[To commemorate the passing of director Andre Ernotte, Playbill On Line is reprinting this March 1996 interview with the director, conducted with NJ critic and journalist Simon Saltzman. The discussion was held during rehearsals of the McCarter Theatre's production of The Misanthrope, staged by Ernotte.
Belgian director Andre Ernotte knows he is going to be interviewed by a theatre critic. What he doesn't know is that this critic is also a fan. When we meet at NJ's McCarter Theatre before the day's rehearsal for Moliere's The Misanthrope, he is surprised yet pleased by my enthusiasm for his direction of two past Off-Broadway productions, Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill and My Gene. The former was a heartbreaking account of Billie Holiday's last professional appearance that starred Lonette McKee, and the latter, a tour-de-force for Colleen Dewhurst as Eugene O'Neill's wife, Oona.
In some ways, I sense that my appreciation of Ernotte's work is fortuitous. I am also glad to have seen Ernotte's distinctively audacious contribution to Polly Pen's chamber opera, Bed and Sofa, at New York's Vineyard Theater. Ernotte won awards for his direction of Pen's two previous operatic miniatures, Goblin Market and Christina Alberta's Father. In a manner of speaking, Ernotte has now leapt out of the bed, off the sofa, and landed right in the jaws of The Misanthrope.
Even at 9:30 in the morning, it is obvious Ernotte is starting the day with a fearless joie de vivre. It is expressed in his demonstrative "joie de theatre." Is the staging of Moliere's classic 17th-century farce going to be as challenging for Ernotte as working with Pen on her cutting-edge contemporary work? Without hesitation, he allows that, "With both plays I am blending high techniques with passion. I thrive on it." Might Ernotte find the sudden switch of stylistic gears dizzying? "That's what I like the best," he replies. "My whole existence and my way of doing things is based on paradox."
To explain the paradox Ernotte recalls his days as a theatre student in Brussels. "Because the theatre directors there were so cerebral, I studied acting. Also film was much more focused than theatre. So I studied film. Ernotte takes this opportunity to add that his first feature film, "High Street," was chosen to represent Belgium at the Oscars. The film was to act as a springboard for Ernotte to come to New York. As fate would have it, however, Ernotte was cast as a Frenchman in "The French Connection." "What I really wanted to do was learn editing from William Friedkin, the film's director. And now I get $49 every time the film is show on TV." Although he has directed other plays by Moliere and by Marivaux, Ernotte has never done Misanthrope. He confesses it was Emily Mann, a long-time friend, who helped him decide on this popular classic European play to fill out "the landscape of the season." "Emily and I have always respected each other's work. We worked together at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, shared the same agent, as well as [having been] friends over the years." The fads, the trends, and the liberties taken with the classics in Europe trouble Ernotte. It seems to him that stagings of Moliere's comedies have been misguided over decades. "They appear to have evolved from rusty dissertations and old-fashioned pomp," he says, "to an almost pathological experimentation." Because this plays deals with social rebellion, cruelty, and manipulation, I ask Ernotte what he must do to bring back the comedy? The challenge is also to bring back the charm," he adds with a flourish. "So I am adding dollops of sorbet to contrast with the darkness. I bring a mixture of heart and brains to every play I do," says Ernotte.
If the ego of this internationally respected director is worn attractively on his sleeve, it enables us to discuss two qualities we both agree he brings to a play -- substance and pizzazz. These appear to be Ernotte's personal prerequisites, whether he's doing intimate plays in the U.S. or large-scaled musicals in Europe. These latter include Man of La Mancha, The Sound of Music and Chess. Again he reassures me, "I don't neuter a spectacle with glitz."
It is apparent that Ernotte wants us to know he has the best of all worlds -- "I'm having my cake and eating it" -- staging massive, high-impact shows in Europe while doing interesting new work in New York. That new work has mostly been seen at Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan Theatre Club, and at the Public Theatre, where Joseph Papp also showcased Ernotte's lauded film, "High Street," when it failed to get a New York distributor.
