Interview with French director Arthur Nauzyciel

September 25, 2014 | By Nicole Birmann
© Frédéric Nauczyciel

This fall, Seuls en scène, the third edition of the Princeton French Theater Festival, curated by Florent Masse will present Faim (Hunger) by the Norwegian author, Nobel prize in Literature in 1920, Knut Hamsun.

The production of Faim is a collaboration between Arthur Nauzyciel, director of the Centre Dramatique National (CDN) in Orléans and the actor Xavier Gallais, who adapted the text for the stage with Florient Azoulay. In 2011, it had its premiere at the Théâtre de la Madeleine in Paris.


Nicole Birmann Bloom (N.B.B.): We are glad to see the American premiere of Faim at Seuls en scène Festival. Could you tell us more about the connection between Princeton University and the Centre National Dramatique (CDN) in Orléans, where you are the director, and how the decision to present Faim was made?

Arthur Nauzyciel (A.N.): Florent Masse, a senior lecturer at Princeton University, has been involved with the work at the CDN in Orleans including my own creations, for years and he has admired the actor Xavier Gallais. Florent wanted to invite us to the festival Seuls en scène and the monologue Faim with Xavier, which I directed, was a great opportunity for everyone.

It is the CDN’s first collaboration with Princeton University and we are already thinking of doing more. I had previously collaborated with American universities like Harvard, and I found the audiences engaged and receptive and I am very happy to rehearse and present a new version of Faim in a university as prestigious as Princeton.

N.B.B.: You have been working with Xavier for several years in different works (Ordet by Kaj Munk, The Seagull by Chekhov, and soon Splendid's by Genet.) Could you tell us more about working with Xavier, particularly in Faim?

A.N.: Yes I really like working with Xavier. He has a rare personality; he has no limits and he is devoted to theater. Xavier is extremely generous with his work and thus he is a source of inspiration for a director. I like to work with talented actors whose relation to the arts and the world is similar to my own. Xavier is like a brother- in-arms. It is why we collaborate regularly.We developed Faim between the two productions of Ordet by Kaj Munk and The Seagull by Chekhov because we both had a deep connection to the roles he was interpreting. Johann, the character in Ordet was a way of preparing for the character in Faim and similarities could be found in the character of Konstantin in The Seagull.

Working with an actor who has an intimate understanding of your working method is liberating and stimulating; it enables us to progress faster and go deeper. With such a close relationship, I can think of other projects for them because I want to see the actors evolve. We build projects together based upon previous collaborations. I am grateful to have this experience with Xavier but also with actors such as Laurent Poitrenaux, Pascal Gregorry, and in the United States, Daniel Pettrow and James Waterston.

N.B.B.: For more than a decade you have developed several French-American productions, including Black Battles with Dogs by BM Koltès (developed with Seven Stages in Atlanta, the production toured Europe in 2000-2004) and Julius Caesar developed and presented at the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge in 2008 that also toured in France.
You are working on a new French-American production Splendid’s by Jean Genet, with a group of American actors. It will premiere in January at the Centre Dramatique National (CDN) in Orléans. Could you tell us more about this new production, the challenges of working in English -- or we should say, in American -- and how you navigate between the two languages? 

A.N.: After its creation at American Repertory Theater, my production of Julius Caesar was presented in France as part of the Festival d’automne à Paris and toured domestically and internationally for the next three years. I wanted to keep on working with these American actors; there is now a group of actors in the United States, like the one in France, with whom I have built a strong relationship. It’s like an informal company, an ensemble. While developing these productions in the United States, we built a strong connection that was truly stimulating. They have also experienced my approach to the text, which is a bit singular. I don’t want to lose the artistic experience we developed over all these years. We know each other well, the connection is strong and we have the same goals. These projects are precious moments because they are rare and slightly different from usual productions.

I was looking for a play to bring them together again. Splendid’s came to ming as the obvious choice. In the plot of Splendid’s, I found a connection with the story of Julius Caesar. Jean Genet wrote Splendid’s in 1948 while in jail. The play has something dreamlike, unreal, fantastical, as if, with this dreamlike story, he is trying to escape his condition of being a prisoner. It tells about a hostage-taking event in the 40s by a group of gangsters in a luxury hotel in Chicago or in New York. To have this play performed in English with a cast of American actors is a way to realize Genet’s Hollywood-esque dream.

It is quite rare to build a group of actors abroad and to work with them regularly as we have for the past few years. It requires a lot of work and dedication from everyone. It is also unusual and the audience starts to identify the work I am doing with the this ensemble of actors and is looking forward to seeing them in Splendid’s.

