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Playwrights Corner


Playwrights corner

Carole Thibaut
© Victor Tonelli
An interview with Carole Thibaut by Sabine Bossan

Sabine Bossan What inspired you to write your most recent play, L'Enfant, drame rural?

Carole Thibaut It was a playwriting residency in a little village in Isère called Saint-Antoine-l'Abbaye. I was invited by Textes en l'air, an organization that holds a festival there every year on contemporary playwriting. Most of the organization's members live in the village. I spent three months there in the summer of 2009, in June, July and September. The commission was originally to record people's stories, both women and men, but especially women. I had already worked on a similar assignment with immigrant women in suburban housing projects in Ile de France and was interested in what women in rural areas were talking about. To get things going I opened an office as a public letter writer where I swapped writing letters for weddings and first communions for real or made-up stories about women. People from the organization also took me to meet women living on remote farms and in a lot of different places. It made me aware of the fact that in general the stories told by women in rural areas in France were not very different from the ones I was told by women in the Parisian suburbs, whether they were from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Normandy or China. It's always the same patterns linked to dominance rules that weigh on them, regarding virginity, maternity, forced marriages imposed on very young girls who get pregnant, etc. I would like to point out that this is a very current issue.
I first wrote a play for the festival that I staged with professional actresses and locals who were amateurs. It was called Les Eroïques and was about these women's stories, while making them as anonymous as possible and giving them a more universal quality. It was pure reality theater. I polished the testimonies up a bit and edited them, but it was really basic. I like working with basic speech, to see how it sounds in writing and how it sounds again on stage. When I came back in September for the second part of the residency I asked if I could write something that was totally mine and where I would feel completely free. That's when I started writing L'Enfant, Drame rural. Before leaving I read the beginning of the play in front of sixty people from the village. I was thinking it was really a long way from the things I had recorded, and only concerned them from afar. As always when you give the first reading of a play, I "heard" what I had written and realized that it was really imbued with everything I had absorbed – not so much the anecdotes they told me as the weight of all the human beings I had met, in particular in the way the village gradually locked its inhabitants up in a mindset of obstruction and resistance to change.

SB Where did the idea of the child come from?

CT The play deals with both men and women, and the idea of the child is connected to the desire to have children and the inability to become a parent. The first time I went to Saint-Antoine it felt like a village without children, with no space for them, a place where people had become very hardhearted. But I think that also comes from my personal obsessions. While I was gathering the testimonies some people totally got the rules and told me very candid and powerful stories. For others the process was more unconscious and I sometimes found myself in an extremely unpleasant position - face to face with people who broke down in front of me because they had never talked about certain things before. The experience really changed my ideas about collecting people's testimonies, even though I've continued to do it and next May I'll be meeting some working-class women from Lejaby to record their stories about their struggles and resistance. People think these places don't exist anymore. Some people talk about the play as if it took place in the 19th or 20th century. That's totally wrong. Saying there's no rural world anymore is like admitting you never get out of Paris. The same goes for working-class women. It's as if the working-class world no longer existed.

SB In general how do you decide on what themes to focus on?

CT The themes are usually chosen after the fact, from the questions I have, which grow and develop inside me. Then at some point I start writing. I realize now that there are cycles. For three, four or five years it was the issue of violence, and the issue of gender. Those questions are still there inside me. But that isn't the issue in L'Enfant, even though I feel like I've dealt with male-female relationships in a very different way from most other playwrights, quite simply because most other playwrights are men. So I think in my plays you can find an intellectual who's a woman, or a doctor who's a woman, which almost never happens in plays written by men. They are restricted to blatant social and emotional stereotypes. For me the issue of gender is very political. How does it shake up all the lines, codes and frames of reference? And where do we squirrel away our ambiguous feelings about these issues?

SB You play hardball in your plays.

CT I write where it shakes me up. And it's usually around our difficulty in saying things, in all the blanks when we speak, in the places where people think they are and think they're speaking but in fact they aren't there and are speaking about something else. What we say is always about something else and it can trigger violence. That's why I also deal with violence. For me violence is the human tipping point, where you verge on madness, like in love. It's something that escapes speech. That's the part in the theater that fascinates me. Digging into the unspeakable, blackouts, ordinary and extraordinary black holes.

SB Is the theater a form of commitment for you? Do you agree with that statement?

CT Yes, theater is a form of commitment but one that is part of me. I don't write activist plays. For me art has no instructive function, in theater or literature. There are questions to be asked, which become obsessions, and writing is the only way to try not to resolve them but to elucidate them. It's as if I were setting something up in a fable or a piece of fiction that allows me to question that place and bring out its meaning. My plays are not activist in the sense of having a didactic or pedagogical message. But they grow out of my personal commitments, and I am deeply committed on a social and political level. They grow out of a certain interpretation of the world that flows from that commitment and has led me to work with people who are underprivileged and on the fringes, such as women who are in a bit of a shambles. Those are the human beings that I find terribly moving. And they inspire me because it's what I experience as a human being.
Literature is what brought me to the theater. I came to the theater because I loved words so deeply. I started out as an actress because I wanted to play around with words. Working as a director I have the same desire to bring those words out. I think you write, act or become an artist because there's something deeply vital that needs to be expressed, otherwise you go crazy. And my plays grow out of this questioning of the world and my intimate relationship with it. If I kept it bottled up inside it would devour me.

