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Playwrights corner

Lancelot Hamelin
© Cynthia Charpentreau
A Summer in Babylon | Lancelot Hamelin
Directors Lab 2013 - at Lincoln Center Theater

Like every year, Lincoln Center in New York offered a three-week workshop for directors from around the world, known as the Directors Lab. This year I had the good fortune to be a guest playwright for the theme A playwright's dream, a play goes from the page to the stage.

For ten days, from July 18-28, I took part in the directors' activities and we worked on my play Shoot the Freak !

Anxiety Attack and Athenian Blues

New York is a fascinating and stressful city. It's high in the sky, and the canyons of Manhattan give you upside-down vertigo, the beat of the traffic pulsates in your head and passersby trample those who can't keep time.

When, on top of all that, you're with a hundred artists from all over the world who've been selected for a renowned workshop, you're in for some sleepless nights and a raging anxiety attack.

Coming home late one night from the workshop, on the 23rd floor of the Julliard School where some of us were housed, I saw the young Greek director Kostas Gakis playing the piano in a tiny studio across from the elevator. He helped the Crisis to pass.

It's the image that best expresses the Athenian blues I experienced during that summer in Babylon.

Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, located in the southern tip of the Upper West Side, features some of New York City's major cultural institutions and a dozen companies devoted to theater, music and dance.

Anne Cattaneo, the dramatist for the Lincoln Center Theater, has collaborated on countless new productions of plays written by major contemporary English-language playwrights from John Guare to Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner.

Inspired by a true passion for the theater and its crazy young adventurers, she is a tough and generous lady, which you'd have to be to carry off the international –even ''underground'' – project that is the Directors Lab within such a massive institution.

Anne Cattaneo invented this program in 1995, which she defines ironically as a strange ''artificial exercise.''

The Directors Lab

The workshop brings in these dozens of directors for three weeks to work together in the rehearsal and dressing rooms on the underground floors of the Lincoln Center Theater.

During the workshop, while you're asking questions and exchanging ideas, you can feel the weight of this prestigious stage above you. So the most fragile and edgiest research seems protected by the institution.

What you learn over the course of the workshop isn't taught by professors, teachers or other contributors, but by the participants themselves based on an exchange of experience and expertise. So the workshop is grounded in experience rather than in teaching. The participants organize their own experience within a framework defined and vetted by Anne Cattaneo and her collaborators, in which everyone is free to invent their own place, what they bring to it and what they take from it.

One aspect of the framework was the timing for the sessions, punctuated by very strict union breaks required by the actors' guild. Indeed, an assistant was monitoring every group, announcing the time left before the next break and making sure the rule was followed to the letter. A ten-minute break was not a five-minute break.

Every year the Lab is devoted to a particular theme, thereby creating a forum for exchange through work sessions, games and exercises. The previous year focused on comedy, the year before that on Strindberg's Dream Play. This year the theme was on the relationship to the text.

Living Playwrights

While the workshop is not meant as a showcase or for speed dating between artists and producers, Anne Cattaneo is genuinely concerned with the transference of expertise. Over the course of the three weeks, there were unanticipated visits from such well-known playwrights as Sarah Ruhl, Terrence McNally, Moises Kaufman, David Rabe, Adly Guirgis, Suzan Lori-Parks and Edward Albee, who came to encourage us.

The Directors Lab is devoted to directors and there are usually no playwrights. But 19 playwrights were invited to respond to this year's theme, from the page to the stage. I was the only foreign playwright along with 18 Americans.

My name was given to Anne Cattaneo by Nicole Birman-Bloom from the cultural services of the French Embassy.

I had met Nicole Birman-Bloom during a trip to New York in October 2011, when she put me in touch with people in Florida and Louisiana, where I was planning to follow the presidential elections. I had sent her the articles I wrote for Les Inrockuptibles, as well as one of my plays that took place in New York: Shoot the Freak !

Shoot the Freak !

