FRArt Corsair Research. Theater research based on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Corsair Writings and Lutheran Letters

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2. interview

  • type: Interview
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A/R What led you to team up to develop this project?

J.L. We all graduated in the same year from ESACT, Liège’s theater school. While we were still students, Eva brought us together to carry out a project based on two books written by Pasolini towards the end of his life: Corsair Writings, a collection of newspaper articles published between 1973 and 1975, and the Lutheran Letters, a kind of teaching manual addressed to an imaginary adolescent. We were interested in these works because, even for being theoretical writings, they still contain a very strong emotional charge. It was the emotion they provoked in us that made us want to do theater with these two texts. So, the desire to carry out this project predates FRArt, as we had already laid some of the groundwork for it. We began with a series of interviews with people more than seventy years of age who knew “the world before” that Pasolini talks about. We wanted to hear their stories, to see the differences and similarities between what these people had experienced in the 1960s and 70s, and the interpretation that Pasolini gives of this period. We then decided to do an initial residency “on stage” to lay down the bases for our initial ideas and desires. This taught us that it would take a long time, that Pasolini’s thinking takes time to penetrate, that we would have to investigate the man and his work in all its aspects, as well as the work of Gramsci, Italian history, the political context at that time, rural life, among so many other things. We figured out very early on that we did not want to engage in a traditional production process. We weren’t even sure that we could turn this into an interesting performance! We simply followed our intuition and wanted to examine certain hypotheses. This is what the research process reflected. So, after our first residency, we decided to apply to FRArt.

E.Z.-M. I talked to them about the two texts in April 2016, right before we graduated. It was clear that we wanted to do this project on a collective basis, but coming out of school, we had to find our footing in the working world, and we learned a lot of things. So, it took us some time to work through the initial stages, to clarify our intentions. That’s why a fair amount of time passed from the genesis of this project to the research we conducted under the auspices of FRArt.

A/R So, it was the complexity of the material, especially the contradictions in Pasolini’s thought that led you more towards a research project than creating a theater piece.

E.Z.-M. Yes, exactly. Pasolini’s universe is quite complex in and of itself, and we soon realized that dramatizing these two fairly theoretical texts would not be an easy task. We also wanted to experiment with other ways of relating to our work, to step out of the usual way of doing things, especially the very short timeframes for creating and rehearsing, the need for efficiency. We did not want to be hurrying after the result. Actually, our research began with writing our application to FRArt, because already that taught us to look at our project differently.

J.L. When we were awarded the fellowship, we took the time to ask ourselves, what does “conducting research” mean in theater? How do we turn this space that has been given to us into a workspace that is different from our customary ways of working? We are so used (for the sake of surviving) to working with the goal of ultimately producing a result within a preestablished timeframe, that we have lost the ability to say that a theater piece is any different from a commodity. This is why we wanted to think about the frameworks we needed to step outside this logic—which we have internalized—to practice our art in a different way, outside this prerogative to produce a “sellable” result (which, however, doesn’t prevent us from producing a result).

F.D. That touches on an important issue, namely the differences between researching and creating. Any theatrical creation is a quest for a form; so, we could say that this involves research. But the fact of having—for FRArt—to posit a hypothesis and consider the different ways of responding to it changed how we envisaged the project. We went from having an intuitive relationship to Pasolini’s work to a more  “scientific” one in which we wanted to test our hypothesis using the specific—and archaic—means that theater offers. One of the things that interested us greatly in Corsair Writings and Lutheran Letters was what Pasolini said about the emergence of a consumer society and the anthropological transformation that this brought about in Italy, without most people even realizing it. He believed that a cataclysm was in the process of occurring, that a world and a relationship to the world were disappearing. FRArt allowed us to transform our initial question of “How do we make a performance based on Pasolini’s ideas?” to “How can we stage a complex thought process by evoking a world that we did not know?”

J.L. The issue of research is quite particular in the case of theater, given that we need an audience to test certain things. At the same time, the presence of an audience would have pushed us to engage in a certain kind of efficiency that we were trying to avoid.

