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Lancelot Hamelin
© DR
Une faille | Mathieu Bauer | Conversation with Sabine Bossan

Sabine Bossan Where did the idea of serialized theater come from?

Mathieu Bauer I think there are many reasons that led me to come up with the concept at a certain point. Primarily because I love TV series, which I feel are one of the most interesting things created in the past ten to fifteen years in the arts. First I started watching ER, a really popular series, again. I was kind of scared to admit it because it was on Sunday evenings on TF1, and watching TF1 on Sunday evening is not very artistic. I started to enjoy seeing the characters again, how they had changed, what fate had in store for them. Then these incredibly high-quality series started coming out, and they reinjected what had been kind of lost in the theater: a sense of our era, our times and contemporaries. Some of them did so in a very political way, tackling issues and topics that seemed a bit removed from the theater, as far as the writing is concerned. The Wire (Sur le fil) was like a trigger, a huge eye-opening aesthetic wake-up call that was exhilarating because you couldn't tell if it was sociology or fiction, you just didn't know what it was. It's unsettling, in the best sense of the word, and it's what you expect from a piece, whatever it is. It shakes you up a bit when they talk about issues like politics, deindustrialization, education, hierarchical problems in the police or in a gang of dealers, about homosexuality, or relations with the media. The project is also about a place and how the theater fits in there, not just about a director or a play. It's about the theater finding its role and legitimacy in the city as an institution creating a dialogue with the place that is hosting it. When I started wanting to run a venue, I asked myself as an artist what kind of relationship I had with the public, which isn't easy when you have a company. I wondered what kind of piece could bring together all the elements in the public meeting place that a theater can be when it reconnects with the enjoyment one feels in going to a performance. I wondered if a series could be transposed onto a stage, and how. That was the origin of Une faille, a series that would be meant for the spectators and the place. It was also a wonderful way for me to share the venue in a different way. For the moment I've staged the first three installments, but next year there will be different directors taking over. It was designed like that from the start. It also brought up the issue of sharing the venue with regard to our supporting institutions. And of thinking outside the box. Sharing the venue means sharing the resources, even though they remain all-important; and one of my main tasks is to produce, and to accompany other artists and creative teams. How can an artist come into an establishment and present his work while also taking on part of the history of the place? It seemed to me that a series could enable that. And it could also show how important playwriting is and how you could only stage a play and really get into a story through being a director with a real feeling for stage composition. People don't really know what stage composition is anymore. I felt that it was useful in bringing that to the fore. When I stage a play from a specific subject, the result is in keeping with my focus. I assume that next year, when Bruno Gélin will be the first director to take over the story, followed by Pauline Bureau, the stage won't be used in at all the same way and will therefore also shed light on what stage composition is.

SB Will the playwright also change?

MB Several of us conceived of the piece, but the writing is reserved for Sophie Maurer, and she's the one who writes the text. In terms of the synopsis, the step outline, inspiration and possibilities, everyone was involved. We made sure that Bruno and Pauline joined in well before establishing the entire next season so they could be involved from the start and step in, inject what they wanted to and talk about how they saw the characters evolving and make suggestions. For now we're brainstorming around the table and throwing out ideas. I'd like to stay in charge of the narrative, for it to keep on evolving for the different characters that will come back next season, for it to continue being set in the city of Montreuil, for there to be elements that make allusions or direct references to Montreuil. After that it's really about letting everyone's imagination take over and fully develop in the series, and paradoxically have the fewest possible constraints.
One thing that works in a series but not in a theater is repetition, and how the audience is won over. The first four episodes I did were very intense, then we had a second production in December that we call transitional episodes, but they don't work well in the theater. There was less at stake. Unfortunately - or fortunately, as this is the theater's strongpoint – a performance has to be exceptional. You can't have two transitional episodes in the theater, whereas they are acceptable at home on the television since you know it's going to be given a new twist the next day or the day after that. So it was a bit harder. We knew these two episodes would be pivotal, so we put more at stake by injecting more tension. Perhaps that's why there will only be two productions next year. It's a bit complicated doing three productions in the same year. Especially since the two productions were done in three weeks. It was rather intense, and there was a really pleasant work relationship among everyone involved in creating the production, from the actors to the technical crew. We became quite proficient in the series genre. The last pieces are the best. It took a year to figure out what was specifically theatrical, poetic and dream-like, and what was coming from the series genre and its codes. At first I wanted to respect those codes, then towards the end I strayed a bit from a form that was rather restrictive in certain ways and didn't work well in the theater.

