Patrice Chéreau and Michał Borczuch

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 6)

The late Patrice Chéreau was interested in watching Michał Borczuch forge his own path, letting their numerous encounters of the mentoring year develop naturally into a conversation that thrived on their differences. They closely observed and discussed each other’s work as it was rehearsed in Cracow and Aix-en-Provence, and met in Paris and Milan for their intense, year-long dialogue about the nature and purpose of theatre.

Patrice Chéreau and Michał Borczuch

A year of mentoring

Choosing a protégé (Chapter 2 of 6)

July 2012

Patrice Chéreau, 2012-2013 Theatre mentor

How do you envisage working with Michał Borczuch over the next year?
What’s interesting is not knowing. For Michał and me to be cautious, to take each day as it comes, to see whether a conversation settles in between the two of us, and whether it thrives on our contradictions, and how. Through our travels, our numerous encounters, our improvised opportunities, to talk to one another and also, why not, to criticize one another. To keep hold, above all, of this possibility of criticism.

What do you hope to contribute to his career?
Michał is following a path of his own, which seems well developed already, and it’s not for me to get involved in his choices. But I can go along beside him, and maybe he’ll find in me things to think about, openings onto other worlds. Or maybe he’ll decide he has nothing to learn from me, that he can and must do it without me.

What qualities made you choose Michał as your protégé?
The paths that lead two people to help one another successfully are secret, and often take you by surprise. I’m not a teacher, and he’s not my pupil. I think we’re very different from one another, and in my mind that was one of my preconditions for choosing him: that neither of us should be too embarrassed by admiration, but for me to feel a certain resistance in him, a proud determination to stay himself. It may complicate our working together somewhat, but that’s what will make it interesting.

Has someone acted as your mentor during your career? How did that person – or people – help you to establish yourself?
Many directors have been my masters. But it was I who chose them, and sometimes they didn’t even know they were being an example to me. Then, later on, I got to know them: Giorgio Strehler, Roger Planchon and Luchino Visconti – I wanted to learn their secrets, to know, to understand everything about their demands. I probably didn’t unravel any of their mysteries, because the trade secrets of a theatre director or a film-maker come from a very private mingling of his personality, his capacity for work and his know-how, and it’s all inextricable, all filled with subjectivity – the part of human beings that nurtures everything but surfaces hardly at all, or goes incognito, and each time takes on forms that are completely indecipherable.

So the day I started being able to benefit from all those people was when I became less admiring, when I saw that they were slightly wrong about something or had locked themselves into an approach that was hard to shift. So then I liked them a bit less and I felt free to build my own world using the tools I’d stolen from them.

These days there are other film-makers and theatre directors whose mysteries I’ll always be trying to unravel – I don’t necessarily try to meet them, but I see their films and productions, and, above all, I attempt to understand where my place is today among all those I work with, who stimulate me so much by reminding me that there is an obligation to keep on trying, even at the risk of making mistakes.

Patrice Chéreau and Michał Borczuch

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 3 of 6)

Michał Borczuch is rapidly building a reputation in his native Poland and abroad as a theatre director. Whether he is presenting new drama or transforming classics, his love of improvisation and experimentation is producing theatre at the cutting edge. Passionate about cinema as well as theatre, he looks set to have an enriching collaboration with Patrice Chéreau. Borczuch explains his unconventional approach to directing and his expectations of the mentoring year and beyond.

In my life, I’m looking for beauty
that is on the borderline between kitsch and harmony – between kitsch and high art, between harmony and chaos. I trust ugliness more than what is usually considered to be beautiful.

I don’t like overblown stage aesthetics
. I look for inspiration in everyday situations and in the struggles of ordinary people.

I don’t believe in quick success. I believe in a long creative process. I focus on actors, not on texts, because actors, with their bodies and sensitivities, give the paper characters their souls. The main thing I look for on stage is to make actors fully express their personalities and their sensitivities.

