“The journey of the Théâtre du Soleil is one-of-its-kind in the world”
Ariane Mnouchkine is a famous French stage director. In 1964, she cofounded the Theatre du Soleil with four friends while she was in her twenties. She envisioned it as a utopia — a place where the magic of theater would happen. In 1970, this utopia found its place: La Cartoucherie, a beautiful former military building just outside of Paris. They still work here.
Ariane Mnouchkine is now eighty, and has created masterpieces year after year. Through the years, she’s surrounded herself with talented writers, composers, technicians and of course, actors. As she says, a utopia that lasts for so long kind of becomes a reality.
« The journey of the Théâtre du Soleil is one-of-its-kind in the world, making this troupe a quintessential and original part of French theatrical heritage.» writes researcher and theater historian Beatrice Picon-Vallin.
Since its beginning, the Theatre du Soleil has had strong principles regarding what it means to be an acting troupe. These principles revolve around the core of theater as they practice it: an art of collective creation.
In a collection of interviews she granted in 2002, Ariane Mnouchkine has narrated the story of this journey to French journalist Fabienne Pascaud. Their discussions were printed in a book, L’art du présent (The Art of the Present).
Throughout the interview, this question arises: what does it mean to create collectively?
At a time when we can read so many papers about leadership, individualism, how to create a culture inside a team, how to measure performance and so on, I find these discussions highly inspiring. They convey a coherent, incarnated and nuanced philosophy where a high level of artistic expectations meets an uncompromising love of humanity.
The quotes are all by Ariane Mnouchkine and come from L’Art du présent, unless stated otherwise. They are personal translations from French.
“Equal pay is the condition for equality of responsibilities”
There are two kinds of salary levels inside the troupe: one for the newcomers, and one for all the others. That’s it. Otherwise, no matter your previous level of experience or the importance of your part in the next play, you’ll be on an equal footing — including the stage director. The salaries really aren’t high, but they’re enough to live in or around Paris.
The reason behind that radical choice is ethical: it supports the idea that everyone is equally responsible of the life and work inside the troupe.
This has echoes in the daily life of the troupe. Each actor, from the freshly graduated to the most seasoned one, takes part in the daily chores required to maintain the theater— cooking, swiping, tidying, cleaning the toilets… Is it cumbersome at times? Yes. But if we don’t do it, pleads Ariane Mnouchkine, who will? In her views, the theater is like a ship. On the ship, the troupe isn’t the passengers but the crew. The passengers are the audience.
These guiding principles of equal pay and equal responsibility has become deeply ingrained in the culture and values of the troupe. Even if it has its downsides, younger people now come in part looking for this high level of demands.
“The parts belong to those who make them better”
When it comes to creation, Ariane Mnouchkine strives to offer equal opportunities for everyone in each play.
“Each one has to be able to give the best of themselves. But you have to let them give their very best.”
Therefore, unlike what usually happens in other troupes, roles aren’t assigned beforehand. No matter your level of fame or experience, you are not guaranteed who you’ll play — Hamlet or Cornelius. At the beginning of a project, everyone embodies each character.
“Everyone tries. Everyone has their chance. It allows those who wouldn’t have played this or that character a priori to get a chance to approach them. And it gives me a chance to discover them differently, maybe to be surprised. Often surprised. Sometimes, it is obvious. Sometimes, there is a long hesitation between two comedians and therefore the choice is cruel. (…) I accept it. This system seems the least unfair. After all, to quote Brecht, the parts belong to those who make them better.”
“Collective work is anything but egalitarian work”
In this process, one of Ariane Mnouchkine’s role is to let those who are driving forces reveal themselves. They’re the ones who’ll lead others in their wake.
“Collective work is anything but egalitarian work. There are those who lead, who invent in every respect, and those who are less experienced, or less energetic, and who follow. But they are equally necessary.”
When it comes to collective creation, there are those who become driving forces — they are bursting with ideas, flashes of inspiration, and suggestions will enrich everyone’s part. Rather than feeling threatened by them, it is encouraged to take inspiration or even to copy them: “We learn to shamelessly work through imitation, just like in eastern theaters. When a comedian does something right, no one hesitates to get inspired by it or even to copy it to improve their own acting. (…) Therefore, emulation increases and so does the level of expectations. It’s about raising the bar every day.”
“I learn from scratch every time”
The creations Ariane Mnouchkine embarks on force her to learn everything every single time; for she always wants to do something she has never done before.