A/R At the outset, you had situated the project in the tradition of “didactic theater,” referring in particular to the work of Olivier Neveux. What role did this notion come to occupy later on?

E.Z.-M. Our research comes out of—and forms part of—a workshop created at ESACT several years ago called “Theater and Politics,” in which Olivier Neveux indeed participated. His lectures frequently question the role of theater in society, its revolutionary potential, and the forms it may take—including didactic ones—to transmit knowledge. But our entire education as a whole led us to want to use this complex thought process as a material to build something. We worked with directors like Françoise Bloch, Adeline Rosenstein, and Joël Pommerat, who all conduct this kind of research. And aside from the living, we all studied Brecht and his didactic theater. This was all essential to our research, because it revealed the difficulty of not being either explanatory and lecturing, or simplistic and reductive in communicating a rigorous thought process to an audience.

F.D. Coming back to Pasolini’s thinking in particular, it is made up of contradictions; he never aimed for synthesis. His dialectic pitted thesis against antithesis without searching for a resolution. His work contemplates the irreconcilable. Searching for the theatrical forms to recount this impossible dialectic is very interesting.

A/R How did you begin your research at FRArt? How did you structure it?

J.L. We began by reading Corsair Writings and Lutheran Letters together and discussing our respective interpretations of each article and the theatrical ideas they evoked for us. Almost immediately, given the obscure nature of certain concepts, and the historical, political, and  cultural context, it became necessary for us to come to terms with at least three issues: Gramsci’s thought, which had a huge influence on Pasolini’s; Italian history since unification; and Pasolini’s own life, as his thought is inseparable from his life, even in its intimate spheres.

E.Z.-M. That’s where we started from in June 2019. We split up the work; each person dealt with one issue that they then presented to everyone else. We had already used this method in school and in creative projects. It was essentially a dramaturgical residency. And at that point, we decided to include other people in our work. We invited actors over two days to read pieces by Pasolini with us; we spent one day on Pilade, and the other, on Calderón. We wanted to describe how he himself had turned his thinking into theater, and to draw inspiration from that. For that matter, Pasolini’s theater pieces are quite hermetic, at first glance. We wanted to give them a voice, to see what this would yield, to discuss it, to mix seasoned perspectives with a fresh view of things. This opened up all kinds of horizons and avenues of inquiry.

J.L. We should say that June was the first time that we had really ever worked together, all four of us. We took the time to talk and create a common language. Working collectively is a learning process. The research at that stage involved theater and artistic issues, how we worked together as a collective, and on establishing the conditions that would put us into a true “research mode.”

E.Z.-M. During the second half of this residency, we did make a few attempts to go from desk to stage. This initial efforts let us see what we had to do to the work next, because our proposals often remained very cerebral and detached. We experienced some difficulties in working all four together. On the other hand, that engendered a different dynamic for the next residency. In hindsight, we have realized that a lot of things were germinating during this initial residency. That’s when the obsessions that we had pursued began to express themselves.

A/R Taking to the stage involved learning traditional Italian songs. Where did this idea come from?

F.D. Before we began our research at FRArt, we worked with Brigitte Romano, who is a musician and a professor of Italian traditional music. She did really interesting work recording songs during processions and festivals in Sicily as a way to describe a certain relationship to the world. She also worked with Giovanna Marini, a musicologist and friend of Pasolini, who participated extensively in collecting and transmitting these songs. First we learned these songs, which require a very particular vocal technique. And then, we quickly began to think about staging them. How to avoid folklorizing them? Should we exalt them? Or totally remove them from their context? How to avoid cultural appropriation?
J.L. We have evolved. At first, we wanted these songs to be sung on stage, but we realized that singing them “as-is” would not suffice, that they had to form part of a theatrical staging, and that we had to find the right distance between ourselves and these songs, which belong to a culture that is not ours. So, our research yielded this “problem.” We have not yet found the right solution for staging them, but by identifying the problems, we have begun to work towards a future solution.

E.Z.-M. We realized that they could not be performed in any sort of easy or obvious way, as if they were just beautiful choral chants. For that matter, they are often strange and not very melodious. But to come back to this issue of the legitimacy of singing these songs, this comes out of a larger consideration of the distance that separates us from the material, the distance between us and Pasolini’s thought, between us and these songs, and between us and this “world before.”

