Theater als Reise zum Menschen
Herausgegeben von Olivier Ortolani
Publisher : Alexander Verlag Berlin
Jean-Guy Lecat :
In 1975 I was working as an actor and stage manager for Ellen Stewart ’s La MaMa Company in New York . During a long tour we played The Trojan Women at the Bouffes du Nord and Electra and Medea in both spaces of the Sainte-Chapelle as part of the Festival d’Automne. Peter was looking for someone to organize a tour of The Ik in the and find the performance spaces: the company was being sent as a gift from the French government for the American bicentennial. I went to see him and Micheline Rozan and explained my past experience as a stage designer and as technical director for Jean-Louis Barrault (who was responsible in the first instance for bringing Peter to Paris ). At that time, not being overly familiar with his work, I asked Peter for some advice, some rules which could guide me in my research. He simply said to me, ‘I cannot say anything to you that would help you. You see on your own; you will recognize the spaces. What is most important is that these spaces should be full of life.’
I started my career at the Vieux-Colombier theatre in Paris . It is a place with a strong history: a small room for 300 people, a single-space theatre originally opened by Jacques Copeau early of the last century. As I was the only technician there, I got to know every aspect of the space, the quality of the relationships it set up, and how all of the theatrical disciplines interacted to form a whole. Then I worked at the Avignon Festival with the Living Theatre in 1968, and through relationships made there I collaborated on the creation of the Cartoucherie in the Bois de Vincennes with Jean-Marie Serreau and Ariane Mnouchkine . I worked for Claude Perset, a theatre architect, in my spare time, and helped Serreau to developed a prefabricated theatre which could be used in different configurations to Avignon Festival and then, during the rest of the year, in the Cartoucherie. Later I worked for Jean-Louis Barrault in Théâtre des Nations and I participated in the five-month-long design and construction to build a wood wooden theatre in the Gare d’Orsay , a space, rented from the French railway company. We had to confront some of the absurd problems which continually crop up working in ‘found’ spaces: we had to persuade the French Railway to change the platforms of certain trains, so that there was never any noise when Madeleine Renaud was speaking. We had to read out the play on the platforms with a stopwatch to determine when we needed to have to move a train under the street. This gave me the idea later, with Peter Brook that we could convince people to change their activities in order to bring a play to life in a given space – whether it involved stopping cars, planes or trains or whatever was needed. The Ik was due to travel to Berlin, Vienna, Venice and Belgrade before the States. I went to Berlin and Venice with Miriam Goldschmidt , one of the actresses in the play, who helped me understand the proportions and technical requirements of the production. I discovered quickly by instinct what worked and didn’t work as a space with the very particular world of this play. It was only through what I could see was unnecessary that what was necessary become clear. It wasn’t a question of making a space: it was rather a matter of recognizing the right one which, with the necessary transformations, would feel correct for the play – and that still remains true today. When people asked what kind of space we were looking for it was very difficult to say: one can’t describe a space, but one can describe a relationship which should exist there. I could see immediately that if the space told a story which was in conflict with the play – if it was too decorated, too beautiful, too violent, too aggressive, too well prepared – then it would never work.
“Theatre is life” Peter brook says. This sentence illustrates perfectly what our research has been at the Bouffes du Nord during 25 years; but is the space itself, the theatre, considered in this sentence? I remember having had an architect noticed that in the architecture books, on the pictures showing their work there is never any human being; he said : ‘of course, human beings have not a right proportion, can you imagine a pregnant woman in the opening of a door, we wouldn’t see the right size of the door’ !
In the workshops I have directed in Montreal or Buenos Aires , we tried to answer this question with the participants. We had glue photos of different kind of human beings pictured in architecture books and discovered how much this architect was right. Not because of the proportions of human beings as he said, but just because when there is a beautiful pregnant woman on photo we first see her and look at her, and the architecture comes after. Whereas at the very centre of a theatre production there is a human being, and it’s him the public comes to see. All the environment of the actor (set and architecture) must be in harmony, in proportion, “human scaled” as Le Corbusier says; at this condition only the necessary intimacy between the audience and the performance can occur.
