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Playwrights Corner


Playwrights corner

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
© DR
The « Four Lives » of Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt
by Sabine Bossan and Caroline Collard

Eric Emmanuel Schmitt's objective in acquiring the Théâtre Rive Gauche is to provide a platform for contemporary playwrights and their work, which he feels are all too often neglected nowadays. Performances start in April, then again in September following renovations.

You're a playwright, writer and filmmaker - and now director of a theater. What was behind your decision to acquire the Théâtre Rive Gauche along with Francis Lombrail and Bruno Metzger ?

First of all it was a childhood dream - of spending as much time as possible in a theater. Entering a theater is like entering a church. When I walk into a theater it makes me feel like anything's possible, that life is going to be brighter, richer and more intense.
In addition to the childhood dreams there are also adult fears. I'm afraid of what's happening in theaters these days. They're losing their vocation to present plays and are programming musical comedies, sketches and stand-up comics instead. I enjoy watching shows like that - especially musicals - but my passion is grounded in texts and dramatic literature. Playwriting is about telling stories with characters and captivating audiences by taking them into unfamiliar territory.
I've seen many changes in my twenty years in the theater, and I think that kind of writing is harder to find now. Especially in contemporary plays. For me, the vocation of the theater is to produce works by living playwrights, whether they're French or foreign.
I have nothing against comedy. Humor is a kind of philosophy, and it gives you perspective. It's essential. What I'm criticizing is a retreat into comedy as the one and only genre, when audiences would rather be entertained and enlightened, entertained and moved, entertained and made to think.

Playwrights often complain about their plays not being read by theaters. How will your projects be chosen? Will you have a reading committee?

Yes there will be a reading committee. I will also be reading plays as artistic director of the theater along with Francis Lombrail, and Bruno Metzger as administrative director. I've already read thirty plays, including some in English, and have found more interesting ones than I anticipated. There are limits to what we can produce. We're not a subsidized theater so we can't present a new production every month. We're gambling on having hits, but that also means risking a flop, which is the nature of private theater. You want hit shows, but you also dread them! Because a hit means the playwright has found the right audience, the actors are happy and the theater is full, but it also means there's nothing else going on, so it puts a halt to new productions. That's the paradox we have to juggle with. The flexibility of private structures is really a great blessing for playwrights because it enables them to earn a living from their art, like actors and directors.

Like in Beaumarchais's day?

Exactly. All my plays have been staged in private theaters. I was lucky that an actor like Alain Delon took the risk of starring in a play by a young playwright. I was successful and was able to earn a living from my writing. But being a playwright is all too often like playing a supporting role. Subsidies enable you to produce plays, but then you've got to give the playwrights a chance to connect with the right audience and earn a living from their writing. That's where the private theaters come in.

How will you stage the shows? Will you also produce?

The quality of the texts will be the main criterion. When I find a play I like, I'll put together the cast and the theater can produce or co-produce and start looking for partners. So much the better if the plays are intelligent and funny. Personally I like them even more when they're intelligent and moving. There are so many different kinds of playwriting: the kind that hides behind the characters, which is common in English-language plays, or where the text is in the forefront, which is more the French tradition.
For the 7pm show we're going to gamble on choosing the best actors for the play even if they're not stars. For the 9pm show we're going to have to rely on actors that are audience favorites. With a 450-seat theater you can do both: present a star and have enough to pay them, yet also favor quality and "values" over names. The sets for the two shows will have to work well together. We'll also be presenting music, but only existing shows, for which we might also be involved in the production process.

What kind of renovations have you scheduled and when will they be completed?

We're giving the house and dressing rooms a facelift and changing the façade. The work on the dressing rooms and the house will start in April. We won't close down the shows, which means working at night. The façade will be done this summer so that everything will be ready in September.

Your work has been performed in many theaters abroad. Did you pick up any ideas there for managing your own theater?

No. Every country has its own specific theatrical life. Show times really depend on the lifestyle of the country. In Spain the matinée is at 7pm and the main show at 11pm. In Finland they perform at 6pm. Plays are also produced differently depending on the country. In Germany everything is subsidized by the city and regional governments. In Finland every city has a theater, often with three different-sized houses, enabling them to stage musicals, repertory and works by young playwrights. In France we have a mixed system, which is very diverse.

How will you combine your work as a playwright and as the director of a theater?

A good question, which I'm incapable of answering! One good thing is that reading work by your contemporaries is inspiring for an artist, particularly since I tend to read the classics over and over. I'm already leading three lives: playwright, novelist and filmmaker - and now I'm adding a fourth! It's a bit scary but also exciting. The more you do, the more you can do.

How is your playwriting going? Do you usually work on several projects at a time?

I'm obsessive and can only focus on one thing at a time. I've written two plays over the past two years. One will probably be staged next year with Pierre Arditi, and the other one could be staged at the Rive Gauche. I feel rather like the owner of an orchard. There are these trees inside me that grow all by themselves. Some of the trees grow novels, others short stories or tales, plays and films. I'm simply the gardner who checks to see which fruit is ripe. The dreamy, creative phase is very passive, slow and diverse. But the writing phase is active. The minute I sit down to write one of the stories, whether it's for a book, a stage or a film, I become obsessed!

How do you think contemporary playwrights are doing these days?

One thing really strikes me. Everywhere I go they say there are no playwrights, or very few. But the real issue isn't that there are no playwrights; it's that they need to find the right audience for their work. The biggest problem for a playwright today is that he's competing not only with his contemporaries but also with the dead - including some real heavyweights! That's the harsh reality for contemporary playwrights. Voices from the past can be overwhelming, and make people less willing to listen. You have to be dead - or very much alive - to have your work staged.

What has given you the greatest joy during your life in the theater?

My greatest joy in the theater has been in watching performances - when an actor is so gripped by one of my texts that I forget I'm the one who wrote it and become a spectator delighted to see his own work in someone else's hands.

What would you have called the theater if it hadn't already been named the Rive Gauche?

I love that name. I think it's both chic and popular, exactly what I'm hoping to do in this theater. Vitez said it better than I could: highbrow for everyone.

Interview by Sabine Bossan and Caroline Collard

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