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Playwrights corner

 
 
Alain Gautré
© Catherine Brisset
A whimsical author who talks about serious things :
Alain Gautré, the 'masked' playwright


A face to face talk | Alain Gautré & Sabine Bossan



 

Sabine Bossan This season you are staging two of your plays, La Chapelle-en-Brie at the Théâtre du Rond-Point and Impasse des Anges at the Théâtre de la Tempête. And you have just written another play, Les Amis du Président. All three plays feature themes that are familiar in your work: family, sex rather than love, and politics, against a backdrop of dissatisfaction, hatred, betrayal and, despite all that, some humor too. Are you writing contemporary tragedies with a touch of humor, or comedies with a serious take on everyday life?

Alain Gautré Both. Actually, there’s something I’ll never forget : when I registered Place de Breteuil at the SACD in 1978, there was a space for ‘‘genre’’ and I felt like being a bit provocative so I wrote ‘‘burlesque tragedy,’’ but it could just as easily have been called a ‘‘dark comedy.’’ My first company was called the Théâtre de la Corde raide (Tightrope Theater), which was about how crucial it is for me to find that razor’s edge. The pendulum can drop me into tragedy or comedy, but what interests me is walking that tightrope.


SB I’d like you to talk about all three plays, starting with La Chapelle- en-Brie. You wrote it in 1996 and it was awarded a “Beaumarchais” Prize presented at the TEP in a staged reading by Marcel Bluwal. Why was that play in particular chosen?

AG There’s also the fact that Jean-Pierre Darroussin played the part of Arnaud, the youngest brother, and now he’s playing the part of André, the eldest. I’m staging it now because I founded the Tutti Troppo company a few years ago and am producing theater the way I’ve always wanted to for the past thirty years. When I was studying with Lecoq at the age of 20, directing, acting and writing were all the same to me. Now I’m making theater and I don’t care which role I have.
In La Chapelle-en-Brie, probably my most ‘‘classic’’ play, I felt something was missing. An edited play is more of a text than a play for me. So I suffered from that.
And I wanted to work with Jean-Pierre again. He’s an old friend, who was in the Chapeau Rouge company. In the rehearsals we’re in now, he’s behind the acting and performance style in addition to liking the character and the play itself. I couldn’t work with people who don’t get what I’m trying to do. I’ve always said I have a ‘‘masked’’ style of writing, one that comes from the tradition of masks. By which I mean that ultimately, especially for La Chapelle-en-Brie, there’s a kind of false naturalism; but in terms of pace for instance, you’re dead in the water if you start playing it like a TV movie. The epic nature of the play can’t be embodied in that way — literally speaking — because it’s the actors’ bodies that first give meaning to the play even if words precede them. My writing needs to be incarnated in a certain acting style in order to work. I enjoy working with masks, also because of my clown training, which is one of the basic features of my performance art.
There was a first phase where we were thinking about a production in a privately run theater, so we needed two well-known actors. I contacted Jacques Bonnaffé, who was ready to do it. In the meantime he was in a fabulous production, L’Oral et Hardi, and then there was a scheduling issue with Jean-Pierre who was acting in a film. And I wasn’t happy with this star-based approach anyway. Even though Darroussin is also a star, I focused on a more family-oriented style, which works better for me ― like a family practicing their craft.  The other actors are not as well-known as Jean-Pierre, which doesn’t mean they’re not as good. We thought of the Rond-Point, and I feel at home there because of Jean-Michel Ribes and the humor  and intelligence that he champions.


SB How did the idea of writing La Chapelle-en-Brie come to you?

AG I didn’t really think about my father being a Briard when I was little. We used to visit my grandparents in Melun, and my mother was from Toulouse, so I realized there was a clash of cultures, and they couldn’t seem to fit together, which was the great tragedy of their lives and mine. So that was it. Then I realized there was something cultural in the way my father related to the world, especially in the things that were unspoken, the silences. Of course there was something of the quintessential farmer in that too, particularly one from the North; but it was really about how at a certain point you just don’t speak about things. It’s a story about people who keep things to themselves. My father didn’t talk, he never talked about anything important, he never passed anything on to me except indirectly, and I didn’t even realize it until long after he died. One day, kind of as a joke, I thought ‘‘Maybe I’ll write a play about the Brie region.’’ So I started focusing my attention on Brie and quite enjoyed it. I knew I wanted to write about siblings. I’m not sure I know why, because I don’t have any. So, between the siblings and the challenge of writing a play that takes place in Brie, I got to work and then the play came out.


