Abysses and dizziness – an interview with Philippe Genty
For visual theatre enthusiasts, January isn't clouded with post Christmas blues but alive with the delights of the annual London International Mime Festival. One of the anticipated puppetry highlights for 2014 is 'Forget Me Not' by Compagnie Philippe Genty. Here, Philippe Genty discusses the show, and his approach to puppetry and performance more widely.
What the staring points were for the creation of 'Forget Me Not'?
To write this show, I used some of Mary Underwood's dreams, my partner and collaborator. The image of gravediggers looking for bodies buried under the snow. Eight dummies are the doubles of the actors, as if the memory had faltered, slipped, buried souvenirs, repressed, deformed, on the border between the sluggish and the lively, the souvenirs which want to return to the surface, to return to life.
'Forget Me Not' is an old show that the company has reworked with students of the HINT Theatre School in Norway. Has much changed from the original version?
We transformed more than 50% from the first version. By contemplating the extraordinary landscapes of Norway covered with snow, a new inspiration was imperative, which resounded with the former show. The snow is powerfully suggestive, a very present element in Mary's dreams but also in my childhood memories. I spent my childhood in the mountains with my mother. My father was killed in a skiing accident.
Your shows often take a long time to make. I’ve heard that you often write out possible stories to work with but that they are only a starting point, could you explain your approach to devising?
At the beginning when we start, we work in complete disorder. Around this chaos, little by little it starts to become organised; the fragility escaping from oneself. For each of our creations, I build a storyboard, by means of photo montages. One or sometimes several images correspond to each of the scenes. Around these images, I develop a situation, a relation, a conflict, a climate, often leaving several alternatives possible for each of these scenes. At the end of the writing process, I find myself with about 50 detailed pages of descriptions, but I always leave doors open for other possibilities.
Dreams seem to hold a personal fascination for you, why do they present such fertile ground for performance?
I try to develop a form of theatre where the stage would be the area of the subconscious. I had a strange obsession. I used to feel very uncomfortable when someone would enter from the wings. It took me some time to finally discover that in my dreams people don’t appear from the side; they surge and melt. This is maybe why unconsciously I started to use illusion not for the sake of illusion, but in order for the performers to appear and vanish from the stage like in my dreams. The progression of the sequences would follow the pattern of a dream through association of images rather than a story. Illusion also helped me to crumble the rational in order to open a gate to the subconscious of the spectator.
This is not theatre of the unreal; on the contrary it shows internal conflicts of the man facing his struggle with reality. He has to take into account his internal spaces to negotiate with those from the outside, which explains these landscapes that appear, metamorphose, disappear. Internal landscapes testify to our abysses and dizziness.
Is your approach to puppetry a result of your interest in the space between reality and dreams?
In my shows, the puppet is often the continuation of the internal universe of the actor. It is very interesting to observe the expressions on the face of an actor when he manipulates. This observation brought me to use this disturbing halving, by applying it to the actor. The actor has to project himself in the puppet at the same time as continuing to act. It creates a mirror effect, which interests me profoundly because it questions identity.
You work with some unusual textures and a range of materials. Does the material itself shape the outcome or do you look for a material that will realise an image you have in mind?
In 'Forget Me Not' I mainly wanted to work with the actors’ doubles so we had dummies as their double. And it’s true that the image is generally shaped by the material rather than just realised with the right means. I have learned that we have to follow the 'messages' of the materials, we have to be able to listen to it. As this show was written from dreams, some strong images were there from the beginning, but we had to find a path through the life of these dummies we had created to express them.
How has your collaboration with Mary as a choreographer changed the work you make?
In the beginning I was not fully conscious of her influence but in fact she allowed me to apply my knowledge of puppets to actors and gradually integrate them into the performances. That’s how we started to explore a territory where puppetry, dance and acting melt. To approach the medium of dance with actors, puppeteers or circus performers, is not always easy. We do not like to impose a vocabulary of movements. Very often an actor will close in on himself, announcing that he is not a dancer.
Have you noticed a difference in how your work has been perceived over the years?
My shows at the beginning were not very readily accepted. Journalists and the theatre press agents didn't know what label to put on the company. They could not categorise it. Finally they defined us as ‘visual theatre’. Perhaps I could say we were one of the first companies to use various techniques in one piece. Later other companies started introducing puppets in their repertoire. A puppet, an object or even a raw material can express more sometimes than an actor with words.