SB Is there any collaboration with non-profit organizations, municipal employees and other people actively involved in the city?

MB Sophie Maurer has played a key role. She first got involved as a sociologist and person in the field. I needed someone to go with me around Montreuil, someone who knew the right people to talk to. We wanted to work on the issue of urbanism, architecture, how cities are built and how people live in them. I had read her book and was impressed by the rhythmic writing – which is really important to me as a musician. There was also a screenwriter, Sylvie Coquart, who was absolutely tremendous and sorted out the mass of documents that I had at hand, with all the possible ramifications: working with others, working on the city, on stage, on the issue, on genres, with amateurs. But I felt a bit limited as a stage director by the narrative arcs within these codes as I strived to develop the poetry, the stage, the silences, the music, the lighting, and the atmosphere required for a series, which is very specific and isn't communicated only through words, especially since music is so important to me. Three of us worked on the long-term and that was also very rewarding. Then Sophie began writing and those were the most convincing efforts with regard to the writing and the issues dealt with.

SB With regard to the theater as well?

MB Not right away. We had to find the series' place in the theater and the theater's place in the series. I started with the idea of a citizens' chorus to reconnect with the theatrical tradition. It was a very generous project that invented itself as it went along, and then we refined and transformed it. We finally found the chorus's place in the final episodes. We know why it's there. We were obsessed about the writing, because we had to find it and figure out what sort of meaning it would generate, as well as by the characters, the sets and all the mechanics. I also wanted to include images and play with certain codes from the cinema: off-camera, out of frame, close-up, wide-angle shot, editing. The first episodes were very ambitious and went for two and a half hours. It was very intense, very rewarding and fulfilling. We felt like continuing the experience, and I wanted to keep Sophie on for the duration. Sophie's writing ensures continuity.

SB How has it spread throughout the city?

MB The amateurs' presence is huge. There's an orchestra, a class that we trained in partnership with the Montreuil theater school, and a brass band that plays for all the CDN's events, the brilliant work of composer Sylvain Cartigny who has collaborated often with the company. That orchestra will continue. Regarding the chorus and the presence of amateurs on stage, the legislation is rather restrictive and is a big item in the budget. What's sure, on the other hand, is that we'll continue to reach out to the non-profit organizations and all the other players in the city of Montreuil on another theme: justice. We tried to identify all the institutions in the city of Montreuil that work directly or indirectly with issues of justice, in a very pragmatic way: requests for the right of asylum based in Montreuil, organized crime linked to Montreuil, etc. These are all the themes we're going to develop. Sophie and the directors are going to meet with them.
For me the success of the project is in the feedback from the high school students and average audience members. It's kind of their series. It's a political rather than an artistic gesture. And this is the right place for it today. The students want to go back to school, and that means it has been a success. Pirandello said: ''To talk about theater today we need characters from today.'' I think series are good at talking about the world in all its diversity.

SB Has this theatrical series become a part of the city's identity?

MB People talk a lot about the series because it's kind of a phenomenon, but there's a whole other program. Genres have been broken up, which is what I wanted to do when I came to Montreuil. My assistant director Fériel Bakouri and I designed an artistic project for the theater that found its audience. It's not just the series. There was an intention and an artistic plan to open up to different forms. It's a combination of many things. I want to turn this theater into a familiar place for the city, a place that's easy to walk into. It's not just the series, it's something we're concerned with in every aspect of the programming.

SB The city of Montreuil is at the heart of this theatrical series. Have you also succeeded in reaching audiences from nearby towns or in organizing a tour?

MB It's been well received. One of our concerns was not to create something like the show Plus belle la vie. What does it mean to try to build something nowadays, and what about the issue of architecture, or the question of diversity? These questions are relevant for everyone. Then there are the characters and the plot twists. And there are all the elements that make a fiction series enjoyable. Ultimately there are few things that refer to Montreuil. And to prove it we're taking the entire series on tour to Lyon, Reims, Strasbourg and Caen next season. We asked if they wanted to adapt the story, and Lyon didn't. Strasbourg was very eager for an adaptation that was more relevant to that city. Both are possible, because the project was designed that way. But I want to reduce it to 4 hours instead of 6.

SB What has it taught you about the theater?

