"I was very red-ee-kull." "You were very what?" I asked.
"I was very red-ee-kull, you know."
"You were very radical!"
And so my interview with the French actor/director Georges Bigot began. To say that communication was easy would be a lie, but what was clear in the interview, and in the 12-hour daily rehearsals for the next L.A.-based Actors' Gang production, is that Bigot is all about discovering the truth, no matter how long it takes.
"He has such an eye for falseness. He is completely about truth, sincerity, and humanity," said Cynthia Ettinger, a member of the Gang, now playing the role of a lifetime: Arkadina in The Seagull under Bigot's direction. Since working with Bigot, she said, she has been able to stretch as an actor, making discoveries at every rehearsal. "The joy of playing yourself without judgment is extraordinary. So simple—and very difficult."
Bigot mastered the art of commedia dell'arté as understood by Paris' Theatre du Soleil, often under the direction of Ariane Mnouchkine. He doesn't know about Los Angeles theatre. He is not acquainted with any company of actors other than the Gang. He has never acted in a Chekhov play. He has never directed a Chekhov play. He has never directed in America. "I didn't know before that this play was so big, so big—so big," said Bigot. "I think this meeting with Chekhov will make us progress on our art."
It is rather ironic that a man who admits he does not speak English very well is directing a Russian play about a bunch of people who are unable to communicate with one another. But the same way Chekhov is able to convey to the audience his characters' truths, Bigot is able to extract deep truths from his actors. "It is art," Bigot said simply. "I don't want to see good actors. I want to see people together onstage in front of other people who are the audience."
"Don't be polite," said Bigot in rehearsal to the actor playing Treplev. "Treplev is not a good man. He is a man—plain and simple." Playing Treplev is Joseph Grimm, a Gang member best known for his subtle humor and honesty both on and off the stage. One of Grimm's inherent strengths as a performer is that he always makes acting look easy. But, in Seagull rehearsals, even he is being pushed to his limits. "I don't know if we knew what to expect," said Grimm. "Whatever it was, [it was] exceeded. Bigot is incredible. His absolute passion for theatre is inspiring. He is like an X-ray. Everyone is a highly accomplished actor [here], and yet he can spot everyone's little bag of tricks instantly. It is unbelievable to see everyone's little foibles and to make them stop to be better."
There is no question Tim Robbins, artistic director of the Gang, has given these artists a tremendous opportunity by bringing Bigot to L.A. The ensemble I observed is truly inspired. While watching a rehearsal, Steve Porter, a longtime Gang member, leaned over to me and whispered, "We all have fallen in love with each other all over again."
Finding One Another
Bigot and Robbins met at a workshop in 1984, during the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival. It was the first time Bigot, who was visiting with the Theatre du Soleil, led a workshop and the first time he performed in the U.S. The two discovered a deep connection with each other, brought together by their love for theatre.
"We talked and we ate," said Bigot. "[Robbins] was looking for the real questions. This, I remember—somebody who was really looking for some truth. And I was in the same mood." Based on these commedia workshops, Robbins and other members of his UCLA-spawned theatre company who attended them brought back to their fledgling group what would later become the stamp for the Gang's work: the Style.
At the same time, I was a freshman at CalArts. Bigot came to speak to our school about theatre. An artist, petite in stature and grand in essence, he spoke about the detail of every gesture and the specifics of every word. I remember Bigot's little pinky finger pointing to the sky being used as an example. Years later, watching him lend his hand to this production, it is again clear that every little thing matters.
Rehearsals are long, almost excruciatingly so. They are stopped often, sometimes at every word, to clarify and to discover the moment. However, Porter described his newly discovered awareness: "Every word means something. Every sentence is a play within itself."
Since the Olympic Arts Festival, Bigot, as an actor and director throughout the world, has always returned to questions about art and the art of acting. Questioning is one of his methods. "The question is, How will we play today? Not to say, I know how to play today. Theatre is the place to ask questions. To put questions on the stage. To be or not to be, that is the question. To be is to be on the stage. Not to be is not onstage. You know? You understand?"
Throughout rehearsal, Bigot recites certain key terms that the ensemble recognizes now, almost as if they had been studying with him for years—or had been successfully hypnotized. For example, "giving and receiving." The idea? If actors do not give, there is nothing. If actors do not receive, there is nothing. It is not only about actors giving to other actors, the script, and the audience but about actors being able to receive from all of these things. "Don't put my ideas or our ideas onstage about what we think about this play," Bigot clearly stated. "Just follow Anton Chekhov. Give life another time to the words of this man. So, I just say, receive Anton Chekhov—and receive your partner, receive [the] audience. Receive. Because in this moment, if we do it well, our work can be touched in connection with the humanity, because we are in one second of universal life."
Bigot made a point that the Russians in The Seagull did not know their future. Neither do we. As for the fate of theatre? Here, there doesn't seem to be any question. Said Bigot, "I know one thing. We pass and theatre will stay. And it's good. We don't know what [theatre] will be, but we have to give to the young generation what we see as good."
For 17 years, I have kept a poster hanging up in my living room with Bigot's unmistakable, white-faced visage. I am still in awe. BSW