Shakespeare is the greatest-ever dramatist, at least it seems obvious to me. His plays are like a frame for any time and for any space. He created the most complex characters ever.

When I was invited by Rolex to apply for the Arts Initiative, I checked the website, and felt very excited because of so many extraordinary mentors I saw there. And, of course, the name Patrice Chéreau wasn't new for me. He has directed many movies that I admire a lot.

I looked at the previous protégés and I especially liked the music of Ben Frost and his photos with Brian Eno. They look like they had been working together for ages. Maybe because music stands beyond limits of language and different cultures.

I feel rather confident about the mentoring year. I’m treating it as a challenge and I'm very curious about what this collaboration will be like. It’s going to help me think much more freely and widely about my future artistic projects.

I hope that I'll find new inspiration in the way Chéreau is working on stage, as well as in his thinking about cinema. And I hope it helps me better understand my own searching. When your ideas collide with a totally different way of thinking about art, you start to pay more attention to your own artistic independence.

The Rolex Arts Initiative has international and inter-cultural dimensions, and that’s important to me. This constant movement – between countries and artistic disciplines – can bring great inspiration and I hope that it will open up new international relationships.

When Patrice Chéreau watched DVDs of work I’ve directed, he said that his work was totally different from mine. But when he was talking about Elektra, [the opera by Richard Strauss that he will direct for the Aix-en-Provence Festival next year], I found in him the same need as I have to explore and challenge classical texts, as well as the need to go so deep inside a problem which the text brings that other interpretations seem incomplete or even false.

Chéreau penetrates deep aspects of human loneliness, cruelty and sadness in some of his theatre as well as in his movies. I’m impressed that he can talk about these issues without being sentimental.

We all need mentors somehow – not a mentor who will show you directions or tips, but one with whom you can argue about your work. I believe that these oppositions of age, experience and nationality can help consolidate your own artistic approach. I hope that the contact with Mr Chéreau’s artistic perspective will let me find a proper definition of my own artistic endeavours.

Five years from now, I hope that I will be on a film set, making my own movie.

Patrice Chéreau and Michał Borczuch

A year of mentoring

First steps with the mentor (Chapter 4 of 6)

