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Interview with Philippe Calvario

Part I of a two-part interview with Philippe Calvario by the French Cultural Service's Performing Arts Program Officer, Nicole Birmann-Bloom. This interview is part of Theater Dialogues, a series of conversations with French theater directors. This interview was conducted in September 2012.

Nicole Bloom: You are in New York for eight weeks as an artist in residence supported by the Institut français. Could you describe the subject or focus of your residency?

Philippe Calvario: I decided to focus on American musicals, and more specifically Nine, The Kiss of the Spiderwoman, West Side Story, to investigate more deeply the musical universes of Leonard Bernstein, Maury Yeston, John Kander and Fred Ebb.

I’m planning to work closely with the American choreographer Matthew Prescott, with a  voice teacher at Broadway Dance Center, with a voice conductor, as well as with the director BT McNichol, whose work focuses on the traditional technique of American Musicals staging.

I will work on this research project together with 14 French actors/dancers/singers who are all motivated to learn more about these techniques and training methods. 

We will attend daily morning classes at the Broadway Dance Center and spend our last week of research at the Alvin Ailey Dance Center.

NB: What interests you most about American training and technique for actors? Why?

PC: A relation to production efficiency that is obviously related to financial resources, but I also recall some magic moments off Broadway in very modest productions…

I see the “American” way of working as a true business where the idea of the “show” is central and where the audience is the focus: If it doesn’t build an audience, then the show is over. I always chose to practice a form of theatre for a large public, without being too “popular” either. I feel like I belong to a popular artistic form, though. Popular simply meaning full houses and a work that places the public at the center of the project: that’s the way I picture my work as a creator. And that’s why I feel a strong connection with the United States. 

Regarding the actor’s technique, we are all using more or less the Actor’s Studio techniques; Stanislavski’s method undoubtedly remains the primary technique. The American actors are amongst the best worldwide and they have been for a long time. No reason here to separate acting, dance and voice as three different professions: an actor has to master all three disciplines. In France, it’s not part of the culture and it’s often a pity. At the Conservatoire National d’Art Dramatique, dance classes are considered a secondary or minor specialty. In my opinion, it is not good.

NB: You are involved in training as a teacher at the renowned Cours Florent in Paris, where you studied yourself. Could you speak about that in relation to your professional career?

PC: The idea of transmission is very important to me. Louis Jouvet said “one does not convey what one knows, one conveys what one is.” That’s my motto. One can transmit at any age, as long as one gets the right group of people around the right project.

Workshops are very important for my work as a director. It helps me tame my stage fright during rehearsals. The fact that I don’t have deadlines makes me lighter in my approach and is often a better fit for me. This doesn’t mean of course that I take things lightly but it helps prevent me from being blinded by stage fright and stress, which often limits actors from seeing what’s really going on around and in front of them. Being neurotic is rarely productive in the theatre. It can sometimes work in cinema, but the stage requires a letting go that also has to do with being ingenuous. During the workshop, we re-experience this innocence.

NB: You staged Peter Etvös’s operatic version of Angels in America by Tony Kushner. Could you say a few words about your approach to the play?

PC: It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had as a director. I was fascinated with the play, but it had just been directed in France by Brigitte Jacques and I couldn’t imagine doing it so soon after; then the Théâtre du Châtelet gave me a true gift by offering me this opera project.

Richard Pedduzzi did the set design, Barbara Hendricks, Julia Migenes, Donald Maxwell, Daniel Belcher…. A dream team! I was discovering « contemporary » music, but Peter Etvös wanted to find his inspiration for his compositions in American musicals; he thought it was the style closest to the writing. We would talk about Leonard Bernstein, and then he would compose for the voices he picked for their ranges. It was amazing to observe! His music is full of images, often mixing fantasy and brutality, which was a perfect fit with Kushner’s text, as it also alternates between these two specific registers.

Since this fantastic experience I have been dreaming of directing a musical in its pure tradition!

NB: You were Patrice Chéreau’s assistant for his staging of PHAEDRA with Dominique Blanc and together you will soon be presenting a series of readings of texts by Hervé Guibert - excerpts of his book Le mausolée des amants. Could you tell us a few words about your collaboration with Patrice Chéreau?

PC: He has been a true Master for me. He taught me so much through his relation to theatre, ut also through his way of looking at the world. There are some good directors, but his grace in modelling bodies in space is something absolutely unique in France. His energy while directing is so beautiful and so contagious!

With Chéreau I discovered Bernard-Marie Koltès whose play Roberto Zucco I later staged.
This was a crucial encounter in my life and certainly the most important so far.

NB: You have brought European authors such as COPI, KOLTES, LAGARCE and FASSBINDER to the stage. Who would be some of the contemporary American authors (20th and 21st century) you would like to adapt? 

You also directed a performance for the Casino de Paris with the American burlesque artist Dita von Teese. Who then are the American actors and actresses whom you would like to direct?

PC: I looked into Tennessee Williams for a long time but nothing really spoke to me. I like Tony Kushner, Edward Albee, Eugene O’ Neill, Israel Horovitz.

The American actors I am familiar with generally come from the movie industry and I really love them all: my strongest connection will undoubtedly remain with The Seagull version I went to see two nights in a row in Central Park, starring Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nathalie Portman, Kevin Klein. I remember the poster’s subtitle: “More Stars than in Heaven”, which was so true…

Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman (whom I was just discovering at the time) were the most intense actors I had ever witnessed on stage. Seeing the show twice in a row, I understood they would bring some slight changes to their play each and every night – I remember Meryl Street’s slap in the face not coming at the exact same moment as the night before, to take Philip Seymour Hoffman by surprise!

My absolute dream would be to bring Meryl Streep and Glenn Close together on stage, but I am convinced somebody has already had that idea. I wonder why it hasn’t yet happened. One needs to find the right play.

Otherwise I have a beautiful project idea for Glenn Close and John Malkovich: a perfect play, tailored for the two of them! In case their agents read these lines, contact me! – (smile)

Philippe Calvario was awarded a grant by the Institut Français (France) for a residence “Hors les Murs”.