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The French playwright and director Joël Pommerat is one of the most sought after and admired artists in the world of theatre today due, in no small part, to the originality, disturbing strength and beauty of his poetic universe. Thanks to his collaboration with the National Theatre, his work will appear here on two occasions during the 2011/2012 season. We begin, this autumn, with the first production of Cendrillon, a very personal interpretation of the fairytale where the missing mother occupies a very important role in the mind of the young heroine. This is followed by the Belgian premiere of Thanks to my eyes, an opera that he created this summer at Aix-en Provence with the composer Oscar Bianchi and which will be shown at the Monnaie next Spring.
Cendrillon, like Pinocchio and Le Chaperon rouge from a few years ago, is a theatrical production intended for children as well as adults. Does this mean you have to write in a particular style, different maybe from that used for other plays?
No, I even try to toughen up some of my preconceptions. I certainly apply the same principles as I do when writing my other plays. For example, I try to hint at rather than state my intentions. I try to establish a balance between that which is clearly stated and that which is merely suggested. I try to develop an interaction between what is said and not said, as much in my writing for children as in my other writing.
What is it that draws you to the world of fairytales? Were you a great reader of them as a child? What memories have you retained?
I read a lot; stories that combined the real and the imaginary, as well as the supernatural. There was a series of around ten books that was called Contes et legendes populaires de… it covered all the regions of France as well as countries and cultures from around the world. I borrowed nearly all of them from my school library. If, today, my starting point for writing is fairytales it’s because I am sure these stories will appeal not only to children but also to me as an adult. These stories, which today we call fairytales, were not originally intended for children. Red Riding Hood and Cinderella (Pinocchio is different because it is not a traditional story) were not originally written for children and are not at all childish when they are not simplified and sweetened. The relationships between the characters are often violent and create in our imagination feelings that are far from lightweight. These are feelings that do not only concern children.
In Grimm’s Cinderella there is violence, spitefulness, darkness, perversity and pain which are not present in Perrault’s version. Cinderella’s ugly sisters even go to the lengths of amputation, a toe for one and a heel for the other, in order to get their foot into the glass slipper and marry the prince. There is blood, lies, opportunism, and tears. Moreover we can associate the ashes (cinders) where Cinderella sleeps, before her amazing transformation, with destruction, cremation and dirt. What is it that interests you, what are you looking for in the character and story of Cinderella?
I really got interested in this story when I realised that everything stems from the mourning of a death, that of Cinderella’s mother. From then on I understood things that had completely escaped me before. In my mind I had Perrault’s version of Cinderella and Walt Disney’s film which grew out of it: a more modern Cinderella, far less violent, and told from a Christian moral angle. It was the question of death that made me want to tell this story, not in order to frighten the children but because I found that this viewpoint illuminated the story in a new way. Not just a story of social climbing tempered with a good dose of morality or a story of idealised love, but rather a story that speaks about desire in its broadest sense: the desire to live as opposed to the absence of life. It is maybe because as a child I would have liked someone to talk to me about death that today I am interested in talking to children about it.
Can we not see all your productions as tales, in that the basis of the story is very often the family, with its complicated difficult relationships between parents and children, between brothers and sisters? Why do the core relationships of a family interest you so much?
First of all we have to agree on what a tale is and I don’t really know the answer. Perhaps we mean a story or rather an account which pretends to be real but which obviously is not, which expands along relatively simple honed lines, with actions which are not explained psychologically. The facts are told but without explanation or justification. In a way the tales relate to a way of writing which I had already adopted a long time ago, which consists of trying to describe fictional events as if they were real – and to do it in the simplest and most direct form of descriptive writing. As tales describe the most basic human relationships we can’t avoid the family. It is the basic social unit. As a writer, before applying myself to pondering the whole of society, I had to look carefully at the smallest social structure which is the family. If, in the fairytales, the family is so important it is because everything stems from there, it’s where all human destiny originates. It is therefore important to be involved, to look carefully if we want to understand or write about humanity from a political point of view, for example.
You once said that you were looking for reality, that the theatre was, for you, the way to say something topical and impassioned about the human condition and the world. Your stories were trying to reveal the presence, the mysterious and the concrete. You used the beautiful expression “ghostly reality” to describe the particular mood that you look to create in your productions. Do you visualise your plays as you write the scripts?
I have my initial feelings and images which then have to be confronted with reality and adapted accordingly. It is during the actual working period (on average around three to four months) with the actors and my other collaborators - principally Eric Soyer on lights and set design, Isabelle Deffin on costumes, François and Gregoire Leymarie on sound - that I realise that certain things are too difficult to put into practice or too complex. So then I have to compromise on my original ideas, some of which fall apart by themselves. But the original imagery must remain during all the phases of production. There is, of course, a long period of work in progress from the original musing to the actual performance during which the project evolves. However, it must remain faithful to what was established at the very beginning of the project, when the idea was born in my mind, at that point still vague or abstract. I have learnt to respect those initial moments and to never let them out of my sight, whatever happens.
