Des journées entières dans les arts · Éric Vigner (Version anglaise)

Des journées entières dans les arts · Éric Vigner (Version anglaise)
Portrait d'Éric Vigner en anglais
Commentaire & étude
David Sanson
Magazine N°1 du Théâtre de Lorient
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Des journées entières dans les arts · David Sanson

Éric Vigner confesses to an excessive love of art, in particular the theatrical arts, in which he has been involved for more than twenty-five years. His profession – stage director – he owes to his childhood in Brittany, which awakened in him, amongst other things, a longing for other places. A number of key encounters in the course of time acted like a series of successive revelations as he made his way, which led him, in 1996, to Lorient, where he is currently the Directeur artistique du Théâtre.


"Every childhood is fabulous, by its very nature […].  To rediscover the language of fables one has to become part of the existentialism of the fabulous, become - body and soul - a being given to admiration, replacing before the world mere perception by admiration. One has to admire in order to sense the value of what one perceives. And admire the future even in the past...". While looking among the works of Marguerite (Duras), we found what we were looking for in Gaston (Bachelard): the above is taken from La Poétique de la rêverie, published in 1960, the year Éric Vigner was born, and we decided to keep the words, for they have a lot to say.

Our search at first focused on Duras because, of all the magic encounters that had an influence on Éric Vigner's career, his friendship with this writer, which began in 1993 when he staged La pluie d'été,  proved one of the most beautiful and most decisive ones of his life so far. Her influence appears to extend even to his manner of speaking: soft and precise, Éric's voice bears Durassian traits, and so do his short sentences punctuated by commas and silences... And we focused on his childhood because this is the age where everything is rooted, where we have to look for the first initial revelation, the source of the conception of theatre that Vigner at one time formulated with regard to Le Barbier de Séville: "For me, theatre is not a place where people go to get answers but one where they can re-visit history, our own intimate, forgotten histories. In order for the spectator to gain access to unknown things - that is to say, things he has forgotten - it is necessary that the theatre bears in itself its double, or better, its paradox. [...] We cling to history, to the fable, in order to gain access to the theatre." And because, as Marguerite Duras expressed it in the play that became her first success on the stage, Des journées entières dans les arbres: «There is always something that remains from one's childhood, always."


Let's occupy ourselves with the fable of a childhood in Ille-et-Vilaine, near Combourg — where the grandparents ran a café-cum-hardware shop coupled with a tanel-beater’s shop and where Granny Vigner also made and sold her crêpes — and especially at Janzé, the village where his family lived — Éric and Bénédicte Vigner's father was working in the garage operated by his parents-in-law. Families made up of "very generous" people, he says, with Suzanne, his maternal grandmother, the dominant figure : "Her presence fascinated me because it was a complete presence. She was somebody who couldn't restrain herself, she was like a living force that existed in a kind of Elsewhere, one that knew pain. As though this force had failed to find its proper form of expression. When, much later, I met Marguerite Duras, I discovered in her the very same energy, but somehow directed, canalised. As I see it, these are women constantly in pursuit of something - of what I cannot say, almost like animals. Always in motion, a motion one could neither stop nor impede...". When finally his grandmother died in 1990, Éric Vigner decided to cast off his fetters - his life of an actor and his emotional life — to make his dream come true of becoming a stage director. And when he set up his company he gave it the name of his grandmother, Suzanne M.: "I thought I should justly keep the initials of her maiden name: Menuet, as though I could, in a way, go on dancing with her."

It was a simple childhood and a loving one, profoundly happy, from which arose one day - one cannot say how - a deep longing for the theatre: "My interest in the theatre was always there, right from the time when I was seven, like some kind of passion of which I was completely unaware, since no one in my family had anything to do with the stage. I fear this is going to remain a mystery for a long time. I always loved to play with things, to potter about, paint pictures, invent stories, make objects. The theatre was to be the best place for me to express myself, but at that time I didn't know yet." And it was also a fabulous childhood, in the strict, literal sense of the term, in a setting - between the pleasures of open-air games and the scenes of country life - that spurred his imagination.

