Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Laurent Muhleisen

Interview with Laurent Muhleisen, literary advisor at La Comedie Francaise and director of La Maison Antoine Vitez in Paris.

How do dramaturgs work with directors in France?

Laurent: For example, Jean-Pierre Vincent, a well known and experienced director, was directing Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. He worked with his conseiller literaire, conseiller dramaturgique, conseiller artistique.* One of the tasks of his assistant was, because the text of Ubu is so light it is almost like a teenager play with lots of… and Jean-Pierre wanted to understand everything that was meant by these light words.

It is surrealism…

Laurent: So Jean Piere and his conseiller, they wrote together a script of all the other meanings and made a sort of screenplay of all the other meanings, how it can be transferred, what can it mean. He called this a scenario seconde, a second screenplay, that talked about how it could be connected with the world at the time, with fascism etc.

So it was like Brecht wrote for The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, programme notes on who the characters in the play were parodying in real life?

Laurent: Yes but as far as Ubu, there was no explanation of anything when it was written, less so than Arturo Ui. So Jean-Pierre, in order to understand what to tell to the actors about what he wanted them to do. This is the kind of work you do with your dramaturg as a writer, but this is your own private dramaturg, not a dramaturg attached to a theatre. Or you are the director of a theatre and you hire your friend as a permanent dramaturg in the theatre.

What is your role here? Is it translation?

Laurent: My job here is more connected to the promotion and discovery of new playwrights, when my boss Muriel Mayette, came here in 2006, she wanted this theatre, which is the oldest theatre in France to modernise its work. To work with modern playwrights, starting with the idea that when Moliere wrote his plays he was a contemporary author. You have to explore the modern playwrights. You can’t tell if the plays you read now will be played in 50 to 100 years from now, but you can evaluate that they fit our times, they are artistically relevant to us. So that’s what I do. I have a team of professional readers, we receive between 300 and 400 manuscripts a year, we read them, make a selection. We organise public readings of the text to see how they work.

Do y0u work with the writer on these readings?

Laurent: No. The writer sends his text and of course when we select the play and we have some questions we can ask him. If he’s alive…

In Germany, I know the writer is often outside the process. In the UK, the writer is inside the process…

Laurent: He is in the middle of the process here. French and German traditions gives much more power to the director. It’s the director for the play. Of the play. So when authors and directors understand each other well it’s perfect.

So how does the dramaturg fit into that diagram?

Laurent: The dramaturg is like the grease, the lubrifiant which makes it easier. He works in order to provide the director a text with which the director can do something according to his art of directing. But this of course is connected to the very originality of our directors. They all have their own vocabulary, their own style, the importance of the directors is much higher in France and Germany than in England.

Is it the tradition of the auteur. A signature style?

Laurent: It’s a tradition. It hasn’t always been the same. For years, directing was telling actors to do that and go there etc. Especially in this house, acts were so conscious of their art they could do everything, they could even do their own directing. Little by little, the directors got more and more important. In France, it started around the First World War, with Jacques Copeau, Gaston Baty. People with a vision of a play. Not just the words but a vision of how those words might work.

That seems to be a pattern with people I am speaking to, the dramaturg helps to deliver a vision.

Laurent: The dramaturg helps to deliver a vision. He gives the material which allows the director to make the right connections. Historical research. Contextual research. When it’s translation he can also test the quality of the translation. Every translation is not equal.

How do you test a translation?

Laurent: When you know the language, by comparing. If it’s Shakespeare, you have hundreds of translation, there are several ways. The Maison Antione Vitez we are also dealing with translations from original plays from around the world to French. We are an association of progressional translators and we deal with the ETC because we deal with plays from 40 countries. We are in this way, like the dramaturg, lubrifiant. We are helping connections to be made, between theatres and writers and translators.

* Conseiller = advisor, consultant

** Lubrifiant = lubricant

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