A reputation as the most cerebral Niçois actor and director, and an enviable professional pedigree: Christophe Turgie is theatre nobility.
Sometimes in life, coincidence – or is it fate? – has a way of redirecting you on to a path you had never planned on venturing down on your own. Such was the case when one evening at a party, 20 year old law student Christophe Turgie happened upon a TV broadcast of Cyrano de Bergerac, incarnated by the great Jacques Weber. It would change his life forever.
Born in Paris in 1967, much of Christophe’s childhood and youth was spent going back and forth between his birth city and Nice. When the time rolled around to make a career choice, he initially pursued law studies at universities in both cities but kept nurturing his love of the fine arts which he had developed early on. And then he watched that play…… The experience tugged at his inner core so much that he decided to take a theatre class at the Théâtre National de Nice, where Jacques Weber – the very one influencing Christophe’s choice of pursuing acting – was just nominated as Director. In another twist of good fortune, Jacques happened to watch him in class one day and was so impressed with the young student that he took him aside and said to him, “If acting is what you want to do with your life, I encourage you to do it.”
Finding himself right in his element, Christophe soon traded law school for a full-blown three year theatre course in Paris – at the prestigious Comédie Française of all places, studying under the great Nicole Mérouze, and also taking classes with Jean-Claude Cotillard, none other than the father of Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. And from then on, for over 20 years, he has dedicated his life to the stage. Forming his own theatre company, La Compagnie des Cents Causes right out of the gate, he has since become one of the foremost French stage actors, directors, and authors, and has made Nice his permanent home now.
Christophe is one of those rare full blood actors born for theatre. He lives, breathes, and thinks theatre. Ironically, because of the very profundity of his thoughts – forever probing, analyzing, dissecting, questioning – he is considered a nerdy brainiac by some but they may never have seen him operate on pure gut level when talking about stagecraft. Not one conversation goes by where he does not evoke the influence of theatre on the human condition. “Theatre is a religion. It is sacred, intimate, secret… an amazing mirror of society. Impossible to escape its influence and its importance on the sanity of everyday life,” he declares with utter conviction, the expression on his serious face quickly changing to rapture when talking about plays, poetry, and literature. His favorite authors, unsurprisingly, are therefore those who fearlessly hold up a mirror to the audience… who serve as faithful chroniclers of the forces that drive people and governments: power, oppression, manipulation, and love: Molière, Racine, Shakespeare, Camus, Pinter…. for example.
To be interested in an author means to first and foremost study and understand the author, Christophe says. “You try to find out everything about him – who he was, why he wrote the play, his motivation behind the characters – history, geography, era…. everything matters. A play is like a crash course in sociology and psychoanalysis. And then you want to present it as lightly and funnily as possible, to make it fit into life as effortlessly as possible.” His artistic sensors are finetuned to instantly pick up on subtle nuances, messages behind the messages, and fine irony and social critique dressed up in an ordinary tale. In fact, he thinks, society would be a lot better off if more regular people became familiar with the practice of theatre. “Imagine for instance a Wall Street trader….. if he studied theatre, if he learned more about the human condition, how different his actions and decisions might become, and how that would reflect back on the world!”
The Comédie Française’s motto, “Being together while being yourself” also influenced Christophe’s personal life. An intensely private person, he does enjoy being with close friends and the actors he works with – all of whom are family to him – but is rarely if ever seen hanging out at events schmoozing up self-appointed influencers. And he is not shy to speak his mind. It has earned him a reputation of being a bit standoffish, even blunt, but he doesn’t mind. Or care. There are those mildly jealous voices in Nice that say about Christophe Turgie that he thinks and plays as if he were still in Paris … an accidental compliment indeed. But typical for him, he just shrugs it off. “Great theatre demands a lot of energy, physically and mentally, but it is worth the pain.” To him, life is so much deeper than gaining shallow approval. He would rather be philosophizing, writing, or talking about details of a concrete upcoming project. One of his activities he is most passionate about are his theatre workshops for lay actors, which also includes working with handicapped persons…. all of them no less interested in the art of Thespis just because they struggle with a physical or mental challenge. He holds his courses at Karine Battaglia’s Théâtre Athéna in Nice but he also goes to hospitals to work with in-patients. “Working with these people restores my faith in humanity,” he says. And when you hear him speak, you sense that these classes are not just a passion but a need for him. They mentally and spiritually resource this man whose profound humanity drives him to give and share generously without ever asking anything in return.
