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Playwrights Corner


Playwrights corner

Mariannick Bellot
© Anaïs Bellot
A face to face talk | An interview with Mariannick Bellot, by Sabine Bossan


Sabine Bossan You were trained as a screenwriter and have worked in film, television, comics and radio. What makes you move from one genre to another?

MB It's the people I connect with. I watch films and television, go to the theater, am an avid reader of comics and novels, and gravitate spontaneously to things I enjoy doing. I'll connect with someone who wants to work on a comic or in radio, then we chat and realize there's something we'd like to work on together and we decide to do it. Then we find the money and a producer. It's different with the radio plays on France culture where the production is already set up from the start. I have a solid relationship with Céline Geffroy, their radio drama consultant, who has helped develop some of my projects. Her eye and insights are really inspiring.
I'm nearly always the one who initiates the documentaries, which are rarely commissions. I'd like to do one about money, but it's still quite vague at this point. I'm writing down lots of ideas at the moment; then, depending on what form it takes when it's more developed, I'll approach this or that person about the topic.

SB Could the documentary become a radio play at some stage?

MB Absolutely. Even at its current embryonic stage it has already been designed as part documentary and part fiction. Particularly because the documentary part is going to be hard to promote, given the way I like to proceed, whereas I know it will work with the fiction.

SB Do you get an advance when you pitch a project like that?

MB No. Only very rarely.

SB So you're really doing the work yourself and it only succeeds due to your tenacity.

MB I earn a living from rebroadcasts and foreign sales. The royalties give me time to work on my next project.

SB Which pay better, documentaries or plays?

MB In my case, it's clearly the plays, in terms of time investment and money earned.

SB You sent me images of Comme un pied. Was it filmed?

MB It was done on radio but like a film shoot. There was a very small crew, which I really liked. It's a big part of Arte Radio's annual budget, so they have a lot at stake. They hire a still photographer to take shots, they contact journalists and have a preview. It's their big project for the year. Radio France has a schedule of programs every week, whereas Arte Radio just does one big program.

SB Do you work with lots of radio stations?

MB For the documentaries I work with non-profit radios, mainly FRANC LR (fédération des radios associatives du Languedoc Roussillon), Arte Radio and France Culture. I'm trying to work with some German radio stations but it hasn't been easy getting things started. I've worked with Czech and German radio stations on the dramas, as well as Arte Radio and France Culture, due to the sales.

SB I liked the intrinsic relationship between sound and text in Le Bocal. I didn't know at the time that you had worked in comics. Are you involved in the directing process?

MB It all depends on whether or not I'm directing. It's easy to write for a director because a director can inspire you, give the text more weight and propose a specific use of sound - the way thinking of a particular actor can inspire you and give the text more weight. For example, I did a little report for Arte Radio called Police Secours about a live police intervention. A couple is having an argument, the neighbors call up, knock on the door, the cops are there and you see how they untangle the situation. At the very end of the six-minute report you realize it's an exercise for students at a police academy to learn about dealing with everyday violence. We recorded it in the place where the students are trained. It's a warehouse with a fake street and a fake police station where they can drive around.
I pitched it as a play to Marguerite Gateau because she can make it look as powerful and messy as real life. When I transcribed the rushes I realized that people were constantly talking in a loop. You usually don't pick up on that because real language is conveyed through movement, eyes and bodies. It was really interesting for the actors because they saw meaning in the verbal loops that the people themselves hadn't intended. And naturally Marguerite Gateau did a fantastic job with the top-notch actors.

SB Are you the one who asks to direct?

MB Yes, exactly.

SB I had no idea a radio playwright could be a director.

MB Because Radio France and the non-profit radio stations were the only ones who did plays before. You have to pass a test to become a radio director for Radio France. Except for the really small two-handers.

SB So you can direct for other radio stations.

MB Yes, for Arte Radio for instance. Arte Radio is interested in playwrights. That's what they believe in. I first went to see them about a documentary on everyday life in an office - because it's such a whacky place. But when the editorial director, Sylvain Gire, saw that I was a screenwriter, he wanted me to do a play.

SB Are you interested in editing too?

MB MB I just read a quote from Chabrol saying that anyone who doesn't love editing would be better off not making films, and it made me do some soul-searching. I clearly enjoy editing the most.
When it's working well you can literally see the project as it emerges. Shooting is really fun because of all the actors' explorations. But the time and money issues are really stressful. It's too much to handle when there are more than five people on the crew, and I'm not a born leader. I find it easier to work with two or three people. You can work faster and go farther.

SB Do you still work on screenplays as well as radio plays and documentaries?

MB I started out working on screenplays, but I haven't written one in at least two years. Nowadays I divide my time between writing comics, plays and documentaries.

SB Who does the illustrations for the comics?

MB His son and mine went to the same nursery school, so we started chatting and he told me he had friends that worked for Pôle Emploi (govt. job agency), and he wanted to do a comic about it but couldn't do it directly without revealing his sources. I told him to do it with Les Barbares de l'espace, because they'll let you say anything. And that's how it all started. I did lots of research on mergers and Pôle Emploi. I think the working world is a crucial topic. Pôle Emploi has the second highest suicide rate after France Telecom. I don't think it's specific to them. They've taken it to new heights, but you can find the same work organisation and structure in lots of other companies. So, yes, you can write a comedy about that. He came up with his tiny hero - with the head of a rabbit and huge expressive ears and big eyes - facing those big brutes, and it had a lot of potential and was very childlike. And it's also a portrait gallery for people seeking employment. It's called I found a job at Polamploi / A space rabbit odyssey.