The Combourg café, where "all the village" used to meet. The countless nooks and crannies of the garage at Janzé, its smells - of oil, petrol, rubber -, its monstrous machines and piles of giant tires. The labyrinthine tree-lined walks in the cemetery between the school and his parents' house, with one window giving onto the rows of graves. As a child, Éric used to accompany granny Suzanne on her daily ritual "cemetery tour". "Everyday we took a walk among the dead, and she told me the stories of their lives." And, as a murmured afterthought: "We were so free..."

A paradoxical childhood, perhaps, because he inherited from her his love of cemeteries. But - as you may have surmised - Éric Vigner is indeed a paradoxical being. And after all, aren't cemeteries highly theatrical places? "There is obviously some connection with the theatre: Telling the life histories of the deceased amounts to making them alive again, bringing them back to life. Theatre plays are basically voices waiting to be awakened, spirits longing to be given a body when the play is staged, so they can speak up again... This, of course, I realised only much later, but for me there's something spiritual to the act of staging a play or performing on stage." Éric Vigner believes in signs, in coincidences, reminiscences, his "lucky star" , which he confesses has never ceased to favour him. At the end of the day, theatre is nothing but a history of phantoms.


Concerning the Spiritual in Art. This is the title of Wassily Kandinsky's manifesto, the painter held to be the father of abstract art. Along with his forefathers of the quattrocento - Piero della Francesca ("the pure genius"), Giorgione  - or the contemporary sculptor Anish Kapoor, Kandinsky is one of Éric Vigner's most admired artists, a Master with a capital M. But first of all let us imagine Éric Vigner as a schoolboy, a fuddled youngster rather than a punk, who every morning took the train to Rennes: "I wore my hair long, sported an orange shawl that swept the ground, wore clogs to school, smoked a pipe. I nearly dropped out before my bachot (GCE) to go and raise goats somewhere in the Larzac together with a pal of mine. It was a time when we had a good many dreams..." Befuddled, above all, when he suddenly discovered, at the Maison de la Culture just opposite the Lycée Émile Zola, the thing called Art.  He started to gorge himself on all sorts of art: the cinema, both "art and experimental",  and the music of Keith Jarrett; the smart theatre of Jérôme Savary and the musical dance of Meredith Monk — whom the Théâtre de Lorient is inviting this year within the scope of its "Fringe" project: "I will always remember I almost split my sides with laughter. I just couldn't believe that this was art, that one could do such things, or pay for being able to see them... I didn't know a thing about it, I was completely ignorant! Yes, instinctual, perhaps, and creative, with an inventive mind - but ignorant! I began to understand later, when I enrolled in the Faculty of Visual Arts..."

Éric Vigner is actually a visual artist. Though he started to "stage" little plays while still at the lycée, plays which he presented in the region's assembly halls, he remained naive:  "I had no idea of the rules of the game, didn't even know one could study theatrical arts. The theatre was for me something miraculous that some people could do and others couldn't." While a student in the faculty of Visual Arts, he had another encounter of decisive importance, he met a professor, Yves Bougeard, who taught him to look, that is to say, to "see things differently. He showed me that a picture was something constructed, that there were things and the appearance of things. He taught me, for example, to see birds in the skies painted by Cézanne…". At that very time he discovered the Conservatoire de Rennes, "a municipal school, and thus not expensive". He devoted his time to the theatre once or twice a week, passed his art teacher's exam and for one year taught Visual Arts in a secondary school at Caen. He quit, was admitted to the École de la rue Blanche (National School of Theatre and Technology), then to the Conservatoire d'art dramatique à Paris, where he studied with Michel Bouquet. He wanted to be an actor. "I think I always knew that what I really wanted to devote myself to was the mis-en-scène. But at that time there was no school that would teach it - the idea that one could learn through contact with the great masters, as one did in the Fine Arts, was inconceivable in the field of theatre. As an actor I would possibly be able to become assistant to a stage director and, later, even a stage director myself... To me, a stage director was God, the One who knows all and directs all - capable of reading even the most difficult texts, of grasping the dramaturgy of a play, with a precise understanding of the history of theatre and the history of art and music. One capable of directing his actors, of “erecting signs in space“ that would convey a multitude of meanings … For a long time I told myself I would never be able to do this."

