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Interview with Paul Desveaux, Director of An American Trilogy

Paul Desveaux is the director of Pollock/Pearl/Diane Arbus: An American Trilogy, excerpts of which were recently read as part of the Cultural Services' French Play Series. All three pieces that make up the trilogy are written by Fabrice Melquiot, who is currently in the process of completing Diane Arbus

In 1997, Paul Desveaux started his own theater company, l’héliotrope. Throughout the early 2000s, Desveaux worked on a number of plays, two of which, The Thunderstorm by Alexander Ostrovski, and Now They Can Come by Arezki Mellal, played at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris. In 2007, he directed his first opera, Les Enfants Terribles, written by Philip Glass and based on the story by Jean Cocteau. Desveaux has collaborated with a number of talented artists, including choreographer Yano Iatridès on Spring Awakening (2001), and Santiago Otheguy on Good Blonde and Others (2002 & 2004). 

Nicole Birmann Bloom (N.B.B.): Tell me about your collaborations with Fabrice Melquiot; how did you approach him for the trilogy? Do you both share an interest in American culture, or in a specific period of American culture? Could you speak about the influence of the three artists in the trilogy on your work? 

Paul Desveaux (P.D.): In 2007, I wanted to work on a Jackson Pollock/Lee Krasner duet. I had seen Pollock’s retrospective at the MoMA in 1998 and was very interested in his process, which involved putting his canvas on the floor and danced around it. I had made a first attempt at the stage design, and had assembled a number of documents (a biography, interviews, reproductions, etc.). But to put it all together, I needed a writer with an approach to the subject that was at once poetic, sensitive and technical. So I asked Fabrice Melquiot, whom I had met several years earlier in Italy. He immediately agreed. It was December 2007 and he was supposed to give me the first draft in June. But in January I received a text from him that said, “I started to write without meaning to.” And I also received an email with about fifteen pages of writing. We then worked in very close collaboration until we produced a text that we both liked. 

I don’t know about Fabrice, and I can’t speak on his behalf, but I’ve always been very intrigued by, and in tune with American culture. For me, it’s the land of John Coltrane, John Cassavetes, Mark Rothko, Jack Kerouac, The Roots, Philip Roth, Scorcese, etc. There’s also all the space and the excess. For a project about Jack Kerouac, myself and a filmmaker friend shot some impressionist footage with a Super 8 camera in New York in 2001, and then on the road between Phoenix and San Francisco in 2003. The architecture, just as much as the landscapes, are visual experiences. And then I had been fascinated by this very free artistic period after the war. The 50s to the 70s. Thus my interest in Jackson Pollock, Janis Joplin and Diane Arbus. 

These three figures allowed me to rethink the subject of freedom in art. All three opened up their artistic gestures to new influences, and questioned their intellectual frameworks and their relationships to the world. They also belong to eras, or to an era, if you consider the post-war years to be one historical entity, of social and political revolution. And a re-examination of these figures invites us to question our time, ourselves, and our history.

And then of course, they allowed me to work with Fabrice Melquiot, who is one of the most important European writers today. 

N.B.B: Could you describe the process of rehearsing with American actors? 

P.D: I had for some time been wanting to see how American actors dealt with these three plays. I wanted to see how they could approach this writing, given its subject. I’ve always worked with different schools of actors (from Bulgaria, Argentina, Switzerland), and I was curious to encounter a new theatrical history. 

It’s always very impressive to arrive in a country and to go meet people who don’t know you and who must nonetheless place complete faith in you in a short amount of time. But it happens that this group of actors is passionate. We very quickly found a common ground. I am obliged to them for having sought to understand my work on these texts. We had already staged two of these pieces (Pollock and Pearl) in France. It’s amazing to hear the musicality of the text in English, and I confess that I love hearing the text in the language of William S. Burroughs.

I feel that we – the actors included – wish to go further with the project, because it is somewhat frustrating to be stopping at this stage of the project... 

N.B.B: Among the current, young generation of American artists, is there anyone who inspires you? Are there any American playwrights with whom you would like to work?

P.D: I am influenced quite a bit by cinema. There is a very strong history of the moving image in the United States. I think of filmmakers like J.C. Chandor and his incredible A Most Violent Year, and the more seasoned Jim Jarmush and his Only Lovers Left Alive. I also really like the novelist Marisha Pessl’s narrative research. 

And I remember the piece House by Richard Maxwell at the Festival du Théâtre des Amériques in Montréal in 2001. I had been fascinated by his rereading of founding myths through the lens of contemporary American history. And his amazing actors...

And I still have so much to discover about this bountiful arts scene, like the jazz musician Jason Moran I caught last night at the Village Vanguard.