MB For one thing, I've rarely worked strictly with dialogue. I've mostly staged montage pieces with very little dialogue or acting. And I'd like to thank Lancelot Hamelin who has really been a partner in this adventure and worked on constructing the series in the beginning. Personally, it taught me about working with characters from a psychological standpoint, which was unusual for me. I learned to work with actors. I loved working that intensely and staging things rather quickly.

SB Like on television?

MB Yes. It's time people stopped fooling themselves. Being in the theater or in film involves technique too. As a directory you have very little access to the stage for rehearsing, even though that's our main tool. So that was a pleasure. It's work, not just the artistic side of things. There's a craft. That was the most enjoyable thing about the series, and I developed a technique as a director to deal with what was at stake in a scene, to give the actors the best possible environment, to create the best lighting, find the twists, figure out why there was a shift, an interesting or tense moment at a certain point. Ultimately, the luxury of being the director of a CDN is in having access to the stage much more often, and practicing your craft on a more daily basis.

Mathieu Bauer

Lancelot Hamelin
© Éric Morency
Une faille | Sophie Maurer | Conversation with Sabine Bossan

Sabine Bossan What was the writing process like for Une faille?

Sophie Maurer It was unusual due to the collaboration between the screenwriter, Mathieu Bauer and me. There was a first phase of building the story where the screenwriter's work was crucial. And there were two different screenwriters: Sylvie Coquart-Morel for the first six episodes, then Cécile Vargaftig for the last two. It was interesting because they were from two completely different worlds, as Sylvie writes for TV series and Cécile writes more for indie films. They had two very distinct styles of narrative construction.

SB Why was it important for them to be screenwriters?

SM Because Mathieu Bauer knows himself and his work in the theater, and realized that he needed someone to help him make the series into a real series. Someone who knew the narrative codes used in a series, how to end an episode in a way that makes you want to see the next one, how to figure out the plot twists, and have the characters evolve in a story that unfolds over an entire season, which is quite a long time. The screenwriter's work was important on that score. Then I worked alone on the actual dialogue. Once the text was delivered, there were adjustments, scenes that were altered or dropped. But ultimately the changes were relatively minor.

SB In terms of writing time, was your work and the screenwriter's equivalent?

SM It was very different. The work with the screenwriter and with Mathieu happened in incremental meetings spread out over many weeks where we saw each other from time to time, and meanwhile the screenwriter and I tried to write a synopsis and then a step outline. We'd go back and see Mathieu, then change things based on what he would say. The work was quite spread out over time. But the writing was done in a short amount of time. It wasn't done in at all the same way. And it's solitary work, so it was easier to manage. Then I would deliver the text and attend the first readings around the table where there were small adjustments that were made almost instantly. Onstage I'd leave Mathieu with his actors, and if there were important changes he would call me to talk it over. But I wasn't involved in any decision-making at that stage.

SB After the screenwriter had done her work, did she work with you again?

SM No. But since the collaboration had gone so well, I naturally sent the screenwriter the text to make sure no misunderstandings had occurred when it was adapted from a script into a play.

SB Do you work in the theater?

SM Not at all. I'm a novelist. This was my first experience in the theater. I'm also a political science and sociology teacher. I got involved in the series in that capacity, to document and study the town. A colleague, Damien de Blic, told Mathieu Bauer about me, and he involved me in the project due to my wearing these two hats. We conducted interviews together in the city. I soon got interested in being part of creating the story. Sylvie and Mathieu welcomed me and the issue came up of who was going to write the text. I offered to write a few scenes so Mathieu could have a look. He liked what I wrote and said let's go. He was taking a huge risk because I'd never written a line for the theater. I learned about what writing for the theater was all about as the season progressed. It's very different. The relationship to dialogue is especially strange for me, because I wrote two novels in which there wasn't a line of dialogue. Then I suddenly had no choice in the matter.

SB How did you adapt the format of a TV series for the stage?

SM Mathieu was quite clear about there being allusions on a formalistic level, such as by having credits. Knowing how to do step outlines for the episodes and knowing how it would end was a job for the screenwriter. Sylvie, who was there from the start of the project, gave us the codes used in a TV series, a style she is very familiar with. But Mathieu tended to gradually move away from those codes as the season progressed, because we realized that people don't have the same expectations for the theater as they do for television. If there's an episode on the TV that isn't as good, you figure the next one will be better, whereas in the theater you don't come back if it isn't good. Now there's a second season with two new directors, and we'll have characters from the first season that are staying on and will have to deal with a different world and aesthetic. We'll see if the concept can hold up. And we'll see what becomes of them in these new circumstances.
Transposing the TV series format for the stage involves creating a desire for what comes next. That's the main objective. On a formalistic level, I don't know what to say, because we worked with two screenwriters with totally different opinions about what a character should be in a TV series. Sylvie said it was important for the characters to evolve from the beginning to the end, and that could even be the subject of the series. Then there were internal disagreements about what constitutes a series. The first episodes stuck closer to that kind of construction, while the later ones were more dreamlike.