His training as a visual artist proved a powerful source of inspiration for Éric Vigner's theatre. His often memorable scenographies - the scintillating bead curtain in Savannah Bay, the bamboo curtain in La Bête dans la jungle, the mashrabiya in his Othello…-, the décor and the spaces he chooses, for instance in Brancusi contre États-Unis staged in the Salle du Conclave of the Popes' Palace at Avignon, this way - in his own words - of creating spaces and "placing signs" in them: all this bears witness to a singular sharpness of vision, both oneiric and austere, expressive and stylised, evoking things somewhere between Pina Bausch and Bob Wilson. If he were an abstract painter, Éric Vigner would be lyrical and geometric at the same time, “square“ and nebulose, a geometer steeped in mystery. A hypersensitive artist fascinated by the "clear perspectives" of the seventeenth century and the plays of Corneille, Molière, Racine: "It was the century of clarity. I should have loved to have lived at that age, thinking thoughts that I feel I can comprehend physically, as it were. I see the vision of those people and where they came from, their feet still stuck in the mud but their heads already in future times. They know that they are about to invent something as they strain to control their passions and to give them form. Fascinating!... And we all hail from them."
It was not by accident that Corneille's La Place royale, with the young actors of the Académie founded only last year, was to open the season at the Théâtre de Lorient, inaugurating a week of programmes devoted to that period: Éric Vigner, as has been pointed out, loves signs, symbols and the rule of three. La Place royale was the play with which he took leave of the Conservatoire in 1986, staging it with seven of his fellow students (among them Denis Podalydès).  And ten years later he opened his first season as head of the CDDB at Lorient with another of Corneille's comedies, L'Illusion comique.


"Théâtre d'art" : Éric Vigner frequently speaks of his "theatre as an art form", as he dreams of an art of stage-directing seen as something on an equal footing with painting and sculpture; a form of theatre which would, like the other arts,  "express sensibilities". When he decided, after his time as an actor - with appearances both in Philippe de Broca's film Chouans! (Revolution and Passion) and in Elvire Jouvet 40, a memorable play that went round the world -, to turn to the field of mis-en-scène—, that decision did not meet with unanimous approval. In the early 1990s French theatre was in fact firmly in the hands of the advocates of a cerebral and political art, laden with deep meaning and psychology. Éric Vigner had but little love for this sort of theatre - "destined as it was for cultured people, for professors of dramatic art, where nothing is out of the ordinary". With his compagnie Suzanne M., he occupied for six months the decommissioned factory of one of his friends at Issy-les-Moulineaux, to stage the text of an author whose was hardly à la mode at the time: La Maison d'os by Roland Dubillard. "This abandoned factory became the embodiment of the play. My idea was to throw people right into the thick of the action, the writing, the story, into all that made up the theatre - not to allow them to stand outside as mere spectators." This Maison d'os turned out to be a great event, and it made a breach, opened the doors to the theatre scene. In 1991, the play was part of the programme of the Festival d'Automne in Paris. This was the start of Éric Vigner's  career, even though his lack of interest in society life did very little to promote it. A year later he staged Le Régiment de Sambre et Meuse at the Quartz de Brest, which was based on texts by, amongst others, Céline, Genet and Courteline on their war experience on the front line. Then, in 1993, he hit upon the writings of Duras, on the instigation of his sister Bénédicte. Within the scope of a workshop at the Conservatoire d'art dramatique he presented La Pluie d'été. "The important thing was to make people feel what it was that moved the principal character, Ernesto: What is it that touched the nerve of this child - a child of no particular age - he could be you, I, anyone - when he was suddenly, for the first time, confronted with a book, in his case the Ecclesiastes? A book in which it was to be his task to fill in the blanks... It was for me to impress on my actors a certain something, something special, something I myself didn't know, though I sensed it."

