The accomplished artist and co-founder of Collectif 8, Gaële Boghossian, shares her experience during lockdown, her fear of 1984 becoming a reality, and her hope for a better tomorrow
In a region blessed with excellent theatres and remarkable actors, not being able to see stage plays has been one of the greatest hardships ever since the first lockdown hit. But it’s not only the audience that is deprived of one of life’s great pleasures or the theatres that struggle to survive – actors suffer, too. Doubly. Being subject to the restrictions that concern all of us is bad enough. But to them performing is as vital as breathing.
We caught up with Gaële Boghossian, a brilliant actor, director, and writer, fine connoisseur of literature, and astute observer of society and politics, to hear her take on the situation. Along with Paulo Correia, she is one of the co-founders of Collectif 8, a company that regularly breaks all the codes of conventional theatre with their “cinéâtre”, the hybrid of stage theatre and cinematography they created.
Known for landmark plays like 1984, Le Château or Faust, Collectif 8 is not only the house company of Daniel Benoin’s Anthea in Antibes but also the star among companies on the French Riviera, and just as well-known and in-demand nationally. Gaële was kind enough to answer our questions of an artist’s take on the pandemic, their struggles with the circumstances, and the light at the end of the tunnel.
Covid stopped you right after you started presenting “1984” in early 2020. How did you experience that difficult moment, individually and collectively?
Gaële Boghossian: 1984 is a visionary work on our societies. What Orwell described and what I staged already echoed the alarming and very pernicious situation in today’s world even before this current health crisis. When the first signs of the pandemic emerged, we all began to perceive a very peculiar type of vertigo: that type of vertigo symptomatic of fiction merging with reality. It was terrifying, and all the more so as we knew the end of the story!
What Orwell describes in his vision of a future world [written in 1949] was already there, and has been integrated in our adaptation: “We will narrow the range of thought until we have a limited, unique, imposed thought (…) Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. We will create a world of fear and treachery and torment. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain, more hatred. We have cut the links between people (…) There will be no art, no literature, no science. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever. Triumph and terror mixed together in a perfect world.”
We had the frightening feeling that something vital, something precious was being snatched from us, that free speech, essential today, was being gagged, crushed to make way only for emptiness, fear and paralyzing loneliness.
What do artists do in lockdown? Do you take advantage of the break and reflect on our journey? Do you immerse yourself in new projects without knowing when and how to make them happen? Do you think about changing your profession? Do you join forces with other artists in the region to find solutions?
I can only speak for myself but in this particular case, during the first lockdown I experienced a period of total depression and felt a huge sense of disorientation. Then, because the survival instinct regained the upper hand, I immersed myself so deeply in a new project, a very ambitious adaptation, that allowed me to soar above this violent reality. I contacted all my work partners and we started a long-distance teamwork to dream together and give us a goal, a common objective. Because in my opinion, paralysis and the absence of a horizon is much more dangerous for mankind than the worst weapon: it kills slowly, without anyone being able to detect it or determine its source.
As for the second lockdown, my moral forces were no longer as effective… I can say that I barely managed to survive mentally, it was impossible for me to project myself three years from now, doing another project.
And this classification of culture workers as “non-essential” was, I think, the worst ordeal I have had to go through in my professional life. Actors have regularly been belittled as “parasites of society”, “lazy”, “profiteers”, “privileged”... But “non-essential”, I think, is the most brutal insult…it means being without substance, useless, annihilated, rejected… an accessory that we can do without, a waste of a society that is only defined by the “consumer-producer” citizen according to a standard predefined by the economy of goods.
What have you missed most during lockdown… personal freedom, public applause…?
The human contact, the goal, the objective to build a world together, to think about it together and to create a basis to reflect together with the public. I think that it is the “together” that I have missed when this vital link to the Other that defines us as Humans was broken. I felt mutilated, diminished, my limbs were being torn off, stopping me from moving forward, growing, unfolding my Self. Reduced to inertia, paralysis, emptiness, my organs continued to function but in total emptiness….a certain cerebral death…
Have you experienced financial problems? Have you received government aid? If so, was it easy or not? Did Anthéa support you?
Luckily I am a good planner. Also, through sweat and hard work, through the creative work of Paulo Correia and myself, and with the positive force of our production manager Vanessa Anheim, we have built a structure that today yields its fruits in the form of solidity and stability.
