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Space is Scenography

Reija Hirvikoski

Jean-Guy Lecat has taken part in the creation of over one hundred theatrical productions since 1967. He began his career as a stage design assistant in the Theatre du Vieux-Colombier in Paris and as an architectural assistant at the Avignon festival. Lecat has worked as a stage manager, scenographer and light designer for Jean Vilar, Jorge Lavell, The Living Theatre -group, La MaMa, Jean-Marie Serreau, Luca Ronconi, Jean-Louis Barrault, Dario Fo, Roger Blin and Samuel Beckett. From 1976 to 2000 Lecat worked as the technical director for the Peter Brook theatre group, answering for the spatial transformation of the guest-performance theatres. In the spring of 2006 he visited Helsinki to hold a weeklong workshop for the students of the University of Art and Design, The Theatre Academy of Finland and the Helsinki University of Technology.

Jean-Guy Lecat has a long history of working as the scenographer for the legendary director Peter Brook. Reija Hirvikoski, who recently finished her doctoral dissertation on the collaboration between a director and a scenographer talked with Lecat about the division of labour in designing a theatrical space.

When one works with Peter Brook, one might loose oneself as an individual artist

Reija Hirvikoski: Your lengthy co-operation with the director Peter Brook is now over. In the book Between Two Silences (Moffitt 1999) the author points out that Peter Brook is said to be a demanding and difficult person to work with, but also a very good listener. What has your relationship and collaboration been like over these 25 years?

Jean-Guy Lecat: Very good. I left the company five years ago, after 25 years, for several reasons. One was that we no longer had conversations with Peter Brook. As I mentioned it to him, he said, “We don’t need to. We have no punctuation in between us because we know each other so well”. On one hand it’s good, because when you know somebody very well, you always know what the other person means and you save same time in the process of searching. On the other hand, there is a risk of reproducing the same old things and not being creative anymore.

For my whole life in the theatre, I’ve been interested in discovering new things and new adventures but Peter Brook is now 80 years old and that adventure will have to end. Even though he’s still very active and in good health, it’s natural for all things to have an end. For me, and in my age, if I work to this company until the end, it will be much more difficult to change and do something different. Once you’ve worked with a man like Peter Brook, you’ve lost yourself as an artist, been left in his shadow. No one really knows me. Everyone thinks that Peter Brook has thought up everything by himself.

RH: Yes, that comes out quite clearly in the book Open Circle (Todd & Lecat 2003), in which you say you suggested opening the large window in the back of the stage for the ending in the production of Mahabharata.

J-GL: Yes. It was a door.

RH: One of the persons interviewed for the book reflects on Peter’s genius in using this door to let the light of a genuine sunset into the space.

J-GL: Yes, that was my idea. I suggested it to Peter and he said: “If you feel that it’s a good idea, do it.” He never said to people: “No”, he said, “Try”, which is very clever because the only way for a director to find new ideas is by trial and experiment.

RH: In my dissertation Tahdon tiellä (Where there's a Will there's a Way) (Hirvikoski 2005) I claim that scenography is always a directional solution. In your case one could say that by choosing a place, you create the scenography; you create a whole visual world. What do you have to say to that?

J-GL: The answer is very simple. If the play is very good and well done, we don’t need the scenography.

RH: But you do choose the place where the play is to be performed.

J-GL: Yes, but that is a different matter. First, we naturally need an idea. Once we have the idea, we need a text to express this idea. Then the text has to be performed by actors and received by the audience. So we need at least an idea, a text and an audience. Right after that we need costumes. Even if the actors are nude, we use it to express something. There is a point in the costumes.

RH: It might be a bit boring to watch nude actors in ten different plays.

J-GL: Absolutely. It’s boring but it’s a made decision. Nudity is not neutral, and that’s why we need costumes. Sometimes the costumes are more neutral than nude people. You also need light in a theatrical performance, even if you use sunlight when putting out a play outside. You need light to see.

RH: But you choose the place for the performance.

J-GL: Yes, but that comes afterwards. These are the minimum requirements for doing theatre anywhere. You can put on a play in the street, or on a ferry…

RH: But if you have a show in the street it creates a different atmosphere than…

J-GL: Yes, and that’s the problem. You have to perform somewhere. If the play is on a beach, it tells you something. When you tell a story of this theatre, there is no story of the theatre. There is only a story of space. For example, when you build an Elizabethan theatre, you don’t need any scenography. You have to focus on following the space behind the actors more than on building a set. The tradition in France and other parts of the world is to follow the shape of an Italian theatre. You need the scenography because the space must be finished.

The space of the stage is empty. But do we have to build a set because the theatre hasn’t been designed properly or do we need the space of the theatre because the play needs the theatre? What Peter Brook understands about space is that we use the stage as a temporary set because the space of the theatre is something in itself.