Even before the staging of La Pluie d'été, La Maison d'os was an act of fundamental importance, another revelation. It was the last play in which Éric Vigner appeared as an actor, and the one in which he propounded his vision of theatre as a "projection space": "The theatre is not a high mass. It is an invitation to each spectator to project themselves into a place that belongs to no one but them. A place where one seeks to meet, to get to know, the Other - whether he came from Corea or Albania or found himself in the middle of himself. ... It is a constant, never-ending search for which one's lifetime isn't long enough. But what counts is not the end: the journey is the reward." La Maison d'os is, first and foremost, a text that contains phrases to which Éric Vigner attributes the value of maxims.  For instance:  "Any place is the right one if only it is the one through which one has gained access" Or: "Better to speak as one wants than as one should. Or else I'll shut up."

The text - one has to go back to it again and again, to look for its essence rather than its meaning The Austrian actress Jutta Johanna Weiss, Éric Vigner's companion ever since he was her director in Victor Hugo's Marion de Lorme, says about him that he "knows how to read a text as nobody else. The way an architect does when he reads a plan and sees the house before his mental eye." His sister Bénédicte Vigner, who has worked by his side every since La Pluie d'été, goes even farther in explaining his écriture - his "writing", his “hand“  - as she did in a special number of the magazine Alternatives théâtrales, in an article bearing the self-explanatory title Désir de théâtre, désir au théâtre: "When he stages a play, Éric "writes", and this means much more than simply putting a text on stage." From the unsurpassable perfection of the alexandrine - ever since the revelation he had when he saw Klaus Michael Grüber's mis-en-scène of Racine's Bérénice at the Comédie-Française - to the bland writings of Duras, the text is a space of freedom and at the same time a body to be brought to life. And he himself says that the text is "a Rosetta Stone, a key to understanding the hieroglyphs". He says: "One only begins to understand a text, at least to some extent, once one becomes engrossed in it, once one puts it on stage." And, smiling : "As a matter of fact, you can only work on what you don't understand. In a way, La Maison d'os was the text I understood the least, and which accordingly touched me the most. Knowledge is either direct or it isn't at all. There's something invisible, beyond reason, that you understand, and that's the very thing you want to share with others. The essence of things, or the intimate relationship one has with them. That's what is so crazy about the theatre: you have all the proof of visibility - materiality, real time, real people, real objects -  and at the same time what you conjure up belongs to the realm of the invisible". One is reminded of Kandinsky, of the title of the essay the philosopher Michel Henry dedicated to him in 1988 : Voir l'invisible. Seeing the invisible - that is what it is all about. Jutta Johanna Weiss says about her partner and herself: "Éric and I, that is as though our common history had begun in the seventeenth century. We don't have to talk in order under understand one another, we are like an ancient couple who have known each other forever..."


Marrying the invisible and the carnal, instinct and pudency, the baroque and the cerebral, magic and Cartesian thought - this, basically, is the paradox Éric Vigner is after. "In order to make me want to work with him, Catherine Hiegel had said, "You'll see, he is a most carnal director…"", recalls the actor Micha Lescot when asked to tell how they first met. They were to work on another text by Roland Dubillard, Où boivent les vaches. Micha Lescot - for whom the dramaturge Rémi De Vos, was to write his play Sextett at the request of his stage director, Éric Vigner - developed a rare sort of complicity with him: "As we were working together we rarely felt the need to talk in order to understand each other. Éric cultivates a most sensitive relationship with the people with whom he works, something that is hard to explain. He either "senses" people or not. When we did our second play my partners were convinced we had worked together for ages... I also owe it to him that he was first to have the courage to entrust to me a role which was quite unlike anything one had asked me to do before: a man much older that I was - actually quite ageless ...  He has the gift to develop, all of a sudden and with the simplest means, an actor's imagination to open up the whole range of his abilities. Incidentally, he introduces most of his propositions with  "in fact, it's quite easy..."". While Éric Vigner's theatre is born of his highly lucid understanding of a text, it remains, above all, a theatre of incarnation. Incarnation in the bodies - in the writing, in the actors' bodies or in those of phantoms: "When dealing with the theatre of the seventeenth century one simply must slip into the bodies of Corneille, Racine or Molière. Theatre means: inhabiting these bodies." Jutta Weiss says about him "when he is on stage he is like a panther. The way he moves changes, and so does his personality. You don't hear him when he approaches, it is as though he entered the bodies of his actors...". A theatre of bodies in space, and of screams, for there's a lot of screaming in the plays staged by Vigner, as there is in the books of Duras: screaming - and fainting fits.