The rehearsals are taking place in New York; it will premiere in Orleans in January 2015, then tour France and my hope is to present it in the United States after France. During the creation of Julius Caesar, I was introduced to the set designer Riccardo Hernandez and the lighting designer Scott Zielinski. Since then, both became close artistic partners and we have been working on several productions together in France and abroad (Jan Karski, Abigail’s, The Seagull). They’re also part of the American team working on Splendid’s.

I could add that a text by a French author staged by a French director, performed by American actors and one French actor, with rehearsals in the United States and in France, and produced by the French public theater, that tours France and abroad is indeed a unique experience. It is the result of a practice that I have developed since the creation of Black Battles with Dogs in Atlanta in 2001.

N.B.B.: What American actors bring to a production that is different from French actors?

A.N.: American actors’ training is very strong and wide-ranging. There are many excellent actors in the United States; the competition is high and they have to give a lot of themselves to succeed.

A theater with a new artistic approach and a budget that is built differently than what they’re used to, will attract actors who are risk-takers and, of course, dedicated. It is much more exciting for the director to work with such actors.

I found American actors extremely professional. It can be a great advantage unless it gets in the way of creativity and imagination. They are also extremely physical, working with their bodies more than the French actors and they have this relaxed cool that seems typically American to us French, maybe a legacy of the movies.

N.B.B.: You worked on texts by authors such as BM Koltes, Thomas Bernhard, Moliere Chekhov to name a few and you adapted Jan Karski by Yannick Haenel. You seem attracted by monologues and from the different productions I have seen, each word, each verb, and punctuation is important. Could you tell us more about the way you approach a text?

A.N.: My approach to monologues is the same as any other texts. For me, everything comes from the text, the word. It is important that people hear what has been written and how it is written.

When we work with the actors, there is a lot of preparation around the table and we literally dive into the text. Together we discover different layers of reading and, once on stage, you can see this in the actors’ performance. The actors are des passeurs; they pass on the text from the author to the audience. I ask them to let themselves be impregnated by the words and to be in a constant state of awareness of what they say. And indeed the audience is under the impression that they can hear every word. This is the work of the actors: to create this acute listening.

N.B.B.: As part of the mission of the Centre Dramatique National (CDN) in Orléans, you are committed to supporting emerging directors and playwrights. Could you tell us more about the artists that the CDN are presenting?

A.N.: In France, we are lucky to have a network of public theaters – supported with public funds –that is filled with abundant and daring artistic programs. 

The CDN Orléans/Loiret/Centre (located in the Center of France on the Loire River) that I have been directing since 2007 is a theater dedicated to creation and production. It is a place for emerging talents, but also for renowned directors who are often coming to Orleans for the first time, for example (the late) Patrice Chéreau had a residency at the CDN for one of his last performances, and Claude Régy has been regularly invited for several seasons. Our support also goes towards artists with original proposals and bold aesthetics. For our audience, it is a great opportunity to experience such a diverse group of ideas and talents.

Among the younger generation, the CDN co-produced the first creations of directors such as Jean-Pierre Baro, Julie Duclos, Vanessa Larré, Vincent Macaigne, Benoit Giros and Guillaume Vincent. Their approach is different from each other but they all share a similar dedication and rigor in their work as well as the same generosity towards the audience. They believe in theater as a form of art and in its relevance—necessity—in our world.

N.B.B.: Do you notice any new forces, techniques or energy, in the French theater scene that amazed or inspired you ?

A.N.: I believe in a theater that is built from the text, but a theater deeply aware of today’s aesthetic challenges. Theater is not just literature, it is a form of expression that combines many facets of the others arts. Today, many emerging theater artists develop their work from their interest and experience in dance, music, cinema and visual arts, but all see through theater.

Those artists who explore new theater forms with a deep curiosity for artists of other disciplines are leading the evolution of theater in France today. I personally think of artists such as Gisèle Vienne, Vincent Macaigne,Claude Régy, Eric Vigner, Christophe Honoré, Joël Pommerat, Julien Gosselin, Pascal Rambert.

N.B.B.: And last question: who are the American authors, playwrights you would like to direct or stage in the future?

A.N.: I don’t know contemporary American theater very well. I think authors like Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill could be presented through new lenses.

I also like Richard Foreman’s exploration and although different in style, I am quite attracted by the plays of Naomi Wallace, Adam Rapp, and also “Edmond” by David Mamet. One day, I would love to work on “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner.

N.B.B.: Thank you, Arthur, for this conversation. We will be at Seuls en Scène in October to see FAIM!


Interview by Nicole Birman Bloom, Performing Arts Program Officer at the French Cultural Services.

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