimensions, 490 cm × 716 cm (16 ft 1 in × 23 ft 6 in).
The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. 1818–19. Medium, oil on canvas. Dimensions 490 cm × 716 cm (16 ft 1 in × 23 ft 6 in).

My background is in acting and also teaching, so it was a natural progression to want to tell stories and make theatre on a wider scale. Having been a teacher, I found I had a lot of transferable skills in writing, directing and producing. As well as working on both these pieces, I also currently teach at Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School.


Since 2016, together with ReAction Theatre you’ve been working on a project called Secret of the Raft (formally ‘Les Mystères du Louvre’). The project is related to the Medusa shipwreck and its fallout depicted in Théodore Géricault’s painting named The Raft of the Medusa. Can you please tell us how you first found out about the Medusa, and what made you decide to delve deeper (pun intended) into it?

I wanted to create a bilingual French/English performance for a young audience and when the painting was introduced to me as a potential source of inspiration, I was surprised by how deeply it resonated with me. It tells a disturbing story about a group of people who were callously forced onto a raft and left to die at sea. Géricault created this masterpiece to remind humanity of its own capacity for inhumanity. The scandal that erupted in response to the painting only added to its significance.


As we continued our research, we discovered something remarkable, mysterious and intriguing: there was said to be a woman amongst the 150 men on the raft whose story had never been told and this was the inspiration for the cantinière character that we decided to develop and bring to the fore. Our aim is to amplify the voices of those whom history often overlooks, while simultaneously conveying the significant messages embedded within this story.

The Medusa's passenger log
The Medusa’s passenger log


What was the idea behind the creation of the show? Were you looking to do something related to shipwrecks and happened upon the story of the Medusa or did the painting lead to the idea of transforming the story into a show?

My intention was to create a performance that brings a painting to life, particularly targeting a young audience. During my initial research, I came across Alain de Botton’s insightful books in which he discusses the concept of art as a mirror that reflect the complexities of human experiences and aids in our understanding of ourselves and the world. He also emphasises that art is a form of communication that allows artists to express profound thoughts and emotions that are often difficult to articulate. He also talks about art as an educational tool that enlightens us about history, culture, and the human condition, broadening our perspectives and knowledge. Inspired by these ideas, I became passionate about engaging people with art in particular, but also telling the story behind the art. I thought that if I could try to break through the canvas, and actually show what was behind a painting, it could help to uncover the deepest truths about what it is to be a human being.


Your project Secret of the Raft is a performance piece that combines 3D projection, installation, interactive participation and live performance to bring the iconic French painting, Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” alive. Why did you choose The Raft of the Medusa for this project?

The Medusa shipwreck holds immense significance that extends well beyond being a historical event. It stands as a profound portrayal of human tragedy, leaving an indelible mark on both art and society. The tragic events leading to the sinking of the ship unfolded amidst a series of misfortunes. In 1816, the French naval frigate embarked on a journey to Senegal, carrying passengers and valuable cargo. However, poor navigation and the incompetence of the captain and crew resulted in the ship running aground on a sandbank off the African coast.


With limited lifeboats, chaos ensued as the captain abandoned the majority of the passengers and crew on a makeshift raft, the infamous “The Raft of the Medusa” Over the following days, hunger, thirst, and despair plagued the survivors, with only a fraction enduring the harrowing ordeal. This devastating event serves as a grim reminder of human suffering and the consequences of leadership failure and it is this event has been immortalised in a painting that possesses an undeniable emotional depth, resonating with audiences since its creation.


What makes this story so compelling? Well, it has it all—drama, emotion, and a touch of mystery. But its relevance extends beyond time and borders. Even today, amidst ongoing tragedies like the recent migrant ship sinking in Greece, this painting hits close to home. It serves as a heart-wrenching reminder of the immense challenges faced by those forced to embark on perilous journeys, while those in power often turn a blind eye, leaving them to their own fate.


However, in ‘Secret of the Raft’, we haven’t settled for simply admiring the painting from afar; our goal was to breathe new life into it! Through an innovative multidisciplinary approach, we wanted to merge 3D projection, installation, interactive participation, and live performance. This unique combination allows us to craft an immersive experience that transports the audience directly into the heart of the painting.

Buildings in Rochefort
Buildings in Rochefort

You’ve recently been in Rochefort in France on a one-month Odyssée residency through the ACCR – Association des Centres culturels de rencontre. Can you please tell us what the residency involves and how you came to find out about it and the grant process?

