Interview with Gilles Gentner
by Tanguy Nédélec*
GG Once upon a time there was a Spaniard…
TN Before we get to Cuqui, let’s talk about you.
TN It’s as good a place as any to start. Why the performing arts? Why lighting design?
GG I don’t know. Because I didn’t know what the fuck else to do.
TN That’s not how one lands in show business, now is it?
GG No. Actually I was part of this folk group in my village in Alsace. I was, what, 15. I went back for three years. Every year, we would put on a show that we would write in Alsatian and we’d take turns doing the technical stuff. One day, it was my turn to do lights and something happened. It turns out my mother was working in a sawmill and the boss’ son was an actor in a theater company in Mulhouse. The director of this company ran outdoor summer stage workshops in southern Alsace and my mother put me in touch with him.
It was mainly meant for actors but they were also looking for technicians. The whole thing was pro and I did three summers there. It was great: it was outdoors, these big shows in the forest, and we did everything ourselves. It was perfect for me. All of a sudden a doorway opened onto this huge world where everything seemed possible, not just lights. Before doing lights, I wanted to know all about that giant machine called theater, the whole technical side. I was thirsty for knowledge and I was lucky enough to meet people who were doing a lot of different things, who weren’t specialized in sound, lights, stage management, stage design, etc. These were multitalented people who got me interested in everything, who took me under their wings. I made a lot of friends, especially in Alsace. I was lucky I ended up where I did because it is a very wealthy region, and in the 80s there was money for the arts. I did a T.U.C. (a government-subsidized job. Trans.) for a year in an association in Colmar that staged productions in different venues because there was no dedicated theater. It was great, because we went to venues that weren’t theaters at all and where you had to do everything from scratch, or to municipal theaters where you would meet very different people—we used to call them “municipals.”
TN There were still a lot of them around at the time.
GG Yes, there were, and that was cool. The old-timers can teach you things… I saw old lighting switchboards from the 1950s still in use, old Clémençon stage lights, today no one knows how to do that. Then I worked at the Atelier Lyrique du Rhin in Colmar. It has since become a centre dramatique, but at that time there was no theater—just offices, sound and voice studios, in a mansion in a residential neighborhood in Colmar. It was incredible. There were two of us, Bertrand, who was stage manager and I, who was a conscientious objector. We did everything ourselves and it was a full house every night. We did big contemporary operas, huge shows. We occupied spaces that weren’t theaters at all. And I also did the first few years of a kind of festival called “Les Régionales,” which helped companies from France and abroad come to Alsace to tour small theatres where no one ever goes, in tiny towns where people don’t go to the theater. We did tours with Hourdin, with real theatrical families.
TN Like Les fédérés.
GG Right, Les fédérés. I met people like that, incredible people. Really, for me it was great training.
TN Because you ended up not going to school?
GG No, I tried out for the TNS (Théâtre national de Strasbourg. Ed.) when I was 18, and at the end of the auditions the director told me, you’re too young, try again next year. I didn’t. I don’t think it made much difference in the end. And then Bertrand, who I had worked with for two years and who is a little like my father, left with Le Radeau, a company with which we had just mounted a play in Colmar. They had come to put on Le jeu de Faust, an absolutely magnificent show. I followed him and toured with Le jeu de Faust, Woyseck, and others.
TN With François Tanguy that is! He is someone I wish I had gotten a chance to work with.
GG It was terrific, even though I have a hard time with families, with collectives. Then I worked for Olivier Py in Bussang in a theater in the Vosges made entirely of wood.
TN The Théâtre du peuple, I know it!
GG I worked three years there too. Rancillac was artistic director. The last year there was a rift between Py and the Rancillacs, and I left with Py and did four new productions with them.
TN Right, getting back to Cuqui?
GG One thing led to another and I ended up working with the team at the Bastille. A dozen of us divvied up the season and I worked with Boris Charmatz for his choreography Herses. It was a big hit and I went on tour with him. Angèle, his office manager, mentioned me to Rebecca Lee, who was looking for a technical director for Jérôme Bel. I had an audition with Jérôme, Rebecca and Frédéric Seguette.
TN Wow! That must have been quite something.
GG It was very weird, but I got the job and I was with Jérôme on The Show Must Go On, and I still am, as a matter of fact! That’s when I started meeting a lot of different people, including Cuqui who was in Show with Juan (Dominguez), his sister María, and Olga de Soto who I also worked with. I have known Cuqui for ten years. When she started to do her shows, she suggested we work together after her first solo, A Space Odyssey. We have been working together for five or six years now. And I enjoy it. She is funny and pretty nuts.
TN Before we get to Cuqui, do you think there is a big difference work-wise between dance and theater?—because you’ve done both.
GG I told myself that, yes, but I think today there’s less of a difference than there used to be. In the theater, there was necessarily a set, a complicated stage design—and in dance there was nothing. Now it’s almost the reverse. Light has the same importance, but in a different way.
TN I’m guessing the lighting techniques are not the same?