A/R You spoke earlier about another collection of “traces of the world before” that underlies your project, namely the interviews with the elderly people. Did you explore or use this material?

J.L. To be honest, it is only now that our “pre-FRArt” work has reacquired significance. We didn’t have the time to process it during our research at FRArt. But we are now writing a piece for the theater, and our research year has given us a new perspective on this documentary work. And not just for the interviews we have already completed, where we now know what information to look for, but also new interviews that we would like to conduct additionally.

E.Z.-M. At that time, we went to Italy to collect testimonies, and to follow in Pasolini’s footsteps, in Friuli, where he lived and discovered the rural world. What was interesting for us was that we didn’t find anything of what he had described. Obviously because it has changed, but perhaps also because he had to some degree mythologized it.

A/R Another way of working on Pasolini involved the creation of “figures.” What did you do with this?

F.D. These figures were a way to respond to this desire to summon the “world before.” By studying Pasolini’s work, and not just his films, we often came across these incarnations, these characters who were both realistic and mythologized, archaic and modern, and very estheticized. At the end of our first residency, we decided to explore many different areas, both in terms of form and substance (Pasolini’s esthetics, didactic theater, sacredness and its disappearance, and so on). For the next phase of the work, we focused on five issues, including the representation of the people as a whole in Pasolini’s work and in art history.

J.L. The dramaturgical approach that we are exploring to represent these “figures” from the world before is to systematically avoid their full incarnation. We are instead working on several signs (costumes, set design, and language) to evoke what this world could have been like, all the while leaving room for the imagination. E.Z.-M. We worked on this with Elsa Seguier-Faucher, a visual artist and costume designer. We worked really hard with her on trying to embody, to act out certain things, especially by imitating Pasolini’s films, before finally realizing that it was more interesting to use incomplete costumes, for example.

J.L. We also had to avoid clichés about the rural or the working world. There is no ONE rural reality; there are instead many. There is no such thing as THE people. We have to represent this as a heterogeneous force of resistance to a dominant power that instead describes “The People” as a simple, homogeneous unit, ultimately to take further advantage of it.  

E.Z.-M. We realized that we had to maintain a constant dialogue with Pasolini’s thinking, to polemicize the distance between his thought and us. Pasolini discovered a world, which he in part fantasized, and we in turn fantasize about this fantasy. We tended to take his word for the truth, because it touched us, but we have understood the importance of maintaining a permanent triangulation between Pasolini, ourselves, and an audience.

A/R In fact, in your report that you submitted halfway through your residency, you said that one of the turning points in your research came when you decided to “look inside yourselves.” Was this a question of freeing yourself of the text’s authority?

F.D. To present things somewhat schematically, during our first residency, we tried to understand what Pasolini was saying, the historical, political, and cultural contexts in which he experienced them, his influences, and the struggles that he took up. During our second residency, we tried to transmit this thinking, especially on the basis of interviews with Pasolini, using his own words. What we took away from this is that we had to acknowledge our unique relationship to this thought, and therefore to look inside ourselves. We have to challenge ourselves constantly, to search out those places where Pasolini makes us feel uncomfortable.

A/R How did the October and February residencies go?

E.Z.-M.  From the outset it was hard to work together as a foursome, to create a piece for the theater together. During the two residencies, each one of us pursued a kind of personal obsession, and each one of us produced a particular form. For that matter, we didn’t try to create one overall theater piece during the presentations we made at the end of our residencies; we presented the different forms separately. Instead of trying to tie everything together and follow one single path, we searched for a balance between us and our different worlds.

A/R The residencies were punctuated by a public performance. Who was your audience?

J.L. We invited between ten and fifteen people, friends and/or theater professionals. A supportive audience that was able to interpret a work in progress. We thought about this a lot. At the start of each residency, we wondered, “What kind of public do we need to come up with something?” In theater, this confrontation with the audience is important, because it releases energy. At the same time, we wanted to be prudent so that the presence of an audience would not cut us off from our research process.