The play tells the story of a young French couple living in Brooklyn, drawn by the bonfire of the vanities. Simon wants to be a showman, Meriem a pop star. Simon fails to finish his show, while Meriem starts being noticed by record companies. The destabilized couple flounders and engages in a ménage à trois with their roommate, Jason.

The play is written as a sitcom, between melodrama and comedy, and rejects good writing, or any writing at all. In my theater work I try to connect with the spoken language in writing. This time I wanted to explore the imperfections in spoken language. The play is set in New York, in a cross-pollination with the Algerian War.

To test the play with American readers - my vision of the city and certain dramaturgical viewpoints - I had it translated at my own expense by William Drew, who is connected with the Royal Court Theatre, and sent around to people in the U.S.

Nicole Birman-Bloom and Anne Cattaneo felt that the theme and writing, as well as my report on Miami and New Orleans, warranted my presence in the workshop. So I was allowed to take part in some of the directors' activities over the ten days, their workshops and meetings, thanks to the generosity of Lincoln Center and to support from the French-American Fund for Contemporary Theater (run by FACE/French American Cultural Exchange) in partnership with the cultural services of the French Embassy in New York.

An Incredible Adventure

During the course of the Lab, no performances or work are required to be submitted to justify the workshop in the eyes of its financial partners. The directors get together in small groups for research labs and share sessions, during which they reveal a particular aspect of their practice and the state of the theater where they come from, or they lead a rehearsal session and exchange about techniques and the questions theater poses to the world.

This incredible adventure has been going on for nearly twenty years in a country that we in France often see as incapable of being disinterested, and allergic to the experimental and public dimension of the theater. And yet it takes place in the heart of Manhattan, between Central Park and the Hudson River, at Lincoln Center.

It would be like the Comédie Française in Paris opening its doors to that kind of total yet focused chaos.

And why not? The Directors Lab has already been exported to Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto.

Directors Lab 2013

This year there were 72 rather young directors, most of them between 25 and 30. They came from 27 countries (including Rwanda, Uruguay, Peru, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Ethiopia, Germany, Greece, etc.); 18 set designers, numerous actors from New York, 18 American playwrights and one French playwright.

Over the course of these three weeks we were all exposed, far from our countries, cultures and usual routines. The strained English that was our common language got turned upside down by these young Russians, South Americans, Asians and Europeans. The Americans among the dozens of guest artists were in their own bubble, the center of gravity being the art of theater, which I rediscovered as clearly intense and vital all over the world.

So young artists from a host of different countries were committing to this path of uncertain outcome; even in countries like Lebanon and China where texts must make it past the censors before obtaining permission to be produced, and you sometimes have to pay merely to perform. In Lebanon for instance, they have to pay over a hundred euros to a state agency even to hold a reading in someone's apartment.

The theater experience isn't obsolete, and theatrical productions go beyond borders, nurturing the inspiration of artists everywhere. A case in point was the young Jordanian director who spoke to me about Jean-Luc Lagarce, whom he read in English, or the share sessions led by the directors themselves in which they talked about issues or playwrights they were passionate about.

The Dance of Babel

Tracy Cameron Francis, an American of Egyptian origin, led a session around Jean Genet's The Screens, exploring issues such as the Algerian War and the voice Genet gives to terrorism with directors from Georgia, Israel, Germany and America.

So here was an American woman talking about Kateb Yacine and Frantz Fanon!

Ruthie Osterman, an Israeli, led a session on the theater of Kantor and the intimate persistence of memory.

Hope Azeda, from Rwanda, led an incredible session on the work she has done around memory pertaining to genocide and going beyond hatred. Her father named her Hope for that very reason.

Philippe Calvario, from France, held a sort of ''dance of Babel,'' in which everyone worked in his or her own language. He creates choreographies where body language is the common ground. Two directors, women from Lebanon and Israel, danced together for a brief moment.