GG Still, I did almost all the designs for Laurent Gutmann, for example. He had shows with imposing sets, to very powerful effect. In those cases, I show what there is to see while nonetheless trying to bring a concept to bear. It’s true that, in the theater, you have to light something. While in dance, it’s more an idea you have. A solitary bulb can work just fine. That’s true in today’s theater too, but fifteen years ago the relationship to space wasn’t the same. We needed to see actors’ eyes when they spoke.
TN Don’t you think it’s also linked to the conditions of production and that, starting in the 80s and 90s, there was more money in dance?
GG It depends on the productions of course. I think that in dance there is a greater openness, it’s easier to take a stand as a lighting designer. The theater was a little afraid of strong positions, but now it’s less split. It’s almost gone too far: now we’re only trying to have an idea. That’s what I like about Cuqui’s work of course, there an idea, a very strong concept for the show. That said, the design for the shows we’ve been doing has been what?—all the lights on full-blast.
TN That’s fairly common in dance. As though we don’t want it to be a show anymore or there is a fear of overdoing it.
GG At the same time its stays a show. We are aware of that, we’re standing in front of an audience, after all, in venues that were made for that purpose. Turning up all the lights has a kind of…
GG Yes, something virgin in any case. The will to not insinuate anything visually and to leave what is on stage to the spectators, unrefined.
TN Cuiqui’s project, when you came here to the Labs, consisted at first of an exercise… or a project on the possibility of creating a space and dramaturgy with light. I remember at the beginning, before you reoriented your work, it was rather empty, something wasn’t working. It was reminiscent of a school project and I couldn’t really see where it was going. What did you say to each other at the end of that first stage?
GG In truth we didn’t say much because Cuqui left rather quickly and then we started work right away. Communication with Cuqui is not always simple. It is very difficult for her to talk about her work, to critique it.
TN Do you think you could continue on this track or not?
GG It was the initial project. A show can start in million different ways. In the second session , since we weren’t getting anywhere, we thought we’d try something else. So that’s what we did but we never dug deeper into what hadn’t worked at the beginning. When Cuqui doesn’t like something… she trashes it.
TN She doesn’t insist. Then the project turned into variations on a situation around a dead man that I played. It might seem strange, but I felt like I was dancing.
TN Yes. In fact it brought back memories of being a stagehand at the Comédie Française. We had to do set changes in the dark that we rehearsed dozens and dozens of times. You have to be aware of every move you make to not lose any time. I don’t know what a dancer’s work consists of, but I imagine it is quite similar.
GG That’s funny.
TN Here it didn’t necessarily work because we would knock into each other and make noise, but it’s fascinating work. Most of the time you work with your body but not in a conscious way, and I enjoyed developing that awareness. In the second work period, what did you think of the exercises around different appearances of a dead person?
GG It was very long. It still suggested a beginning, actually. For us, each successive scene was a new beginning. Later, a continuation of scenes, even if you tell yourself they are only beginnings, doesn’t work. You put the pieces together however you see fit, but you come up with a story, a dramaturgy. Because there was text, too.
TN About the recorded text, I told myself that, rather than writing it down or recording it, it would have been more interesting to use your actual work discussions, even if they had been unrelated to what you showed.
GG That was the initial idea. But yes, it wasn’t our real preliminary work.
TN I think that was because you wanted to connect this soundtrack with the reality of the stage and I’m not sure that was necessary. Then there was the third work period with Ismeni.
GG We also went off in several direction in that session. The first presentation was pretty catastrophic for us. It consisted of scene beginnings that had nothing to do with each other.
TN With this idea of always playing the work-in-progress card. You changed the lights in the middle of the show. But it was a difficult situation to act because the lights had already been hung. So it was neither here nor there. At the same time, is it really interesting to see someone hang a light?
GG That’s the question we ask in the project. We pretend to be at the starting block and to decide what to do spontaneously. How can we include this state of affairs? If we say we’re going to do things in real time, then let’s really do them. Let’s sit down at a table in front of the audience and talk. That was Amaia’s first idea. We had sat down at a table and we hung the lights while Cuqui watched. We made an attempt like that, but it quickly became mind-numbingly boring.
TN You try to surprise each other, meaning that everyone works on his or her proposition separately.
GG We had each gotten ready in our separate corner. Something about it didn’t ring true because the preparation had already occurred and didn’t take place in the moment—unlike Cuqui’s previous show, The Rehearsal. The show happens, it’s a rehearsal. We pretend we’re rehearsing a show. Almost at the very end, I intervene on stage with a Genie or a ladder and I change a gel. There, very often, people think the show is over and leave, when, in fact, the show continues for another five, ten minutes! Even in this milieu of researchers with a specialized audience who knows the rules, people don’t want to see the technical side. It’s weird, you know. Everyone knows it’s part of the performance, that it’s artifice, and some don’t want to know how it works, don’t want to have the key. It’s the same for me when I go to see a show, in fact. At the same time, I agree with Cuqui’s work. It’s sort of her thing. She needs us to see how it works, to see the mechanics of the artifice.
TN And that becomes your subject?
