Sabine Bossan When did you begin writing plays?
Denise Chalem I've always written things. I had a diary when I was a little girl. After that I began writing poems. Then the theater suddenly burst into my life. At the Conservatoire, Antoine Vitez had us experiment with lots of different forms of writing: newspapers, poems, novels and of course classical plays. My first play, A cinquante ans elle découvrait la mer, was written right after I graduated from the Conservatoire. I realized how much my training as an actress helped me with writing dialogue and inventing stories with a concise framework. The theater has its own constraints. People say it's a minor literary genre, but I find that unfair because it's a very difficult one.
SB In your plays you also write the staging, directions for the actors, the set design, sound - everything. What's the first thing you see when you start writing?
DC An overall vision comes to me very quickly - a skeleton. I need images, sounds and lighting - not just dialogue - to sustain it and give it life.
SB All of your plays have strong themes that touch people on a personal level because your way of dealing with the characters' psychology is very subtle. In Aller chercher demain it's palliative care, the end of life and solitude, and in Dis à ma fille it's prison. How do you decide what topics to write about, what characters and themes?
DC Prison was something that I had a personal experience with. I had a friend who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was accused of being an accomplice to a crime. He sent me many letters from Les Baumettes prison and asked me to write a screenplay about it. It kept nagging at me, and I finally decided that if I was going to write about it, then it should be a women's prison. There's a lot of talk about people being locked away, but little of it is about women. For Dis à ma fille que je pars en voyage, I did a lot of research before allowing myself to fictionalize it. The subject didn't come to me until I was into the second phase of writing with Aller chercher demain, which also deals with a major social issue – the end of life. At first I wanted to write for Michel Aumont whom I had directed in my film Nés de la mère du monde. But I wanted to take it further. I really love him as an actor and wanted to write a role for him with a thousand facets: funny, childish, generous, naive, selfish, touching, poetic. So first I focused on the father-daughter relationship, and the theme came to me after that through the daughter's profession as a palliative care night nurse.
SB You're an excellent dialogue writer, and also an actress. Do you write out loud?
DC Yes. At a certain stage in the work I write out loud, I move around, hold forth and chew over the text. I can spend hours on an expression or interjection. I only begin to feel vaguely satisfied when I get the itch to play all the parts - both male and female.
SB How fast do you write?
DC I can write at quite a steady pace. I try not to censor myself, even though while writing I'm aware that I won't keep some of the lines and will have to "prune it."
SB What about the staging?
DC It's complementary. I don't feel like directing is a different profession. It's part of a continuity. There are directors who also create their own lighting, others the costumes, and some design the sets. We live in a time when everything is specialized, but writing is a whole. It's also about creating an architecture. When I write, I'm building. Sometimes I write eight or nine different versions of my texts, then I pick up the scissors and glue and cut out lines from the end and put them at the beginning for instance. It develops another dynamic, another space. People often say you shouldn't stage your own work. But when you've finished writing, you turn a page, and then you need to tackle the text head-on and sometimes take out the playwright's indications that are cluttering it up. That said, I'm not obsessive about it, and I'm happy to be entrusting my next play to Didier Long who's going to be staging it.
SB So tell me a bit about the play, Aller chercher demain, which is opening in January 2011. Women are given pride of place in all your plays. But I find this character, Nicole, rather complex. Why does she want to be alone? Why does she reject the happiness her companion wants to give her?
DC I wanted to paint a cheerful and funny picture of a woman who refuses to be taken in. She's too lucid to believe that all it takes to be happy is to get married, have children and buy a house in the country. Her rejection of that "ready-made" happiness bothers the people around her, who don't understand her; and that enabled me to raise issues that are far from trivial. All the characters are funny, including her. I didn't set out to write a drama. She's simply at a time in her life when she's full of energy and passion for her work and doesn't want to get distracted. Not to mention that she doesn't really believe in couples, and at the end of the play tells her father: "There's no solution for sustaining couples. They're an incurable disease."
SB Yet she's not at all bitter. She's very gracious and generous.