December 2012

Dramatic new vision

For Michał Borczuch, a theatre director known for cutting-edge productions in his native Poland, the mentoring year with the French master of theatre, cinema and opera, Patrice Chéreau, is providing a chance to see his work – and his country – through fresh eyes.
Rolex Arts Initiative: You said at the start of this mentorship that you thought being taken out of your own cultural environment would stimulate new experiments in your work. Has this happened?
Michał Borczuch: I’m already looking at my own work, the world of theatre, and even my own country, through fresh eyes. As I’ve been able to travel and to meet Mr Chéreau in different cities, it’s meant I’ve been able to put some sort of distance between myself and Poland.
What have you found interesting during your travels?
I’ve been struck by the difference in theatre-going society across Europe. For example, in Germany and France I’ve noticed there’s a real history and tradition of going to the theatre for much of the public, but it’s not the same in Poland. Theatre-goers in Poland tend to be from the academic world and it’s a relatively small, closed group. So, if I produce a play in Poland, reviews come from people in the same narrow circle, and the critics have fixed opinions on how things should be done.
How do you feel about critics?
I used to take heed of such criticism, but now I’m beginning to question that. Whether I’m observing audiences in other countries, watching Chéreau perform in La Nuit Juste Avant les Forêts in Barcelona, or simply being given the opportunity to talk about theatre while wandering around Paris with him – all this has meant I can now come to my own conclusion about a piece of theatre without worrying if it’s the right one. My confidence has already increased because of it.
Earlier you indicated you would welcome not only a mentor who could give you tips, but also one with whom you could argue about your work.
In Poland I produced a play called Brand. The City. The Chosen Ones, based on an Ibsen work. It didn’t receive very good reviews. It had been a very difficult play to produce, so I asked Mr Chéreau if he could come over to see it. I wanted him to observe something I’d worked on that wasn’t perfect. I thought this would be the best way of learning from him. He came and gave good, constructive criticism, but he was very careful not to force his opinion on me. He told me what he understood in the play and what he didn’t, but he avoided giving definitive advice. Having said that, there were some structural elements to the play he was able to help with. I’d used a sort of patchwork, story-telling device and Mr Chéreau explained that in this play’s context, he felt it needed a traditional narrative structure to help the audience’s understanding. I had lived and breathed this play for a long time and already had some idea of why it wasn’t working, so when Mr Chéreau told me what he thought, it helped me figure out what needed to be done should I ever direct the play again.
This is where I feel the mentor/protégé relationship is really helping me. I once worked with a teacher in a drama school in Poland, and, because we were so close both in language and outlook and we were always working within the same restricted confines, it created a pressurized, intense time between us. Here I’m in a situation where I’m outside my usual working world, so I can listen carefully to what Mr Chéreau says and calmly reflect on it.
What are you working on right now?
One of my original plans was to put on a production in a theatre in Poland in 2013, but that had to be put on hold due to a change in theatre management. So I decided to return to an old project of mine that had been on the back burner. I resurrected it because it was a project involving the texts of playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès [who died in 1989]. Patrice Chéreau was a friend of Koltès and has worked with many of his plays. I talked to Chéreau and he was able to give me a lot of background information. It’s an ideal opportunity to benefit from all Chéreau’s inside knowledge of Koltès the man and Koltès the dramatist.
What are you are looking forward to in the next few months?
Many things. I recently talked with Mr Chéreau about the film script he’s currently working on. It was fascinating to hear about the whole creative process. He told me about his plans, and the ideas he has for the actors and how he tends to work with his film producers. As I’ve also had an idea for a film and have a rough outline for it all, I’ve discussed this with him. So I’m going to use the next 10 months to focus on this, and work on my script. One unexpected bonus is that I’ve met the other protégés. There’s already talk of me collaborating on a joint project with another protégé, so it’s all turning out to be very interesting indeed.

Patrice Chéreau and Michał Borczuch

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 6)

August 2013

Mentoring without shadows

Polish protégé Michał Borczuch and French mentor Patrice Chéreau have contrasting approaches to theatre. But instead of proving an obstacle during their mentoring year, the differences greatly enriched and enhanced the experience.

Rolex Arts Initiative: What did you gain from your year with Patrice Chéreau?

Michał Borczuch: We had meetings and tried to build a relationship that might last longer [than the mentoring year]. I didn’t want somebody looking over my shoulder or imposing their vision. I didn’t want to be in the situation where I was responsible to the mentor. That would be really annoying.

You and Chéreau come from very different dramatic traditions. He is text-based, formal, classical almost; you are more expressionist, more willing to play with texts. How do these different approaches interact?

I like Patrice’s movies very much, and I like his Bayreuth Ring cycle, but it’s a different way of thinking about theatre. It’s not something I can put in my work; rather, it’s something I can look at and try to analyse his way of telling a story. There is a distance between us, and I like that.

Did Chéreau talk about the differences in your approaches?
We talked about it during a meeting we had in Cracow. I asked him, “Why did you choose me?” and he said it was because when he saw my productions on DVD, he realized I thought totally differently about theatre. He said he didn’t want to be a mentor in the strict sense of the word – to lay down a pattern about how to make a movie or a piece of theatre. I thought, “That’s wonderful.” I look at it as a relationship where I can take a lot from him, but I don’t have him behind my back. I don’t feel his shadow.