For Peter Brook this relationship between architecture, actors and audience is essential because in his creation process, he chose to have no sets (as he developed in his book “The Empty Space”), or only suggested sets, letting that way a large liberty for the actors to find the elements that will be for the audience a start or the support for their imagination.
When in a production the imaginary world of the audience has such an importance, the least intervention of fabric, colour, prop or costume has a significance and it must be chosen with care. It is not anymore a question of finding “the right object” but the one that will have the strongest power of suggestion at that very moment. This imaginary world exists even more in public mind in that the props manipulated by the actors are used in an unexpected way and not in their ordinary functions.
For instance the use of bricks in « Ubu Roi » in 1980 : Bougrelas, his mother in his arms run after by Père Ubu , escapes from his castle trough a secret staircase and the underground tunnels. In our production he advanced by walking in equilibrium on bricks he threw in front of him. Within a second the precarious nature of his situation is indicated through his acting; the audience goes backwards to the vivacity of his reactions as a child at the Guignol. At this precise moment the need for a set disappears. In Ubu again, later a character who wants to escape from his enemies jumps onto another brick. His acting at that moment tells us that he is high enough to escape from them. Here again the need for a set is useless. In this production we used big electric cable drums; as the unique elements of the set they became as well a table or Ubu’s throne. Piled on top of the other they became the tower of the castle into which the companions of the Père Ubu rushed after this poor Bougrelas.
In a production such as Ubu, which is a practical joke written for puppets the places of the action change extremely quickly. Real sets are excluded; they would make the play far too heavy and long.
Later, in 1983, in the Mahabharata, a character lost in the Himalaya is suddenly at the bottom of a lake. On the bank of the lake his enemies watch over a simple pale blue sheet of plastic, indicating the surface of the water, this plastic hold by two actors. No set can compete with such liberty and lightness. The Opera only with its poor imagination and the heaviness we know of it, so strongly attached to traditions would dare to show us the Himalaya , the lake, the water, the snow, the banks, the enemies on the banks. (But what about the singer in water in the bottom of the lake?)
Shakespeare in his Globe theatre and his unique permanent set worked already that way, when for instance he had the chorus said at the beginning of « The Life of Henry V » :
« O for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brighest heaven of invention:
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene.....
.... Bur pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraiséd spirits that hath dared
On th is unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object. Can this cockpit hold
The vast fields of ? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt ?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work....
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance.
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’threceiving earth:
For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings
Carry them here and there: jumping o’er times;
Turning th’ accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which sypply,...”
In «A Midsummer-Night’s Dream » the craftsmen who has casting their parts say :
« Quince : … Then there is another thing : we must have a wall in the great chamber; for Pyramus and Thisby, say the story, did talk throught the chink of a wall. »
Snug «You can never bring in a wall.- What say you Bottom? »
Bottom : « Some man or other must present Wall ; and let him have some plaster, or some loam, or some roughcast about him, to siggnify wall ; and let him hold his fingers thus, and through that cranny shall Pyramus and Thisby whisper. »
In the everyday life we see but a part of the whole (universe, globe, mountains, horizon, houses, cities, etc...) and we are used to reconstruct the image in it’s wholeness from this only element. The space in which the show is done can be significant and stimulates the imagination too. From the moment the stage is empty, a convention is quickly settles with the public. If an actor plays on a carpet, as in “The Conference of the Birds” by Uddin Attar, we understand that the boundaries of the space, at that moment the sky, are the those of the carpet, and naturally the walls of the theatre disappear from the vision of the audience.
