Jos Houben Talks About Lecoq, Complicité, Beckett & Working With Peter Brook

Samuel Beckett’s “Fragments” photo courtesy of Ernesto Rodrigues Agencio Estado

NOTE: We’re reposting this article, from November 11, 2011, because this Saturday, October 27, our friends at the French Institute Alliance Francaise are again playing host to Jos Houben, who reprises his lecture-performance The Art of Laughter at 7 p.m. It’s a brilliant and not-to-be-missed piece. Tickets are $25 adv/$30 DOS.

“It’s like a sonata,” Jos Houben said over the phone. “The whole piece works like a sonata or like a very well served, tiny dinner. Different snacks of Beckett, if you like. It starts with a powerful allegro movement, then goes very, very still, and then it becomes very funny, and then it becomes very, very bizarre, and then it ends up in a wonderful little funny trio. So it is very well composed.”

The Belgian-born, Lecoq-trained actor was referring to the line-up of Fragments, a collection of five of Samuel Beckett’s shorter plays, directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, which opens this week at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (through Dec. 4; tickets $75). Consisting of five works–technically three plays, one pantomime, and one performed poem–it debuted at Brook’s Paris home, the Théâtre Bouffes du Nord, in 2008, and featured Houben and Marcello Magni. The original production also featured a French actress in the third slot, who’s been replaced with Kathryn Hunter for English language tours, leaving the cast consisting of three long-time associates of the groundbreaking London-based, Lecoq-inspired Complicité. Magni was a co-founder of the company (then known as Théâtre de Complicité) with Simon McBurney and Annabel Arden; Houben began working with the company from their second show on. Hunter began collaborating with them in 1987.

Houben may be familiar to some readers who caught him at FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival earlier this fall, where he presented his lecture-performance The Art of Laughter. Tall and a bit lanky, with tousled light brown hair and a hyper-expressive face, Houben speaks with a charmingly Anglicized gait, inflected by a continental accent. A friend of mine who recently finished studies at the London International School of Performing Arts, founded by a graduate of Paris’s Ecole Jacques Lecoq, saw Houben perform a couple years ago at the London International Mime Festival, and highly recommended his show to me. As soon as I saw it and learned he was in Fragments, I knew I needed to speak to him.

Lecoqian performance has always fascinated me. My perspective might be skewed, but when I was in college in the nineties, it seemed like Lecoq was only just percolating through the arts ether in America; you couldn’t even track down books on it in English. But I was exposed early on by Portland, Oregon’s Imago Theater, which continues to do amazing work (they made Sartre’s No Exit good), and further experiences with companies devising in a Lecoqian mode have confirmed that, as an approach, it can be provide startingly powerful results.

But early on in our telephone conversation, I made the mistake (one I’ve made many times in the past to Lecoqians) of asking what influenced Houben to go into “movement-based” work.

“There’s many, many misconceptions around the Lecoq school, and the Lecoq educational system,” he explained patiently before we could move on. “The one thing that I would say is that what distinguishes the Lecoq training from any other theatrical training as I know it is that it is school for creators. So theater is taken as, here’s a space, and here’s an actor, now what can you do? And not, here is a text, or is already a written material, or an already created piece and ‘how would you interpret that?’ It’s an entirely different approach. In that work, certainly in the first year, the students discover what is permanent, what is always there. And the starting point of that is movement, is the body if you like. The second movement that body will carry is the word. The word is not the precondition for theater. The precondition for theater is that someone will come in, and then he can stumble, or he can all of a sudden make a dance movement, or all of sudden in front of our very eyes he can take some clay and make a sculpture.”

“For Lecoq, the Eiffel Tower is a drama, but a drama made out of steel.”

But, getting around to the question I was trying to ask, Houben explained: “I was attracted to theater, and I was attracted to a school where I was asked to get together with others to create my theater, and that’s how we wound up getting together, or constituting or creating Complicité. That we met and we made the theater that we like to make. Later people say, ‘Oh, that’s Lecoq.’ We say, ‘No that’s Complicité, because what Complicité wound up doing, we weren’t taught at Lecoq, Lecoq just taught us to make up our own mind and get on with it.'”

Jos Houben in an image for “The Art of Laughter.” Photo by Annika Johansson

Of course one of the things I was curious to know was what, exactly, the rehearsal process with Brook was like, and to understand exactly how Estienne and Brook had split the duties, both being listed as co-directors. I asked if perhaps Estienne, who’s been working with Brook in various capacities for a couple decades, served as the production director, developing the piece for the first few weeks of rehearsal before Brook came in to put the final shape on the work, a not uncommon practice for highly in-demand directors.

“Well, these two have worked together for so long, on so many different productions for more than 30 years,” Houben told me. “It’s on one hand completely symbiotic. And on the other hand, they’re very separate, they’re very different people, and they have a very different energy and a very different attention to detail. The main inspirer is always Peter, and the main overseer of it all. But Peter is so much in Marie-Hélène’s bones and blood that you cannot make a distinction, really, about the artistic decisions. They can violently disagree, and they can violently agree,” he said, before adding with a growing chuckle, with rapid-fire delivery, “and violently agree to disagree, and in that disagreement, agree.”

He then admitted that, yes, Estienne worked extensively with them early on, shaping the work, in an almost dramaturgical capacity, as well as directing them on tour, though Brook was anything but disengaged. Not only did he shape the finished product, but throughout the touring he steps in before each run to refresh it through an aggressive process of re-interrogating the work.