The situation is not brilliant but we are also managers and we always build a season in coherence with balancing the next seasons and thinking of the future. We are structured, and artists and production are in dialogue with each other, respecting each others’ priorities, necessities, and problems. Having learnt the various hazards of this uncertain profession, we are seasoned in dealing with it.
In spite of our “training” for the “situational storm”, the crisis remains a terrible financial test. The DRAC [Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles], the Region and the City of Nice have put in place aids which support us in a vital way. Alongside this aid, our partners (I am thinking of Théâtres en Dracénie and Espace NoVa) have also shown touching solidarity. All these expressions of goodwill enable us today not to sink, for which we are very grateful.
Anthéa, of which we are an associate company, is also a real beacon in the storm. Its director Daniel Benoin has been of unwavering support in listening to our company’s problems, in his search for solutions and their immediate application. This solidarity, empathy, and benevolence, despite the hardships that he himself is going through as theatre director and artist, is for me a representation of the beauty of this profession.
When and how will it start up again for you?
We are currently resuming the rehearsals of La Religieuse and 1984 at Anthéa, with which we are planning on going on tour in January 2021, and we hope that we won’t be stopped yet again in this life-saving revival. I prefer not to envisage a disaster scenario, not knowing how we could survive it again.
Do you see a parallel between this pandemic and its management, and your plays?
This crisis is far too complex for me to pretend to make an analytical synthesis of it here. But let’s reread our great classics of anticipation, and yes, the answers as to the parallels are there in black and white…and the consequences as well…
Are there any lessons to be learned from this year, personally or at the level of society?
I don’t have the hindsight to draw lessons from it yet, but perhaps the beginning of a life review…this crisis has, I think, revealed our “Essential”, our “Vital”, without which we wouldn’t be standing upright, alive, human…what concerns me is undoubtedly the contact with the Other. I have always said and thought that without the Other I would only be a tiny part of myself.
In the way we work as a company, a show is the result of interweaving all of our professional and human skills, surpassing our own person to raise us to a “whole” beyond our individuality; a whole, rich, complex, infinite, mysterious and incredibly powerful; a link, a vector of thought and humanism. I am always grateful to my creative partners; I admire, respect, and love them deeply for every breath of life they breathe into the common dream. So being deprived of this fabric, of their views and their strengths, was a sacrifice. I already instinctively valued these riches that were offered, and today this bond is all the stronger and more present.
As for my view of society, it has always sought the humanity in this strange “artificial” organisation. Today, more than ever, I seek solidarity – and there is some -, empathy – and there is some -, outstretched hands, tenderness, intelligence, analysis, and there is some! As it has always been there. Perhaps a little more stifled, a little more cramped, underappreciated, and unvalued, but it is still there! My optimistic nature pushes me to unearth it more than ever to construct a reflection to be projected to the spectators… always together, and towards thoughts that would rise above an anxiety-provoking climate of terror and mistrust.
It seems to me that the struggle lies in a refusal of a morbid paralysis and impotence, and for a positive awareness of our survival instinct towards action, invention, and the dream of a fairer, more balanced and more humane society. A society turned towards the positive and confidence in the great things that each of us can accomplish.
Can you already talk, in general terms, about your next big project?
I’ve been dreaming of an animated graphic novel for a long time. I was waiting to come across a body of work that would obviously welcome this particular form of narrative. During the first lockdown I had the time, so I decided to use it for visiting one of the greatest sagas in the French repertoire. I immersed myself in it, I bathed in it, I spent hours suspended in this bubble, then I threw myself into a huge challenge with a very ambitious bias. We had the chance to do a working residency in September at Anthéa, which will co-produce this future creation.
We were able to verify the solidity of the dramaturgical axes with the actors, the scenography and the first lines of video and musical creation. It is an absolutely exciting project due to its technically and dramaturgically complex nature. Paulo Correia and I are joined on the set by partners of our heart: Samuèle Dumas, Damien Rémy, and Benoit Berrou, accompanied by our two civic service volunteers Morgane Attento and Tiphaine Bureau. We look forward to announcing this new creation 2021-2022 soon!
Do you have a final message you’d like to share with our readers?
Hope for sweeter days…And I will close with this sentence from Orwell warning of the dangers of a world in terror that 1984 could become a reality… “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”
Thank you, Gaële Boghossian, for this very insightful interview.
To catch one of Collectif 8’s upcoming show, visit the company’s website for all the latest information and schedules.
All photos courtesy Collectif 8, unless marked otherwise