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Playwrights Corner


Playwrights corner

Eric Assous
© DR
A face to face talk | An interview with Noëlle Renaude, by Sabine Bossan

Actes du Théâtre met with Noëlle Renaude in late June when éditions Théâtrales published Sans carte sans boussole sans équipement, a collection including eight of her plays, and Noëlle Renaude, Atlas alphabétique d'un nouveau monde, edited and compiled by Michel Corvin.

Sabine Bossan 2010 has been a very productive year for you in terms of publishing. Théâtrales published eight of your plays—La Promenade, Promenades, 8, Comptes (S8à3), Par courtesy, Le Tableau, Bon, Saint Cloud, Racines—in a collection entitled Sans carte sans boussole sans équipement (No Map No Compass No Equipment), a title that suits you to a tee. And a remarkable book put together by Michel Corvin entitled Noëlle Renaude, Atlas alphabétique d'un nouveau monde (Noëlle Renaude, Alphabetical Atlas of a New World). I think there's another book commissioned by FRAC Aquitaine. And you also mentioned your daily correspondence with a graduate of the Ecole Normale. So you're mainly involved in writing books.

Noëlle Renaude This year – but it's just a coincidence. 2009 was a better year for having plays produced. Then there was this profusion of published work in 2009-2010. I also wrote a rather long postface for the new edition of a book by Hélène Bessette released in January by Laureli, Léo Scheer, and another text, Retour à la terre, commissioned and published by the Centre National des Etudes Spatiales (French Space Agency). Then there are the two books being released by Théâtrales, which is only natural in a playwright's career. FRAC d'Aquitaine commissioned another book – a fictional piece based on a work of art I selected.

SB Visual arts?

NR Yes. I chose Roman Opalka. The interesting thing is that his body of work is really like one work of art. In 1975 he began writing the number 1 in white against a black background at the top of his paintings, then filled the canvas with a succession of numbers. Each painting is a "detail." It's his depiction of the passing of time. At a certain point he began adding white to the black background in his paintings. The numbers and the canvas blend together until it's completely white. Every day he takes a picture of himself in the same position wearing a white shirt and without any expression, and he records his voice counting the numbers. FRAC Aquitaine acquired two paintings, several journals and four photographs. But rather than focusing on those details, I worked on the project as a whole. My book is entitled De Tant en Temps. I used all of Opalka's themes but worked on them in my own way, chapter by chapter.

SB You seem to mix together all the different parts of your life.

NR I've always mixed together the different parts of my life. I never separated my writing when I was churning out potboilers for Bonne Soirée as well as thoughtful articles for Théâtre/Public and stage plays. I compartmentalized things at first, then it got so muddled that when I finally put everything together it created my "distinctive" style of writing that is a blend of Théâtre/Public and Bonne Soirée.

SB I was thinking more about your art history studies than about Bonne Soirée. You combine everything.

NR Everything. It's all about time, things you carry around everywhere and draw from. Everything is put together – even what doesn't go together; it's mismatched, and the things that don't go together are put together anyway, and I think that's what characterizes my writing. The stage is the fundamental basis for my writing and my work. It's made for the stage, which is both the source and destination. But it's all channelled through books, and that's something I really believe in. I'd even go as far as to say the book is enough in itself. The play is all there in the book.

SB And it's amazingly true. I often joke about being a "visual reader," and while reading your work I was struck by how much of the staging is already there in what you write and in the way you set up the pages.

NR Because the stage is an issue for me. If it wasn't an issue I think I could write very conventional, even academic, plays using a model to tell my own stories. The theater is an ongoing issue for me, since I still don't really know how it works after thirty years of mangling it and continuing to write. But it's a crucial part of all my writing projects. For instance, when I wrote the text for Frac Aquitaine about Opalka's work it was a fictional piece that was only meant to be published. At the same time I was the only playwright they sought out, and I liked that. And even though the text wasn't designed for the stage, my writing is always deeply theatrical and physical. A final word about 2010. Frédéric Maragnani commissioned a piece from me for the Festival de Blaye. The commission is really weird because it takes place on some uninhabited islands in the Gironde estuary, so there's no theater, no stage, no framework, no building, no set, no edges of the stage, no onstage or offstage. There's nothing constraining me or compelling me to break the rules. It's just untamed nature, and the three actors the commission was created for are the only theatrical element – three characters in a landscape. As a result, the text has no limits and nothing to come up against, so it spreads out over the landscape. It's clearly like a novel, yet deeply theatrical, and it's up to the actors to get the most out of it. It's a bit like in Bon, Saint Cloud: "I say what I'm saying and I say what I'm doing while saying it and I must do what I say I'm doing at the same time." But this goes even further. The writing creates the landscape, indirect speech, movement and dynamics. The bodies are present in the space, not necessarily talking, but growing out of the narrative, using non-descriptive speech. It's in line with my writing process. I would never make the slightest separation between writing a novel, a play, poetry, a screenplay or any theoretical writing. My main preoccupation is always with having a body, a voice, speech, an embodiment of something. My writing is physical. It isn't just a story to be read with the eyes.