“Peter would come in for few days and really re-inject us with something fundamental. Which is always very scary, because he strips it bare of all the artifice you actually need to do theater.” Houben makes light of it, but he was still very serious. He went on at length about the degree to which Brook would strip down their performances to return to a fresh, immediate state.

“Because it’s a very artificial thing to do, to make this happen, to make this work, where you’re in a big space and you have to cross so many yards to this big group of people, and to make that look very, very natural,” Houben explained. “To make that look very organic and very truthful you need to cheat. But after a while, only the cheating is left. Because it works so marvelously. And he would come in and really take the cheating off again and take us back to a very bare place. So to work with him, again, is very inspiring and very scary, because you cannot rely on anything mechanical, anything repetitive.”

Pressed for an example, he mentioned his performance in Act Without Words II, one of Beckett’s two pantomimes, a comic duet performed by Houben and Magni as the third act of Fragments.

Act Without Words is a series of movements, and a series of actions, and interactions with objects and the space that, from the first day we rehearsed it–and we had set it up before Peter came in–he said, ‘There is no doubt in my mind that you could do this tomorrow in front of an audience and it would work. They would laugh,’ he said. ‘But would they laugh still in six months? And more importantly, how will they laugh?'”

Houben paused. “So he did not let us get away with this. In the end, we came to a final result that we managed to play again and again and again, and it is very light. It’s a beautiful piece of wonderful and very tragic slapstick. But when we started again, it was all gone. It had become purely mechanical, and you have to ask that annoying question to yourself again, ‘What is it,’ for example, ‘to look at your watch?’ To see what time it is? My character looks constantly at his watch, to check and very proudly sort of determine for himself, ‘Right! I am bang on schedule, bang on time! I’m on time, I’m on time, isn’t it fantastic that I function like clockwork?’ Now, to look at your watch is such a simple thing to do–you look, you smile, and it’s done. But again we had to find again, we had to connect–that’s the word I’m looking for–we had to connect again with what is it to look at the time, and not sort of, in a way, me. ‘Look around you,’ he said. ‘Look at anybody, in the park, somebody in a cafe, drinking his coffee, checking his watch, changing his behavior and leaving.’ We had to absorb, again, this thing that is connected with time: where am I in time? And to fill that moment, that very mechanical, physical moment of checking my watch, to fill it again with life, to open it and let life stream in.”

Marcello Magni in “Fragments”. Photo courtesy Ernesto Rodrigues Agencia Estado

One of the great challenges to doing Beckett, in my experience, is dealing with the work’s content, which is so pregnant with meaning and interpretive possibilities that more often than not, productions sink under the weight of the show. In the same way Beckett’s novels are unbearable if you don’t have the voicing and the flow–which make them among the lough-out-loud funniest things I’ve read–the plays require a subtle and delicate touch. Asked about how to balance these, Houben considered a minute before answering, one of the few real pauses he took in giving his responses.

“Well, the approach is to look at people, to be someone. Not myself, necessarily,” he added. “Peter says about the two characters in Rough for Theater I, ‘They’re two guys. First of all, they’re two guys'” (One of whom is an old blind busker and the other of whom is a one-legged cripple) “Like in a pub. You need to understand the Irish pubs to understand the playfulness the Irish person has with language. How, in his drunken stupor, he can produce citations from the Bible, quotations from the Bible, something he’s heard, and he can make up his own philosophy at the same time, and in the next moment ask a very, very down to earth question about potatoes. It’s very playful. It is really playing, what Beckett is doing, really joyful juxtaposition with the impossibility, almost, to make any sense, to touch on any sense. We still have to connect and talk to others. What do I talk about? Do I listen to his answer? Or do I listen to myself while he is speaking? Do I prepare my next wonderful phrase, so when he stops speaking I can throw it at him?”

“If you stop being concerned with making sense,” he continued, “you see that the sense comes from somewhere else. The sense comes, for Peter and Marie-Hélène, the sense comes from the fact that these people are so full of life. So full of experiences. So full of bitterness and memories and so full forgotten and abandoned aspirations. And they just sit there. And all of a sudden another human being provokes them, and they make pacts and then they fight and then they fall in love. It’s like a condensation in ten minutes of a whole lifespan of a relationship.”

Finally, toward the end, I got around to asking him one of the things I always find fascinating. Referring to his work in children’s television–he expresses no interest in film–he’d told me that no only did he love the challenge of creating shows for five- and six-year-olds (“the planet of the five-year-olds is a very different planet than the planet of the adults”), but that, “It’s almost the only place where you can, as a physical actor, perform in the style of Buster Keaton.” So I asked him who, aside from Keaton, had inspired him artistically when he was younger.

The first name that came up was the infamous Czech clown and performer Bolek Polívka.

“I saw him many times,” Houben said. “This was before even, when Czechoslovakia was still Communist and he would occasionally be let out and tour Europe when I was a university student. And the intelligence, the wit, the sarcasm, and the freedom he had as a performer onstage, and the laughter he got from that, was, for me, a real shock. Also because he was as much a stand-up comedian who would talk, he would incarnate people, he played, he was a clown–he could walk on his hands. But none of that mattered in the sense that he wasn’t there to demonstrate what he could do, he was there to connect you with a big story, a huge story. When I do my show, The Art of Laughter, I sometimes think it is my own humble attempt to be that free on stage.”

Then he added to his list of influences: “And, of course, all the shows that I’ve seen of productions by Peter Brook. When I went to Paris, and I went to see Peter Brook’s shows–I went to see The Cherry Orchard and Carmen, his opera–and I could have never, ever dreamt that I would be, twenty or twenty-five years later, five steps further from where I was sitting. It was just five steps, turned around, and I’m on the stage.”

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