DC Sure, she's very involved in being busy with other people's everyday lives. When you talk to - or read about - people involved in humanitarian or social work, they all seem to have sacrificed their own personal lives, or didn't have any to begin with. What's more, Nicole works at night, making it even harder to have a satisfying personal life. Not to mention that she looks after her father and lives in the same apartment with him. I'm talking about modest people without a great deal of financial resources.
SB Yet they're heroic.
DC It's my way of celebrating them and paying tribute to them. You need a lot of courage in certain situations to have the strength to put one foot in front of the other morning after morning, to keep on looking forward to tomorrow.
SB The play also revolves around an obsession with time passing and unfolding right before our eyes. It gives it a filmic quality at times.
DC I use ellipsis to have the characters mature and develop, which is easy in film but difficult in the theater. If at the end of a performance the audience feels like we've just spent six months together and thinks it knows more about the characters than I do, then I'm happy. What's more, I set myself a rule that my dialogue should never be informative and should express feelings without getting into "I remember when." That's also why I use images in my writing, and solitary moments without dialogue where it's the body talking, and outside sounds. I also put a lot of stock in lighting, a great ally for conveying the passage of time, coldness, warmth and the seasons. So, yes, at times it can appear quite filmic.
SB You've been awarded a number of prizes, and your play Dis à ma fille que je pars en voyage won a Molière. Did that open any doors for you?
DC Not really. The most positive part of winning a Molière is that the entire production is rewarded. Different audiences come to the theater who may not have come without the Molière. And it makes it easier for the play to tour around the country. But staging my own plays is still really hard for me.
SB Perhaps because they're somewhere between private and public theater. What do you think about that divide - so particular to France?
DC That it's annoying and unfair! And a huge waste of time and opportunity for playwrights, as well as actors and directors.
SB Can you talk about experiences you've had with your plays being performed abroad?
DC I've been fortunate to have many plays performed abroad. I find it very moving when other people work on my texts. I get extremely nervous whenever I have a chance to go somewhere, then really moved when I hear the audience laughing or reacting to the same passages as they do in France. And it's particularly rewarding because French playwrights are always given such a spontaneous and warm welcome!
SB Paris 7ème mes plus belles vacances was published by Actes Sud-Papiers. What are your plans for the play?
DC The play was awarded the Durance-"Beaumarchais" Prize, and a staged reading was held last summer at the Festival de la Correspondance in Grignan starring Alain Fromager, Martine Vaudeville and myself. I worked hard on that staged reading and created a substantial soundtrack for it because I wanted to test the play on stage in front of an audience. I'm looking for a theater, and that may turn out to be rather difficult to find because the play is about a woman with breast cancer - a subject which is unfortunately increasingly common and which I chose to write about in a very humorous vein. In Grignan I was really glad to hear the audience laughing right away at the opening lines.
SB She's quite an extraordinary and funny woman.
DC Thank you!
SB That's another play which could be turned into a film.
DC I've often wanted to adapt my own plays and create separate screenplays, but I don't know much about the film world. I don't really know how to tackle it. It's a pity. In Paris 7ème there's a whole atmosphere that has to be created by the set design: the woman in a clinic, the rose garden outside and her son in Japan, while she's painting inside on the walls of her room. The painting evokes other images, as well as her illness. In short it could be very powerful visually. But, once again, I don't know how to get a producer interested.
SB Are you working on any other writing projects? Other themes?
DC Yes, but it's too soon to talk about it. First I have to deal with Paris 7ème and Le Temps arrêté, a play about Chanel, Morand and Misia Sert which is an ambitious theater project that is having a hard time getting off the ground.
SB Do you enjoy acting in plays you didn't write?
DC Of course! It's my profession and it's a good thing I'm acting in other plays and not waiting around for my own to be staged. That said, the more people focus on me as a playwright, the harder it gets for me as an actress. Maybe wearing two different hats blurs your image. But directors should know there's no one more compliant than an actor who understands how hard it is to bring a project to fruition.