Chéreau came to Krakow to see your production of Ibsen’s Brand, which he disliked. How did his response affect your relationship?
After the performance, he sat with my actors and we talked a lot. We all felt very natural and without any distance. He said he didn’t understand all the ideas of the production. I’d made a lot of cuts in the text just before the performance. Patrice said he could see the cuts and the moment when I decided to cut something, and could say where it worked and where it didn’t work. I had the same feeling. A few days later, he wrote me a long email in which he tried to explain all the things he found interesting and all the things that didn’t work for him. Generally, I agreed with him. I’m inspired by the way he treats the text and looks for details. He is looking with a magnifying glass. I think he takes this from the cinema. In cinema it’s much easier because you have a camera which records everything, every detail, in close-up.

What else has working with Chéreau given you?

When I started to follow him, I felt a breath of fresh air – that I can go outside Poland, look on Polish theatre from a distance, compare it with things I’ve heard from him about his productions and his way of working. I’ve had a chance to see how theatre works in Paris, for example, and it’s really refreshing.

You recently did a production in Düsseldorf. Do you think your career will increasingly be outside Poland?
I don’t feel a need to work outside Poland. I looked on the Düsseldorf project as a new experience, but I wasn’t thinking about making a career in German theatre. I’m open for work outside Poland, but it depends how free I can feel in this work. I have actors in Poland with whom I work. They understand me. It’s hard to move them outside.

Patrice Chéreau and Michał Borczuch

A year of mentoring

After a year of mentoring (Chapter 6 of 6)

October 2013

The master and the iconoclast

One follows the script, the other pushes the writer aside. For young Polish director Michał Borczuch, his mentor, legendary French director of stage, screen and opera Patrice Chéreau, offers a challenging but vital conversation on the nature and purpose of theatre.

By Stephen Moss

"I try to avoid seeing the young me in Michał. Of course, I can see similarities, but I want to judge him as he is now. I am not very interested in the past. It’s a relation we have to create in the present. I don’t want to give him the speech of the old man saying, “Be careful. I made the same mistakes a long time ago.” First of all, because he has to make mistakes. It’s useless to say “You are wrong,” totally useless. You learn your job by making mistakes. When you succeed, it’s a plus, but it’s not so relevant as a big mistake. He has to discover in his own way. I can only push him slowly to ask me the right questions. I can convince him only on something about which he is already convinced. You put your finger on something that is wrong, and he says, 'Yes, I knew it was wrong.'"

Patrice Chéreau

Michał Borczuch meets me for the first time in October 2012 in Cracow, his home town. The young Polish director chooses a bohemian cafe in the city’s old Jewish quarter for our initial conversation. At first he is diffident, a little unsure of his English. But, after a few minutes, the ice is broken by the intervention of an old gypsy, who is offering to read palms. She reads his, predicting success.

His response is fascinating: he greets her warmly, is interested in everything she says, gives her 20 zloty (about US$6), touches her on the arm affectionately. Gypsies are not popular in Cracow, but he takes her seriously. “I like gypsies,” he says. “I like them very much.” He sees her appearance as an augury; I see his response as the mark of a young man with an instinctive sympathy for the marginalized.

Borczuch appears sensitive, thoughtful, searching for something. He comes from a family of scientists and engineers, but always favoured the arts – his parents worried how he would make a living – and painted from an early age. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, but became bored and transferred to the Ludwik Solski State School of Drama. He had doubts about moving into theatre – if anything, his interest in film was greater and he still hopes to make films – but his progress as a stage director has been rapid. His style is intense, iconoclastic, expressionistic. Polish critics have linked him with a group of emerging directors called the “Young Discontented”, though he resists such labelling.

Much of his work has involved adaptation. He is less happy working on classic plays. He directed Twelfth Night in 2010 – his innovation was to put the audience on stage and the actors in the auditorium – but found the process difficult. “The world Shakespeare created is so strong, so hermetically closed, so complete,” he says. “It’s like a stone. You have to go with the Shakespearean logic. If not, it’s impossible to make any move. To make this comedy was a fight.” Borczuch prefers work where he has to fill the gaps, such as Georg Buchner’s unclassifiable play Leonce and Lena and Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he adapted for the stage. He needs to give himself space in which to work, even to make mistakes; he doesn’t want the writer to have resolved everything.