We have transformed many warehouses, many spaces, which were not theatres. When you use a space like this, the audience is inside the same space with the play. They are sharing something, because they are inside the set. When you build a set on stage, you separate the audience, so they are only watching, not sharing the experience. Peter Brook’s idea is to faintly refer to the space in the beginning, leaving the audience to build the rest in their imagination.

RH: But you can’t do it if you can’t change the space of the theatre.

J-GL: What do we mean by changing? It depends from one space to another. Sometimes you can just mask the walls and connect the audience to the space.

RH: I believe that’s scenography, in a way.

J-GL: Yes, because it’s a part of the wall.

RH: Yes, it’s a wall but it’s also the creation of a world, the whole visual world of the play.

J-GL: Of course you can decide that the theatre is the scenography, but that’s not what designing a set is about. It is about something we have added, whether it connects with the play or not. Sometimes we don’t even need a set and sometimes we only need a floor or a change of colour.

Simplification creates depth

In addition for Jean-Guy Lecat wanting to exist as himself, he wishes to develop further the form of working he shared with Peter Brook. Brook’s artistic idea was to create an experience for the spectator by bringing him near the play and the actor. That’s why the shape of the ledge dividing the stage and the auditorium was always an “open circle”.

In Lecat’s opinion, Brook’s concept of “empty space” has been misunderstood. According to him, Peter Brook, in the book The Empty Space, didn’t only talk in praise of an empty stage, but also highlighted the fact that if one wishes to create something, one should start from nothing.

Once they started creating a play, there were objects outside the area of the stage, used as helpful elements in the improvisations of the actors. As the work progressed, they were always faced with the moment, when it was time to get rid of the objects — to walk on the path toward simplicity.

“These days there are many uninteresting performances, where the actors use all their time in moving the set pieces and props around. I don’t understand the point of this”, Jean-Guy Lecat laughs.

For a long time the productional idea of Peter Brook’s group was for the performances to visit different locations around the world, thereby collecting money for the production of new ones. “For example, we’ve played Mahabharata for two years and Carmen for 800 times”, Lecat mentions.

In Lecat’s career, architecture and theatre have always gone side by side. He transformed a show Peter Brook directed for the Bouffes du Nord -theatre in Paris into over two hundred spaces around the world. At this moment, Lecat is opening a new theatre, transforming spaces in Norway, Italy and Madrid in collaboration with a designing architect. In addition to this, he is working on a spatial project for the New Young Vic -theatre and the Round House Theatre in England. In the field of theatre, Lecat has recently finished the stage design in Dublin for Titus Andronicus, while he previously worked on a production of Othello in Lisbon and Mahogany in Madrid. Next year he will be working on Hamlet in Norway.

Lecat recalls what it was like working when he was younger. He tells an anecdote, which to him describes the basic essence of theatre: “When we were working on Waiting for Godot in Jean-Luis Barrault Theatre, the actors used to ask Beckett who these characters are and where are they coming from. Beckett answered: ‘I don’t know, but I do know something: Everything from the first sentence to the last is true’”.

Lecat enjoys the fact that everything is true from beginning to end in the small universe of the theatre. “But how do we make it all real?” he asks. In collaboration with Peter Brook they aimed for doing away with everything that isn’t true, everything that is purely decorative. He adds that there is something fundamentally wrong in doing theatre merely because there are theatres.

“For example, we have built approximately one hundred theatres in France, but we don’t have one hundred good directors. There are theatres that aren’t interesting because the directors aren’t interesting”.

Colours always tell something

When I enquire the reason for the theatre’s red walls, Lecat answers that the walls of the Bouffes du Nord haven’t always been red, but that the colour of the space must always have its roots in the content of the text. The colours of The Tempest were white and green. Mahabharata was pink. Red is more contemporary, and originates from Pelléas, which was a play about a 19th century composer and his studio. Lecat thinks that colours always have to be connected to the play in performance.

“Theatre survived for two thousand years without black. Now we’re not only painting stages in black colour, but theatres as well. They became completely dead. There is no reason for this. I have never seen a beautiful black, always this stupid shade of grey”, Jean-Guy Lecat comments with irritation and continues: “When you go to Globe Theatre or Bouffes du Nord, there is no sense to demand the black colour. The scenographer and the lighting designer merely need to work and use the space as it is. If the space itself can help in the design, it will always be followed by something extremely interesting for the performance.”

The more we show, the less we say

Jean-Guy Lecat’s workshops don’t have a real pedagogical message, but he wants to open the ears and eyes of the students. He wants to show and teach them things, not tell how they are supposed to be. Lecat wants his students to come up with the ideas by themselves. He believes too many theatrical workers are trying to do too many things at once. The key word is simplification. There is an overflow of ideas in the theatre.

“We think that we’re doing something extremely clear, but the result is the exact opposite”, Lecat remarks with a warm laugh. “You spend half your life to figure out that life isn’t endless and that there isn’t an infinite amount of time to express yourself. Once you’ve found that out, the rest of your life is short.”