Certainly! The residency involves various elements. Firstly, it provides a dedicated time and space for me to immerse myself in my artistic practice, focusing on research, creation, and experimentation. Additionally, the residency facilitates interactions and collaborations with local artists, cultural organisations, and experts in the field. This allows for a dynamic exchange of ideas and perspectives, fostering a vibrant creative environment.


As for how I discovered this opportunity, I came across the ACCR’s residency programs by researching on the internet. The ACCR has an established reputation for supporting artists, fostering cultural exchange, and promoting artistic development. After learning about their initiatives, I became intrigued and decided to apply for the Odyssée residency.


The grant process for the residency involved submitting a comprehensive application that included my artistic background, proposed project, and the motivation behind seeking this particular residency. It also required providing a portfolio of previous work and letters of recommendation. The ACCR carefully reviewed the applications, and after a rigorous selection process, I was fortunate enough to be chosen for the Odyssée residency in Rochefort.


Overall, this residency has provided an invaluable opportunity for artistic growth, cultural immersion, and collaboration with local artists and organisations. I am grateful to the ACCR and to Centre International de la Mer – La Corderie Royale for their support and for making this enriching experience possible.

Corderie Royale International de la mer
Corderie Royale International de la mer

You’ve been over there during the month of May. Now that the month has drawn to a close, can you please share with us what research you’ve done and what you’ve discovered so far? (From Facebook I see you’ve been able to inspect the original log of the Medusa frigate, the uniform of Commandant Coudein who was the commander, and survivor of the raft.)

During my month in Rochefort, I had the incredible opportunity to engage in a variety of activities. The residency involved extensive research in the archives at the Service historique de la Défense under the guidance of Marie Chouleur, where I delved into authentic documents such as the actual Medusa ship’s log, examined a survivor’s naval uniform, and saw engravings from the bustling period when the port was at its peak.

Uniform of a survivor of the raft, Uniform of a survivor of the raft, Jean-Daniel Coudein, commandant du radeau de la Méduse
Uniform of a survivor of the raft, Jean-Daniel Coudein, commander of the Medusa

I had the privilege of working alongside Arnaud Dautricault and Ariane Léandi, as well as their dedicated team at Centre International de la Mer – La Corderie Royale. They organised meetings and visits that allowed me to engage with a wealth of knowledge and expertise about the town and the local area. One of the highlights was the opportunity to converse with four different historians, each offering their unique perspectives, which greatly contributed to my understanding of the subject matter. These historians included Jacques-Olivier Boudon, a professor at the Paris-Sorbonne University; Denis Roland, a writer and former curator of the Musée national de la Marine in Rochefort; Michel Hanniet, an author with four books on the subject; and Michel Basse, a lecturer and guide at Le Musée Hèbre. Their insights added depth and richness to my exploration of Rochefort’s history and cultural heritage.

The office at the Corderie Royale
The office at the Corderie Royale

In addition to these insightful conversations, my exploration of the area included visits to several museums. From La Corderie Royale to the Musée de l’Ancienne École de Médecine Navale and the Hèbre Museum, where a replica of the Raft of the Medusa painting and a collection of contemporary Australian Indigenous art are housed, each museum experience further enriched my immersion into the vibrant cultural landscape of Rochefort.

Map of Australia in Le Musée Hèbre
Map of Australia in Le Musée Hèbre

Another unforgettable aspect of the residency was the opportunity to see and experience the landscape itself. Rochefort’s port, situated approximately 15 kilometers inland on the Charente River, provided a unique perspective and added a distinct layer to my exploration.


Finally, as my ‘Sortie de Résidence,’ I was fortunate enough to meet a talented troupe of actors led by Laurence Deguilhem from l’École de Théâtre Rochefort Océan, with whom I collaborated on a scene from the play. We had the honour of presenting it near the Charente River, right where the Medusa set sail. This experience created a profound connection between the historical context and the present, merging art and reality.

Actors performing a scene from 'Secret of the Raft' in front of theCharente River
Actors performing a scene from ‘Secret of the Raft’ in front of the
Charente River

Overall, the residency in Rochefort was a wonderfully enriching experience. It has inspired me to rework digital imagery and rewrite scenes with more intricate detail, incorporating the knowledge and inspiration I gained from the research, interactions with historians, museum visits, and the unique location itself.


Are you fluent in French and has this been a requirement to further you research for the project?