SB Could the piece on employment be a documentary, a comic or a play?

MB Yes, but this time it's a comic because of the connection with the illustrator.

SB So you really do work based on the connections you have with people. That's what's driving it. What is the world of radio like for you?

MB Its clearly very cruel. Until now the heads of France Culture looked like they were just hanging around until something better came up, and they didn't stand up for new plays or documentaries, except for creating "Les Passagers de la Nuit" which they immediately whittled down.
The main problem at the radio is that it's stuck in 1918. People still don't see radio as having its own language. There are lots of minor arts that have become full-fledged art forms, such as comics; but not radio. It's still mainly a medium for information. But that's not true. The form itself determines the style of writing and how it is perceived.

SB I think of radio as a medium for information and resistance.

MB That's exactly right.

SB Are you in contact with radio documentary writers?

MB A bit more for documentaries, but very rarely for plays. We connect through networks of friends. I've met other radio playwrights through Céline Geoffroy or just running into them in the hall. I just met Stéphane Michaka, this year's BIG connection for me, and we're going to write a play together. We're each going to write separately, then take three weeks to really write it. It may be good, and meanwhile we'll have had lots of fun.

SB Do you get feedback from listeners?

MB No, no one listens to radio plays. At least I don't know anyone who does. Once I had some really great feedback from my five-year-old son. I had written a radio play for kids, and it felt quite natural. We sometimes get feedback from 5, 6 and 8 year-olds who like them, but that's about it.

SB How does Les Radiophonies fit into connecting with other playwrights?

MB I'm conflicted about those kinds of events. I get stressed out when they put a bunch of people all doing the same thing in the same place. It's great in a way because you have access to parts of repertory you never knew before, but having people all thinking and acting the same way - and I'm part of it too - creates a lack of diversity that is suffocating. And at the same time it's really satisfying to connect with people who all share the same passion.
Festivals and people who produce radio need these events too, because of the press, visibility and prizes they generate. I remember lots of people telling me with regard to Le Bocal: "oh I read a great article in Le Monde" - but they'll never go to the Arte Radio web site to listen to it even though it's available on line. That's why we need festivals and articles in Le Monde, to provide a more glamorous image, just so we can continue doing our tightrope act.
Je voudrais ajouter que ces rencontres-là sont très importantes pour savoir ce qui s'est fait avant ou ce qui se fait ailleurs. J'ai des souvenirs de fictions et de documentaires radio qui remontent au début des années 1990 et donc je sais que parfois je réinvente le fil à couper le beurre. Par exemple la fiction radio sur le foot, sujet moderne, Alain Trutat l'a fait en 1961. Donc il faut le savoir et si possible avoir pu l'écouter avant. Grâce aux Radiophonies on peut découvrir un répertoire.

SB Is it important for you to have connections abroad?

MB Yes. It gives you a breath of fresh air. Radio plays are quite routine in Germany.

SB Do you listen to the radio a lot, and to plays in particular?

MB I do listen to the radio a lot, mainly documentaries. I listen to plays a lot too because now there are podcasts and I always listen to them later. I choose the playwrights and directors, and since I have an inside track I get copies on CD.

SB Do you feel that writing for radio is changing?

MB I'm a dinosaur. I don't have a cell phone, and when I try to check out blogs, I don't get it and feel bored. I don't have a comprehensive mindset, so I can't see trends. My feeling is that each playwright just does the best he can.

SB What projects are you working on at the moment?

MB Comics, Comme un pied winding up, and the work with Marguerite Gateau in the pipeline. And the Chantiers Nomades programs with AFDAS for training actors through their "actors in radio plays" workshops. They last several weeks, with one week devoted to experimenting, then three weeks of writing tailor-made for the actors, and two weeks of recording. It's really a big luxury, and even more so with Marguerite Gateau who is always renewing her style and uses her subconscious in a rather amazing way. She immerses herself in people's work, gives them a framework, and helps them be as creative as possible within that framework. She knows how to connect people. You can't describe her work. It's unpredictable, but at the same time she knows quite well where she's heading and gives herself free rein in the process.

SB Does winning a lot of prizes help?

MB It's like the label on the camembert cheese. It's much better if you have the right label. With documentaries it can also keep you from getting work the following year.

SB CLike with the Goncourt Prize.

MB Winning a prize is a double-edged sword. That said, friendship is what drives my work; so my friends are happy, but that doesn't change anything. What changes is the power equation.
I made some great connections through the Europa prize. I befriended a really funny German playwright who may translate my plays.

SB Is there anything else you'd like to say?

MB I've worried a lot about the future. There's hardly anyone over fifty, and even fewer women. It's a very misogynistic world in France. And yet I feel very fortunate to be a radio playwright.

SB Is there something we can we do?

MB I earn a living thanks to the SACD, because there's this organization that manages my royalties from broadcasts. Otherwise I would have been forced to change my line of work long ago. It represents a third of my income. The SACD also helps me deal with the strong-arm tactics used in negotiating contracts. They're on the level at Radio France, but other places don't like it when I plead ignorance and say I need to consult with someone at the SACD.
Writing makes me feel vulnerable, so I need to be surrounded by goodwill.
But I'm worrying less about the future now. Little by little I'm meeting people I enjoy working with, and with whom I share the same vision and moral code.

Mariannick Bellot interviewed by Sabine Bossan,
September 20, 2010

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