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Playwrights Corner


Authors' Notes

Lancelot Hamelin
© DR
A face to face talk | Christian Siméon & Sabine Bossan


Sabine Bossan What are your plans for the Cabaret des Hommes perdus since winning the Molière awards for Best Playwright and Best Musical?

Christian Siméon We hope to remount it in Paris next year, probably at the Pépinière-Opéra. Then the production will be on tour starting in September. The awards are timely because the production has been a big hit, but theatres in other parts of the country were very hesitant about buying it.

SB Did they hesitate because of the subject matter?

CS We were faced with that kind of fear from the beginning, from public institutions as well. We never received any of the grant money we applied for. The production was made possible by the prize that ADAMI gave Jean-Luc Revol in 2004, which was something totally independent from this. But three theatre directors in Paris were behind us: Jean Macqueron from the Etoile du nord, who has been a faithful supporter, Jean-Michel Ribes who presented us at the Rond-Point, and the director of the Vingtième Théâtre.

SB But audiences — straight or gay— have proved those fears to be wrong.

CS Absolutely. The reception it got on opening night at the Rond-Point was amazing. The chemistry was there right away. We felt totally supported for those five weeks — no question. The audiences carried the show. The public institutions were nervous — not the audiences. That said, I can see how you might have missed the point if you had just read the text and didn’t have all that information. Reading plays is complex, particularly this kind of writing.

SB Did you think there would be resistance because of the subject matter? It’s really surprising in this day and age. Foreigners are amazed that we don’t have more gay plays.

CS I’ve never asked myself that question. The play was written for atypical actors who come from musical comedy. Jean-Luc Revol asked me to write something on the theme when we were working on Landru et fantaisies. I had written the part of Anatole Deibler for him. He said: « I’d like you to write a musical comedy about a gay porno star » and I wondered how I’d manage it! Jean-Luc, who is very clever, took me to see Denis d’Acangelo, Patrick Laviosa, Alexandre Bonstein and Sinan Bertrand in Madame Raymonde, Créatures and Zapping. When I saw them, I realized I couldn’t pass up such talented artists.
The thing that interests me in this profession is having different experiences, never doing the same thing. Picasso said: « you can do anything in art except the same thing over again. » This project allowed me to go in directions I’d never taken, including the long collaboration with the composer, which I was really eager to undertake. I had already worked with Jean-Claude Camors on La Priapée des écrevisses a few years earlier and wanted to have a similar experience again.

SB How did you and the composer work together?

CS Patrick Laviosa and I got along terrifically right away. We found our way of working after a bit of trial and error. He would send me musical phrases with the versification he wanted. And I adapted my work to that. It was exciting and playful at the same time. One of my favourite songs is Le Joli Roi de mai. I spent three days on it, during Easter weekend, singing the same musical phrase. So it really was a happy Easter.

SB Did the actors have a strong influence on your writing?

CS I wrote it for them — or how I perceived them, because I didn’t know them very well at the time. It’s a cabaret, a series of numbers. That gives you leeway for different kinds of writing. As the story develops, the theatrical side takes over and the characters start talking. It was a pretty logical progression within this dramatic form.

SB Did you ever find yourself treating the process as you would your work as a sculptor — trying to write what would show their best sides, almost like models posing for you?

CS It’s an interesting idea. I sculpt without a model, but it’s true that I wanted to give them a chance to show everything they could do. Or everything I thought they could do. So, yes, I think there was that desire. After what I saw in those guys — real stage prodigies — I wanted to tell a story with all these different numbers. And with the underlying idea of making people laugh in order to really bowl them over.

SB When Jean-Luc Revol commissioned the play he asked you to develop certain themes. What ideas did you have for dealing with those themes?

CS Jean-Luc spoke about one theme in particular — the gay porno star. He also wanted the play to talk about AIDS. The hardest thing in this business is to invent stories. The idea was to mix different archetypes. It was built up gradually, but continued to rely heavily on the personalities I was writing for.

SB Why did you choose to make Dicky straight?

CS There’s a kind of ambiguity. He’s straight but he does it anyway. That’s something that exists in gay pornography, where some of the actors are straight. It’s known as gay for pay. But I don’t think he’s aware of having any particular sexual orientation. He’s just this little guy who’s really screwed up.

SB There were many references to the TV talent show, Star Ac, but I kept thinking of Faust.

CS It is Faust. And Star Ac. The Star Ac principle is about how everything gets mixed up together nowadays. It’s a godsend for a playwright. Just think about what’s going to happen to all these young people who have experienced this budding glory only to see it evaporate. It’s going to generate a lot of drama. And cruel stories to tell.

SB The part I find a bit ambiguous is that all the gay characters pull through and the one who changed over to the gay side seems to get punished. Yet the production is rather militant, because you talk very openly about the gay world, which is rare; but at the end we’re faced with a dramatic moral, as if there were some divine punishment.

