Interview with Simon Gauchet, for his play L’Expérience de l’Arbre
Updated on 17/11/2023
© Louise Quignon
You have been a director and scenographer since 2008. How did theatre become part of your life?
I was born in Saint-Malo and there wasn’t much of a cultural offering, although I did occasionally go to the theatre with my parents. I discovered theatre mainly through poetry, in particular an elocution competition organised by my primary school. It was the very first time I was on stage and I had prepared all the items that went with that poem. Even though I was only eight, I remember that founding moment, when I was in front of 300 people to tell the story of that little cat. I then started doing drama workshops and I remember the experience of the stage, the heat of the spotlights. It’s something that's stayed with me ever since.
In your creations, you often explore the imagination or the idea of collective ritual. What are your major inspirations in this area?
I often talk about reading Annie Le Brun, who thinks in a very powerful way. When I was younger, I was deeply influenced by what she says about the crisis of imagination, something more insidious and intimate than the ones we talk about today. There is a far less-discussed crisis, one of sensitivity and the imagination, whereby they have atrophied and don’t allow us to represent what is happening to us or to respond to it. This idea was a key starting point for me, along with my regular trips to see paintings. When I went on a year-long tour with one performance, in each new city I would go to its municipal museum, and I think that shaped a lot for me in terms of directing. When it comes to ritual, I know that it’s linked to an experience from before my trip to Japan. I had been to Indonesia to explore traditional Asian theatre and I attended a kind of exorcism ceremony, in which theatre, dance and singing were used as vectors of the ritual, putting people into trances. There was something that touched some buried part of me and, beyond my own experience, I’ve seen things that are beyond our imagination, our rationality, with theatre as a means of letting the magic happen.
In 2018, you won a residency at the Villa Kujoyama in Japan, What are the memories that most stand out for you from that time?
There are a lot of them. Three days after I arrived, the town was hit by one of the biggest typhoons in recent years. I was affected by seeing these natural elements unleashed, seeing the forest completely devastated and then life resuming afterwards. In Japan, there’s a unique relationship with disasters, a connection with nature that’s very powerful. Then, I was happy to meet the Japanese actor whom I met ten years before, and for it to feel as though it had only been a few hours since I last saw him. Finally, the tea ceremony that we did with a tea master was also a major lesson in theatre. It begins at the start of the evening, when there’s still daylight, before it gradually gets darker. The master explained that it is important to “allow as much space for light as for darkness” because darkness needs to exist. There was a relationship to things and to the present moment whereby, ultimately, everything is constantly in motion, we are constantly changing, even if we feel that things are permanent.
During this residency, you created a performance, L’Expérience de l’Arbre. Can you tell us how it came about?
In 2008, I met the Japanese theatre actor who, at the time, had begun to teach me snippets of his craft, even if I hadn’t set out to become a noh actor. I should point out that it usually takes sixty years of practice. Nevertheless, this moment of transmission was fundamental and, when these lessons finished, I wanted to pay him but he refused, telling me that he would prefer I return one day to pass my own craft on to him. Although it took me a long time to return, I always remembered my promise. I thought a lot about what I could teach him about my performance given that his was a codified type of theatre, with a repertoire and movements that are passed down from father to son. In the West, we don’t have the same relationship with tradition whatsoever, but thinking about it, I gradually realised that the best thing would be to invite him to put together a performance, through a creative process. So, I returned with that idea, to pursue the encounter by making a performance together. The idea came from an anecdote that he had told me, according to which Japanese actors would perform for trees even if there was no audience to watch them.
You wrote, created and directed L’Expérience de l’Arbre, but you also play one of the main characters. What are the major challenges you face when promoting your own play, on stage?
I first trained more as an actor, directing came later. For this project, we did think about finding an actor to play my role, by the performance was so intimate, so directly born out of this encounter that I didn't want to cheat that. It quickly became clear that I should be on stage, despite it remaining a very perilous endeavour. Being on stage means not watching the stage and, luckily, I was supported by several colleagues who were on the outside of it all, such as Éric Didry and Benjamin Lazar, who were witnesses to the experience. Even though I am still afraid of putting forward these intimate things and, after each performance, I tell myself “never again!”, it is really important to me.
You are also co-founder of the École Parallèle Imaginaire, a travelling venue that invents innovative experiences in theatres or museums. How did the project come about?
After these experiences of transmission in Japan and Indonesia, I eventually returned to training at a school in Rennes, but I started to really ask myself questions about how art is taught and how we learn to create. Do we really need teachers or masters? How does this process of transmission work? At the time, these thoughts were shared by a lot of students at fine art or architecture schools, and we realised that, ultimately, students might actually be those best placed to come up with the teaching methods. We dreamed about building our school but, without any financial means to do so, we decided that it would be an imaginary one that could be summoned at any moment. After leaving school in turn, we eventually founded an association to take us through the next steps and see how we could share our experiences of transmission with other students.
L’Expérience de l’Arbre will be performed at the Théâtre Paris-Villette from 16 to 19 November. Are you aiming to keep presenting this performance in France and abroad or are you already planning a new creation?
L’Expérience de l’Arbre was premièred four years ago and we're really happy to be coming back to the Théâtre Paris-Villette to perform it. We were lucky enough to perform it twice before at this venue and it’s truly a perfect setting for the show. It’s going to carry on touring in Aix-en-Provence and Saint-Loup this season, but we hope that it will be able to travel. A tour was planned for Japan, but it fell through with Covid. It’s a show that tells the story of an encounter between two worlds, two cultures and, for us, it would make sense to perform it in Japan. We’re continuing to create experiences, too: a new piece is currently being performed at the Théâtre de la Bastille until 24 November, it’s called La Grande marée (Spring Tide) and is about a German expedition in search of Atlantis. Another show, Le Beau Monde (Beautiful World), premièred at the 104 in September, is also still touring. It’s a memory ritual about the beauty of the 21st century and will carry on this season and next.
The Villa Kujoyama is an arts establishment belonging to the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs cultural cooperation network. Operated by the Institut français in Japan, it works in coordination with the Institut français and is supported by the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation, its principal patron.