SB You said in your stylistic notes in Théâtrales that the gap with reality is itself a source of poetry. Can you elaborate on that? And why do you say that the writing is tricky?

AG The writing is tricky because when people read the play they think it’s like a film made for TV. Most of the people who read it think it’s a realistic text and don’t get the fact that I’m basically talking in a whimsical way about serious things rather than the opposite. People have to be really knowledgeable about the theater in order to figure it out. 


SB What about the reality gap?

AG The scenario I started out with involved telling the story of three or four brothers, but I really couldn’t stand the thought of these four brothers meeting at a christening, a wedding or a funeral. What I like is to develop a more complicated scenario. Albert Cheutier’s real aim in going to his brother’s is to get a phone call. And it’s a totally farfetched situation because he hasn’t seen his brother in months. But that’s what I’m interested in. You can already see the gap in the script choices made at the beginning. It’s almost a cliché to say that the reality gaps are a source of poetry. I seek out these gaps because I like the surrealistic side of life, not realism.  Life is surreal and full of gaps. It’s just that people are always trying to get back on track, whereas I’m a clown moving in the opposite direction — trying to get off track.


SB How are the rehearsals going? Are you surprised by your own text?

AG No, because writing, performing and directing are all the same for me. So I can’t be thrown off, and I’m not surprised by the text.
What does surprise me is the actors’ interpretation, because I let them search for and come up with things on their own; but nine times out of ten it’s all in the text and everything I put into it. It’s even worse in Impasse des Anges.


SB What do you mean by even worse?

AG There are things that are incomprehensible to the actors because I write lots of subtext. Sometimes in order for a ‘‘Yes’’ or a ‘‘Well’’ to sound right, the subtext has to create a certain dynamic and density which has to be done in a particular way. It’s like the way they built the cathedrals. It’s very precise, because otherwise they wouldn’t hold up. There’s no room for chance. I think that’s why in the ‘90s directors took so little interest in my work, because there was no room there. Everything was already in the text, including the staging.


SB When did you write Impasse des Anges? You called it a tragi-comedy on sexual intimacy. Could you elaborate on that?

AG I wrote it three to four years ago. I wanted to talk about sex and intimacy, how people cope with what I’m forced to call the superego of sex, sex separated from love, sex as performance, sex as a commodity, sex as an image that feeds off intimacy. But you can’t even say it feeds off intimacy anymore because now it’s just one of the rituals of representation that society is made up of. What was incidental has become essential. And there’s no way to get around taking this growing gap between love and sex into account and dealing with it. So the text usually scares people, because most of them are reading them as sex scenes rather than as representations of those scenes. They are imagining the scenes rather than the theatrical performance, and the scenes are primal because they are sexual. And faced with these primal scenes, they recoil in fear. But if they really understood theater, they would simply sit two actors next to each other facing the audience — as I did when presenting the season — and have them read the text so that people could immediately see that it was ridiculous and beautiful. When you see two actors going ‘‘ahahahahah, I’m coming,’’ the text takes form and you can really hear what the playwright is trying to say. But I’m coming at it from a more political perspective. There are a lot of performances relating to sex these days. So people shouldn’t find fault with me for taking a critical view of sexual representation nowadays.


SB What arguments are being used against this play?

AG All the municipal theaters are saying: I can’t do it because of my mayor. That’s when things start taking a turn for the worse, and that’s where we are today. We seem to be suddenly entering a new era, without realizing it, just at a time when there appears to be more freedom and acceptance around sex. But we need to be careful, because no rights or freedoms can ever be taken for granted! For me, when people say ‘‘no I can’t do it because of my mayor’’ in such a simple, extremely pragmatic way, and without the least hint of guilt, it means that self-censorship, the true form of censorship in a democracy, is already at work.


SB Something quite similar happened to Christian Siméon with his play Le Cabaret des hommes perdus.

AG Whereas in the ‘80s it would never have been a problem.
Luckily I’ve got the backing of Philippe Adrien, a monument of faith in our democracy and republic. Besides him, the play has also been programmed by Serge Borras from the Théâtre Georges-Leygues in Villeneuve-sur-Lot. After that the performances will speak for themselves. I’m sure that the humor at work in the performance will give presenters more ideas, but I’m doing it with a very small budget.


SB You’ve said that you like to use humor to talk about cruelty in the world. I saw a lot of cruelty in your last play, Les Amis du Président.