CS I would say this production is militant by definition. I didn’t ask myself that question when I wrote the story. The fact that Dicky is gay or straight has no bearing on his being infected. One of the conditions of the commission was to talk about AIDS. It’s always the same issue. How?
I could have talked about barebacking, where men knowingly allow themselves to be infected with the virus — as an escape from the anxiety of being infected. But we wouldn’t have gone in the Broadway direction in that case. It would have created more of a Berlin atmosphere — darker and more destructive.
That said, it is a story of destruction. But there’s no moral. No payment.
We’re not here to give lessons. It’s the story of a fall. A bit like Icarus. Quite a concrete story, in which a butterfly burns its wings in trying to achieve easy fame in a world that is anything but easy. I wasn’t trying to create a show for the ghetto. I wanted to create something open that anyone could see. Le Cabaret des hommes perdus is also a generous show because the performers are generous artists; and I wanted it to remain easy-going, with multiple tableaux and very different moods.

SB Would you say that you are a witness to the gay world? The show is always on the edge of being militant, while never excluding the straight members of the audience. In fact, in dealing with pornography, prostitution, peep shows, gay films and AIDS, it’s about a part of society that is just as much straight as gay.

CS I’m not a witness, I’m telling a story. There are societies without pornography, and we know what they’re like. They are dead inside. I based it on the life of Joey Stefano who was a porno star in the ‘80s. He died of an overdose, but he was HIV-positive. Joey Stefano was well-known in the gay world because he was the first passive porno star, which was a small revolution in porno.
Le Cabaret des hommes perdus takes place in that milieu. These are strange lives, right? Who wants to be a porno star? I suppose it comes from the circumstances. It’s not a life goal. Although… I guess you shouldn’t make too much of it. Porno actors probably have a routine. But what does a sexual act mean when it’s your job?
That said, there is a real love story in Le Cabaret des hommes perdus. It’s one-way, but it’s still a real love story.

SB You’ve always written historical characters. Are you a history buff?

CS Yes, not History with a capital « H », but little stories that are like little time-travel machines. I don’t do a historian’s job. What interests me is altering stories to make them more vivid. My characters are always from today’s world. La Priapée des écrevisses is about Marguerite Steinheil, revised and updated for our times.
Having said that, there were some very open-minded milieus in the Belle Epoque. Very progressive.

SB It’s funny because you say that you never use models in your sculpture, but in your playwriting you often start with an existing character.

CS Absolutely. But I’m more interested in the story I want to tell than in the character. The character fits into the overall story. For instance, I started with the character of Marguerite Steinheil, a rather silly and scatty woman who was a big liar, and I made a monster out of her. And the monster is fascinating.
Because it resonates inside all of us. There’s a dormant creature in us that we try to keep in check however we can — an even better reason to let it all out on stage.
That’s where the spectacular side comes in — and the delight. My protagonists are often monstrous, except in Théorbe, where it’s the situation that’s monstrous. A sculpture has to move and vibrate in its immobility. I work on the body, movement and blazing flashes.
Everything moves forward in blazing flashes. My writing style benefited from my training as a sculptor, from what sculpture is to me — I mean working on something as a whole. In a class (I teach sculpture) beginning students often ask me where to start. I answer that they have to start everywhere. No particular line is more important than another. It’s the same in theatre. You tackle the play from all sides. Every bit of information radiates back before and after it is given, just as every bit of clay you add changes the way you see the whole volume — from the parts that are directly adjacent to it, down to the entire structure. The work is a whole.

SB For Le Cabaret, you have to start with both laughs and emotions.

CS And from the beginning and end. Sometimes I read plays by young playwrights with magnificent beginnings, and then the play disintegrates. They start writing the beginning, then they rewrite it and keep on like that, and the end is barely worked out. It makes no sense dramatically because you can’t go forward without knowing where you’re going. I experimented on a play called Les Eaux lourdes where I started by writing the end. You need to have an overall vision of the work. And a minimum of technical mastery. Technique and that blazing spark. Part man, part heaven.
The part that can be explained, and the mysterious part. The work grows out of both.
When Michelangelo sculpted, he knew where he was going. He’s the only one who succeeded in putting that blazing spark into matter — where it normally isn’t found. But he always knows where he’s going with the sculpture. He knows where he is when his chisel is about to touch the tip of the nose. What did Michelangelo see that we can’t?
When David Lynch wrote Mullholland Drive it made no sense dramatically, and that’s what’s so great about it, because he has a different goal — to lose the spectator in a Lynchian labyrinth, in which he places two versions of life side by side, one a dream and the other real. Not everyone sees it, but everyone is aware of watching a masterpiece. You can only do this if you have an absolute mastery of dramaturgy.
Virtuosity implies technical mastery, and is thus hidden, but is necessary of course. It’s the least we should expect. And it is something often forgotten nowadays.

SB Listening to you talk about sculpture, I realise that my question about the end of Cabaret doesn’t make sense. It came to you as you were writing.

CS That’s why I say “by definition”, when people say this is a militant show, but I actually have no idea. I really didn’t ask myself that question while I was writing it.

SB Was the audience reaction different at the Rond-Point and the Pépinière?