“I can’t imagine doing otherwise. I learn from scratch every time. And, every time, I find that I don’t know how to walk. It makes me extremely anxious, but, deep down, this is what I want. It has become a method.
- I need adventures. And I have been lucky enough to find people who need them too.”
“Collective work doesn’t mean collective censorship. We try even some persons’ craziest ideas”
Therefore, unlike other stage directors, Ariane Mnouchkine does not come to the repetition with a pre-determined set of indications. « Go there, do this, speak like that. »
The first impulsions for the creation come from the improvisations she asks from the actors. They are to bring their own visions, ideas, and experiments to the repetitions. They team-up and prepare scenes for her to see and work from. They invent costumes, stage props, try different ways to interpret a character.
To make sure this raw material is enriched by everyone’s propositions, it is crucial at this stage to let everyone try even their craziest ideas. “Collective work doesn’t mean collective censorship. When we discuss an idea, we want to avoid that it is fought by three or four people even before it has been fully expressed. This is something we have learnt not to do. We try even some persons’ craziest ideas. We never nip them in the bud.”
“I’m the stage director, but I work in a collective way”
During this stage of constant improvisations, Ariane Mnouchkine’s role is not to direct, but rather to notice when something beautiful, genuine, authentic is happening. “I’m stage director, but I work in a collective way. It’s not modesty. This working method is artistically efficient and politically fair. It is required from everyone to give their best. It’s on stage that you find all the good stuff.” ²
As she puts it, the stage thus becomes “a space of apparitions” — which can be way scarier than a space of directions: “Yes, a space of apparitions. You need actors who are uniquely brave to handle this idea. There are people to whom the demand of apparition gives strength. Others just want to say their lines and don’t have the bravery to wait.(…) You have to teach to some of them how to appear: this, too, is part of the ‘shared work of art’ ” ³
Indeed, even if this way of doing is “artistically efficient and politically fair”, it can have a real psychological cost to the actors who can feel like they are left to wander in the dark. Sometimes, Ariane Mnouchkine says, it feels like she is asking too much:
“Though we are convinced we’re right to proceed this way, one must not forget the months, and sometimes the years full of doubts; the days and the weeks during which this space for apparition, this beautiful void, remains a deadly void that brings actors on the edge of nervous breakdown. It is then that I think that I might be wrong, that we shouldn’t work this way, that maybe I ask for too much…” ⁴
“You have to trust your emotions. What else can you trust anyway?”
But the reward comes whenever one of these improvisations conveys a beautiful moment of art. Spotting these moments and highlighting them is part of the stage director’s role.
“An emotion rises. And you have to trust your emotions, as Ingmar Bergman says. What else can you trust anyway? Then, all of a sudden, what is happening on stage touches me and reveals, or wakes up sleeping reality. Life is there.”
”Someone who leads is someone who makes sure you always go up the hill.”
In this sense, Ariane Mnouchkine compares her mission as a stage director with the attitude of a soccer supporter:
“When supporters cheer their players, they look like a stage director! That is, someone who, through their credulity, their trust, allows the actor to find their own credulity, their own trust, and, therefore, to find life-saving visions.”
Cheering up, being persistent and uniting people are the attributes of the leader in this context of shared creation:
“We hall have a hill and, each morning, we have to decide: will I go up, or down this hill? Someone who leads is someone who makes sure you always go up the hill. And, also, it is someone who unites. And, so far, I think I have been able to unite.”
“To keep people together, you have to create artworks.”
These qualities are to be brought even a step further: uniting comes through trust; and bringing and keeping people together comes through the pursuit of an endeavor — be it artistic or not:
“— Where does your strength lie?
- In persistence, and trust, I think. And I think that it is through trust that I manage to bring people together — when I manage to do so.
- Around a creative endeavor?
- Of course, you need an endeavor. ‘To keep people together, you have to make artwork.’ as is said in the Bhagavad Gita. ‘Work’ is not restricted to artistic work.”
 PICON-VALLIN Béatrice, “La création collective au Théâtre du Soleil”, L’Avant-scène théâtre, n° 1284–1285–1er juillet 2010, pp. 86–97
 Interview by Béatrice PICON-VALLIN, march 1993. “Une oeuvre d’art commune”, Théâtre/Public, n°124–125, july-october 1995, pp. 74–83
All other quotes come from:
MNOUCHKINE Ariane, interviewed by PASCAUD Fabienne, L’art du présent, entretiens avec Fabienne Pascaud. Editions Babel Essai, 2005. Seconde edition, 2016