Yes, I am fluent in French, and it has indeed been a requirement to further my research for the project. Being able to communicate effectively in French has been invaluable in delving deeper into the historical and cultural aspects surrounding Géricault’s painting and the Medusa shipwreck. It has allowed me to access French resources, engage with experts, and gain a deeper understanding of the context in which the events unfolded. Fluency in French has certainly been instrumental in enriching the research and ensuring a comprehensive exploration of the project.


What is significant about the Medusa shipwreck?

The significance of the Medusa shipwreck lies in its haunting portrayal of human tragedy and the profound impact it had on both art and society. The Medusa was a ship that sank off the coast of Africa in 1816, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives. This devastating event captured the attention of the public and became a symbol of the harsh realities faced by those at sea.


The Medusa shipwreck, depicted in Théodore Géricault’s painting, “The Raft of the Medusa,” serves as a poignant reminder of the human cost of such tragedies. It showcases the desperate struggle for survival, the power of art to shed light on social issues, and the lasting impact that these events can have on our collective consciousness.

Michel Basse with a replica of 'The Raft of the Medusa' painting in LeMusée Hèbre in Rochefort
Michel Basse avec une réplique du tableau “Le Radeau de la Méduse” au Musée Hèbre de Rochefort


Secret of the Raft includes a ground-breaking digital, lighting, sound and set design developed through your collaboration with experts from The Schools of Digital Media, Industrial Design and Animation and Interactive Media at RMIT University. How did you come to collaborate with RMIT and how many people are involved in the project? How may are students and how many are lecturers there?

I had the incredible fortune of crossing paths with Darrin Verhagen, a Senior Lecturer in Sound Design at RMIT, who saw great potential in our project and thought it would be an excellent opportunity for his students. Simultaneously, I was fortunate to meet Simon Curlis, a Lecturer in Industrial Design at RMIT, and we also connected with other RMIT students pursuing their Masters, all eager to collaborate on a captivating project. The serendipitous nature of these encounters brought together this remarkable team allowing us to bring the creative vision to life with success.


Throughout this journey, I have had the privilege of working alongside outstanding 3D projection artists, technicians, and animators from RMIT, including Homie, Sahaj Garg, Carlo Tolentino, and Dr. Gina Moore. Their contributions have been invaluable in bringing our vision to life. Additionally, I must mention the exceptional talents of Matthew Tankard and Angelina Crutchfield, our sound designers, who have elevated the immersive experience through their expertise. This year, the design team also included Christina Smith, Lecturer in Set Design at VCA and Aron Murray our Technical Director and Jeremy Pryles our Costume Designer.  Lastly, I am grateful for the collaboration and guidance of Matthew Whittet, an award-winning playwright, whose invaluable input helped polish the script and bring it to its full potential.


The combined efforts of this extraordinary team have yielded remarkable results thus far. It is truly a testament to the power of collaboration and the exceptional talents of each individual involved.

Secret of the Raft / le secret du radeau
The ‘Hero’ image developed with RMIT involves a highly complex digital artwork which has a painting gushing off a wall and completely engulfing the theatre space

Where and when will Secret of the Raft be shown?

Earlier this year, we successfully completed a creative development phase for “Secret of the Raft” and will now rework parts of the script and imagery ready for a prototype performance. The overwhelming interest and enthusiasm surrounding our creative developments have been truly fantastic. Although we are still in the exploratory stage and haven’t solidified specific plans or venues, we are gathering resources and considering possibilities both locally and internationally.


The fast-evolving landscape of immersive theatre experiences has sparked our imagination and inspired to bring ‘Secret of the Raft’ to life in a truly remarkable way. We are confident that this work will find its ideal stage, whether that be a theatre, art gallery or bespoke immersive space, and captivate audiences like never before.


Anything else you’d like to add?

We’d like to invite you to stay connected and join us on this incredible journey. Feel free to follow us on our social media channels (Facebook and Instagram – @reactiontheatre)  and keep an eye on our website for updates.


You can see the work in progress here: and if you would like to join our mailing list, please contact us here :


If you would like to know more about this work or if you could help us to reach the next stage of our journey, please feel free to get in touch here: [email protected]


Louise’s places to visit in Rochefort

La Corderie Royale

Musée national de la Marine de Rochefort and L’Ancienne école de médecine navale

Musée Hèbre

Service historique de la Défense 

École de Théâtre Rochefort Océan

We thank Louise for taking the time to speak to us about Secret of the Raft and her Odyssée Residence.  

Typical houses on the Island of Aix
Typical houses on the l’ile d’Aix

For events with links to France and the Francophonie happening in October, check out our What’s on in October article



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