Ernotte expresses disdain for the foppish, mannered, posturing treatment that Moliere so often gets, both in America and Europe. Yes, the actors don't have an easy time with Moliere. The play is about show-off, pretense, masks, and false importance. But, as Ernotte reminds me, with him at the helm and using Richard Wilbur's sublime translation, they can't go wrong. In between our talk about the play's pretense, Ernotte's enthusiasm peaks as he tells of the idea to add court dances, intermezzos, divertimentos and interludes of musical beauty. "There are divertimentos, like the dance of provocation, the dance of power, which I hope will be both sensuous and attractive." Ernotte is equally amused by his other conceit for the play, a 17th century "lounge act," in which a harpsichord player, in full wig and gown, plays hit tunes of the day. Admittedly, the musical intrusions are revisionist. But, to Ernotte, they really belong. No cuts or changes have been made in the text. He laughs. "But as you can see, I have added things."
With respect for Moliere who had reached the pinnacle of his style with The Misanthrope, Ernotte says, "I am having the most fun with this play by going from farcical shtick a la Feydeau to the elements of tragedy a la Racine." Aware that some directors can get too Strindbergain and avoid the pratfalls and the virtuosity, Ernotte emphasizes that he likes to pay attention to scoring a script -- "the allegros, the adagios," "I do a lot of homework dramaturgically preparing a play."
Ernotte is adamant about the importance of creating an ensemble on stage. Not to be tolerated is a stage full of stars who inflict their own "method" -- be it Kabuki or psychobabble -- on the same play. "Image creating" is what appeals to Ernotte, who cites directors Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, and Lee Breuer as some of his favorites. He commends Mike Nichols for his seemingly invisible directing. Yet it is the epic theatre style of Peter Brook that Ernotte claims to most admire.
In The Misanthrope, hypocrisy and passion play equal roles. We enjoy dissecting Alceste, the play's protagonist, who unwittingly reflects the flaws that he sees in others. And what does Ernotte expect from the actor playing Alceste? "I expect the actor to be riveting and versatile, ready for the mood shifts." "Is that all?" I ask. Ernotte says he is delighted to have that actor in Stephen Lang. "he is a dangerous actor in the good sense of the word." Ernotte says he likes him because he is a big risk taker and has the "big mouth" and scope to play the character. What about Nancy Bell who plays Alceste's lover Celimene? "Unlike many a twitching ingenue, Bell is a ravishing, no-nonsense actor, and she also has chutzpa."
We pause to consider people we know who go around claiming to fight deceit and hypocrisy around them. Three hundred years after Moliere illuminated this pathology, we continue to witness those who see it as their mission to expose society's ethical decay. As we discover -- and as Alceste knew -- this often leads to irrational, anti-social acts. I ask Ernotte if he thinks his approach to Moliere's most mature and realistic farce will illuminate elements of the play that have previously been ignored. Considering the bold and adventurous ways that Ernotte finds to capture an audience, I am not surprised to hear him say that, "only masterpieces can be boxed with wrestled with."
Ernotte is the first to admit he has a reputation in commercial circles for being avant garde, while the avant garde considers him commercial. "I like great traditions, but I also like newness and daring stuff." Considering the rampant "dumbing down" of America, isn't it odd that such a highly intellectual comedy can be so popular today? "Yes, there is a dangerous fad right now of brain bashing." I wonder when he adds that "brain-bashing is encouraged by our intellectual guides and some journalists." But there are the other guides who act as an inspiration to Ernotte; he cites Gurdjieff's "Meetings With remarkable Men" as a meaningful book in his life. He also has an interest in Asian philosophy, Zen in particular. "Philosophy is more important to me than art. Mediation is more important to me than success or achievement."
It is the combination of serenity, distance, witnessing, as well as a social conscience, that has led Ernotte to devote part of his time to working with the homeless and the dying. Ernotte found he could merge his skills with social service work. He created a program for hospitals in New York that is based on creative writing, improvisation and poetry. With another group, Hearts and Voices, that works with the dying, he is able to join spirituality with the arts. In regard to the spirit of The Misanthrope, can Ernotte, with his innate French sensibility, bring out some of the subtleties that so often elude directors and actors alike? "The French know how to play with the words. I am going to work with the actors to bring out the flirtation and sensuality in the sound of the words." It sounds like a mantra to me.
-- by Simon Saltzman
This article first appeared in US I Newspaper Princeton N.J. Reprinted by permission of the author and This Month ON STAGE magazine.