Interview with Clara Hédouin

The show Que ma joie demeure takes place in the middle of the countryside, outside of theatre venues or even towns. Can you tell us what led to this choice? 

The starting point for Que ma joie demeure was a desire to look into the relationships between the outside and those who live there: human and nonhuman, visible and invisible. To pay close attention to the living world we come from and to which we are connected. One of the challenges was therefore not to reduce the landscapes we would move through to simple sets. Within cities, green spaces are conceived by and for humans, they’re often very carefully designed places where the dynamics of the wild have been atrophied. And we can feel it. The animal within us knows. To tell the story of Que ma joie demeure, I wanted to find wild places, prairies, forests. What happens to the characters can only happen in the middle of the countryside: they live on a mountain plateau, their farms are far away from each other, they’re not even a real community. The novel is also about that loneliness. And Jean Giono’s characters are peasants. It was very important to me not to turn them into stereotypes of what peasants would be at the theatre—as is the case in the plays of Molière, for instance. I had to find the right balance between a desire to do justice to their ways of life while also conveying their universal aspect, so that it could move us all. And, weirdly, it requires us to move through their world, instead of the other way around. I think we’re also operating a shift in focus. Theatre is always the place where humans watch themselves, and we need that. But here, it’s as if we were doing an experiment: instead of focusing solely on ourselves, within humans, outside of the world (in a black box), we look at ourselves differently, as part of everything that makes us us, as living beings among other living beings. As if theatre could also be an opportunity to journey once again through the places that support our existence, maybe with a different outlook, a different focus. The landscape is no longer just a set, it’s inhabited by other living beings, by countless forces. In Le Chant du monde, Jean Giono wrote: “I know full well one can’t conceive of a novel without men, for the world is full of them. What we need to do is put them back in their place, not at the centre of everything.” I asked myself if that literary project couldn’t be a dramatic project, as paradoxical as it may sound, a collective experience in the shape of a progress, of a journey that begins as soon as we set off: to rediscover the outside together, thanks to a story told by Jean Giono.  

Que ma joie demeure was published in 1935. Did you feel the need to modernise the novel? 

Over a number of residencies and rehearsal sessions, we—Romain de Becdelièvre, the actors, and myself—conducted interviews with farmers. We wanted to learn more about agricultural production in France today, about the different relationships to the soil, the earth, and the living it implies, and about those lives we didn’t know much about, in order to then be able to tell the story of Jean Giono’s characters. It also answered our desire not to simply perform our show here or there, as one does when travelling from one theatre to the next, but to try to become part of a new territory every time. We gathered a lot of documentary material, without really knowing what the end goal was. Those voices turned out to play a very small part in Que ma joie demeure, but this process transformed our relationship to the novel and the way we try to embody it. This investigation also led to other hybrid forms, halfway between poems and documentaries, included in a larger project we called Manger le soleil (To Eat the Sun)—a phrase I stole from Baptiste Morizot. Additionally, the political context of Que ma joie demeure isn’t insignificant. France in the 1930s is on the verge of a large-scale mechanisation of agriculture—towards an intensification of production which doesn’t have a name just yet—and a desertification of the countryside. Those challenges are very relevant today, but the make-up of the political spectrum in the early 20th century doesn’t allow for a complete actualisation. Doing so would mean losing a lot of nuance in the position of some of the characters. Lastly, Jean Giono has such literary power, such a unique language, that it’s difficult to break it by adding modern words to it, its poetry always prevails. Jean Giono’s rhythm and style are almost insurmountable in their density, but also in their hermeticism at times.  

When a “tableau”—that is, a moment of theatre, a scene—ends, the spectators are invited to walk to where the next one will take place. How did you make this walk part of the theatrical experience? 

This walk is a way to step out of the set. It’s a way not to feel like we’re simply “facing” the landscape like one “faces” a painting, even though we’re playing with that way of looking as well, but to be led “inside” between each moment of theatre in order to finally realise that we’re never stepping out, that we’ve become connected to the living environment that surrounds us, that we’re “part of it.” By making the spectators walk from one spot to the next, we turn the collective experience of theatre into something that isn’t just aesthetic or visual: something happens within the bodies, transforms maybe within each spectator over the course of this journey. It was important to me to have the spectator’s bodies be part of the action, to have them feel hunger, thirst, or tiredness, for all of that to be part of the experience we’re going through together. Actors and spectators alike. Those moments of walking are also like breaths that allow us to take the time to discover a very dense text. We’re allowed to daydream on our own, as the words we heard slowly make their way into us. I like the idea of a journey experienced by spectators and actors alike, in all the emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects it implies. It’s like building an epic dramatic experience in a different way.  

How did you work on this state of cohabitation with the living, this state of focus and attentiveness with the actors of the show? 

By being outside! This state of work is a real source of joy, for the actors, for Romain, who worked alongside us throughout the creation, and for me. Working outside, every day, in the snow, the sun, the wind, in those forests, fields, and wild places, it brings us back to something childlike. You’re going on an adventure, you’re experiencing those spaces as immense and infinite even when they aren’t. Yet there’s absolutely no comfort: our bodies are of course subjected to a tremendous ordeal, as the seasons go by. The actors’ voices can always be drowned out by this world we’re trying to make people see and hear. But the smallness of their silhouettes surrounded by nature, like in Jean-Jacques Sempé drawings, is an image I like a lot. I like that they can’t always come out “on top.” Conversely, the actors also need their voices to be heard by the audience, sometimes in a very large and powerful way, while staying connected to the fragility of the living things they’re describing (within and without them), and it’s a difficult exercise. Sometimes you’re hanging by a thread. In fact, it’s always about finding a relationship (which can be discordant, to an extent) between the bodies of the actors, their voices, their energy, and the place where we find ourselves at any given moment. It’s this fragile relationship, which needs to be reinvented in each new place, that gives rise to the theatricality of the scenes. But we can’t ever be sure of anything! The nature of the ground in a new location can all of a sudden transform the balance we’d found in a scene we rehearsed somewhere else—you have to start over all the time. Lastly, the spectators’ attention cannot be solely on the actors and their words, it will always “drift” towards those other presences that inhabit the world we’re moving through, and the theatrical experience, its unique texture, is made of this back-and-forth, this beat, which has its own rhythm.  

Interview conducted by Lucie Madelaine and translated to English by Gaël Schmidt-Cléach