Comical studies on art, theater, life at Experimental Stage

« So, I went home, my views on theater defeated, but I wasn’t. And I keep playing the game, in other ways, on different terms maybe. It seems that in this world, starting off is the only thing that’s worth the effort…» Life and theater coexist in stage director Vassilis Papavassiliou’s mind as simply as this. He is one of the few people in Greek theater today who switch from one subject to the next with such ease in conversation. Succinct, caustic and right to the marrow of things, Papavassiliou is now preparing an unusual performance for the National Theater’s Experimental Stage (opening on Sunday), comprising two one-act plays by Moliere and Marivaux. Next he will stage Marivaux’s «False Maid» with the Patras Regional Municipal Theater, a performance in which he will also perform alongside veteran actress Alexandra Sakellaropoulou and Christos Loulis. In the meantime, Papavassiliou will continue with the outstanding production of Yiannis Ritsos’s «Eleni,» which has been running for almost 150 shows. Next year, the prolific director is billed to stage Claudel’s «Exchange» with Amalia Moutousi and Sakellaropoulou. How do you feel about the National Theater’s Experimental Stage? The Experimental Stage has become closely connected in the past few years with some of the most dynamic developments in Greek theater. I feel very good about working there, as if the space had been created for me. Not the material space, of course. It is the smallest space in which I have ever worked. But it is a challenge. It forces you to address questions of dynamics and energy. Was it your idea to work with the Experimental Stage? No. It was suggested to me by Stathis Livathinos, its director. And he was very insistent. Actually, the idea came from the program Livathinos himself had prepared for this year, especially from the Moliere show, based on the well-known novel by Bulgakov. I told him it was an opportunity to stage a production that wouldn’t be as easy anywhere else as far as the basics of professionalism were concerned – to stage a program of two one-act plays that are separated by a century, Moliere’s «Versailles Impromptu» and Marivaux’s «Actors of Good Faith.» Why? What connects the two? The element of improvisation. They are both comical studies on art, theater and life. In this text, Moliere reveals more of himself than in any other play: He puts himself and the members of the troupe on stage. He wrote it at a time when he was in the midst of a professional battle (1662). He had just presented «The School for Wives,» which provoked critical reaction, which, in turn, took the form of a performance from his opposition’s «serious theater.» Moliere responded with the play «Critique of the School for Wives» and to this, the others retorted with «The Portrait of a Painter.» Moliere again responded, with «Versailles Impromptu.» It was, therefore, a part of a battle in theater which harks back to ancient Greek drama (i.e. Aristophanes vs Euripides) to Shakespeare and Moliere. This is a very interesting play that, though written by Moliere, was never staged during his lifetime. One of his actors and friends, de La Grange, saved and published the play later. What about Marivaux’s «Actors of Good Faith»? It was the last work he wrote, a play-cum-will. And, contrary to Moliere, he did publish it, but never saw it staged. I see it as a gesture on Marivaux’s part to Moliere. Despite the suggestive title, the characters are not theater professionals, but common folk – a few servants, at first, and then their masters. Behind these faces we see the commedia dell’arte school, something we want our production to highlight. It is as if Marivaux is saying to Moliere, with a century’s difference, that life is an extension of comedy… The return of Moliere Four Moliere plays last summer, two at the Experimental Stage and yet another in the works by Lefteris Vogiatzis. What’s going on with Moliere? I like to see it as a return, like that of Antaeus. Moliere is a continent, the earth, to which those doing theater need to return to take courage. Moliere is like another world altogether in which life and theater become one. He himself was a writer, actor, director, impresario – and he had, he often said, 15 mouths to feed. Moliere is one of the cornerstones of a sequence of theater forms that I would include in a manual titled «The Lives of the Martyrs.» It would be aimed at potential actors and include playwrights, from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Moliere and Goldoni to Stanislawski, Brecht and [Karolos] Koun… And I would tell aspiring actors: «First read this book and then come tell me whether you really want to do theater.» Because none of these «lives» can set an example for sensible people with regular lives. Do you know what else I would tell the actors? That to play Moliere, you have to find out what rage means. What an argument is. You have to throw off all the dust of the «well-behaved» actor – because in countries and climates such as ours, artists are called upon to behave, while the «powers that be» are allowed to be insolent and arrogant. But in order to really grasp what it means to «come out front» and expose yourself, you have to discover certain qualities, certain virtues that are about to be forgotten. Because, at the end of the day, what is theater exactly? A Noah’s ark is what it is. It protects certain things. And we are the archaeologists of certain feelings.