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Editorial : A Vocation

 
     
 

If I had to write my profession on an identity card, I’d put down “actress” because that was when I really came into the world.
My vocation as an actress came to me as a child and grew with time. I was dazzled. I realized that something important had happened to me and it didn’t worry me in the least. It was a natural accident.
I didn’t hear the word “theatre” until I was eight or nine. I was living in the middle of nowhere. For my first communion, I was taken to a party where they performed La Traviata. I can still remember perfectly the woman who sang, and when I saw her stretch her hands out to the fire to warm them, I immediately thought: I want to die like that woman, with my hands stretched out towards the fire. Well, I should have thought “I want to sing about death”. But I separated the two things. That’s a vocation. When something gets stuck inside you without your knowing any logical reason for it. For me it was the miracle of theatre. It was etched into me, without any surprise or questions on my part. You figure if it’s possible, you’ll do it. Like a violinist or a sailor.
But a vocation is nothing if you don’t cultivate it. It has to be worked on and well grounded. The moments of doubt are when you see how well-grounded your vocation is. If you think “I want to work in that profession, in that art”, then you must think you’re capable of doing it, otherwise why get involved in the pipe dreams and failures. But having a vocation is also about not wanting to listen to people’s negative statements.
At first people told me it wasn’t a real profession because there were no retirement benefits. But that didn’t affect me. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. My obstination came more from some unknown place, some calling.
A vocation must be experienced, otherwise it’s only a dream of a vocation. It only exists when put into practice. You knew you were right–this is the place where you feel best in all the world.
When your vocation really dwells within you, it gives you an identity. I’m sure that people who have to give up their profession are never the same afterwards. Their vocation has been demolished, and they experience a kind of amputation inside. Your vocation is cut off just like part of your self is cut off.
I experienced the rare luxury of acting in masterpieces for twenty years. The more I loved my profession and its unexpected encounters with playwrights, the further I felt from becoming a playwright myself. The beauty of their writing was a barrier for me. Then I did some rather unchallenging writing for radio, as well as some short stories and other fiction. My talent for writing dialogue was an auspicious sign. Without knowing the exact destination, I felt it was a path I could follow.
I don’t associate theatre with writing. My playwriting doesn’t really exist in books; the words are like something horizontal that only comes alive on stage.
When my first play was written and performed, I didn’t think it would go any further. I didn’t feel that writing was my vocation, my calling. It was an act of will on my part. Like crossing the desert with very little water. I knew there would be many difficulties–going from a familiar to an unfamiliar place. Who starts writing at the age of fifty anyway? I can’t really explain how I began writing. In fact, I think it all started when I was less caught up in the intense work of rehearsing, performing and touring. When I wasn’t out on the road anymore.
What can writing transmit that acting can’t? An actor has to be faithful to the text, to be an instrument for the writing. An actor who writes understands the importance of a playwright’s voice. I write plays with that musicality in mind. I hear the lines first, before I start writing. Actors never get tripped up on my words or scenes.
Writing is surely the best way I’ve found not to die–or at least not to disappear. Once I went to a bistro called The Ephemeral–a word I can’t stand. You only live for a moment, which is like a great wound to me. An actor only lives until the person who saw him perform dies–whereas writing remains. I was really honoured to know my work is in the Bibliothèque nationale.
Writing forced me to ask myself “What are you worth?”. It came from being an actress. How presumptuous–comparing yourself to playwrights whose work you’ve always loved performing in! One day I found a way of side-stepping the issue which turned into a magic formula: even though you can’t play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a little flute, you need the little flute to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. What little I’ve contributed, I’ve contributed to the world.

 
     
  Denise Bonal,
29 April 2004

 
     
 
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