But if an actor, for a short moment, walks off the carpet, gets nearer the stage walls and play for instance with a door, the whole acting space then becomes the set, and if in this theatre there is no aesthetic difference between the stage and the public space then the whole theatre becomes the set and the public is immediately included in the acting space
In “La tragedie of Carmen” opera by G. Bizet, the action in Lilas pastia’s cafe starts with Carmen on a very small carpet, then as Don José enters and later the officer, the acting spreads all over the stage. At one moment Lilas Pastia choose a woman in the audience to give her to Don José who will leave with her as the toreador appears. In one second, it’s the whole theatre space that becomes the cafe, and when the toreador comes in the public is included in action.
But this is possible again, like in The Conference of the Birds, only if the theatre have the same aesthetic all around. It is more difficult, even impossible if as we see now more and more, the stage is painted in black and the audience space decorated.
This is exactly the reason we had chosen to build the seats and the set of the “Costume” on Schiller Theatre stage; we had that way a complete environment unity. I never found at that time a similar space or theatre.
We also have created a great crevice in the stage space, breaking holes in the side walls for Timon of Athens; in The Ik we used iron rungs on walls, so that the actors could climb from one mountain to another, while in The Mahabharata other rungs made an upward movement as possible as all the horizontal ones. This freedom to move at will in space and time, to evoke vast armies and intimate introspection, is made possible by the simple open platform on which the action takes place. There is no barriers, no partitions: these worlds were all open to one another. The public plays with these conventions with pleasure. We found the same free qualities in the Bouffes du Nord that in as the Elizabethan Theatre. The space is simple, intimate and without boundaries; it possesses an Elizabethan sense of verticality with the dramatic height of the columns, sadly missing in so many modern theatres.
But the Bouffes du Nord was in danger of coming to a definite conclusion of its 100-year history when Peter Brook chanced upon it. Its owner, Narcisse Zecchinel , had already started to demolish it bit by bit in order to use the site for a car park. Fire had damaged the balconies, and he had destroyed the stalls seating; a leaking roof was allowed to continue the process of degeneration from above. It was at just this point of near-death that it awakened in Brook an answer to many of the questions about space raised during the nomadic search his group had undertaken. Stripped bare of the civilizing encumbrance of upholstered chairs and a decorative finish, it was essential theatrical form, a raw space made for gathering and sharing. The fire had scorched off the top skin which stops the imagination at a specific style or period; now the gaze was able to penetrate layers suspended partway between cultural definition and natural disintegration, between the here and now and the dissolution of all at the end of time. In the Bouffes du Nord the action takes place remarkably close to the audience: centre stage is only 10 metres away from the furthest spectator of the 250 at ground level. (There are a further 125 seats on each of the two lower balconies, making a total of 500 in a space which apparently held 1,000 in its previous life.) The acting area is defined by the audience seats on the arc of the front bench, which begins at the outside edges of the side walls. The distance from the centre of the front row to the plane of the proscenium arch is 9.5 metres, so the bands of wall to either side of the proscenium feel very close, pressing in on our field of vision. The zone which they frame through a narrow, soaring 8-metre opening – that of the former stage – has, rather poor sight lines from the auditorium. People at the sides look across the space, and see only a small triangle of the ‘original stage’ surface. Brook’s interpretation of the Bouffes – putting the actors in the middle – makes a virtue of this defect. This means that, of an overall acting surface of 200 square metres, only a small zone of about 40 square metres has good visibility for all the audience. One of the theatre’s most striking characteristics is the absence of a middle scale between the intimate acting area and the fuller volume of the total stage: the performers are physically very close to the public, but the background against which they appear is vast and distant.
The stage of the Bouffes du Nord is very deep – 17 metres – and the back wall is 11 metres high and 16 metres wide. Curiously, rather than dwarfing the actor, this clash of scales reinforces the human presence: one reads the large and the small reciprocally, rather than in opposition to one another. This depth also allows enormous flexibility of theatrical effect. The Bouffes has something very special and unique, which is that in the natural structure of the space the depth is articulated. There is something which delineates the big space into two linked areas because of our playing way in front of what was the proscenium; and there are still the remnants behind of the flytower. We have a circle coming round and framing something which for us is no longer a picture frame but a flexible division, because as you go through it another space opens out.
