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Playwrights Corner


Authors' Notes

Philippe Minyana
© Entr'Actes
Playwrights corner | An Interview with Philippe Minyana


Philippe Heinen You were an associate author at the Centre Dramatique de Bourgogne in Dijon when it was run by Robert Cantarella. That’s rather exceptional for a playwright, isn’t it?

Philippe Minyana I was actually more like an associate artist than an associate author. My assignment was to educate audiences about contemporary theatre while promoting both French and foreign playwrights. Robert Cantarella had an ‘‘open class’’ for amateur actors in Dijon, so once a month we worked on plays that were part of that season’s programming. Audiences are often a bit confused by contemporary theatre, so this was a good way of introducing them to new playwrights and making the work more accessible through this pedagogical approach. But of course I also continued to write my own plays.

PH Your newest play, Voilà, was commissioned by the Théâtre du Rond-Point. Have you worked on commissions before? Do you like it?

PM I like working on commissions a lot because you get paid and don’t have to wait for the royalties, but it also involves writing about a particular theme or in a certain genre. Lucien Attoun recently asked me to take part in a tribute to Jean-Luc Lagarce, and Jean-Michel Ribes asked me to write a comedy for his season focusing on laughter as a form of resistance. It’s very stimulating. As for the Rond Point, I also knew who I was writing for since I know all four actors in the play. Knowing the performers is very important to me. I can’t write in an isolated way. I have to know the voices that are going to perform my text – their volume and intonation. My plays often grow out of an intuition about the way they’re going to be performed.

PH Do you have any other ‘‘needs’’ before you start to write?

PM Yes. I need a theme and a form. I’ve been working for a while now on the theme of returning – to one’s native land, and reconciliation – and on the idea of conversation and forms of communication between human beings. So for Voilà I chose visiting as the framework, which itself involves certain rituals and codes. And I wanted the form to be fragmented into different segments, so instead of acts there are segments of chapters with titles like ‘‘thrills’’, ‘‘head spinning’’, etc. A theme develops in each case, then you have to weave together the polyphonic layers. That’s the part I love as a writer – reinventing reality through a profusion of words and expressions rather than just reproducing it.

PH Do you feel that your writing has gone through different periods?

PM Certainly – just look at the different forms I’ve used. In the ‘80s we had a case of logorrhoea and tried to use as many kinds of speech as possible. Lively street speech was favoured. We were influenced by German playwrights like Achtenbusch. At the time, playwrights wrote a lot of monologues using awkward, imperfect speech. We were working from news briefs.

PH Have you always been interested in news briefs?

PM Always – whatever writing style I was working in. News briefs are about today’s legends and familiar mythologies. They are the source of the tragedies and dramas of our times. I’ve always read articles with news briefs in the daily newspaper Libération. Actually, the journalists already craft and ‘‘stage’’ the stories. The protagonists and witnesses are already there, and their words have been ‘‘laid out’’. I have notebooks full of them that I’ve accumulated – and squirreled away. Recently I read all the ones that I had kept from 1990-91. They have the same themes as classical tragedy and epic theatre. This is indispensable material that I’ve been collecting. They’re my provisions. I also collect words and expressions from books I read. I’m an avid reader with very eclectic tastes. I like Japanese novels and detective novels, which is not a minor genre in my opinion. So I copy down words and phrases. These notebooks and the books I’ve read are there on my writing desk. They’re right there next to me, from Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield to Murakami, Jane Bowles and many others. I open a book or notebook and a word appears. Then I start working from there, and a sentence develops. My work is centred around writing – rather than on a subject. Every time I write, it’s an adventure – like in a laboratory. I start almost from scratch every time I write, and that’s why I like commissions, because you have to work that way. So I’ve kept at this adventure of writing for the stage; and I only write for the stage, even if the texts don’t have a theatrical form immediately.

PH How would you characterize your most recent form of writing?