SB What's your issue with playwriting?

NR I don't know how the theater works. I don't know what makes theater. I write for the theater because when I started out I didn't know how it worked. Naturally I know a bit more about it now. But even though I know a bit more about it, in one sense I still don't really know anything more. I mean when I began writing for the theater I couldn't visualize the stage. Who's onstage, what is it about, what are they doing there? I forced myself to put people onstage and then tell a story. I was trying to create traditional theater. I was unclear about the space. What was it? A kitchen? A living room? I ended up making a very basic assumption: the stage was a kitchen, a living area, a social space. But what was going on there? People were moving around, but what for? I was actually dealing with the huge and fascinating issue of stage directions. For some playwrights stage directions are what qualify a text as theatrical. They are the main theatrical validation – more than the dialogue and lines. Stage directions are often used as vague substitutes for real scenographic designs. I soon figured out that directors ignore stage directions and drop them. From the start I spent a lot of time on stage directions, stalking them, destroying them and incorporating them into the dialogue so they couldn't be dismissed by the director.

SB With respect to stage directions, there's a long and very detailed description at one point in Ceux qui partent à l'aventure that made me think of Feydeau

NR Feydeau is a genius, but his work is misread, misunderstood, badly staged and badly performed because he's seen as a vaudeville writer–with the lover hiding in the closet–but it's actually far more cruel and brilliant than that. Feydeau's writing is based on a system that's like clockwork. There's an amazing feeling of movement in his work that generates excitable characters. Everything moves way too fast. The fiction is triggered and starts spinning the minute Feydeau sets up his premise of lies, but there are also collateral victims of the lies. At some point the liar himself loses control of the deathly spiral he has set in motion and everyone is caught up in this vicious circle. What I find so amazing in Feydeau is how it ends with him showing the flip side of things in order to show how the right side works, as if to say the flip side is crueler but also more entertaining; then everything goes back to the way it was at the beginning. Nothing is lost. The same stupid blunders are recreated, triggering the same folly, the same damage and the same lies. In the end everything is cancelled out. My only models in the theater are Chekhov and Feydeau, who fascinate me.
Feydeau's stage directions are like novels of his plays.
In my play 8 I used all the verbs from his stage directions. Stage directions are an endless subject: theatricality.

SB I've often noticed that stage directions in the work of less confirmed playwrights mask unwritten characters.

NR The playwright's shadow?

SB Right, but I see them as absent characters.

NR For me traditional stage directions indicate a flaw, a weakness or deficiency. You justify them by saying it's paratext, something you add on the side that doesn't have to be used, yet you put it in anyway. But I think everything you write is important. Some things can be delegated and others can't. When I write stage directions that say: "the father picks up a cigarette and smokes," it's minor. But when I wrote in Bon, Saint-Cloud: "the father (says the father) heard (the father smokes) from his father," etc., the father is talking and says that's he's smoking and smokes, then he has to do what he's saying. I did it to create a real disruption in their speech, not to introduce staging ideas. When I said I don't know how theater works, I wasn't saying it to be clever. It's what compels me to take it apart, and break it down. I cut it into little bits and bring what's offstage onstage. I create situation-less fiction and fiction-less situations. And it's theater all the same.

SB Is there a connection here with the way you see artwork? Your plays take different forms. Le Renard du Nord, Madame Ka, Ma Solange, which turned into a saga, Promenades which turned into La Promenade. There are always stories within a story, in an ongoing process of renewal and creation. Your plays are always ongoing, never finished.

NR There are artists like Novarina, who says he always writes the same play, and Chardin who always painted the same pot, the same apples and self-portraits in the same way his whole life. Then there are people who work in a different way. In my writing I strive to break down and question the different aspects of theater. Every text I write is different from the previous one and the next one. I worked on the typography in Topographie for instance, then on a different issue in Une belle journée. I'm just questioning things, not necessarily evolving. Each new form takes time to develop. When I see whether it's working on not and whether it's still theatrical, I feel like it's done and I've questioned it. And I realized that after thirty years there are still questions ahead of me. The Maragnani project on the islands fits in with my plan to get back to narrative and move far away from a more theatrical form. But I'm also dealing with absolute non-theater here. I'm out in the country in the middle of nature, and what am I supposed to do with that? You have to try to contradict what is expected of you. Whoever commissions the work naturally has an idea of what they want. And my idea is not to care about their expectations in the least. It has to be in sync with what I'm involved in at the time. That's how I see commissions.

SB There's something especially enjoyable for me about reading your plays. It feels like being in a novel and a play at the same time. You have a dynamic style that is visual and almost olfactive – in the words you use, your tempo and zero pathos. The theatricality in the form and structure really grab you.

