Bertrand Lesca is a theatre maker from France. After studying at Warwick University, he went on to assist Peter Brook and Declan Donnellan on several international tours. Bertrand currently works with Nasi Voutsas (Bert and Nasi) with whom he co-created the trilogy EUROHOUSE, PALMYRA and ONE.
The Constant Triangle
PC: What is theatre?
BL: We’re interested in the idea that everything that you see is happening in the room at the same time – with the audience. We imagine a constant triangle between the audience, Nasi and myself that keeps looping. The constant awareness that we’re in a room with an audience feeds our work. Whatever we do always relates to this one single idea.
PC: How does politics fit in with your work?
BL: I think the politics comes from what people know before entering the room. We give them a hint, which is usually the title and sometimes the blurb. That’s what people should know before entering the room. Once they enter the room, we do things that are supposed to create associations in the spectator’s mind. I think we’re always very careful not to mention anything political in the room – we leave it to the audience to fill in the gaps and to create these associations. Of course, we go into the politics when we make the work: we research and debate. It’s very clear, for us, what we’re trying to create with each image, but I think people watching will think about a lot of things – sometimes that completely escapes us but that’s okay. Everything we do on stage is very open to interpretation. For example, some people will see the work and only see it as a reflection on a relationship, or they will think about conflict, or they will think about what we really want to talk about, which is a specific political conflict, but we don’t force it. We never say, “This is what you should think!”
PC: Why is it important for your form of political theatre to leave space for the audience and to be open to interpretation?
BL: We knew that we wanted it to be political when we started working together, but we felt uneasy when we thought about political theatre because, for us, it was this idea of preaching to the converted – we really wanted to avoid that. So, we started looking at another way of making political theatre which wouldn’t be that.
PC: How did you develop that approach?
BL: We started making Eurohouse with interviews we had done in Greece, almost like a verbatim piece. Then we invited someone from Greece to see it and she was like “Yeah, that’s okay.” Then we showed her us two on stage with me humiliating Nasi and making him do stuff that he didn’t want to do, and she said, “I can connect with this and the feeling that it leaves me with, this sense of humiliation, is exactly what this is all about.” This made us think that we can work through the politics through a feeling, through people having an emotional connection with the political subject that we’re trying to explore, rather than an intellectual understanding of what’s going on. A lot of our work is to do with trying to create an understanding through an emotional connection with what’s happening in the room, with what’s happening between us both or with what’s happening between us and the audience. We’re always really trying to work through the feeling of what that particular political context is doing to people.
PC: Your work seems to fit into a long tradition of comedy double acts, was that a conscious decision?
BL: No, it was more about understanding the dynamic between us two. We quite quickly found, whilst improvising, that I was oppressing Nasi and he was just the victim of this horrible person that I was playing. We always found it very amusing and very funny. We had no sense that this was what we wanted to do, it just kind of started to happen. Then we saw the film of Bloody Mess by Forced Entertainment which had a comedy routine that was happening between two people where one clown wants to put a line of chairs to the front of the stage and another clown wants to put the chairs to the back. It starts with just one man starting to place them and then the other one moving them and then the way that it builds was really amazing. There was something almost political about it but again not naming anything political: just two people on stage wanting different things. We were really interested in what you could read into that if you give that scene a title. If you frame it for the audience, you start seeing the scene differently.
I think that idea of framing something is quite key to our work. Something clicked, as well, when looking at Cy Twombly’s paintings. Even though his art is very abstract and hard to decipher, there’s always a title which comes to support the viewers understanding of what it’s about. We always try and give our work a very clear title, a very clear frame so that we can take the audience on a journey.
PC: What’s the first thing that you do when developing a piece?
BL: We get into the room and we just start talking about this thing. Then at some point we need to stop talking and start making something. We then try and leave all the information that we’ve gathered together outside and we start playing. Usually there’s just the two of us, so we start playing games and running long improvisations that carry on for anything up to an hour and a half. After that we make notes of things that we’ve found during the improvisation and what connected to the ideas that we’ve talked about. But we have to find the game and what the game is. So, if you have a man on the ladder and you have a man who’s not on the ladder, what’s the game? How can you play with that? We take a long time to work out what games work with the particular political context that we’re exploring. At the end of the day, it needs to be something that we can play, that we can act with. If it gets too complicated we usually leave it to one side.
PC: Are those connections always clear?
