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Ariane Mnouchkine seems happy to be back in New York, after a long absence that had people speculating whether her indignation over American foreign policy would prevent her from returning. She was last here in 1992 with Les Atrides, her epic reworking of Aeschylus' Oresteia, and Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis, presented by BAM, that galvanized the kind of serious cultural attention that transforms an important production into a genuine theatrical event. A dozen years later, Mnouchkine still simmers with radical passion, even if her grandmotherly appearance (white shock of hair, eyeglasses on a string around her neck) and coolly polite, occasionally bristling manner might lead some to mistake her for a semi-retired Parisian shopkeeper rather than one of Europe's bona fide directorial visionaries.
A socialist to the core, Mnouchkine would have no problem being compared to an ordinary worker. As the director of the Paris-based Théâtre Du Soleil, she has a hand in all aspects of her company's life, from sweeping the floors of the Cartoucherie (the former munitions store in the Bois de Vincennes she turned into a theater) to ushering ticket-holders to their seats to, naturally enough, guiding the group's dauntingly ambitious artistic mission.
That mission, whether it involves investigating the life of Moliére, the French Revolution, Cambodian atrocities, or classic drama, is to create theater that's for and by the people. To that end, Mnouchkine runs a cooperative of international players, where everyone takes equal pay and contributes to all aspects of production. Not that there's any doubt about who's ultimately in charge. Mnouchkine, by all accounts, is an egalitarian dictator, a paradox that's perhaps unavoidable for a world class theater artist with a sensibility as exacting as it is adventurous.
Her latest work Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odysées)/The Last Caravan Stop (Odysseys), a two-part, six-hour piece to be mounted in tents in Damrosch Park during the Lincoln Center Festival (July 17 through 31) in conjunction with the Act French festival, investigates the world's refugee crisis by focusing on a few notorious camps in France, Australia, New Zealand, and Indonesia where asylum seekers (most from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan) have been held in legal limbo. Inspired by interviews company members conducted with the detainees, as well as letters written by the detainees themselves, the production weaves its documentary findings into a structure that invokes Homer's grand epics. Incorporating actors of multiple nationalities and languages, the piece strives to convey the diverse narratives of those searching, against appallingly difficult odds, for a new and less repressive homeland.
"The origin of the piece is in Sangatte, a small village in France, where there was a gathering of refugees trying to go to England," Mnouchkine explains. "They came from the Middle East and the Far East, and the French Red Cross set up a center so people wouldn't have to sleep on the street. It was very controversial because the British said we were helping the refugees get to England, which resulted in the French police trying not to let the people out of France. I asked permission to go and see this place [with someone of Iranian background] who became one of our actors. I had to explain that I wasn't a journalist who could help them in the way they'd come to expect from journalists, that I was mainly interested in hearing about their lives. They said, 'Yes, but what can you do about our lives?' And I said, 'I can't really do anything but tell the stories.' "
After her time in Sangatte, Mnouchkine traveled to Australia with her company. While performing The Flood Drummers at the Sydney Festival, she began interviewing refugees at the city's notorious Villawood Imigration Detention Centre. "The situation there is really one of the worst in the world," she says. "The decision was made to do something, because it was so awful that you couldn't just say, 'Oh, it's awful,' and not do anything."
One of the things the company did was to project the words "Free the refugees" onto the set of the final performance, a gesture that provoked a mini-scandal, with many Australians rising in solidarity, others hollering for Mnouchkine to take the aliens back to France with her.
Mnouchkine, who's bringing Caravansérail to Melbourne this fall, seems annoyed by reports that she had planned to boycott Australiaor that she had resisted returning to America. "It would be stupid not to want to come here with such a play," she says. "I've always wanted to come here, and we are going to Melbourne in October."
As for her strong disagreement with the Bush administration, she says, "I suppose half of the Americans feel that opposition. So what we feel is what half of the Americans feel. I don't think we should go and perform in a dictatorship or a non-democratic government. But we can't really pretend that America is a dictatorship. We would not perform in China or even in Russia now, although we've been there once at a time when we could hope that things were changing, but we wouldn't go back now."
For Mnouchkine, lack of freedom is the fundamental problem. "When you live in a country where there is no freedom of movement, of religion, of speech, you want to go where there is freedom. Even if you don't do it for yourself, you do it for your children. I think it is difficult for us to imagine what it is not to have a passport. You cannot imagine what it is to say, 'I want to see the world,' and the world answers you back, 'No, you're not going to see the world. You're going to stay here. You are not permitted to move.' And even if your government says, 'All right, you can leave,' the world's response is still, 'No, I don't want you.' "
Though she can't help advocating for those denied a public voice, Mnouchkine isn't blind to the complexity of the issues. "While I think people should be able to travel wherever they want, I understand that a country should be able to say, 'No, I only want so many refugees a year and this man should be denied entry because he's a terrorist or fanatic.' "
Still, she says, though the West may not be entirely responsible for the refugee crisis, it is part of our collective responsibility to deal with it, particularly given our "support for unacceptable regimes." The hypocrisy is hardly lost on her. "We want your oil, but we don't want your refugees," she says by way of explaining the West's mentality. "We want your oil so we pay your dictatorship to stay in place, but we don't want the victims of this dictatorship we are paying to stay in place."
At stake for Mnouchkine in Caravansérail is the awareness of the refugees' humanity. "When you decide who deserves your compassion and your understanding, you are helping to decide someone's destiny. These are human beings, as good and bad as you or I am. They are the same. I am French, but my name is not. My father was a refugee or immigrant. I cannot forget that. At any point I can be thrown into a desperate situation, needing asylum from another country. Who knows what is going to happen?"
Mnouchkine's hope is to create a theatrical experiencea lengthy one, and therefore in this age of quick and easy consumption, arduous and demanding, though (characteristically) not inaccessiblethat allows you to identify with the refugees on their journey. (What links the 60-odd stories in the piece? "Emotion," she says).
John Lahr once described Mnouchkine as a "conservative avant-gardist," an artist who "wants mass communication and actually loves the masses." That said, Mnouchkine productions require a certain effort on the part of their audiences, if not simply in terms of the works' marathon duration then for the charged relationships they forge with their viewers, who are usually prevented both spatially and philosophically from remaining detached. The theatrical labor is, in a sense, shared.
"When you go to the theater, you work," Mnouchkine says. "You don't know that you're working but you are. Cinema does not require it. As a director, you can put something on the stage, but it's the audience that comes up with everything else. One gesture, one sound, and they see a world."
Has the preferred 90-minute, intermission-free theatrical experience spoiled our capacity for this imaginative complicity? "I don't think the human mind or human heart will lose it," she says. "It may mean that our contemporary life won't allow it to happen everywhere. But I think it just takes real theater for us to immediately start responding again."