How do you work with Eric Soyer, who is responsible for all the lighting and sets for your shows?
With Eric I have developed a method of working that is, let's say, not traditional. Eric is both the lighting engineer and the set designer. This is very significant as in my productions I think there is a total fusion between these two areas. The sets for our productions are empty spaces, like empty shells, it is the light that creates or, more accurately, reveals the spaces. Our relationship is not the classic one of director and set designer. I don’t write a script beforehand. I have never been able to give a set designer a script to read and then wait for his suggestions. Moreover I couldn't function like that. The stage setting, that is to say the space in which a story can take place, belongs for me totally in the domain of the writing. It is not an add-on. The-performance space where the figures or characters will evolve and live is the blank page at the beginning of the project. Since I started producing shows (the beginning of the 90s) I have always described myself as a writer of shows, not texts. As a writer of entertainments, I have always begun by pragmatically defining the overriding principles of staging and I stick to them. These are fairly simple principles based on the black box. This model allows us to create neutral spaces in the sense of being open, empty spaces, favouring creation and imagination, in the Peter Brook sense. Inside these-spaces, lighting plays a dominant and central role. It is for this reason that getting together with Eric has been so important to the evolution of my work. Eric accepted, right from the beginning of our collaboration, that the process would be a long and sometimes laborious work in progress. A creative process involving rehearsals, where the lighting is constantly present and evolving continuously, hour after hour, day after day (for 3 or 4 months) until it makes total sense with the acting, with the ongoing development of the text, and of course with the stage space (usually empty). The lighting is not an add-on to the production and the script but is an essential part of it, in the same way that all the other elements such as the sound, movement, the actors and costumes are. It was during our first sessions working together that we established a common vocabulary which we still use today: a lighting that is not trying to make everything visible, that can also conceal, and which leaves a lot to the visual imagination.
You have recently premiered Oscar Bianchi’s opera Thanks to my eyes at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, directed by you and with your libretto, a production co-produced by the Monnaie and which will be presented at the National Theatre in April, 2012. What have you learnt from your first foray into the world of opera, particularly from working with singers?
It has been a great pleasure to discover new requirements, those of the music and the singing. I feel a great deal of admiration for the singers and musicians, the conductor Frank Ollu and for Oscar Bianchi, the composer. I have a lot of respect for them all. I have discovered artists that impress me. At the same time, I'm glad to say, my work with singers turned out to be just like my work with actors. It is always about creating, with the greatest authenticity, the presences, the links, the relationships, the actions. Opera generates problems because of the specific requirements linked to the singing, but the theatre too has its own constraints. Working with singers, just like with actors, starts with gaining their confidence, then with patience, clear communication and precise exchanges. The goal is that the singers should, like the actors, make the words of their characters their own. In fact I actually ask them to abandon the idea of a character and to accept that the words come from within themselves. I try to break the distance between them and their fictional character. If this principle is accepted by the singer, the work l do with him or her is very close to that which I do with an actor. I feel that singing, even if it is complex as is the case in Thanks to my eyes, can be involved in providing something concrete in the production. I'm really very happy. It is a dimension that I will be able to develop further in other opera projects.
As well as the four works that you have mentioned, you are also busy writing a new libretto for Philippe Boesmans’ next opera which you will direct for its premiere in Spring 2014. As you did for Thanks to my eyes, you are partially re-writing one of your plays, considerably reducing the length to make room for the music. Do you think this economy of style could influence the way you write for the theatre in the future?
Yes, maybe, the need to be even more economical than I am when writing for the theatre could have an influence on me. In my play Grâce à mes yeux there was already a paring down, a desire to be concise. The work l did with Oscar Bianchi can be seen as a drastic pruning of the original. To be more exact, my original play ran to around 90 pages. I re-wrote it totally in order to reduce it as much as possible to make room for the music. At this stage I had a text of 25 pages. After discussion with Oscar Bianchi I found myself with a libretto of 11 pages! To get back to the possible influence of writing for an opera on my stage plays, it is true that the pruned down version of 25 pages gave me some ideas. I would like to use it to produce a show for the theatre. This new shortened version of Grace a mes yeux is interesting because something happens to the words, something different from in my other plays, which could lead to a very special piece of work using the body, silence, time, the space between the words. It would be a search for even greater abstraction, something that the original play would not have allowed. I am, therefore, convinced that this experience will nourish my future work in the theatre.
Interview by Christian Longchamp