Like Arthur Nauzyciel, Éric Ruf, Jutta Johanna Weiss, Catherine Samie, Catherine Hiegel ou Martine Chevalier, Micha Lescot is part of the “family“ of actors that Éric Vigner (though he does not really like the expression) has always been able to gather around him. With the first two he actually wished at one time to form a group, when  starting out to challenge the Festival d'Avignon, a group to be known by their initials, the NRV (a play on words: "les énervés", those with "raw nerves")... And this is, at the end of the day, what really counts, the key to the mystery: meeting people.  Meeting human beings - formerly Duras, today Christophe Honoré, or indeed the graphic artists M/M (Paris), who worked for the CDDB from 1996 onwards, long before they designed covers for Björk and Madonna; wherever he went he always felt he was "recognising" people. And meeting with writings and, indeed, with countries. "Bretons have a traveller's mind. For me, as one of them, this means being part of a specific culture of people who like to board boats or aeroplanes, who want to see what's going on elsewhere."

Then to North America - Montreal and Atlanta -, where he stages in English Dans la solitude des champs de coton by Bernard-Marie Koltès:   "In spring, the trees of Atlanta shed their pollen and the pavements and streets turn yellow – it's almost like India...". And, above all, to the East, to Marguerite Duras' phantasmic India, to Albania, only recently returned to democratic life, where he presents, symbolically as it were, Beaumarchais' Le Barbier de Séville with actors of the National Theatre of Tirana; to South Corea, where he directs the actors and dancers of the National Theatre and Ballet of Corea in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme: "His mis-en-scène was astoundingly at one with Corean culture, and that although he had only just got an inkling of it", Jutta Weiss reports. Éric Vigner likes to quote the painter Pierre Soulages: "What I'm doing is what teaches me what I seek to achieve." In fact, it's quite easy.  It's a matter of longing, intuition, and above all exchanging and sharing. From his expeditions free from any sort of wish to conquer, from these fruitful exchanges moved by his almost romantic belief in Art's power to “invent the future”, he was to reap the fruits he brought back to Lorient, the subject matter of the events under the motto De l'Orient à Lorient. And then, the decision, taken some time in the autumn of 2010, to "start from zero again, in a sense", inviting seven young actors from different parts of the world to invent an unheard-of form of artists-in-residence: the birth of his Académie.

Lorient was to be its home base, the place where everything made sense, where one could raise, and put flesh on, the desire to create a theatre that would give answers to these questions:  "What is the theatre of today? What forms, what texts would be needed to reach people?" Lorient - a city which, on account of its history, is the place he'd been dreaming of: a commercial port given "not so much to commercial activities in a mercantile or imperialist sense but to commerce in the former, noble sense of the term: exchanging, sharing, the quest for knowledge". A city on the seaboard – that sea which, in the words of Baudelaire, is the realm of free men – the same Baudelaire who defined poetry as "childhood willingly regained". A city whose very name is  "a magic word. In my imagination, Lorient forms part of the litany of cities situated on the sea -  Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore, Sydney, Rio… Names are invented, cities built." Inventing while going back to the sources: Éric Vigner has, let's face it, never done anything else. For him, coming to Lorient meant "returning to a land I had left. It was not by accident that I staged L'Illusion comique for the opening of the CDDB, a play that is about a father forgiving his son..." Once again a way to get in touch with some phantoms, benevolent spirits. And since Éric Vigner loves phantoms and omens, he set out again in search of them within the circle of Marguerite Duras, and one cannot help but hear some resonance, a premonition, something like a hidden message, in what she once said to André Rollin in the magazine Lire on the subject of Les yeux bleus cheveux noirs: "That wall facing the sea in such a way that one can hear the tide breaking on the shore. This is the wall of the theatre – there is no theatre unless you hear the sea. There's always the sea behind Racine, always behind Shakespeare. The call of the sea, before which all is inane, all is vanity. If it wasn't for the sea, nothing could exist, including the theatre."