NR My basic focus always involves turning the structure upside down and challenging it. Every play follows a certain structure. People talk about characters disappearing from theater. In my work it comes from the structure being modified – the character is dazed and no longer has a set function, so he becomes just a shape, an apparition, a nobody, an extra. He's no longer the central character in a network of coincidences prompting you to follow his story from A to Z and to go along with him. Everything else gets turned around too when the structure is turned upside down: time, space, the character and the narrative. Everything gets moved around, with some things becoming more important than others at times. I turn the structure upside down because the theatrical process demands it.

SB You've said that you're closely involved with the up-and-coming younger generation. Does that mean young directors are increasingly staging your plays?

NR It's not that they're doing it increasingly or recently – it's been like that from the start. It's the same abroad.

SB I really enjoyed reading Michel Corvin's introduction to Noëlle Renaude, Atlas alphabétique d'un nouveau monde and Frédéric Maragnani's text, Alex. Then I put the book down in a spot where I could come back and savor it, knowing it would be a real pleasure. I sense that it's a remarkable–and remarkably intelligent–book. Can you tell me more about it?

NR Michel Corvin is an amazing figure who is quite rare in the theater world. He's very straightforward and follows his own rules. He has an eye and a way of creating links between his vast academic knowledge and new work being produced which he picks up on and analyzes right away. I think universities are doing crucial and phenomenal work these days in taking an interest in living playwrights, which hasn't always been the case.
My correspondence–in particular with Ecole Normale graduate Barbara Métais-Chastanier, a professor at the Université de Lyon–is like a thought accelerator for me.
Academics are the ones with a real critical eye these days. They're creating new tools, like we are, and that's helping us move forward. Michel Corvin has wanted to do this book about me for about ten years; but it's actually better that he's done it now because I'm further along in my writing. Being a perfectionist, he directed the project masterfully, bringing in highly diverse, cutting-edge participants. And he's got a wicked sense of humor combined with steely precision. My publisher, who has followed my work for 20 years and fulfilled all my layout needs, has done groundbreaking work. I'm extremely proud of the book.

SB 2010 seems to be an editorial phase, whereas 1994 was an eventful year that saw the birth of Ma Solange comment t'écrire mon désastre Alex Roux. How is Ma Solange doing by the way?

NR Quite well. Lots of people are interested in it. And Christophe Brault and I want to work on Ma Solange again, but it's still in the development stage. It's been sixteen years since we created Ma Solange, which is now a legendary text that seems more accessible. So what can the two of us do now with that creative collaboration? I mean with what was forged day after day for four years, elaborated onstage by reinventing its limits? Christophe and I both agreed that we had toured a lot, were very inventive and really did a good job. I would write, then we'd rehearse, then I'd rewrite, we'd rehearse again, then we'd deliver. We should work that way again. I think it's become an integral part of how we work together. But something else has happened too. Time has passed. Christophe has grown a lot as an actor, and I've changed too. The text is the only thing that hasn't changed. It's just as it was written.

SB How have things worked for you abroad?

NR There have been quite a few translations. Academics have been the main translators spreading the word about my work in England and the U.S.

SB Which plays do they usually ask for and are the choices different from one country to another?

NR It's interesting to think about which plays they choose abroad. I have a feeling they go in chronological order. They've gotten to Cendres et Lampions. I think they've almost reached Ma Solange. But there are some exceptions, like Madame Ka, Par les routes and Bon, Saint-Cloud.

SB What projects will you be involved in over the next few years?

NR It's still up in the air. There's the commission from Frédéric Maragnani up to 2011. I've written the first two texts, Le phare and Le village, opening in August. I've got three more to write. The whole series will be staged in 2011. La Promenade, starring Nicolas Maury, is also playing at the Théâtre Ouvert for a week in 2011.
Then Nicolas Maury and I are staging De Tant en temps, the fiction piece for FRAC. And there are some other projects which I can't talk about yet.

SB You haven't become an actress yet, but you're getting closer and closer to directing, which doesn't surprise me after reading your plays and feeling captivated by the structure. I'm curious – do you visualize your plays being staged when you're writing them?

NR Not at all. That's not my problem, it's up to the director to create that. I don't think about the staging while I'm writing, even though the stage and its pitfalls are present and relevant. I wouldn't know how to stage a play. But I can direct actors. I'm very precise about what I have to tell and ask them, and what I'm trying to show. I like to let actors do things they wouldn't normally do on stage, things they wouldn't have permission to do, to let them be bad boys. It's really working outside the box.

SB Is that something you write down...?

NR No it's in the text. Although you're right in a way. But I don't know how to put that all together. Sometimes the staging doesn't coincide at all with the way I imagined it. Actually, for me staging is all about not finding solutions.

Noëlle Renaude interviewed by Sabine Bossan,
June 18, 2010
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