SB You work with audiences from different cultures and social backgrounds. Does your work as an artist benefit from that?

CT It benefits a great deal, otherwise I wouldn't do it. I'm not interested in artistic activism for its own sake in the social or cultural missionary vein. In fact I think it's a really bad way to go about it. That whole process of financial support for artists needs to be revised. It should go mainly to the artists themselves, otherwise they do a bad job and there's no real exchange. And it has to be a real exchange between my world and theirs. It doesn't do anything for them if I come in and say I'm going to show them what theater is all about. It has to be based on sharing. And that exchange makes it possible to avoid having everything standardized. I'm involved with people in these projects who have a totally different frame of reference from mine; because we're in very different places socially and culturally in the broadest sense. That's where things start to get really interesting, when they begin to grasp this means of expression. When there's a true exchange you can have real discussions. And that takes you back to the essence of theater, as a space for urgent and vital speech, a terribly subversive space. That way of taking hold of the stage and saying things to the world brings you back to the theater's quintessential place: "I'm speaking from my guts, my world as a human being, whether you like it or not, and I have something to say to you and to the world that is essential, vital and fundamental."

SB What are you working on at the moment?

CT I'm working on the follow-up to L'Enfant-Drame rural which is actually the first part of a triptych entitled Les Communautés Territoires. I'm working on places where groups of human beings are living and generating their own rules and laws. There was L'Enfant - drame rural, and L'Ile-Epopée insulaire that grew out of a residence in 2006 on the island of Ouessant. It was the first group of playwrights that went on to create the Théâtre de la Tête Noire as part of the "Partir en écriture" event. I realized that the island had lived for a long time under a falsely matriarchal system, which was actually highly patriarchal and conservative. It was one of the first towns to elect a woman mayor, in 1945, but paradoxically it was through conservative support. Jeanne, who was the mayor of Ouessant in 1945, is the main focus of my play. I imagined her story from her birth in 1905 to her death in 2005. I wrote about three periods - 1905, 1945, 2005 – working on how secrets are passed on in a clan ruled by women. It required a complex plan with forty characters and a four-hour-long performance. I hope to mount the production in 2014-2015. The third part, entitled Cités- Tragédies urbaines, focuses more on speech than storytelling.
And I'm working on some completely different material for next year that will develop into something I'm calling Liaisons contemporaines. I still don't know if it's going to be a performance or an installation, and the writing is closely tied to the form itself. It's about questioning romantic relationships and those with others through new media - the way texting, emails and other current media can make relationships even more fragmented. The profusion of media is going to split people apart even more, in a kind of frenzy and addiction, as the form of the media itself changes the content of the message. You don't write the same thing to someone in a text, an email, a letter or a chat. It multiplies the ways in which the subject can be fragmented. So the form of the performance depends entirely on how the questions are framed. I think it could be an immersive installation that paradoxically stages an impossible meeting of bodies or one that is forever starting over again. And I think I'll use dancers amidst all these new technologies. It asks the question "How is it being told?" I experimented with this last year in a text called Moscou rouge, a writing commission from the Festival de la correspondance in Grignan. It's really interesting because these are new languages to be explored. As such they challenge our relationships to performance time, writing and also to reading. Spectators can either identify or not with the issues through these new forms of language. That is in my view the question raised by these new media in the current performing arts landscape. I'm starting to get obsessed with this new project. I think I'm going to present it in the winter 13-14 season at Confluences (Paris 20th) where I am now an associate artist for the artistic and thematic discussions devoted to the new media and their impact on our personal images of ourselves.
I have two other performances on tour at the moment. Les Petites Empêchées- Histoires de princesses which grew out of questions about how gender is constructed in childhood through figures from folk tales, and Fantaisies-L'Idéal féminin n'est plus ce qu'il était, a solo performance that challenges gender representations, and in particular what constitutes feminine identity, in a way that's very conscious but also totally out there.

SB You've got a lot going on - between L'Enfant, your explorations, what you're currently writing and the touring!

CT That's what motivates me. We all work at different paces and energy levels. I have an enormous need to shake things up, to challenge myself, to explore and feel a sense of wonder about things. Some researchers recently discovered that this capacity to feel a sense of wonder is what keeps the brain from aging. Art and life could be seen in that light as a continually rejuvenating experience.

Carole Thibaut Interview
December 2012
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