Patrice Chereau is “much more realistic, more classical”, says Borczuch. “He cares about the plot and the psychological logic of the story. When we talked about the libretto of Elektra [during the 12 months of the mentorship, Chereau was preparing a production of Richard Strauss’ opera for the 2013 Aix-en-Provence festival], we talked a lot about the Hofmannsthal play on which it is based. We talked about the psychology and the intensive inner logic of the text. This is something that is really interesting because it’s usually something I try to omit. For me, a performance is a space for much more surrealistic expression of characters and human relationships, and I try to say something about people in relationships that is sometimes out of psychological logic.”

Realist versus expressionist, textual exactitude versus rip-it-up-and-see-what-happens – it is the fact that their approaches are so different that makes the collaboration fascinating and unpredictable. Chereau says the divergence was the reason he selected Borczuch from the shortlist of potential protégés he was offered. He craved resistance. “I watched what Michał did on DVD and I thought he was funnier than the others. It was nothing to do with what I’m doing; nothing. Sometimes I don’t like it, but sometimes he dares something.”

“There is a kind of distance between the two of us and I like that,” says Borczuch. “Chereau said he didn’t want to be a mentor in the strict sense of the word – to make a pattern of how to make a movie or a piece of theatre. When he said it, I thought, ‘That’s wonderful.’ I look at it as a relationship where I can take a lot from him, but I don’t have him behind my back. I don’t feel his shadow.”

Rare trinity
Chereau has had a prodigious career in theatre, film and opera – a rare trinity. This is the man who, in 1976, when he was in his early 30s, revolutionized opera with a production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth that reimagined the world of gods and Nibelungs in terms of 19th-century industrial capitalism. Born in 1944, Chéreau was running his own theatre by his early 20s and produced his first opera in 1969. Much of the past 20 years has been taken up with films – La Reine Margot, Intimacy, Gabrielle, Son Frère, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, Persécution. It is Christmas 2012. Chéreau is in the Marais district of Paris, where he has an apartment. He is dressed as usual in a bluish-grey suit. He speaks slightly idiosyncratic English, and laughs at the thought of him and Borczuch conversing in what he calls “pidgin” – a sort of stripped-down global English. But what Chéreau says is both wise and beautiful. He talks about how to approach a production and wonders whether a young director such as Borczuch gets too excited too soon. “Before you start rehearsing,” explains Chéreau, “it’s always good to have lost any hope of doing something interesting. If you arrive at the rehearsal full of hope and expectation, of course you are disappointed. You have to be disappointed before rehearsals, not during them. Expect nothing, and then you can be free.”

Chéreau says his relationship with Borczuch is a conversation, not a seminar. “I don’t want to be a teacher,” he says. In early 2012, he had been to see Borczuch’s production of Ibsen’s Brand in Cracow – a characteristically bold interpretation that drew in elements of another Ibsen play, Little Eyolf. Chéreau disliked the production, and wrote a long email to Borczuch outlining its problems. This was a defining moment in the initial part of their relationship. Chéreau says he is not there to judge, but here he was passing judgment, questioning the fusion of two plays, the choice of lead actor, everything. How did Borczuch react?

“It was OK, I think,” says Chéreau. “I try to push as far as I can. If I feel he is reluctant or reacting badly, then I stop. You can criticize only with the agreement of the person; otherwise they don’t listen. I tried to say things quite carefully, not making any lessons, watching if he was ready to hear it or not. He belongs to a tradition that is not my tradition. The Polish theatre has evolved its own style. They have no problem in mixing two or three pieces. For me, it doesn’t work, though I can understand why you might want to do it. But as a mentor I shouldn’t say ‘no’. For me to say ‘You’re wrong’ is not a good method. I say, ‘Well, that’s what I have seen; that’s what I haven’t seen’.”

