Winner of the 2017 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, and both the Siminovitch Prize in Theatre and Gaston-Thomas Award in 2007, Brigitte Haentjens has become the first female artistic director of the National Arts Centre French Theatre in Ottawa—a position she is scheduled to occupy until 2021. Haentjens renews her connection with Bernard-Marie Koltès, her idolized author, in the new production of Dans la solitude des champs de coton (In the Solitude of Cotton Fields) which will be presented this January and February at Usine C.
The pillars of Sibyllines, Brigitte Haentjens’s theatre company that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, are female identity, power, and sexuality—since female identity cannot be deconstructed without considering power. “It isn’t done in an intentional or didactic way. I suspect that having the advantage of complete theatrical freedom is what results in a sort of whole taking shape. Independent theatre directors, on the other hand, are hired to put on the works that have been offered to them. But I’ve always chosen, and it’s easy to observe a trend in the series of these choices.” For Brigitte Haentjens, the most recognizable woman in Canadian francophone theatre, the mechanisms of domination are of utmost interest, and these have led her to explore the ricochet of the female psyche. Who is dominant, and who is dominated? She has unceasingly analyzed forms of alienation, staging sorrow in Richard III (2015), drama in Woyzeck (2009), the horror of Marta Hillers in Une femme à Berlin (2016) (A Woman in Berlin) and the despair and depression of Sylvia Plath in La cloche de verre (2004), a play based on The Bell Jar. “I find female authors who have given themselves over to death deeply fascinating. It’s something that deeply troubles and moves me, so I continue to dig into the subject and reflect on the causes of women’s alienation,” Haentjens explains.
“I get some small extravagances, some airy moments here and there, but my work is generally quite serious,” Brigitte Haentjens shared when I met her after a book signing session at the Salon du livre de Montréal. Haentjens was there to promote her second novel, Un jour je te dirai tout (“One Day I’ll Tell You Everything”), published by Boréal. Simply beaming, she said, “This project truly shares DNA with the new creation I’ve been working at, Dans la solitude des champs de coton by Bernard-Marie Koltès. It’s very funny because, as usual, when I have my nose in something, I only begin to realize, after six weeks of rehearsals…” Even though she had been thinking about putting on Dans la solitude des champs de coton for a long time, and had seen three or four other productions of the play, she has always contemplated the text very intellectually. “…that this is a genuine power struggle that’s incredibly savage and violent.” She recited a line of the play: “Un désir comme du sang à vos pieds a coulé hors de moi—un désir que je ne reconnais pas, que vous êtes le seul à connaître et que vous jugez.” (“A desire flowed out of me, like blood pooled at your feet—a desire that I don’t recognize, and that you alone know and judge.”) This excerpt from Dans la solitude des champs de coton could be the epigraph of her new novel Un jour je te dirai tout—and even its predecessor, Une femme comblée (“A Fulfilled Woman”). “Yes, there is interaction between my theatre and writing outlets. At the same time, though, there are tectonic plates—things which are there, then shift, which I rediscover later on—like the Molly Bloom (2014) project that I had forgotten, only to have it come back to haunt me ten years later.”
“If I must contribute to our time, it will be through strength, violence, and battle,” wrote Georg Büchner, the author of Woyzeck. Brigitte Haentjens loves how this idea impacts, and shatters: “I really like that word—one of my books on theatre practice is actually called Un regard qui te fracasse. [“A Look that Shatters You.”] It’s a privilege to stage an act of creation, since there are so many trivial things in this superficial society, everything is the same, everything is level—so I want for creating to be meaningful, and weighty […] I have the privilege of being able to make a living doing nothing but theatre, so I told myself that it has to provoke strong reflections, so that something comes out of it…If I didn’t, I’d just go to Cirque du Soleil! It has to have oomph—the event should be an awakening for the spectator!” she cried, delivering an imaginary punch. “It’s obvious that there are resonances between the intimate and dramaturgy. I’ve come to understand it with time. Violence was very present in my childhood and I think that this marked my spirit. In any case, it’s now a part of me—not a separate thing, per se, but it has a certain correspondence with other things.” For Martha Hellers, the artistic director of Sibyllines who adapted the memoir A Woman in Berlin for stage, writing structures chaos. Haentjens elaborated, “Is it an intimate, inner, personal chaos? For me, the beauty of the work I do is actually in its organization—not in a simplistic sense, but rather in the sense that I can magnify the material, giving it a form that reaches out and rouses.” She also wanted to emphasize that the rehearsal room is the place she feels best in the world—where she feels whole, collected, and free. “It’s extraordinary and so moving to do this profession—to put something upright, knowing it must come down.”