AG Really? It has a great deal of humor too. It’s a very funny play. I held a reading to test it out in front of an audience and they laughed a lot. You found it chilling?


SB Yes. You took the words right out of my mouth. It was chilling.

AG Well that’s what I’m always aiming for. For the play to be chilling and funny. Make no mistake about comedy. The older I get the more I almost feel like we humans are a casting error. From that starting point, laughter is the only response to that kind of solitude and despair. But I’m definitely not a writer of light comedies, so deep down my plays are very, very dark. That’s why I feel that comedies are an elegant response to despair. 


SB What do you have in mind for Les Amis du Président ?

AG I wrote the play for Pierre Pradinas. Next year I’m going to be very busy with Le Malade imaginaire, and it would be nice if Pierre staged it because I’d like to reconnect with that deep bond we had 31 years ago. We used to talk a lot when I was writing Place de Breteuil, and it was easy; we were just friends working together. It was great and I’d like to give him the play as a gift.


SB The word clown or an actual clown shows up in nearly all your plays. Is that your good luck charm?

AG There are others too. Jokes and novelties. There’s a joke and novelty company in Chef-lieu.


SB There’s a lot of recurring action and repetition in your plays. Sometimes it seems to me like you’re writing a saga. As if all your plays could eventually be connected by following one main thread.

AG At 17 I dreamed of being Balzac and somewhere that wish has never left me. I was always fascinated by La Comédie humaine and the way he proceeded with the work, once it was far enough along, by compartmentalizing it into sections and according to genre. I’m like a Balzacian clown of the 5th Republic, like Karl Valentin, an agitator of particles in our society. I’m right here in the heart of it. In the ‘70s I wondered rather naively if I should take up armed struggle or go into the theater. In the end I chose the theater, but there’s an underlying political strain that has remained very strong.
It seems to me that the least you can do when involved in the theater is not to just talk about yourself, or at least try to understand what’s going on inside, what inside you mirrors your times, so that you can blend general and intimate themes in order to create interesting objects that speak to your fellow citizens and are thought provoking. Then there’s the debate about who Audiences really are today. It’s very complicated because the Lang years ultimately created more bourgeois audiences, and we lost Vilar’s vision of popular theatre, which in my view is still relevant. In the end these themes and recurring ideas arise from the playwright’s fancy, through his humor and the enjoyment he feels in his relationship with the world. One thing I’ve thought about is putting together a dictionary of my characters.


SB Your plays have powerful human, social and political resonance. Your characters are always extremely well drawn, you have a fine ear for dialogue and tempo, and you inject humor into the dark side. What is the playwriting process like for you?

AG As soon as the ideas start coming I see people moving.


SB I feel the same way when reading your work.

AG Right, because they start moving right away, from the beginning. Although I’ve read a lot, I have no formal literary training. It all comes from my work on stage with Lecoq. Every week for two years I had to produce a seven-minute piece. That really trains you. Because I can see the characters moving, and because I was a clown, they move right away with the thought of being off-center. I see that cup sitting on the plate there, and I can see that it’s off-center. I see the metal edge of the table and I know my hand is going to bump into it when it reaches for the cup. There’s an imaginative world related to the lazzo, like a gag that gets played out in the situation. And there’s an imaginative world connected to reality that is a very concrete presence in my life. I’m on the lookout for people’s clownish behavior in the street, in cafés, restaurants and performance venues. I love it. I love clowning. Clowning is everywhere, but people try to hide what’s ridiculous. I see something beautiful in the ridiculous. Then I have a view of History that I always try to use as a framework for my narrative and the way my characters behave. So there’s a kind of general framework and then a much more fractal one. I’m searching for both the historical framework and the details about people’s behavior, and what brings them together at a certain point. I set the character’s immediate behavior within a more social framework. Then there’s the meaning of the narrative that comes from the fact that I watched ten films every week between the ages of 17 and 27. American films gave me my sense of scriptwriting. When my friend Michel Azama talked to me about dramaturgical techniques, I could see that I already knew it all, even though I had never thought about it on a theoretical level. I knew it all simply because it had been given to me.


SB What interests you in writing and how do you feel you’re evolving as a playwright ?

