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Playwrights Corner


Playwrights corner

Pierre Barillet
© Julian Blight
A face to face talk | An interview with Frédéric Maragnani, by Sabine Bossan

Sabine Bossan What word might you use to define your work instead of the commonly used one of director?

Frédéric Maragnani I'm a "match-maker." I match people together with things and ideas. When I connect with a text I invite a team of artists to read the book, then I communicate it through my vision onstage and my recurring obsessions. Then it's communicated to the audience in the performances. And the idea keeps on being communicated through the memory of the emotion long after the performance.

SB "Where is the 'director,' the great 'incorporator' who is meant to create the link between the book and the stage? The one who puts it together, who decides, and builds up the relationship between the play and the audience, extending the original invention through this new creation?" Do you identify with that definition of directing?

FM Yes, totally, although I'm a bit wary of the "great incorporator." Perhaps a more modest theater praxis inclines me toward a form of directing that's more "didactic" than "emphatic."

SB Has your vision of your work changed since you began directing?

FM There is a process of sedimentation. After working on this art form for fifteen years I can see the connection between texts, stages, the desire for musicality and colors. I know things are intimately connected and nothing is due to chance. On the contrary. Paying attention to the space, the visual and pictorial side, playfulness, the love of words and the noises they make - the musicality - all these elements are increasingly clear to me. It's obvious to me now, but it wasn't before.

SB Do you read lots of plays?

FM A fair amount. I admit I'm not an "avid reader," because you don't always have time to read a new play while directing another one. And people send me lots of plays, so I try to stay open to different worlds and forms of writing.

SB At what point while reading a play do you know you're going to stage it? Where does the desire to direct come from? Conversely, what tells you that you won't stage a particular play?

FM I have a "possible world" of plays, a kind of personal pantheon of ancient, modern and contemporary texts from which I draw ideas and inspiration. I know that someday it could "take shape" and be embodied on stage. Then there's life, i.e. writing that's being done today - and that's a surprise that can happen at any time. You become more alert to the changes in how playwrights are writing when you've been having conversations with them for a number of years like I have. I hear more than I see when reading. I hear rhythms, breathing, gaps, silences. I'm very tuned into poetry and the music of the words - more than to the anecdotal story or synopsis.

SB After seeing how you staged plays by Noëlle Renaude and Philippe Minyana, I felt like you had removed a veil that came between me and the text while reading it. You made Noëlle Renaude's Par les routes exceptionally clear. Is that one of your main concerns when working on a play?

FM Clarity is one of my main concerns. I think a performance is also a way of clarifying a text, which doesn't necessarily mean simplifying it or dumbing it down to make it totally flat and one-dimensional. Luckily there are always shadowy areas and dark corners which will certainly stay that way, and so much the better. For me directing is like turning the pages of a book, but onstage. I love how sharp the voices and rhythms can be, and how stylized the spaces and silhouettes. That's all part of my world. I want each member of the audience to be able to experience one or more elements of the acting as something immediately recognizable (although often strange). I also think the acting should feel familiar.

SB Do you work closely with the playwright before directing?

FM It depends on the project, the playwright, the conditions, but overall I think I do. I've sometimes felt that I haven't worked enough beforehand, but I'm more prone to anticipating how to organize the staging, perhaps so I can be surprised later by the creative team's inventiveness. Several months before - sometimes even a year or two - I start taking lots of notes from my conversations with the playwright. I read the play over and over, and try to project rhythms and notes. I keep a notebook while staging a play, and write in it several times a day - when I'm struck by someone's voice on the subway, a profile in the street or a social issue.

SB Does it involve reinforcing the play's inner logic or giving it a new twist? Maybe some plays are just asking for that...

FM Directing always involves giving a play a new twist, and if it's well done it can also be a tremendous expression of the play's inner logic. There's no such thing as being "totally faithful" to the text; there are only "beautiful betrayals." How is it done? I haven't a clue. All I know is that giving the play a different twist and highlighting the literary argument may meet with varying degrees of success depending on the play and the project.

SBWhy the preference for contemporary theater?

FM Spending time with contemporary playwrights gives you a direct link to the literature and playwrights of the past. Here again, I think this is a form of continuity rather than a break. Without necessarily talking about tradition, I do think contemporary plays are like the latest reincarnation of older plays.

SB You often commission playwrights. Does that choice come from a desire to have a special relationship and/or a desire to work symmetrically so that your collaborative work of art is created almost simultaneously?

FM A commission is often a confirmation of an already existing relationship with the playwright. It's not really an "order," but rather a way of stimulating you to go further in an artistic conversation." Once again, it's not based on an overly specific request, because being familiar with someone's writing is sufficient for me. For instance, I know that Noëlle Renaude has been working for several years on onstage, offstage and temporal issues. I don't need to talk to her about it! However, inventing a new project together for a specific environment based on a landscape is a real challenge - culminating in the writing and staging of her new play, Les Vues d'Ici, in 2012. A commission can also be the start of a new adventure, sparking new encounters such as the one with Virginie Barreteau's play, Plage..

SB What is the link for you between the power of a text's verbal quality and its visual potential and the images that may flow from it?

FM The verbal quality is foremost. It's what enables me, among other things, to choose a play. The images come later and are superimposed gradually. I have different spaces in mind that I've seen at exhibitions, in photographs and paintings. They're very present in my mind, just waiting to interact with a literary structure such as a play.

SB How do you work with the actors? Are you very involved with the set design?

FM I try to create the best possible interaction between the actors and the play I've chosen and imposed. I try to create a creative space where they can also express what they intuitively know about the text that I haven't discovered yet. The actors are concretely and physically suffused with the words, while I am not. For that reason I think I'm tuned into what they have to say about placement in the space, how to utter certain words and phrases. I also try to win them over gradually and at their own pace to some of what I had imagined beforehand, by employing a lot of ruses - not the Machiavellian kind ( !) but gentle and easygoing ones. Above all I believe in the power and joy of working together. I can't work in a climate of conflict and war. The war is happening up there onstage.

SB You're going to stage Offenbach's La Belle Hélène. How are you tackling this new project?

FM In a real spirit of curiosity because it's my first time staging an opera. What's interesting is that La Belle-Hélène is half sung and half spoken. Moving from one to the other is a real challenge.

SB Do you have any other works in progress or upcoming projects?

FM I'm doing a staged reading this summer at the Festival d'Avignon of Tout doit disparaître, a play by Eric Pessan which I'm staging in 2012. I'm also pursuing my work on Les Vues d'Ici, an experimental project with Noëlle Renaude. And I'm very seriously interested in Félicité, a play by Quebecois playwright Olivier Choinière that I should be staging in 2013.

Frédéric Maragnani interviewed by Sabine Bossan,
April 10, 2011

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