A/R The pandemic spread in March, and you found yourselves in the Decameron. What changed for you in the crisis? And how did you adapt to the situation?

E.Z.-M. The pandemic did not disturb our research agenda too much. We didn’t have any residencies at that time. However, that should not be construed as any indication of the grave degree to which the cultural sector has been affected, or of the instability into which we have all been plunged. Of course our view of the world has been impacted by this crisis.

A/R In any case, the notion of the “world before” has acquired a new shade of meaning…

E.Z.-M. Yes, definitely, this notion has a different resonance to it now. It’s an interesting parallel. Some people are in fact talking about an anthropological change, as Pasolini did in his time.

A/R You told me about a future performance that you have planned?

E.Z.-M. Yes, when we concluded our final research phase, we decided to continue the project and create a work for the theater, which we have given the provisional title of “For one night. Notes for a future performance.”  

A/R What is this project about?

J.L. This idea has been present since the beginning of our research, among many others; we refined it during our residencies and it ended up becoming the basis for our work. It all began with Pasolini’s Notes Towards an African Orestes, a documentary shot in East Africa, which is a movie about making a movie. Pasolini was scouting for a fictional work that would never come about. It’s a magnificent document, and it’s interesting for the way he makes something out of future possibilities. This form provides us with an interesting kind of theatrics, which we have called the “theatrics of possibility.” So, the theatrical hypothesis that we are in the process of constructing is to hold a performance about holding a performance.

F.D. This theatrics of possibility is a result in part of our research year, of the questions it forced us to ask, and the solutions we came up with. By imagining a hypothetical show, we are able to get around the need for a single result, and we can have several shows exist at the same time that contradict one another, that are irreconcilable. This also let us dramatize our gaps, our impossibilities, and place the distance that separates us from Pasolini at the center of our project. But the show doesn’t exist yet at all. In a certain sense, we have to start all over. Creating a piece for the theater is not the same thing as conducting research.

J.L. We’re like a painter who has made his/her sketches and studies. Now we have to paint the painting.

A/R How is it coming along?

E.Z.-M. We are trying to include what the research yielded for us in this new project. This is why we went back to collecting documentation to describe this “world before” more precisely. We are reading, watching films, constructing a more concrete vision of the world that Pasolini described. And then we will take to the stage to try to construct the beginnings of a theater performance.

J.L. We are working on the bases: four people want to create a work for the theater that talks about the disappearance of a world, and they talk about their project. They narrate certain scenes, act in others, share their theatrical fantasies, their questions, and put forth various possibilities. This kind of meta-theater refers to the theatrics of possibility that we were mentioned before. The goal is to create an echo with the revolutionary potential that the rural world, the proletariat, and the sub-proletariat represented. In the 1960s and 70s, Pasolini warned incessantly that the Master Narrative of a dominant, bourgeois history, was in the process of “devouring” other histories, those of people with enormous subversive potential, merely on the basis of their very existence. Our intention with “Notes for a future performance” is not to present just one history, but a multitude of histories.

F.D. We are essentially trying to describe the emergence of a single model by inverting the machine, formally speaking, that is, by multiplying the narratives and recreating singularities.

A/R Will the research give rise to other forms besides theatrical ones?

F.D. Yes, we very much hope that the research gives rise to other forms. We worked in collaboration with Le Corridor on an artwork that dealt with the representation of Pasolini’s dead body. This piece is being exhibited as part of the Biennale de l’Image Possible in Liège.

J.L. And, in response to the Covid crisis, we want to create a sound installation based on our interviews with the elderly, the custodians of this “world before,” but also with the younger generation that didn’t know it, and which is in the process of experiencing a different transformation. We are going to work on these parallel tracks.
E.Z.-M. And ESACT is carrying out a project on Pasolini. We have been invited to work there with the students. We are excited to be able to share our research.

J.L. And it doesn’t end there. We still don’t know what this research will still yield. Some of Pasolini’s works really affected us. So maybe someday we’ll do something with them? This research is a fertile patch of ground that is letting all kinds of ideas sprout forth.