SB How did the writing go?

SM Once the step outline was created I knew what had to happen in each scene. What interested me was working on the writing. It took the time it always takes to write dialogue, but I knew what was happening. It was part of the work that had already been done. At first I wrote dialogues where people were constantly listening to and answering each other. I soon realized that it wasn't necessary to respond to what had just been said. It was very disconcerting, even with respect to what theater is really about. I learned to cut.

SB What does the series genre bring to the stage? Are you as big a fan as Mathieu of TV series?

SM Absolutely! Of all the American series, the good and the bad ones. I'm a big fan of TV series. The stage offers openings that aren't necessarily possible in a series. There's a dreamlike quality that's possible in the theater. It creates a nice relationship with some audiences, especial young people. They related to Joris Avodo, the actor who played Nabil, in a similar way to how they relate to the characters in a TV series. It's nice to bring them into the theater around something of theirs that respects their own culture.

SB What kind of preparatory work was required for writing the series?

SM Lots of reading. It's good, because the city of Montreuil has been well studied and documented, and there's a lot to say about it. There were visits with people who know the city well and were able to take me to less well-known places, and interviews with the citizens of Montreuil. Keeping in mind that our theme was housing. I tried to meet with people who had diverse experiences in that regard. We also went to see elected officials, but mainly the inhabitants. The students I had last year for sociology studies also agreed to participate and went all over Montreuil conducting interviews. They were very pleased with seeing the results of their work. We asked them questions about their relationship to the city, its history, its evolution, and diversity, which is often highlighted when people talk about Montreuil.

SB Did you make good use of their work?

SM We didn't use it as is, but we did make good use of it. All the information related to the technical aspects of constructing a building, the financial stakes involved, and how that all works, were from an interview we conducted with an iconoclastic real estate agent who took three hours of his time to explain it all to us. There's a caricature of a short speech on self-administered housing in one of the episodes, but it's also taken from an interview with someone living in a self-administered condominium, which is another of Montreuil's specificities.

SB The very first episodes were only about housing?

SM That was the overall theme of the first season. One of the models that Mathieu had in the back of his mind was The Wire where the theme changes from season to season: in one it's education, in another, journalism. Here the theme was housing. There are episodes where it's very prominent and others where it is less so. But it gives the overall tone. It was easy to tie housing in with Montreuil because it's a crucial issue in the city, where there is a great diversity of housing. It's known for that. Next year it's going to be justice. We'll have to figure out how it fits in with the territory. For the time being we're working with the two directors and Mathieu. We're trying to create some coherence in the season. And we'll work with each of them on the step outline.

SB Do you feel that your style has changed?

SM I have only one style of writing, but the narrating style will certainly be different. I'll also adapt to what the director wants to show. Some directors like things that are more fragmented or didactic. I'll have to adapt. In TV it's rarely the same director from one episode to another. This is the same idea, but with stage directors.

SB It's almost as if the writer-director relationship was turned around. Here, you and the director are writing, and you're following the director, fitting into the production. You're more like a ''stage writer.''

SM That's right. When I got involved in the project there was already a given situation, and they told me: there's a building that's collapsing and five characters are stuck inside. The characters hadn't been defined yet, but the situation was already a given. You're not really starting from scratch, because you've already got the characters and the justice theme, but for the time being we don't have a clue about what the story's going to be about. That's what we're discussing in our meetings at the moment.

SB Do you feel that your style has changed?

SM I have only one style of writing, but the narrating style will certainly be different. I'll also adapt to what the director wants to show. Some directors like things that are more fragmented or didactic. I'll have to adapt. In TV it's rarely the same director from one episode to another. This is the same idea, but with stage directors.

SB Has this experience made you want to continue working in the theater?

SM It has made me want to write plays, in a different framework from this commission. Overall I don't think there are enough political characters in most stories, apart from the leaders. I'd like to write plays that show what politics is all about.

Sophie Maurer
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