Julien Villa

The great playwrights have always drawn from elsewhere to haunt the here and now.

With Philip K. ou la fille aux cheveux noirs (a performance created in 2020), the performer and director Julien Villa continues his dive into American counter-culture that began with J'ai dans mon cœur un General Motors in 2016. This Kafkaesque tale, freely inspired by the work of the writer Philip K. Dick, has also enabled him to expand on his theatrical approach, one based on on-stage writing. We look back on his love of the stage, his pivotal collaborations and how this performance was put together.

Updated on 25/11/2020

5 min

Julien Villa
Philip K. ou la fille aux cheveux noirs © Ph. Lebruman

Behind all your pieces is poetry, texts that you write and that serve as the basis for the upcoming work. Where does your interest in this form come from?

My desire to write comes first and foremost from the experiments I have conducted as a performer, based on on-stage writing. It really emerged in 2012 with Le Capital et son singe, a performance by Sylvain Creuzevault, based on the work of Karl Marx, which twenty of us rehearsed for two years. To prepare for the improvisations, I immersed myself in the thinking of Karl Marx and Guy Debord, darkening my notebooks with thoughts, notes or twists on texts. I gradually realised that this all formed a piece of writing. On-stage work is great in that it helps your rediscover that it’s not enough to write in order to play, you also have to play in order to write. However, I sometimes feel that these techniques lack a dramatic narrative, the writer’s gestures. It was as an extension of this obsession that I developed this unique form of writing, alongside my friend Vincent Arot.

Between poetic text and on-stage work, when does the dramatic narrative emerge?

This is the challenge of writing a collection or volume, which serves to tap into figures, or a language – it’s a whole world that I then offer to the actors. The poems form an object that allows for multiple possibilities while also having a structure similar to a story. From there, we know what we’re after and we need the actors to come and play in order to write. As an author, I’m interested in disorder and collision. By bringing poetic writing, which is very image-based and detached, with stage writing, which is more social and reactive, I feel like a dynamic is created, the improvisation contaminates the poem and vice versa. That is when the dramatic narrative springs up, in the middle of this pile-up. We play with chaos, but that’s the nature of living writing.

What made you want to move from the role of performer to that of director?

When directors such as Lazare or Jeanne Candel invite you to write on stage with them, you submit yourself to their obsession and lend your writing to theirs. It’s something I adore doing. The rehearsals are so rewarding that we, as performers, develop our own writing technique. The desire to bring colleagues together to produce this technique starts from that. This is why I don't consider myself an aesthete in terms of directing. For me, directing consists of writing outwards, fusing my writing with that of other actors/authors. The form is born out of this collision.

I think that we resemble the place where we grew up. As such, you have to really immerse yourself in identical houses in California to feel the same unsettling feeling as Philip K. Dick.

Let’s talk about Philip K. ou la fille aux cheveux noirs, a performance for which you spend a two-month residency in the United States as part of the Institut français’ “Hors les murs” programme. How did this journey influence the future piece?

I think that we resemble the place where we grew up. As such, you have to really immerse yourself in identical houses in California to feel the same unsettling feeling as Philip K. Dick. Vincent and I needed to come face-to-face with these people by meeting them, eating what they eat, in order to repeat the emotional journey of Philip K. Dick’s life. The majority of the poems that served as a basis for Philip K. ou la fille aux cheveux noirs were produced between California and New York. I even wrote the final monologue for the death of the young girl with black hair on Brooklyn Bridge. It was a pivotal moment, as the dramatic narrative of a piece appears once you have an ending in sight.

How did Philip K. Dick become Philip K.? What of the writer remains in this character? 

Everything and nothing. I have read every biography of Philip K. Dick, all his novels, all his short stories, and I haven’t found anything as real as the fake biography written by Emmanuel Carrère, I Am Alive and You Are Dead. What I’m interested in is inaccurate accuracy. My Philip K. exists entirely outside of Philip K. Dick. He is a man of his time, a Don Quixote. That said, fans of Philip K. Dick will find in Philip K. all the trappings of his work, because I have played with the structures of his universe and twisted the figures of his novels.

The performance develops a recurrent theme in your work, that of parody. What about this figure seems particularly theatrical to you?

All art forms should wage total war on culture, the notion that is used nowadays like a plaster to fix all the ills of our society. But art exists to produce parodies, life-saving cathartic rituals. It creates disorder. The great playwrights have always drawn from elsewhere to haunt the here and now. There is a sentence by Guy Debord that I really like: “In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false” (ed. in La Société du Spectacle, 1967). Unfortunately, you can’t put on a play with a single sentence. That’s why I’m interested in the figures of Don Quixote perhaps like Philip K. Dick, because they take these kinds of sentences at their word. I think there’s no greater question that those asked by my character Philip K.: do humans still exist? Are we really here? Is all this real? This resonates especially in the current context.

Does that mean that we’re living in an increasingly “Dickian” world?

I’m always wary of poets who see themselves as prophets. Of course, Philip K. Dick, like George Orwell, wrote troubling things, invented a structure where beings are fascinated by luminous pebbles in the same way we are by our smartphones. But to go down that road is never to leave it. Above all, I believe that the poet sees the world as it is, not as it will be. The world was no less “Dickian” in the 1970s than it is today. The artist does not guide the times, they fight them.

They are a necessary shadow in a so-called enlightened society that looks like panoptic prisons.

The Institut français and the artist

In 2017, Julien Villa has been selected, with Vincent Arot, by the Hors les Murs residency programme of the Institut français for Le Procès de Philip K.. Julien Villa spent two months of residency in the United-States and wrote over there most of the text of the performance, which became Philip K. ou la Fille aux cheveux noirs.

L'institut français, LAB