Picture yourself as a bartender, sipping top-shelf whiskey and watching your customers descend into nightly oblivion. Your heart is broken by the world around you and, leaving the whiskey aside, you hatch a devious, unthinkable plan of escape…
Ablutions returns from its sell-out run at Edinburgh Festival 2014 to London’s Soho Theatre. After Nyne’s Luciana Garbarni was delighted to grab a few minutes with director Bertrand Lesca to discuss the genesis of FellSwoop Theatre, creative risks, and his personal reflection over the dark yet hopeful story of the characters behind the story.
Bertrand, tell us a little about your history with theatre and how you became a director.
I grew up in the south of France and started making theatre from a very early age. I used to invite family friends to come and see puppet shows inside my room so my mum got me into a drama club where I could perform. I wanted to become a performer so I followed this route very diligently and spent a long time perfecting this craft spending as much time as I could with my drama teachers. I went to England instead of going to drama school thinking I’d eventually go back to France to apply for the national conservatoires. In the meantime I directed a play at university and I felt intensely engrossed in this project. This really changed my view on theatre.
How did you come to be involved with FellSwoop Theatre?
After university, my friends and I formed FellSwoop Theatre. Since I had found people I could work comfortably with, there was no real reason for me to leave this country anymore. Directing can be a lonely task and this is why I really wanted to work in a company – not as a freelance director. All of its founding members are such incredible friends and collaborators that I don’t ever feel too isolated. We all strive towards the same thing which is to make original, challenging theatre. We are in it together.
Did you have any mentors or significant influences throughout the course of your career journey?
I think I was extremely lucky to work with two very influential companies to begin with. When I was 2,1 I went on tour with A Magic Flute by Peter Brook. Then a year later, Declan Donnellan hired me to become his assistant on Ubu Roi. I learnt a lot from them of course and whilst on tour. But came a time when I also had to step back from this. I couldn’t just apply what those two directors would do with their own actors. They have years of experience that I simply don’t have nor can try and reproduce in my own rehearsal room. What I learnt was that there was no such way as your own way of doing it.
It’s important to see and take inspiration from other people, but as a director you also have to leave it behind and try and develop your own way of working.
Otherwise you become ‘haunted’ by the work of others and that’s not necessarily a great thing.I only stopped working with Cheek By Jowl a year ago and I still feel very much at the start of my journey with FellSwoop. Directing a play doesn’t come naturally. It takes years and years of practice. I always have this little motto from Beckett ticking inside my head: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” We shall see where that takes us.
What was your big breakthrough?
I am not sure there is such a thing as a “big breakthrough“ and even if you have one, you can’t ever rest on your laurels in this profession. Of course you may feel sometimes like you have achieved something good, that your work is appreciated amongst the people you know and respect but I really think this is all part of a much longer process; a greater journey.
What stage of this journey do you believe you’re in?
At the moment I am very much focusing on the new pieces we are doing as part of FellSwoop, re-evaluating things and even the way I direct plays or that we create work together. Each piece we chose is entirely new and is a testament to our ability to see things differently each time. I’d be completely incapable of telling you what FellSwoop exactly does. A lot of people have problems with that but I think if anything that’s a really wonderful thing. You see so many companies these days doing the same old thing, using the same techniques, the same visuals. I like to feel challenged in each project we decide to take on. We are currently working on a big scale opera and I feel absolutely terrified. I cannot think of it as our next “breakthrough“ otherwise it paralyses me. We’d become completely inefficient and unable to take the creative risks we need to be taking.
In order to be a director, you have to, I imagine, become extraordinary at getting people to things you want?
Yes and no. At the very start of the project, as a director, you indeed have to guide the actors and the team you are working with. I find the first week of rehearsals particularly decisive: this is when as a director you need to make your actors dive head first into the world you wish to create on stage. After that initial stage, I become more of a listener: I have to let the actors guide me and initiate conversations about the work. For our new piece which we are developing with The Lowry, I have now asked the two actors that I am working with on this project to start writing biographies for their own characters. I am going to allow myself being told what they think might have happened to their own characters, what their stories might be. Only they can truly know this, no director can.
Does directing a piece that was formally a written novel add any overseen pressures that directing a script wouldn’t?
