Embodying childhood

Joël Pommerat

At the origin of Contes et légendes, is Joël Pommerat's will to give body to childhood. From there the show developed around several themes. He looks back on these and on the processes at work during the creation period.

Three themes run through Contes et Légendes: childhood, gender and artificial intelligence. Were these ideas clear from the start or did they emerge while working?

These themes weren’t present from the start. The way I do things is to start without having too many ready-made ideas. I start from snatches, strong intuitions. The criteria that drive me are more about envy, desire, the need to develop a project. In this case, was childhood. To embody childhood on stage in a more successful way than I had done in the past. In Contes et Légendes, I essentially wanted to put children on the stage: relationships, bodies, voices, stories... knowing that we would be working with adult actors. That’s what got me started, along with a short story by a very great Russian writer, Andrei Platonov, who wrote childhood stories. I was inspired by one of them when I started work.

It is childhood, but just as it moves into pre-adolescence...

Childhood is vast. From 0 to 18, there numerous large periods that one could isolate. It’s the research that prompted me and the company to focus on this teenage period, roughly between 11 and 14 years old. I wanted to go below, but something was wrong. That was our limit. The fictions were therefore built from the concrete, what worked, what "took shape" so to speak...

The idea of ​​gender is very present in the show - how did that come about?

It came from the working process. To assemble my creative team, I organised meetings with actors. At the end of this first phase of research, I engaged 8 women to play the children. From there, the question of gender came to us: what does it mean for a female actor to work on a boy character? What does it mean for me, a [male] director, to ask a woman to "play" a "boy", to "act" the boy. It triggered questions that were inscribed in the show itself, in the subject, and in its fictions. That was my wish: that our research should influence our writing...

The third theme – artificial humanity – came about by chance. And I realised that not only was it interesting in itself, but that by questioning the artificial fabrication of the human, we cut across the theme of childhood, the social question of the construction of individuals, their education, their training.

Contes et légendes like many of your creations is a work of writing with the team. This collective writing remains a must. What do you find essential to stay faithful to it?

It’s something intuitive, instinctive. At a certain point in my career, I understood that I was looking for a type of writing beyond the text, beyond words, which integrates other languages​​... I was looking for something more whole, and open, something that has to do with the body, in an inseparable way. If I wrote alone, before thinking about staging – which I have done and could do again – I would deprive myself of something... of the presence of an individual, their body, their voice, their gestures, the impression they give, in resonance with words, gestures, actions. This is what I define as “writing”: this set of things which cannot be reduced to simply a text. I am not putting down an absolute definition of writing here. That would be ridiculous. This is just the meaning of my research.

Refining Contes et légendes, both in terms of the performance and of the subject matter and processing, required time. Is this notion of time precious to you?

It's logical and rational: the more time you have, the more you can work in depth. It's also because I'm slow. I've always hated pressure, the moment when you know you're late or might be. I try to get rid of these questions. I stretch the time as much as possible to give myself the freedom to feel that pressure as little as possible.

And then, thought and reflection don't proceed in a linear fashion. We need those moments between two rehearsal periods. All of a sudden, some things fall into place. By taking a step back, alchemy occurs. They would not happen in a time-limited process. For me, there's no question. I have the feeling that if everyone could take their time, they would. If some don't, it's for lack of means or perhaps because of impatience to get to the end, to succeed. In the past, I may have been impatient, I was looking for something. I was also focused on productivity. Today I have less need to prove to myself that I am capable of doing things... So I can allow myself this time-taking.


— Words collected by Sophie Dupavé on August 31, 2020