Amahl Khouri, a Jordanian woman of German origin living in Lebanon, did ''documentary theater'' work on the reality of the Arab world. She questioned how the issue of gender runs through these societies, incarnating the words of Lebanese transsexuals.

Hans the Observer

We were divided into groups of 4 directors, a set designer and two New York actors around a playwright and his text.

Our group was made up of two American directors, Hans Meyer and Morgan Green, a Lithuanian director, Aiste Ptakauste, and my fellow Frenchman, Philippe Calvario, as well as Ray Sun, a young Taiwanese set designer and two American actors, Nedra McClyde and Aaron Krohn.

At the end of the week three directors in each group had to give an oral presentation to the others in their group of a plan for staging the play, devised with the set designer.

Why three directors rather than four? Because one of the four directors had to observe how the work was progressing, the group dynamics and each person's position. He wasn't allowed to weigh in on the text as a director. He was there to observe.

Hans Meyer was given the job of observing:

A Week around Shoot the Freak !

On the first day we worked on what they call an ''inspirational play'' here. I brought in Long Day's Journey into Night, a Eugène O'Neill play that I am particularly fond of and which remains a mystery to me.

Hearing the play read and discussed by the Americans was a highly enlightening experience, since it is part of their literary heritage. They have a special relationship with this play – so it was like an American fascinated by Phèdre hearing it read and commented on by French actors.

On the second day I was to attend a reading of my play and hear the group's questions about it – but wasn't allowed to participate. I had to remain silent and allow these thoughts to develop around my play without breaking the movement through any intervention of my own. The purpose of the playwright's silence was to allow the actors, directors and set designer to speak freely, otherwise they might feel intimidated by the presence of the playwright and be wary of speaking openly for fear of being hurtful.

On the third day I was allowed to respond to all the issues and questions that had been raised the day before but hadn't been resolved in the discussions.

On the fourth day we worked on certain passages from the play with the actors. The directors each worked in their own way on a scene I wanted to see staged in a scrambled way.

The condition for the exercise, according to Anne Cattaneo's terms, was for the directors to look at the play as if it were ''written by Shakespeare.''

Anne Cattaneo said: ''If it were written by Shakespeare, we would think about how it was written before judging whether or not the play is good.''

You can think what you like about the idea, but...

All right, we're not Shakespeare, but...

The idea isn't aimed at the playwrights, who know that the issue isn't ''to be or not to be Shakespeare.'' The idea is addressed to the directors, who don't always know how to position themselves to read a play without suspending the little voice inside that triggers this taboo and that they are determined to trigger in the playwright.

It's an issue that directors need to ask themselves about their relationship to texts. But the issue has deep roots in the social and political context of our country – where the written language ''classifies'' (and breaks) people as well as their regional accents. This is perhaps what Barthes was analyzing in his acceptance speech to the Académie française.

Americans are often reproached for their spirit of consensus and for being politically correct. And they sometimes envy us our pursuit of conflict, or indeed our tendency to be argumentative. But there's something rather generous – and above all productive – in taking into account that this idea assumes the origins of creativity to be fragile: ''pretend it was written by Shakespeare.''

The Law of Silence

These rules and frameworks that were both constraining and protective, the strict hours, the value placed on observation and non-action, are specificities of an American way of organizing, along with the rule of silence.

It would be dishonest of me to say that I was scrupulous in respecting these monastic rules. During the day of silence I made a point of not defending my play or even explaining it. Nevertheless, I didn't see why I couldn't share my overall thoughts on the topics being examined. In short, why not get involved in the discussion?

My fellow group member Hans Meyer, our observer, gently called me to order with a ''shush!''

At the end of my stay I had unfortunately added to the reputation the French have of being undisciplined. I was sorry to hear Anne Cattaneo say that French playwrights were more intrusive and authoritarian than American ones.