We don’t necessarily choose the easiest material to adapt for the stage. I don’t think we ever have. Even when we started working on Belleville Rendez-Vous, the adaptation of Sylvain Chomet’s cult animation film, everyone wondered how we would be able to show something that relies so heavily on the unique atmosphere created by the hand drawn graphics and visuals. Ablutions was the same. It somehow excited us despite its cinematic quality and the unconventional aspect of the story which was very fragmented, very episodic; not a play at all.
Can you describe how you approached bringing the novel of Ablutions to life?
The quick succession of sequences, characters and places the barman encounters urged us to find ways we could represent that on stage. Everything needed to happen in some kind of drunken haze and through his own eyes. The lighting and the music gave shape to what was otherwise a very fragmented narrative.
We had to work really hard on the structure of the piece, so that the novel would translate into a piece of theatre with a plot that people would be able to follow. Still now, we find ourselves changing bits of the story which aren’t clear, which we feel we can improve and make clearer to our audience. It’s not quite a linear narrative though. I think we like that about Ablutions.
Was there anything in the narrative, them or story of Ablutions that found you relating personally to it?
Just earlier, I was working at the British Library and above the urinials someone had written: “Will someone help me find my place in this world?” This absolutely broke my heart and showed me a side of this place which I had never quite thought about before. It reminded me of Ablutions somehow and the main character’s desperate efforts to find some kind of place in the world.
When the play starts, the barman is on a difficult path. He is trapped in a lifestyle he hates and his wife has grown more and more tired of his drink problem. There is very little love left at the beginning of the play. But then again, the guy decides to change. He takes on a road trip, tries to quit drinking. I think people who see Ablutions struggle to be presented this particular side of humanity and the hesitant errands of an alcoholic. But there is hope. That potential for change is there in the play.
What are you most proud of about this production?
I really like the incredible complexity of the music and the very simple staging we have chosen to work on Ablutions. I like the bare simplicity of it all. I find that somehow very poetic. I am aware though this isn’t necessarily easy for the actors. They’re all incredibly exposed. They are on stage all the time and have to multi-roll alternating between different American accents and singing as well as act and playing instruments some of which they had never played before. We spent a long time working on this piece so that everyone would in the end feel comfortable with some of its challenges.
Can you tell us one of your favourite moments in the journey so far? From pre-production to the Ablutions tour.
One important moment for us all was the meeting we had with the ARA, an addiction recovery centre in Bristol. Their offices are right across the Bristol Old Vic Theatre where we worked on Ablutions. We got in touch with them and asked them if they wanted to come and see the piece in previews. A group of about fifteen people came and stayed afterwards to give us feedback about the piece, some had never even seen a piece of theatre before. It was interesting being able to hear stories from recovering addicts who had also been confronted to similar situations as the main character in the book. They said how much the booze got in their way and how it interfered with the people around them too. This is something we are trying to show in our adaptation of Ablutions and through the role of the wife which on this occasion we gave more prominence than in deWitt’s original novel.
What do you feel is the greatest threat to theatre?
The greatest threat of theatre is its lack of funding. If artists and theatre companies benefited from a similar scheme than the artists’ wage in France, I think people would have a very different attitude towards new work. Due to various pressures of the government, companies like us tend to be directed towards a very mercantile model. I see it all around us. We are very critical of it and yet also feel very much part of this ‘system’. FellSwoop really wants to innovate and present unseen work and plays from international writers but we also need to think very carefully each time about the financial risks this may entice us to.I sometimes feel that unless the government helps its artists and gives greater credibility to the arts, people would have a very different view on artists and our regional theatres would be much more populated. I don’t think our politicians talk enough about the arts and its value.
Who would you cast to play you in the theatre adaptation of “Bertrand Lesca: My Life”?
For the new piece we are currently working on, Ben, our resident music director, and I went to a manor in Scotland where one of our workshops consisted in channeling the spirit of our ancestors. Perhaps we could do the same for that theatre adaptation and ask one of my ancestors if he’d like to play the part. That would be interesting I think…
Ablutions – Trailer:
Ablutions plays at Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE
Opening times: 10 – 22 February, 7pm
Saturday matinees, 2.30pm
No performances on Mondays
Prices: £15 (£12.50)