In April 2013, Borczuch joins Chéreau in Berlin as he rehearses the two principals in Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius, who is playing the title part, and Waltraud Meier, singing the role of her murderous mother, Clytemnestra. Borczuch sits in on all five days of rehearsal, keeping a discreet distance from Chéreau, who talks about creating a “safe” environment for the performers. Borczuch, fascinated by the way Chéreau sets about building a relationship with Herlitzius, says he prefers a “more anarchistic space”.

To be in Berlin, Borczuch has had to take a break from a production of French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès’ Quai Ouest, which he is preparing in Wroclaw. It astonishes me when I discover that he and his mentor have not so far discussed the production, given that Chéreau worked closely with Koltes until the latter’s death in 1989 and staged many of his plays. Why have they deemed it a taboo? “It is Michał’s decision,” says Chereau. “He can talk to me whenever he wants, but I can understand if he doesn’t want to do that.” Borczuch says he would have felt in a “weak position” working on Quai Ouest with Chereau watching him.

Quai Ouest
is “an impossible mixture, a melange of many different and contradictory things”, argues Chéreau, who says that, when he wrote it, Koltes was preoccupied with the idea that it should have no stars – the play was to be truly democratic. This notion offends Chereau, but appeals to Borczuch. Chereau plans to attend the opening night in Wroclaw, but fears what his reaction might be and warns his protégé to expect the worst.

Extreme reactions
Have the contrasts between them been greater than they imagined at the outset? “Probably yes,” admits Chéreau. “From what I have seen in Cracow, yes for sure. I wanted somebody totally different and I have it.” They both laugh. “That is the pleasure of it,” adds Borczuch. He describes a sensationalist play in Berlin he wants to see where the actors go among the audience and seek to provoke extreme reactions. Does that constitute theatre in Chéreau’s eyes? “Probably not,” he says. Even in the 1960s he had little interest in that decade’s “happenings”.

Borczuch says he has been overwhelmed by the precision with which the French master works. “With every passing year, the text for me is more and more important,” says Chéreau. “I am the slave of the text.” “What I saw during these five days,” Borczuch tells his mentor, “is that you tried to describe the situation on stage in a very realistic way in an attempt to create something metaphysical. That was a kind of lesson for me.”

“It has to be real,” explains Chéreau. “It has to be related to something in my life.”

In an interview earlier that day, Chéreau had said that he constantly asked himself why he made theatre. Later Borczuch said something similar. He was disillusioned working with bored ensemble actors in Polish state theatres and planned to do more in independent theatres, including a production in Poznań that combined professional actors and children from local orphanages. From their different starting points, they were both asking profound questions about the purpose of theatre. “I can only work if I have desire myself for a project, a story,” says Chéreau. “I created my own theatre more than 30 years ago. It was beautiful at first, but after eight years I said I should leave because it was becoming incredibly heavy. You are reproducing something you don’t want.”

Any observer would judge that Chéreau has enjoyed a brilliant career, yet he insists that building a career was never his objective. “I’ve never had any plans about a career,” he says. He moved from project to project and what happened, happened. Artists – especially successful artists – always say this, but in Chéreau’s case, one is inclined to believe it.

Borczuch exhibits a similar desire to put personal vision before public expectation. “It’s easy to make a career in theatre,” he says. “You need a good text, a good subject, and you have to push as much as possible, but I’m not doing this. I try to choose something that has some personal meaning for me, and I feel I lose by this in career terms. In Polish theatre, critics are waiting for material that is talking about important political and social questions.” He says some directors adopt a strategy to get the pundits onside, but he refuses to play that game. He will go on defiantly being his own man. For all their differences in their approaches to theatre, in that respect Borczuch and Chéreau are speaking from the same script.

Stephen Moss is a staff writer on London’s The Guardian newspaper, and has written widely about theatre, opera, film and literature.