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“The Bouffon”:Interview with Philippe Gaulier

Interviewer: Ric Liu\Huang Suhuai

Interviewee: Philippe Gaulier

Transcript: Chong Woon Yong

Editors note: In the realm of performance training for actors, Philippe Gaulier is one of today’s most influential and revolutionary theatre master. He is the founder of École Philippe Gaulier, a prestigious French clown school in Étampes. In the last four years, The Theatre Practice has been organising the Philippe Gaulier Master Class in Singapore. Master Classes conducted in the last four years were: 2010 – Le Jeu,2011 – Melodrama,2012 – Clown,2013 – Bouffons.

Q: Do you feel any changes or differences in the students from the last 2 workshops you previously conducted here?

PG:If I see students whom went to Paris with me, I would see many things changing, moving. If I have only one week, I don’t see changes, it takes more time.

Workshops are friendlier, easier than last year, they know me a little bit better, we know each other better, when I teach in Paris, sometimes the first time is difficult, the second time is easier.

Q:What do you think Asian bouffon is like?

PG:This is the first time I teach bouffon in Singapore… I have taught bouffon in Japan and Taipei; so bouffon in Europe and in Asia are a little different. We don’t tell the same story, but the pleasure to be bouffon is the same. Because bouffon is an actor, and if you are an actor, you have the pleasure to discover the world.

Q:Do you think there is any cultural difference when you bring bouffon to Asia?

PG:For me, I understand bouffon as a European, as a French. We also have a bouffon tradition in Italy, in France and in Spain. But when I teach bouffon in England, it is a little bit different, and it is always a bit different. It is always the same humanity for an actor, because as an actor you try to find the humanity in the people, the outcast people, before you say “you go to the ghetto”. We try to find this humanity.

Q:Do you think the students here kind of misunderstand what you want?

PG:They don’t have to know what I want. I have to know what the students want. But I have to show what the world of the bouffon is.

Q: What methods, qualities or styles do you think are restricting actors?

PG:I don’t know if you know Stanislavsky[1], or if you know Lee Strasberg [2]… I think they are totally idiot. A lot of people follow these two idiots. I don’t know… they make a lot of people follow them.

Q: So what are the styles that actors in Europe follow?

PG:Oh in Europe a lot of idiots follow Stanislavsky and Lee Strasburg, and even read the book. They follow a lot of idiots.

Q: In this Journal edition, we discuss the traditional and the modern. What does traditional and modern mean to you? Is there any clear distinction between these two in France?

PG:Traditional, it could be fantastic if it’s not academic. You can have a beautiful traditional Molière[3], in a Comédie-Française, if the actors are not academic. To be academic, it means the actors play like they played during the time in Molière; and theatre traditional play by actors today is fantastic. But when the traditions kill the life of the actor, it’s bad. A bad actor accepts to die in front of tradition. That is bad. But if the actor is fantastic, he is alive, like when we see Kabuki. Kabuki is a theatre tradition, but when an actor is fantastic, the Kabuki is fantastic. But when the actor is traditional Kabuki without something special, the Kabuki is boring. So tradition? It’s ok, but always with something special from the actor. And many times, a tradition kills the actor, or the actor goes to a tradition because he doesn’t want to show something fantastic from himself.

Q: But for Asians, when we talk about traditional theatre, it is a totally different thing.

PG:Ya but me, I know Kabuki a bit better because I saw many Kabuki in Japan. I don’t know, I didn’t see so many good Beijing Opera, we saw many bad Noh in Hong Kong. So if we see bad, we say it’s bad, but it’s not bad if we see that it’s played by a generous actor. Like Farewell my Concubine? It’s a beautiful, beautiful movie based on traditional theatre.

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Q: I just want to ask, why do you feel that Stanislavsky and Lee Strasburg are idiots?

PG:Why they are idiots? It’s difficult to know why people are idiots. But if you read Meyerhold, Meyerhold was an assistant of Stanislavsky. But if you read what Meyerhold writes about actors, about the education of actors, it’s very good. But what Stanislavsky writes is absolutely idiot and without humour. But Meyerhold is a very, very interesting guy. Stalin’s party was ready to kill Meyerhold, but Stanislavsky took Meyerhold as an assistant to save his life, so that is a good idea and it’s fantastic. I respect Stanislavsky for that. Meyerhold is much more clever, has much more humor. Stanislavsky says you can totally be the character, but not Meyerhold. Meyerhold is much more intelligent, and much more modern in giving a secret to actors than Stanislavsky. Stanislavsky said he was wrong.

Q: So in that respect, it seems that Stanislavsky is the tradition, and his assistant was more modern.

PG:Stanislavsky bothered Chekhov a lot, and he asked Chekhov to write his parts again, which was really boring, but it was fashionable during Chekhov’s time. But after that, everybody thought it’s fucking boring, and the top is Lee Strasburg. Boring. Totally boring. Without humour, without any humour. That is terrible.

Q: So how important is a sense of humour to an actor?

PG:The sense of humour is a sort of distance, you know? You are at a distance, and you play a joke. If you play Hamlet, and you think you are Hamlet, your sense of humour is quite limited. But if you play Hamlet, and you think that you will have fun playing Hamlet from 8:30 to 11:30, it’s ok. You can have fun to pretend in front of 500 people that you are Hamlet. You can have the fun to pretend. You are not Hamlet, but you can have the fun to pretend, that is normal. It’s normal for a good liar to have fun to pretend. A mad person thinks: I am Napoleon. And in a psychiatric hospital in France, it’s full of people who think that they are Napoleon, but they are actually in a psychiatric hospital. But if you have distance, and you can have fun to pretend, you are normal. But if you think you are Hamlet? Hello hospital, one person thinks he is Hamlet.

PG:To say in front of 500 people, “I am Hamlet”, because I am a liar. Because I can have the fun to be a liar. Hamlet is a guy who is sleeping in a book. So, he is in a book, he sleeps, he is bored in the book. Sometimes an actor says, “How are you Hamlet? I am going to give you life now, Hamlet,” and Hamlet says, “Thank you very much, because I am fucking bored in my book.” And the actor pretends to give life to Hamlet from 8:30 to 11:30. After the show, Hamlet goes back to his book, the actor goes to the restaurant to drink with friends, and everybody says, “You were generous in your role as Hamlet”. Nobody says to Hamlet, “You were a generous Hamlet.” Hamlet is sleeping in a book, his situation is terrible. Poor Hamlet.

[1]Konstantin Stanislavski was a wealthy Russian businessman turned director who founded the Moscow Art Theatre, and originated the Stanislavski's System of acting, which was spread over the world by his students.

[2] Lee Strasberg was an American actor, director and acting teacher. He is recognised throughout the world as having produced three generations of actors, playwrights and directors, and due to his phenomenal legacy the influence of his teachings continues to flourish today.

[3]Molière was a French playwright and actor who is considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature.

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arrow  Continue reading on Issue 3 / July 2013:Tradition and Modernity