The making of character
Where do the 99 women come from? Where did I go to find 99 fragments of women’s ordinary lives?
These questions are often asked. Did I rip confidences of “real” women, lazily sipping coffee or threatening them with a gun? No. I might as well tell you. I do not collect testimonials on the field like a zealous detective. I like ordinary lives as they pass by, concrete and opaque at a time. I prefer not to know much, otherwise no story can emerge. The facts are too stubborn (Lenin says) and, as a writer, I need illusions.
So what? Disclose your sources. It is the memory, my dear, this complex and baroque spellbook (Proust writes) which is the cause of everything. My job is to remember. I imagine it as a cluttered attic. I probably tried one day to tie it up but the impulse quickly faded: the memory cards are scattered on the floor. One gets lost.
The first source of the play is made of my personal memories. A third. I relate episodes of my life, that of my mother and my father’s mother (they are borrowed memories because she died when I was little girl) and that of my friends. These memories have been altered by a slow distillation and a great dose of bad faith but my longtime friend G. identified herself immediately.
The second source is my pantheon of Great Women (or my “famille recomposée” as we say in French). My wild cousin Emily Dickinson (star incognito, she appears 4 times), my great aunt Pina Bausch, my older sister, always wandering, Ella Maillart, and even my great-grandmother St. Teresa of Avila who I release from her cloister for 15 seconds. To recognize them under their aliases, you must share some stories with me.
For the third source, the easiest, I look to the women of legend or fiction. These are just barely masked with a false nose. They were already characters. There is Joan of Arc called Lorraine (!), Antigone in Sarajevo, Gervaise of Emile Zola, the Chinese Mulan.
The fourth source, equal in number to the third, are men, they are eight, if I counted well. One will bump into Flaubert, in petticoats and wigs (could he appreciated the joke?). And oddly enough Mao Zedong.
The fifth and final source are imaginary women. A small score. Women seen on the go, words captured on the fly or chimeras emerging from the night, they are born from a picture and my desire to speak about it. These imaginary portraits are the most concentrated one.
Meeting with a stranger’s body
The 99 women are coming out of my factory, for sure. But the thought that produced them did not harness them. They came out “in the simple nightwear of a beauty who has been torn from their sleep” (Racine writes). Floating minds without arms or baggage, they were looking for bodies to take root. They encountered on their way, 99 actresses with an imagination that was very different from mine. I did not search for elective affinities. The roles were not really “casted” to generate amazing transplants. Because chance is a good gardener and I was not disappointed.
Often, I ignore by which enchantment the character found their other half. Love at first sight. It happened to Elsa. Silke, her character, whispered the words she wanted to hear. This also happened to Hui. She met Mulan, the heroine of her childhood that she plays like Bruce Lee.
From time to time, the character had to sneak like a chicken thief into the mind and body of the actress with sometimes amazing results. This happened especially to the Chinese actresses who discovered through those encounters a universe that is very distant from their own references. At times, characters achieved miraculous incorporation. Gloria, whom I ask to play a powerful woman, discovered she had a stentorian voice with a musicality that was unknown to her. Kiki let himself be overwhelmed by the madness of her character and becomes much more real and madder than I could imagined.
Chinese actresses are generally good because they seem less paralyzed by a domineering ego. A reluctance sometimes hampers their body and they lack a bit of voice, but their spirit has the flexibility of water. Is it a reflex of obedience acquired at the harsh Chinese school or a real plasticity, the heritage of the wise masters of ancient China? It does not matter after all: they let themselves be. For those I had to direct, I only gave them indications of gestures but not so many references. Then, I leave the keys to the character and let it manage her creature.
The theater character is a conference with four voices: the character produced by my imagination, the actress who embodies it by activating her own physical and psychic resources, the figure on stage that springs from this friction and its reflection in the viewer’s eyes that receive it according to their particular sensitivity. Thanks to this special alchemy, theater is able to raise immense crowds.
thanks to Chidelia for proof reading the English version of this article