GG Yes, and for me that is what’s interesting about the work periods we’ve had here, but I don’t think we’ve succeeded yet. I though we would have unveiled more, and I have to admit I felt a little bit lost with the light design.
TN It was complicated because, in addition to the lights, you worked on many other aspects of the creation.
GG Still, that’s actually a big help. Certain projects I botch unless I can stick my nose in other people’s work and do something other than lights. I need to soak up some other work or mess around and then, boom, it all comes together.
TN What I don’t find simple is when it becomes the only thing that counts. There has to be something to unveil before you can do the unveiling. If the subject of the show is just the unveiling, it doesn’t work in my mind. In the second session, here was this idea of beginnings with the argument around the dead body. We could imagine a story. In the third session, there were remakes of the scene from Matrix. But that felt like a pretext.
GG And in the last presentation, with all the objects that arrive one by one on stage?
TN That didn’t express much of anything. The objects were too familiar to me. But maybe someone else would have been surprised, yes, or curious. There are always constraints on the stage. We can’t escape the space or the time we are given. It is time will define the show. That’s what makes shows that manage to deconstruct perceived time so beautiful.
GG I think the last proposition goes further in the direction we want to take than what we showed previously. I am in it so I don’t know what the spectators think, but the concentration that this dispositif gives me strikes me as more right somehow.
TN At the same time, the objects appear for no reason.
GG Of course, what counts is what’s happening around them. For me, it’s my saw or a bicycle I found. At the same time, if you are neutral and you arrive with no idea what you’re going to see, I think the surprise is even greater. I don’t know if you should look for surprise. I guess you make up a dramaturgy if you see a circular saw, then a bike. You necessarily dream up a story that includes these objects. When there are fifteen of them, it’s the same thing: “Fine, how many more are they going to bring. This is annoying.” But this is more of an idea for a beginning than and idea for scenes. In lights, you look for the space, change the space, change the nature of the object…
TN …if we can.
GG Perception, yes. But a bicycle wheel will always stay a bicycle wheel, whether it’s red or yellow.
TN The objects can change, but it’s linked to the acting.
GG The acting yes, but as seen in the light. It’s what would interest me in this work, and I’m sorry that we haven’t explored it enough.
TN Where are you going with this work?
GG I don’t know, forward. I think it’s stupendous, and I really want to explore these questions I don’t have answers to, to understand myself what role lighting has here. I work a lot on sensations, I don’t have a theory. I need to be inside, to get a sense of it, and to dive into an idea, into a concentration.
TN Does it have anything to do with the duration of the residence?
GG I don’t know. There are shows that take three days to finish and it comes out great but in this case I think communication with Cuqui was too difficult, we didn’t spend enough time thinking about the work.
TN At the same time her fear is very beautiful. I was somewhat exterior and less involved than you. But there is something very fragile about it, and that’s beautiful.
GG Yes, it’s very fragile, but at the same time very disruptive for the research, for concentration, too. But, despite it all, her fragility is very beautiful and her ideas for the project and what’s on stage. This unveiling of the doubt and mystery of creation. It speaks to me and I want nothing more with the lights—only, on her last project we said we would work on lights in a changing space and I don’t think we have achieved that. I also have a position. I give myself roles, meaning when I am a lighting designer, I have a role of lighting designer; when I’m a dancer, I am an interpreter (it happens), when I am a technical director of a company, and so on. Here, I only found out very late that I was working in collaboration with her or in any case that the title of the residency was “Cuqui Jerez and Gilles Gentner.” I didn’t know that, actually. Finding out sooner would have changed a lot. I just put myself into the position of a collaborator.
Once she didn’t show up, and I thought, “She’s not here, so why don’t I do something.” That’s where I got the idea of objects that show up on stage. I wrote that thing, we showed it to her and we started from there. I was happy not to find myself asking her yet again: “Right, so what are we doing? Should we wait for her, or shouldn’t we. Should we go ahead or shouldn’t we?” That’s what had been happening up until then.
TN Maybe that’s how you should tell the beginning.
GG Maybe you’re right. That would be funny. Anyway, I’m very glad to be continuing here in November and next February, with a February premiere. I’m very pleased with this relationship but we have further to go personally and professionally. Lighting means making things visible: for each new project, I propose a new interpretation. I can’t wait to continue what we’ve started, even if we change direction completely. I also like how it fits into my story: how does my perception of work today differ from the way I imagined it when I first started with my folk group? I’ve realized that this machine that is the theater has evolved with us and that I, too, have things to say. Cuqui gives me a little room to do that.
Interview published in Le Journal des Laboratoires, Sept-Dec. 2011
* Tanguy Nédélec is technical director at Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers. This interview was realized in Aubervilliers, on May 30th 2011.
¹ La residence de Cuqui Jerez et Gilles Gentner aux Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers se répartit sur une première période, en septembre 2010, une seconde en janvier et février 2011 et une troisième en novembre 2011.
² Amaia Urra et Ismeni Espejel ont assisté Cuqui Jerez et Gilles Gentner lors des différentes sessions de travail du projet.