BL: We try to make them clear but sometimes there’s a sense that the meaning of it even escapes us, we don’t really know why it works but we think it works. For example, in Palmyra there’s this moment when I start shaving Nasi’s beard with the microphone, there’s something so violent about this but also very playful, but the meaning of it didn’t come through the first time, we were just playing. It came up again and it was very clear for us that it was about how people perceive the beard of a Muslim person and the act of shaving it, it’s offensive from a religious point of view but also a really quite aggressive thing to do. That all started off as a game; something completely unconscious that we did in rehearsals which came back again and made complete sense with what the show also needed to say.
The Breaking Point
PC: What’s so important about that collision between comedy and violence?
BL: I think it’s a double-edged thing for the audience: people take a bit of pleasure watching but also find it very violent and uncomfortable. Seeing someone on stage being humiliated in real time feels very interesting because the audience is complicit. The audience are always having to assess their position as a spectator, or as a witness to someone humiliating someone else. There’s something a little bit masochistic about it too, in the same way that when you watch something incredibly violent on a laptop, you don’t want to see it, but at the same time you do want to see it. We want to explore the limit of what an audience can witness, as well as exploring our own limits with each other. We love seeing how far we can go with each other. It’s that classic comedy thing of taking pleasure from seeing someone fall down and hurt themselves. People find it funny up to a point and we’re interested in how long we can make it funny and playing on that moment it doesn’t become funny anymore. That’s because it’s about real stuff that’s happening outside the theatre. We like the audience to get lost in it, so they don’t always see the metaphor, but then we catch them at that breaking point, so they go, “Oh fuck, this is what it’s about!” Suddenly it hits them in a different way.
PC: How do you ‘write’ the audience in that constant triangle so that those breaking points hit?
BL: Part of the creative process is to invite a lot of people to come and see it so that we can understand the piece, because until people start coming in, it’s impossible to know what the role of the audience is going to be. For example, for both Palmyra and One which is the last part of the trilogy, we only had a sense of the full dramaturgy of the piece once people are in the audience. We don’t really know exactly what we’re going to do when we invite people in, but we have a sense of it. We do a long improvisation with anchors of things that we’ve done in the past that we can launch for each other so that we know where we’re going, it might work, it might not. Then we invite another set of people to come in and we’ll improvise again until eventually we start to understand the piece through what is happening with the audience. The piece is completely rewritten once the audience comes in. Before that we try out games and we talk about it a lot. We have a sense of where we’re going but we only really start writing the piece when we have an audience.
PC: The triangle dynamic was very stark in Palmyra when both you and Nasi simultaneously address the audience about the hammer. Can you describe that and say why you create those moments where the audience can’t have an answer, or you specifically pull them between two things?
BL: So, there’s the first moment where we address the audience; I stop the show and I say, “I need to stop.” I make comments about how crazy he is and ask if anyone thought about the hammer going into my face. Then I say, “I tell you what we’re going to do, we’re going to give this [the hammer] to someone in the audience, someone I can trust.” There’s a little bit of a fun interaction and then we move on to the next section of the play. Eventually, Nasi starts asking for the hammer back and I say, “Don’t give him the hammer, take it outside.” Then we’re playing this conflict of me saying to the person, “Don’t give him the hammer.” And him saying, “Give me the hammer.” It changes according to who has the hammer and what that person says. Sometimes the person takes it out immediately, sometimes that person doesn’t want to take it out, or they keep it, or they even give it to Nasi. There are all these options and so the audience really does have a choice but then there is always this final moment, which is that I have a bigger hammer. No matter what that person decides to do, I will always win. Maybe that’s your sense of us not giving the audience a choice, because we always land on that same moment. We worked hard to see how we could really give out the choice to the audience because it should feel difficult for the person who has the hammer; it should feel difficult for the whole audience around them as well. That conflict happening in the audience is really important: What do we do? Who do we trust? Who’s to be trusted the most? Is it better to take the hammer out so that it’s safe or is it better to keep it? Sometimes it creates a big debate amongst people in the audience about what they should do. That choice is real.
PC: Why is it important for the audience to be an active witness rather than a passive witness?
BL: I think the point we’re trying to make is that we’re witness to this politics that is happening up to a point, but we’re also completely involved in that problem. For example, they watch the Middle East conflict from afar and that’s what they do in the show. Our conflict happens between two people and they watch from afar, but then we start interacting with the audience and then they’re like, “Oh shit, I thought I was just watching, they want me to actually answer? They want me to think about my role in this?” I think that’s really important for us, to say that we’re not just spectators, we’re not just witnesses, we’re also involved in that problem. We hear about these stories, Greece, Palmyra and the Middle East and we quickly feel desensitized, “That’s happening far away.” Or, “I’ve seen this over and over again, I don’t know what to think about this anymore.” We want people to actually consider what they think about it.
