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Interview with Director and Author David Geselson

The 7th Edition of Seuls en Scène, Princeton French Theater Festival, presented Doreen, written and directed by David Geselson from Compagnie Lieux-Dits on September 28 and 29, 2018.

In 2006, philosopher and journalist André Gorz published Letter to D., a confession to his wife Doreen Keir, when she was diagnosed with an incurable disease. In this publication, he tells their love story and relives their shared life of 58 years. A year later both André and Doreen were found dead in their bed. This play is a counterpoint to Gorz’ confession that was made public. Transported to an evening in 2007 in the couple’s home the hour before they will commit suicide, we hear the story from her point of view. Doreen is an adaptation, a sort of theft, an attempt between reality and fiction, of the couple’s life and the beloved woman who we never got to know and who will die with him.

David Geselson spoke to journalist Amelia Parenteau before leaving Princeton.

Their conversation has been condensed and edited.

Amelia Parenteau: You mentioned at last night’s performance you first read André Gorz’ Lettre à D. in 2006. Where did your initial desire come from, to create Doreen?

David Geselson: In 2014, I created my first show, En Route-Kaddish, which tells the story of my grandfather. He was a Jew, born in Lithuania, who left for Palestine in 1934. I intertwine his story with the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s an autobiographical story, with scenes from his life and scenes from history. But before En Route-Kaddish, [Doreen] is what I wanted to do.

While researching my grandfather for En Route-Kaddish, I learned that when he was 19 years old, he fell deeply in love with a woman and had a relationship with her. He then found her again – he was in Palestine, when they met – near a Kibbutz in what became the Israeli side of the country. They were very in love for several years and then they separated; she had met another man. And then he met another woman, who became his wife, but I learned that throughout his life, from time to time, he would see this woman, his first love, right up until the end, for 60 years.

In Doreen I think that I probably wanted to show love the way I dreamed about it, and the way I was experiencing it, in certain moments. The romance I was living irrigated the whole show. It’s as if there were a conversation between Gorz, me, and the story of the couple I was a part of.

Normally when we stage Doreen, there are fewer people in the audience, so it’s more intimate, like in a living room. The staging here at Princeton is bigger and allows for the joy of theatrical play, more risks. We’re inviting people to enter into our intimacy, both as actors and as characters, just like Gorz did in Lettre à D. He lifts the veil of his intimate world without ever violating it. It is arresting.

Creating Doreen also allowed me and Laure Mathis to incorporate lots of thoughts about love and the joys and difficulties of being together, as part of a couple. In Lettre à D., they say that they recognize each other in their insecurities, and they see something of themselves in the other.

The fact of recognizing the other in any given moment may be what we try to do in theater. Showing recognition, recognizing one another, is something that seems pretty good to me. Theater could be, among other things, a place where we can recognize something of what humans are and try to share it, and create community.

Amelia: Did you have to get permission from Gorz’ family to stage this play?

David: Like in En Route-Kaddish, I decided to learn first and ask permission once I knew what I was going to talk about. I read and learned as much as possible, and after a year, I contacted Gorz’ friends. I told them about the project, and they helped me enormously.

Amelia: Have you been working with Elios Noël and Laure Mathis since the beginning?

David: Elios has been with me since the beginning of the company, since 2013, and we knew each other as friends long before that. I’ve known Laure since the conservatory, since 2000, and Doreen is the first time we’ve worked together.

Amelia: What is your next project?

David: We’re touring Doreen, which will have about 50 performances this year. We’ll go back to the Théâtre de la Bastille in Paris in January, and to Lisbon’s National Theater Dona Maria II. I’m also presenting Lettres non-écrites [Unwritten Letters] in Paris and several other cities in France.

However, my big project is the development of Silence and Fear, about the life of artist and activist Nina Simone, featuring African-American actors along with my regular French company members. This past July, we held auditions and did a two-week workshop at Harlem Stage in New York, and now we’ll be rehearsing in October and November 2018, May, September, and December 2019, and then in January 2020, with a premiere in January 2020 at the Théâtre de Lorient in Brittany, France. After that we’ll perform in Paris, and eventually in the United States, as well.

Amelia: Have you ever worked with American actors before?

David: Silence and Fear is my first experience working with American actors.

Amelia: Why do you think conversations around race are different in France?

David: There are very similar conversations happening in France. The discussions around cultural appropriation are strong in France, as well, almost as intense as in the United States.

However, as a white male theater artist from France, coming to the United States for this project, it isn’t enough to be up to date on what’s happening to avoid making mistakes. You have to learn, learn as much as you can, and create a shared rehearsal space in which you can have conversations, make mistakes, and learn from them.

The African-American history is very specific, and the history of black French people is also very specific. The major difference is that in 1865 there weren’t 4 million black African slaves in France.

Amelia: What drew you to Nina Simone’s story?

David: Black American culture has been very present in my family since I was a teenager. At the age of 15, I learned parts of African-American history in school. The Civil Rights movement impressed me, and I would say it was my first political awakening. I knew about Nina Simone back then, but I only appreciated her for a few songs.

After Doreen, I came across a biography of Nina Simone by a French-Swiss journalist. I had the feeling that diving deeper into Nina Simone’s life, as well as African-American and French history, would maybe allow us to share that history, which should be much more widely disseminated in France. I imagined the project would be created with a group of African-American and French artists.

Telling En Route-Kaddish was my story. I’m legitimate, in a way. Telling Nina Simone’s story is the exact opposite. It’s not my story, and even if I read all the books in all the libraries in the world, it wouldn’t be enough. There would always be something I didn’t know. I hesitated a lot before throwing myself into this project because of this fact. I’m not black, I’m not American, and this is not my story.

At age 15 or 16, I was interested in how this oppressed community of people found freedom through creating a sublime culture. How did these people succeed in fighting and creating one of the most passionate cultures in the western world? How does one create against fear, against oppression? I wanted to go further…

So I did, and with a group of African-American and French artists, we will see if it’s possible to build a story together, even surpassing Nina Simone’s. It is a challenge.

October 2018