On the Neon in Babylon

I didn't need to defend myself because my fellow group members came to my rescue. They quoted me – which is rare for me, that's why I'm quoting them quoting me: ''a theater text has to be like fuel, and the stage is the bonfire where it burns.''

I don't like the confusion between the word author and the idea of authority. Being a playwright means letting go of all authority over words while assuming the greatest responsibility for the text. Being a playwright means delivering a text for the stage. It's the stage's job to be up to the writing and its inner logic.

In France we enjoy support and financing that American writers couldn't even imagine, but the logic behind the writing isn't always translated onstage, where directors often see themselves as the ''author'' of the production, don't conform to the writing and sometimes tend to cut out what they don't understand.

In the United States the playwright's text is very well protected. It's because the playwright is subjected to the marketplace and its laws that he is reduced to his function within the production-making machine. It protects his text as a product. It's good for the text but not always for the theater.

The ''weaknesses'' in American theater come in part from this ''sacralization'' of the text, which I might be jealous of as a French playwright, but I don't think it's very judicious.

I profoundly believe that theater occurs as an act of violence against the text; and if – yes I admit it – I talked a lot during the day of silence, it was not as a playwright. I swear it. On the Bible and all the neon in Babylon.

An Unused Bank...

Shoot the Freak!, director Morgan Green and set designer Ray Sun decided to stage it in Brooklyn, in an unused bank.

Theater Sitting on the Floor

At the end of the Lab, we formed a huge circle with two or three rows of chairs. Each group had to report on its experience to the other participants. We gave our public reports by categories. The directors, the set designers, the playwrights, the actors and observers pooled their reflections, eliciting questions and discussions in which each person could share his thoughts and feelings.

Anne Cattaneo asked if we had any ideas for the next Lab. Suggestions emerged about working on ''documentary theater,'' on the issue of the media and new technologies in the theater, on ancient choruses and contemporary choral theater, and Goldoni's ''communal'' plots.

Kostas Gakis, the young Greek director, suggested arranging the large room and its concentric circles of chairs in a different way. The first circle should have cushions but no chairs. Because in certain cultures, represented by some of the directors present, people sit on the floor. The exchanges would be different. And people finally realized on the last day – if they hadn't already – that some in the group had remained silent.

You don't always think about sitting on the floor, or that you'd think differently as a result.

Why not a Directors Lab about theater that grows out of sitting on the floor?

Theater Can Change the World

This strange ''artificial exercise'' I was part of in New York was a focal point for tensions from all over the world, and I could see each of us being stirred very deeply by the theater.

I'd like to come back to a conversation I had with some friends before leaving: Edward Bond believes that ''theater can change the world.'' Is that naive?

What I saw and experienced during the Lab convinced me that, no, it isn't naive; it's profoundly true. What's naive is how we hear the words ''change the world.''

Can theater change the world like the conflict that's devastating Syria?

It's not about that. But you can think about it and ask the question in a subtler way: Are the changes the world has undergone due to the economic crisis, the Arab revolution and the emergence of new technologies more decisive than words being uttered or an actor speaking his lines?

Above all, aren't these upheavals the result of changes in people's psyches and how they view the world?

The cynical view tends to think that such effective language is the product of propaganda and the media. But the encounters I had over the course of the Directors Lab persuaded me that while the media and propaganda can use the words stirring up the world, those words also serve to resist through poetry and theater.

There is no idealism in thinking that a verse by Aeschylus has already changed the world, because changing ways of viewing the world changes a person's behavior toward the world – and thus changes the world. And it only takes one person to change for the chain reaction to have decisive consequences, in space and over time.

That's what this great theater circus taught me, with no professional stakes and no outcome other than shaking up our memories and psyches.

And I'd like to throw out an appeal – a message in a bottle – a challenge to create an equivalent workshop for playwrights, where directors, set designers, stage managers and actors would come to hear playwrights exchanging and confronting their visions and practices: a Writers Lab.

Lancelot Hamelin
September 2013
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