AG Actually I’m 58 and I can say that there is a real “body of work”. At one point I opened up to different forms of writing. I haven’t only written plays in dramatic continuity. I can go from one style to another according to need. Some of the plays I’ve written for the theater are not Aristotelian dramas, but rather flashes, poems, short stories and even songs. I’m glad to have reached into that dimension of myself. How is my writing evolving? My themes don’t change very much. The world changes and I change with it. I think I am better equipped to see the monsters inside me, but I have always written about monsters and what is monstrous in human beings. I started writing about angels and demons in Comme ça because at one point I thought: I need to be bolder. People didn’t understand that with Chef-lieu I was trying to say: watch out, because we too are the extreme right!
My dream as a playwright is to have actors around me, to work together toward our goals, and like Molière and Shakespeare, to write narratives with them that are more visual than spoken. Actually my dream is to evolve toward a theatre of masks.


SB Storms and wind often show up in your plays.

AG There’s more than just wind, there are other substances too. That was the kind of work we did with Lecoq, using a neutral mask and identifying with these substances and animals. I like to explore the poetics of matter, including in the words I use and the way they are shaped. When I focused on the water theme in La Chapelle-en-Brie, the language was used in a musical and poetic way. Sometimes different substances are mixed, like mud which is a blend of earth and water in this play; so there is this desire for mud. Bachelard and Lacan have provided clues in this area for a style of writing that goes beyond the text, because the text resonates with an imaginary world that surpasses it. Hôtel du Grand Large does indeed contain the element of wind, which is harder to use alone, like the ocean which I find more difficult to use in the theatre than in literature. Earth and water seem to work better in the theater.
Talking about the elements, and using language and movement is very important to me. The way silence is dealt with in La Chapelle-en Brie in connection with earth and water creates a triangular effect that influences the language.


SB What kind of contribution has popular culture had in your work ?

AG A huge one. In 1968 and shortly thereafter, I was fascinated by people who were three or four years older than I was, could speak well, had heavy Marxist backgrounds and were highly intelligent. I had a bit of an inferiority complex because I was reading Pilote, Tintin, Blueberry, going to see musical comedies, loving American films, including Westerns, and didn’t feel like I was on the same wavelength, even though we were just as politically committed to trying to change the world. That’s where the difference lies. I was swimming in that popular culture, and I try to recreate it in my plays, which are influenced by it. I think you evoked the two most important things to me at the beginning of this interview: sex and humor.
I think La Chapelle-en-Brie works as a play because it asks the question of sedentariness and nomadism. There’s a feeling of anxiety that’s probably linked to my childhood and the fact that I was carted all over the place. What about movement, immobility, life, death, and death in life? What is movement, what does it mean to move, to live, to accept change? I have a partial response to all that because I don’t think we’ve taken the collateral damage from progress enough into account. Could we be making things worse under the pretext of making things better? Luckily the world is changing and I hope that there are some young playwrights, like I was thirty years ago, who are ready to take over. We need some young clown playwrights too, not just young playwrights. I’m not actually a playwright, I’m a clown author. It takes a lifetime to learn how not to lose touch with your childhood while also learning to be an adult.


SB You’re also an acerbic playwright.

AG Yes, acerbic and caustic. I don’t give myself a free ride, so why should I give my fellow citizens one? Laughter is the amplifying reflection of reality that I try to stage in my plays, in an attempt to enlighten my fellow citizens about themselves through humor.
That’s why the idea of high-quality popular theater remains essential to me. It’s about continuing to try to talk to everyone, to make theater in the Elizabethan way, from the most trivial to the most philosophical, as well as the most political, the most psychological, and the most sentimental, so that at some point the theater is open to everyone. The problem is that at the same time most people have been won over by mindless entertainment, and I think promoting that has been ideologically deliberate, because the stupider people are the less they’ll have to think. So the idea of high-quality popular theatre is fundamental, provided that the idea is truly shared by the institutions in place, otherwise you’re forced to go it alone. It’s about bringing people to the theatre while keeping an elevated view of it, but without driving yourself insane or being afraid of the word entertainment. Entertainment and thinking have to go hand in hand. That’s a crucial political necessity. It’s not just a matter of producing work that aspires to that, but also of reaching the kinds of audiences you’d like to be addressing.
The short term wins out over long-term reflection, so we don’t put in place policies for the future, because the future is thirty years from now. For thirty years from now, we need to think about today, so luckily there’s the environmental crisis to remind us of that. Quite frankly, as an artist and playwright the most important thing for me when I start writing is thinking about the 16-and-a-half-year-old who’s coming to the theater for the first time. I’m writing for that person. And I’m writing so that person will feel a strong desire to come back. So my first impulse as a playwright is to secure that desire.

 
Alain Gautré interviewed by Sabine Bossan,
6 September 2009
 
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