CS Not really. There’s a point where things shift. At the beginning of the show, and up to the porno film shoot, some audience members are uncomfortable and wonder where they are. Then they are won over by the actors’ comic talents and generosity, and by the staging. Because there really is a scene of a porno film being shot.
I really gave myself free rein because I have complete faith in Jean-Luc Revol’s talent. But in an easy-going kind of way. It was a personal writing choice. Of course I could have moved towards something much darker and obscene given the initial constraint — not necessarily more subversive, but definitely more disturbing.
But that would probably have been taking the easy way out, given the subject matter — the expected thing. It would have been a different show.

SB You explore all angles of what constitutes a show in your Cabaret. Do you have any other projects like this in the works?

CS Sure I have a project. I want to continue. We’re going to keep working together because this is a fantastic team and we really love each other. But it won’t be in the form of a cabaret. It won’t be a follow-up because I don’t like doing the same thing over again. We’re going to try some other avenues in musical comedy. I was told this is the first time a playwright was awarded a Molière for a musical comedy. I never thought for a second that I’d win a Molière for Best Playwright for this play.

SB The play is going to be staged abroad. What will you be most careful about in the translations?

CS Our main goal is for the production to tour abroad, since all the actors speak English. There are some leads in the United States and in England. Inch Allah (God willing), I might add. But I’d like to see them acting over there. It would be the right thing. As for the translation, the songs are the most complicated part. That will involve some technical difficulties. And it will require the composer’s approval.

SB Do you go to see the shows when your plays are performed abroad?

CS I try. I can be a rather sedentary sculptor, then my writing work suddenly sends me out on trips. I meet people with whom I have a real connection through the work. I explore new countries through them. I would never have imagined doing that. So I started taking English lessons. I went to see Hyènes when it was staged in Los Angeles, and I couldn’t communicate with anyone. That was terribly frustrating.

SB IS there anything you’d like to add, that we haven’t touched on?

CS The importance of breaking things up when they become too systematic. I mean taking things in unexpected directions. Every new play poses a new challenge. Themes are what help me move forward in sculpture. I’m a figurative sculptor, so I explore vertebrate bodies. It’s a wonderful craft. But there’s always an initial constraint, in sculpture or theatre.

SB Breaking up conventional ways of playwriting?

CS I think every story leads to a particular dramaturgy or way of writing. I couldn’t write La Priapée des écrevisses, or La Reine écartelée, which is a neo-Elizabethan drama, in the same style as Théorbe. The story takes precedence. You can dig it out of a real story or an anecdote, but then you have to make it all-embracing because the play must always be underscored by myth. You could also alter an existing story, and even knowingly lie to get closer to the truth.

SB That seems a distinctive feature of the artistic process.

CS Yes it is.

SB What would you say to those who are just beginning to write plays?

CS Bone up on dramaturgy. And avoid talking about yourself. There is no ego in creative work. And meet people. Find a family of artists, a director. Move forward as a pair — or more.
Theatre is a collective adventure, so playwriting is a collective act. The relationship with a director is the fertile ground in which a playwright can develop. I’m speaking from experience because I was given that opportunity.
One day I sent Hyènes to the director Jean Macqueron, and it all started there. A year later he staged the play, with the fabulous Michel Fau. For a playwright who knows nothing about the business and is coming in with just a vague idea of what it’s all about, it’s amazing to suddenly have a theatre and a director who has faith in you and commissions plays. I learned the ropes from Jean Macqueron and the crew at the Etoile du Nord theatre (then known as the 18 Théâtre).
My thanks to them.
I also met Jean-Michel Ribes when Jean Macqueron staged Hyènes in Avignon. Ribes was there during all the crucial periods in my life as a playwright, and he staged La Priapée des écrevisses at the Pépinière Opéra. I’ve been lucky to have my work performed in private and subsidized theatres.

SB You mentioned breaking up things that are systematic. Could you elaborate on that?

CS Artists are seeking something. If you make things too systematic, they stop seeking. OK, Picasso said « you can do anything in art except the same thing over again », but he also said he was finding, not seeking. But that’s evading the question. Picasso was a trickster. He was seeking. He was seeking his whole life. What he found is his work, what was strewn along the path. But the path itself — life — is about seeking.

SB Will you continue working on commissions, projects that are immediately connected to something a director wants to do, and to specific actors?

CS Yes. That’s been my path — except for my first two plays.
My plays often grow out of a desire from some outside source — from cross-pollination. Some of the plays I’ve written haven’t been taken any further, but I would have written during that time anyway, so why not those plays. There have also been times when I’ve taken my own projects to a director. Landru et fantaisies is a project I thought of because I wanted to work with the actor Christophe Garcia again. And I took the story to Jean Macqueron. I acted recently in Le Cid, staged by Wissam Arbache at Gennevilliers, and I’m going to write about that experience. It’s not a commission, it’s just something I really want to do. I’m always afraid of running out of ideas, so I currently have eight pre-play projects in my files. I have enough for at least six years!

SB What would you like to say in conclusion?

CS I’m so happy about everything that’s happening right now, so I’d just like to say a word of thanks. I’m someone who writes for others — for actors and directors. That’s the richness of playwriting. You’re not writing alone — because you’re writing for someone.

  Christian Siméon interviewed by Sabine Bossan  
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