Through this, something very interesting is happening architecturally speaking, and I don’t think anyone could have invented it from a theoretical standpoint. There is a new principle that could be used, which is that of a double-depth theatre space. The first area has its front and back, surrounded by the semicircle of the audience; when an actor passes in front of the plane of the proscenium by a matter of only 2 metres there is an enormous gain in intimacy which the actors use very consciously, like going into close-up. There are scenes which, in rehearsal, have to be brought only less than a metre downstage to suddenly be brought into focus, just as one would with a camera. There is a great psychological difference between someone at the back, the middle and the furthest forward point in that particular area. Then the second zone has the very back, the middle and front; but, because this is always framed, the impression of distance is greatly increased wherever one goes. The world of the play can be concentrated on the space in front of the proscenium arch (very often this zone is defined with an object such as a rock or a piece of furniture); then the scale can be suddenly amplified by occupying the whole depth, or by changing the accent of the lighting in the ‘back’ zone, a device that we used very much in The Mahabharata, putting things right at the back during the battle scenes, exploding the view into a distant panorama..
The proscenium arch, rather than cutting off the world of the play, now has the role of a flexible threshold, a kind of diaphragm whose ‘focal length’ can be precisely controlled. Intimately linked to the theatre’s depth is a powerful accent in the vertical dimension. The stage surface is a constant reference, a shared ground. The side walls were formed by filling the space of the two structural bays bracketing the proscenium with plastered-over brick. They have extremely tall proportions: 3 metres wide by nearly 13 metres high. This proportion, combined with their material and colour, gives them a special role as ‘off cuts’ of the huge back wall scaled to work with the intimate acting area – a kind of near background. The theatre’s three balconies begin (like the ground-level at the edge of the side walls.
The proportions of the Bouffes du Nord are unusually satisfying. The principal accent is provided by the contrast between the shadowy horizontals of the balconies and the ultra-thin columns, whose close spacing emphasizes their height. The side walls are also particularly important for this effect of height, as they extend all the way from the stage floor to the top without interruption. There is a rhyming of certain key dimensions of the theatre which generates a sense of unity in the space. Cut along the axis of the stage, the volume described by the columns is as broad as it is high; in other words, the theatre is inscribed in a square, or wrapped around a circle of 14 metres in diameter. The horizontal centre line of this circle – the halfway point in the height – lies exactly on the second balcony, which divides the theatre at a key line of force. Cut parallel to the proscenium the overall volume of the theatre tom the auditorium walls corresponds approximately to a golden rectangle (having proportions of 1:1.618). The back walls and the two others closing the former stage box– never designed to be seen, and haphazardly limited by the floor slab put in by the owner to make some rentable space in the flytower – are all rectangles with the proportion of 1:v2 – another of the ‘sacred’ proportions discovered by the ancient Greeks.
When Peter Brook found the Bouffes du Nord, he saw at once that it was a ‘good’ space. What is a ‘good’ space? The Bouffes is warm, because of its walls, which bear the scars and wrinkles of all it has been through in over a century of ups and downs. The Bouffes has the magic and the poetry of a ruin, and anyone who has allowed themselves to be invaded by the atmosphere of a ruin knows strongly how the imagination is let loose.
A good space for him is intimate: it is a room in which the audience sits with the actors and sees them in close-up, showing what is true in the acting and revealing mercilessly what is false it is challenging, calling on the actors to go beyond themselves. The Bouffes is at one and the same time intimate and epic. Its relationship with the ring of spectators enveloping the actors is close and easygoing. This has to do with the height: paradoxically, the higher the ceiling in a theatre, the more intimate it feels, whereas a low ceiling makes a space feel big also the eye are always stopped at the balconies and never seeks further. But its soaring archer, its proportions, makes it very demanding, uniquely, it is a shadowy interior and a sunlit courtyard at one and the same time.
