Interview with Olivier Letellier by Jose Solis, for StageBuddy.com
The central character in Olivier Letellier's Oh Boy!, a young man by the name of Barthélémy, finds himself suddenly becoming father figure to three recently orphaned children, who will force him to leave behind his frivolous ways and dare him to grow up along with them. Based on Marie-Aude Murail's 2000 novel, the theatrical adaptation by Catherine Verlaguet focuses on Barthélémy, and sees the world through his wondrous perspective. The play which touches on subjects like death, homosexuality and loss is far from having a morbid outlook, in fact it very well represents Letellier's optimistic views, after all his company, Théâtre du Phare (literally Lighthouse Theatre) seems keen on becoming a beacon of joy through the arts, not only doing courageous family entertainment, but also taking into account the diversity of the audiences who come see their shows (their show Un Chien dans la tête was performed in French Sign Language).
An English reading of Oh Boy! will be part of the Tilt Kids Festival (organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) ) on April 2. As he prepared for the occasion, Mr. Letellier was kind enough to answer a few questions we had about his process, making grown-up stories for children, and what's next for him.
Jose Solis: When did you first encounter Marie-Aude Murail's novel?
Olivier Letellier: I first read it in 2005, digging around in a children’s library at a summer camp where I had come to put on my first play, L’homme de fer. I had already seen it at the bookstore; its title grabbed my attention but the Barbie dolls on the cover drew me in a little less… And then, from the first few lines, I found myself taken away by the very touching Morlevent siblings. I couldn’t let go of it…the novel stayed in a corner of my mind, or rather in a corner of my heart, and made me want to discover other titles by Marie-Aude Murail.
JS: The novel had already been turned into a telefilm, what compelled you to direct Catherine Verlaguet's adaptation? Why was this a story that needed to be onstage?
OL: I haven’t seen the telefilm, but I know that they took a completely different approach to the story by centering it principally around the character’s homosexuality. Along with Catherine Verlaguet, who I asked to adapt the novel, we chose to highlight the beautiful relationship between the siblings that unites the family, the tenderness that is palpable on every page of the book, and the sharp humor surrounding the situations and characters. Particularly Barthélémy, the eternal optimist, and an awkward and touching child in an adult’s body. Despite the challenges he faces, as heavy as they may be, he keeps up his extremely positive and joyful outlook. We wanted to bring this magnificent story to the stage and present it as a way of viewing life.
JS: Are you interested at all in turning your own version into a film? An animated version perhaps?
OL: That isn’t my medium, but if the adventure presented itself, I would of course be thrilled.
JS: Was it intimidating to take on such a beloved property?
OL: No, it was actually comforting. And I didn’t even consider the intimidation aspect since it was so clear that this story had to be shared, to create a show with Lionel Erdogan, the first actor who played Barthélémy, enormously contributed to building the character.
JS: How has it been to work on the same character with different actors? Do you discover new elements about the character with each actor?
OL: Matthew Brown will be the fourth actor to slip into the costume of Barthélémy. Each time, I draw from the actor’s natural qualities, his personality, so of course, each one brings much of his own humanity to the character. The actors vary in their tendency to be serious, or to joke, but they are always bubbly, generous, and sensitive.
JS: The show's minimalism invites audiences to become active in the process of creating, do you find that modern theatre tends to take the audience for granted?
OL: I love stimulating the imagination of spectators by building complicity in the theater, creating a complicit relationship between the actor and audience. There are few props on the stage, just universal symbols to mark a person or a place. For example, the wardrobe becomes a desk, a bed, or a hospital door, a road, a bathroom wall, a rocking horse, a podium. But it also symbolizes the weight of the responsibilities falling on Barthélémy, the family secret that he conceals, his dramatically changing life, the intimacy of a child’s bedroom… Images surround us constantly in everyday life, they are raw and crude, but in theater we can suggest imagery, to make the viewer more active and not simply a voyeur, as he or she would be at the movie theater or while watching TV, where everything is shown in detail or even imposed.
JS: Children in Europe tend to be raised in more progressive homes, but in America, the idea of featuring a gay character in a children's play is quite new, and would most likely be met with disapproval from conservative politicians (like the school inspector who opposed the show in France). Has that crossed your mind at all as you prepare for the reading? Do you think there is a misconception of Americans thinking French people are more progressive?
OL: Ideas [about sexuality] are changing, and a negative view of homosexuality is now often perceived as being linked to ignorance and fear of different ways of living, similar to how racism is viewed. In the Oh Boy! story, homosexuality is one aspect of the character, it is neither a problem nor the central subject of the work. It is simply part of his daily life. When it was released in 2000, the book depicted a gay character in children’s literature for one of the first times, without the narrative being linked to AIDS or a rejection of a character’s sexuality. Young viewers don’t bother themselves about who Barthélémy might love; by the end of the show they just want him to be their kind and funny big brother. It is citizens who will advance humanity on the road of accepting all differences. Politicians will follow. The United States does indeed have a black president—who could have predicted that a few dozen years ago? Today in France, as in America, gay marriage is allowed; ideas are advancing. These changes take time and it’s important to talk about them.
JS: The story deals with loss, and I read you lost your mother when you were very young, did you find working on the play helped you deal in any way with mortality? Do you hope it helps children cope with loss?
OL: Oh Boy! is an ode to life, to positivity, an invitation to tell the truth and to talk about issues. When someone speaks to me about my mother’s long illness and her death, I often say that if I had had the chance to read or see Oh Boy! back then, I would have certainly felt less lonely and might have dared to articulate my feelings about these events to better understand and accept them. This is also a reason why I wanted to share this story with a young audience—to perpetuate a joyful and optimistic spirit.
JS: What do you expect as the outcome from the reading? Are you looking forward to doing a production with a long run in America?
OL: Yes, of course. This story is so powerful that I want to be shared more and more. It was presented almost 800 times in France and francophone countries, and in presenting it in English, I hope that we’ll be able to reach an even larger audience.
JS: What other children books would you like to turn into shows?
OL: I’m currently doing research for a play; the actors and directornourish the author so that together the group can comment on today’s world, for audiences of all ages. My dream has, though, always been to adapt Peter Pan—my favorite character. But sometimes dreams should remain dreams.
Oh Boy! is a production of Théâtre du Phare. Presented in association with The New Victory Theater. For tickets and more click here.
Jose Solis, Editor at StageBuddy.com
Jose Solis is a NY-based writer/editor. He has been writing about film and theatre since 2003 and is a contributor on major film and theatre sites in the US and the UK. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Online Film Critics Society.
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