PM I think it lies somewhere between theatre and short story – between narrative and recitative. They are hybrid works. The stage directions are an integral part of the text, which is nothing new for me, since I’ve used stage directions for the past fifteen years (following in the footsteps of Peter Handke) as a fictional element that creates climax and atmosphere. I’ve often noticed that I use the same expressions – ‘‘as if they were all sleeping’’ or ‘‘hesitating’’. I also write their gestures – like yawning and tics. I’ve often noticed that the body language of people on television doesn’t fit what they’re saying at all. I find that very disturbing and I use it in my writing.

PH Is there an evolution or a break of some kind when you change styles?

PM There’s a break for sure. In the ’90s I went from ‘‘maximalism’’ to minimalism rather suddenly, and I’m still in that minimalist phase, even though I now use it to create another form that I could call ‘‘the absence of any specifically theatrical form’’. My writing is more poetic now. My characters say what they’re thinking, which might seem more sententious. I also like to use harping and repeating things, like my ‘‘cult’’ playwright Thomas Bernhardt. It lends a feeling of truth that I find fascinating in the theatre. There’s a musicality and echoes of everyday life that enable you to recreate reality in a different way. But I won’t use fiction. I’ll keep on writing for the stage in other ways to talk about life.

PH You often write for directors that you’re very close to, such as Florence Giorgetti in the case of your most recent play. Are you there for the rehearsals?

PM I go to the first readings with the actors and rewrite if necessary. For this latest play I made some big cuts because it was too long. It needed to be faster, more concentrated and trimmed down. I also worked on the musicality of the words, and on resonance. You need to have a feeling of harmony between paragraphs. So there’s a crafting process that we go through as a group before the rehearsals. I don’t get involved after that unless the director specifically asks me to. That happens with a director like Robert Cantarella, with whom I’ve worked for many years and who often wants me to be there at his side when he’s directing.

PH Have you ever written a play because of a sudden desire to talk about something?

PM No, I don’t work that way. I need a request from outside to trigger it. The Lucien Attoun commission was urgent, so I went back to my haunted memory box. I worked from a childhood memory about a neighbour, the mayor’s wife, who used to knock on our window and say: ‘‘are you in there?’’ and gave us vegetables from her garden in a bowl. The play starts with that memory. Then I realized that there are windows in many of my plays.

PH So Voilà is a comedy?

PM The only ‘‘comedy’’ factor I imposed on myself was to write a play where no one dies. So the play may not be a total comedy. It’s a play about the passage of time – all the pains and little illnesses you get. It stays in a light conversation mode even though the characters age, reproduce and their hair turns white. The underlying issue is more about what time does to us. I’m troubled by pure comedy and am suspicious of it – even though I like the kind of humour that was in Inventaires. It’s there in nearly all of my plays, which always have a dark and a light side. This time it’s more like a fleeting shadow – a tiny veil of nostagia in a brighter landscape. So it wouldn’t be accurate to call the play a ‘‘Comedy’’.

PH Did you feel like Inventaires was a comic play?

PM I remember how the actors broke down hearing the story of these characters’ lives at the first readings at the Théâtre de la Bastille. So I told them: ‘‘these are very real people with children, grandchildren and lots of happy memories as well as memories of pain and hardship.’’

PH Don’t you think there are lots of readings and showcases done for contemporary plays, but few plays that are actually staged?

PM Readings are important and so are showcases. The real issue is with the people who should be helping to bring plays to the stage. There is often a kind of acknowledged incompetence on the part of programmers, who admit not knowing enough about contemporary theatre. It’s as if contemporary playwrights only become interesting after they die. Jean-Luc Lagarce is probably the most obvious example of that.

PH Do you stage your own plays, like Jean-Luc Lagarce?

PM Sometimes – when there’s a specific request. I’m not very good at raising the kind of money you need to finance a show. I don’t know how, and I don’t feel like doing it. But I enjoy collaborating on staging my work, as I’ve done before with Robert Cantarella. Writing is what really interests me, and I’ve been lucky enough to do it for nearly thirty years now. My plays are staged on a regular basis, so I’m a happy playwright. La Maison des morts is going to be read very soon at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. That’s a wonderful gift.

  Philippe Minyana interviewed by Philippe Heinen,
19 december 2007
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