Peter Brook once said :”The Bouffes is a chameleon. If we want it to be a temple in which at different times Tibetans have performed ceremonies and Sufis have practised rituals, the space will comply. This is because of more than just its romantic atmosphere. Rituals take their place here because of the rigorously mathematic rightness of the proportions. Proportion is harmony”.
Apart from the production of “Happy days”, where we discovered that the presence of the actress cannot go through the proscenium arch, we’ve never been attracted by the old form of the theatre. It’s as if we’ve found the natural form of the theatre.
The Ik was the first production to undertake a serious international tour, traveling to London, Berlin, Vienna, Venice, Belgrade and the United State, I join the company for this tour in 1976. Lorsque j’ai rejoint la compagnie, je ne connaissais pas suffisamment l’espace du Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord pour être influencé dans mes recherches par son architecture. Dans mes visites je m’appuyait surtout sur le spectacle lui-même : sa forme, ses couleurs, ses proportions, les détails techniques important ou nécessaires, je déterminait le centre du jeu qui me donnait la juste place du public et a partir de ce centre la qualité acoustique de l’ensemble, pour le public et pour les interprètes. C’est seulement à la fin de ce processus que je m’intéressais au sol, au plafond, à la place des murs et à leur qualité, ainsi qu’aux proportions de l’ensemble. Très vite je me suis rendu compte de la difficulté de retrouver ailleur la qualité et l’efficacité des murs de notre théâtre à Paris, their hardness and their inderterminate nature at the same time. Very quickly I had to have change my mind, the way I was thinking, the fact that we are in world of imagination with a “cable drum” who can be a tank, I have to learn an other point of view. As set designer in past I feel the necessity to make a set in complete unity, if one thing is realistic everything must be realistic too, in Bouffes du Nord the wall are realistic and abstact at the same time. My work was not only to adapt such different spaces in the way that the word suggest, but modify them from the inside of a working and creative process. What matters is the space has to serve the needs of the story one is telling. Furthermore, it has to become, in perfomance, a vital and glowing space. When we left on tour with Carmen for instance (wich was play +/- 500 time on tour), I built walls on back stage, frequently in wood planks, who had a non figurative character and try to be the closest as possible to the rought world taking shape on the stage.
But when we did the Mahabharata, what was important was the intimate relationship that had been built up over 10 years with the real purpose of all the work we were doing with Peter Brook, leading to his understanding from the inside what The Mahabharata needed.
The tour of UBU was a crucial lesson in how to improvise space. Because of the timing, we simply couldn’t afford mistakes: if something didn’t work, another solution had to be found in a few hours, the tour was almost a city every one or two night for two month. I traveled a day ahead of the actors, finding and transforming spaces that would be inhabited by the actors. Afternoons were used for rehearsal in space with the performance in the evening. In Istre, in south of France, our contact had proposed a train shed, which I rejected because it was close to the tracks and wouldn’t be silent enought. They assured me this wouldn’t happen, when a huge train passed by taking about half an hour. Next door was a refrigerated vegetable store, which was well protected from the outside noise because of its thermal insulation, but unfortunately very white and pure. Outside, I found hundreds of crates of apples. We shifted them inside and built a solid wall. This created a backstage area; the actors could peer through the apples towards the audience. The heavy crates changed the acoustic and atmosphere of the space, and also gave off a lovely smell.
I have spent a lot of time travelling around visiting spaces (perhaps more than 2000 over the year) and so one might think I have a lot of experience, have become accustomed to doing this. But every visit has unique features.
Discovring a new space first of all means going to encounter a place and the human being who conceived and construc ted it. The first thing to do is to try to recognize what was aimed at and done by someone else in another period and another context. When I visit any space, I sit in silence and wait, I take the time necessary untill I understand the space and have the intuition of how transform it.
But there is no good space without a good project, or a good idea behind it which subtends the action; otherwise we creat a beautiful space for no reason, no idea, without sense, at the end of the day we have a space which is good for nobody. Creating a space is not an objective in itself. A new place must first of all have been willed by someone, and it is this that endows it with significance.