PC: How do you find the balance between a tight structure and the freedom of participation and improvisation?
BL: I think you have to think of it like there’s a start point and an end point, but what happens in between those two things has to feel free, both for the audience and for us as actors. We love when the situation gets out of hand, so we search for the danger of pure improvisation, but we always have those end points. If it just stays within the realm of improvisation it’ll descend into something random, but we have end points because we need to move on to another thing that we want to get the audience to think about. That is something that Declan Donnellan talks about in The Actor and the Target and I really agree with this. I really agree with the way he talks about acting in general.
PC: How do you construct the tasks or games when developing the work?
BL: What’s actually in the rooms we’re in is really important for us. We have a little scan of the space we’re going to be in, not even thinking about it we just have a look at what’s happening in the room and what the objects are in the room. What could happen with those two chairs or that ladder? Each object is like a little gift that we’re going to start using in an improvisation somehow. The objects in the room help us build the allegory or the metaphor that we’re going to be exploring. It’s important that it should feel like things from the theatre. For example, we like to go to a theatre and ask them what kind of brooms they have so that it looks as if we’ve really just picked these things up from the wings. We play with this aesthetic of found objects within a theatre, so it feels in real time and within the room.
The Exhausted Bodies
PC: Why is dance important in your work?
BL: I think it’s about endurance, it’s about enduring bodies on stage, this sense of seeing bodies being strained and really pushed to the limit. We connect to this idea of what could be political. We really like when the audience feels our exhaustion because when they see exhausted bodies on stage it brings it into the room, here and now. They see actors genuinely getting exhausted, there’s something real that happens. For example, in Eurohouse, Nasi dances to Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac and he keeps asking throughout the show for this song to be played and I keep refusing. He puts it on several times, but I keep stopping it until, eventually, he starts doing the dance and I allow it. It’s just a very free thing that happens for maybe two and a half minutes and he really goes for it: he bangs his feet against the floor and shouts. It’s something really quite big and impressive but also captures the absolute desolation and desperate nature of what we saw in Greece. Dance was the best way that we could express that feeling.
What we’d seen in Greece was so sad and desperate, but at the same time there was this thing that they keep going and they keep fighting and they keep protesting, for us, that was best represented by Nasi having a proper celebratory dance where he gets exhausted. But then I start taking over again, stopping the music and asking him to do it again, to the point where he gets exhausted even more and it shifts the dynamic.
PC: Why is it important for the audience to see your exhaustion?
BL: It generates empathy. So, we’re deliberately trying not to be too good at dancing. We want it to be a bit silly or ridiculous and that creates an empathy. If we mastered it to the point where it seemed effortless there wouldn’t be that empathy. So, for us, it’s important that the spectators get to see the effort. The audience could very easily feel distant from the piece if they didn’t see the error or the failure.
PC: How do you manipulate and control time and space towards the end of the process?
BL: It’s very hard to describe, I think it comes down to timing: comic timing. Every time we do it in front of an audience should feel like it’s the first time. The moments when we stop or if we don’t say anything, creates a climate of uncertainty and this uncertainty really helps to draw the audience in: What’s happening? Why is this person not saying anything? Why are they stopping? Is there a problem?
There’s a moment when people are laughing and then it stops. At that point onwards we work towards ensuring people don’t laugh because we want people to be horrified by what’s happening. For example, in Palmyra, there’s this scene where Nasi’s doing a dance with a hammer towards me, swinging it at me. People find it a little bit funny as he does it faster and harder, and then they stop finding it funny and it becomes quite a violent thing. People are confronted with the reality of the situation when it stops being funny. We’re saying that it’s more than just a funny image, this violence that you see is actually very real.
PC: How do you go about communicating your approach to theatre to young people during your week-long workshops?
BL: I think we work with young people in a slightly different way. We’re not necessarily interested in the politics as much – not because we don’t trust that they’ll understand it – instead we want to give them a sense of what performance can be. We work towards getting them to a place where they no longer ‘perform’. It takes a little bit of time for them to understand that. We try to make them say things as they would say it, so that we get to see them as people on stage without them putting on a role. It takes a little while, but once they get it, they really feel empowered because they can just be themselves and say things as they would to their friends and that’s acceptable on the stage. By the end of the week, when they’ve made a show, we hope that they can be the best of themselves by just doing what they always do, talking like they always talk. It’s just a case of them understanding what the situation is and what the game is. Once they understand what the game is, we don’t care what sort of script they’re following, as long as they’re in tune with their partners, with the audience, the situation and the game. We try and teach them that making theatre has to start from them: who they are and what they think.