And maybe that strength Christophe draws from his teaching work is exactly the secret of his prolific energy. Outwardly calm and low-key, he still has more projects going than most other local actors. Equally sought after as an actor and a director, he also writes feverishly. Among his recent works, “Vendetta pour l’honneur d’une olive”, a comedy set in the Niçois hinterland which he wrote and directed, and which quickly became a local hit. On the other end of the artistic spectrum, he appeared on stage in an ABBA-style remake of Labiche’s “Les Deux Timides”, his adaptation of Molière’s “Les Précieuses Ridicules”, and currently in Kafka’s “Le Procès”, directed by prodigal Félicien Chauveau (all upcoming performances scheduled for March at the Théâtre Anthéa are solidly sold out). He is also currently writing a play, “Shakespeare à mort”, a reflection on the English bard’s role as the world’s first psychoanalyst, from the contemporaneous perspective of women and the church. And then again, in the kind of contrast across styles, times, and genres that is Christophe’s hallmark, he is also working on directing a play about Marcel Pagnol’s Marius.
Christophe is also a spiritual man. Not in the churchgoing sense but in his deep belief in the goodness of humanity. That may have been a motivator for his recent appearance at Father Yves-Marie Lequin’s annual Messe des Artistes, the celebration of artists and their works in honour of the vows of Willette instituted in 1926. Christophe was invited to read the “Parce Domine”, a text which deeply reflects much of his philosophy:
« Les chats miaulent à l’amour.
Les blanches communiantes sortent de leurs mansardes : c’est la misère ou la curiosité qui fait tomber leurs voiles sur la neige dont les toits sont recouverts.
Aussitôt, les Pierrots noctambules cherchent à s’emparer de leur innocence par des moyens diaboliques. De l’odéon au Moulin de la Galette, les voici partis pour la chasse aux Mimis Pinsons.
C’est avec de l’or ou de la poésie qu’ils tendent leurs pièges suivant qu’ils sont riches ou pauvres,
bien qu’également pervers.
Cependant que le vieux moulin moud des airs d’amour et de pitié. Les ailes emportées de musique tournent au clair de la lune, reflet de la mort.
Voici à présent la revanche de la fille séduite qui a jeté son bonnet par dessus les moulins.
La voilà qui entraîne, étourdit Pierrot dans un tourbillon de plaisir et de vices : c’est le Sabbat !
Elle l’a ruiné, rendu fou, et l’accule au suicide.
Les vierges tristes et laides portent son cercueil, tandis que son âme libérée fera choix d’une étoile…
Parce Domine, parce populo tuo…Epargne Seigneur, épargne ton peuple…
Le peuple des pierrots est toujours bien à plaindre ! »
So much talent, so much humanity, and yet so down to earth….. no wonder he has caught the interest of Nice’s international star actor Marc Duret. The two men quickly discovered their shared love for theatre and literature, and Marc offered Christophe a key role in “Les Grandes Personnes”. This play which earned Marc Duret a Molière nomination for Most Promising Actor in 1994 is currently being re-mounted, and already programmed at Espace Magnan as the opener of the 2015/16 season this coming September. While it will initially play in French, an English version is planned if there is relevant interest. And that would be an exciting challenge for Christophe who by his own declaration is a work horse.
Asked what he thinks of his beloved adopted city’s cultural development, he states that there has been quite a bit of progress over the past ten years. “Nice has made its place nationally, and I am pleased with that. There is, however, a bit of a danger that stage craft becomes a formalized profession. There is little difference these days between an actor – or an artist in general – and a run-of-the-mill insurance salesman. Individuality is being sold out at the cost of trying to fit in.”
Fitting in is something Christophe wouldn’t even dream of doing. In an accidental emulation of his idol Molière’s life – like him a law student turned theatre man – he is the quintessential artist who pursues his calling to play, write, and direct with every breath, every inch of his being. One of the two absolute Niçois top actors, along with Marc Duret, theatre in this city has much to look forward to, and a little bit of Parisian flavour is certainly not to its detriment.
All photos courtesy Christophe Turgie; lead image © Alchy