A text, convergence—it’s ablaze and soon gone to ashes
Bernard-Marie Koltès is a major part of Brigitte Haentjens’s literary life and is at the heart of her practice. She has staged his Combat de nègre et de chiens (Black Battles With Dogs) (1997) and La nuit juste avant les forêts (The Night Just Before the Forests) twice over (1999-2001/2010-2013). She talks about the deceased author like a little brother: “I don’t know how to explain this phenomenon. His work has been such a large part of my universe that I’ve assimilated it and made it my own.” They are both (nearly) products of the same generation. She read everything he wrote, and found the letters he wrote to his mother especially remarkable. They have a relationship that is difficult to explain, as it is a true convergence. Brigitte Haentjens lauds his writing and political engagements. He was the first French playwright to create roles for Blacks and Arabs, and she still feels a lot of affinity with his vision of France and colonialism. “Koltès is a nomad, unlike myself. I have shifted a lot, though, most profoundly in my nature. I’m everything except a bourgeoise.” Authors’ words are powerful. They become entrenched in your flesh the way childhood memories do. “The texts you work on the longest enter the psyche and become parallel worlds that you carry inside you, the same way actors do with their characters.” The fact that Koltès died so young halos him with particular aura. “Of course he didn’t want to talk about AIDS or homosexuality, but the end of his life was very difficult. I can’t stop myself from thinking about it while working on his text—death permeates it. It’s impossible to shy away from.”
As for the fusional meeting of Elisa and Olav, two characters in Un jour je te dirai tout, the latest novel by Brigitte Haentjens…is it a metaphor for eroticism, the immense eros of the stage? As the writer and director told me, “It’s true that it’s a little like what happens in theatre, too. You encounter a text, the interpreters … then it’s ablaze and soon gone to ashes!” On a psychological level, the theatre is completely fusional, and this fusion is achieved with the text as much as with the team. This is what makes representation so painful. Since each scene will disappear and be resuscitated at the next performance or rehearsal, the exchange between the director and the actor calls for deep, incredibly vast, subtle yet dangerous elements. It’s a process of mental regression in which you must remain sane and lucid while letting yourself go—for the actor and the director, both. The team absorbs the spirit of project, watches movies, views sculptures, and discusses the author’s ideas and life. The essence of production is not in its action, but in its reception—that special scene which speaks to you. “I don’t quite understand what happens, but it’s the most beautiful thing. I know, instinctively, when I’m ready to leave my desk—how I need to be, in my core, in relation to the piece. All of a sudden it works, it’s organic…”
When I asked her if she was proud of breaking the glass ceiling when she became the female artistic director of the NAC French Theatre, Haentjens responded that she is rather sad that there hadn’t been one before her. She also wonders if she was given the position because of the type of woman she is: “I even hesitated to accept it since I no longer need that type of validation. Twenty years ago, at the time when I would have needed this position, it would have made a difference.” Since it’s so important to have a model for girls in future generations, and since this implies supporting un-conventional artistic endeavours and giving to others as she would have liked others to do for her, Brigitte Haentjens has redistributed the grants she has received. She gave away equal portions of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award to five up-and-coming theatre artists—and has also become involved with the Conseil québécois du théâtre. “I’m not here to get rich…it’s instinctive. I do it because it seems like the right thing. These actions make all the difference for those who come after me.”
Dans la solitude des champs de coton, featuring Hugues Frenette and Sébastien Ricard and directed by Brigitte Haentjens. At Usine C from January 23 to February 10 and the NAC in Ottawa from February 21 to 24. www.sibyllines.com
*All quotes have been translated from French*
Translated by Isabel Garriga