An exclusive Theatre in Paris interview
Francis Perrin is one of France’s most well-known stage actors, famous for portraying its most famous playwright: Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière. Perrin’s play Molière in Spite of Myself is now running in Paris, along with English surtitles by Theatre in Paris. Before welcoming some English-speaking guests to the show, our team was fortunate enough to chat with the famous actor-director-playwright!
Sipping a glass of Perrier in the intimate café beside the Théâtre de la Gaîté-Montparnasse — where he knows the waitress by name — Perrin sat across from us, smiling warmly, and eager to tell us all about his inspiration, his new play, his career, and his thoughts on internationalised theatre, and the art in general.
Francis Perrin is a man of many talents and areas of interest: for no less than 50 years, he has been a theatre actor, most well-known for his roles in plays by Molière. About ten years ago, he wrote a book about the actor-director he admires the most, entitled Molière Chef de Troupe, or Molière, Troupe Leader. Readers of the novel tried to persuade him to transform the book into a play. Initially Perrin wasn’t necessarily interested, but three years ago, whilst working in a theatre in the little south-eastern French town Pézenas, he was convinced. Pézenas is the home of a very famous piece of furniture, an armchair that is of the utmost significance for French theatre culture. About this armchair in the old boutique Gély, Francis excitedly told us, “Molière very often went there, to listen to people… just talk. And so, he learned much about peasant-life and countryside things, turns of phrase, etc. He was very inspired by all of this. He was often called ‘The Contemplator.’”
A truly international artist, who toured in the US
After gaining some confidence and inspiration in Pézenas, just like The Contemplator himself, Perrin created his very successful play Molière in Spite of Myself based on the book. An American producer attended one of the performances and suggested that it be produced in the US. This came as a surprise to Perrin: “It is so unheard of, I didn’t really believe it — and then it happened!” Indeed, Molière in Spite of Myself was a hit across the pond in 2014: “We played in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco! […] It was extraordinary. On the day of my birthday, I had five minutes of standing ovation. In fact, after each performance there was a standing ovation! It was so moving.”
During the tour, Perrin also taught a few masterclasses in English on Molière. “I didn’t believe myself capable of doing that,” he explained, looking nostalgic. “It was like living a dream… for me, for my career.”
Among the four cities where the production toured, Boston was one of his favourites. “I didn’t know Boston at all. It’s quite European, in its architecture, life in general over there… I had a formidable contact with the people, with the town. I was so charmed. I’d like to return and bring along my family. Discovering Boston was so interesting!”
Truly modern and international, Perrin hopes that companies related to the world of theatre, such as Theatre in Paris, will continue to open the doors of French productions to international audiences: “I often go to the theatre in London […] and it’s true that [English] is a very universal language. The problem with French shows is that they’re not very exportable if they’re not surtitled. [Translating them] is very important; I find it to be such a marvellous initiative. […] In London, I saw works by Molière played in English, and it’s great; but it’s also important to see actors play in their own language.” He’s even seen plays, which he is very familiar with, in Russian and Flemish (languages which the actor does not speak, to clarify) and said that they were “formidable!”
When he’s not on stage, the director sometimes invites native English-speakers to his home to spend time with his children: “They talk with them, cook with them, they do daily things. I absolutely want them to speak English, it’s essential!”
Perrin, despite knowing the importance of speaking English, is so proud of France’s beautiful language and rich culture. The renowned playwright portrayed in Perrin’s one-man-show greatly influenced French literature and theatre. Molière is still such a big part of French culture: his comedies are regularly played in theatres across the country, his chefs d’oeuvre still studied scrupulously by middle school students, undergraduates, and PhDs alike. It’s no wonder that English-speaking audiences are intrigued by Perrin’s tell-all play. Francis compares him to the timeless playwright of the Anglophone world:
“He’s a universal author, like Shakespeare. They’re the two grandest writers, who are still played around the world even today. And it’s not for nothing: their styles are so extraordinary: everything they convey, their characters, the strength of their characters […] Yes, other grand authors like Beaumarchais, Corneille, Racine, [have] beautiful writing, but there just isn’t that strength and power in the nature of their characters, which is so characteristic of Molière and Shakespeare.
Continuing to surprise us with his interest in international theatre, Perrin tells us that he’s studied Shakespeare since high school, and even performed in a number of Shakespearean plays such as The Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream about 45 years ago.
Entertainment and culture against the odds?
Since the dawn of theatre, playwrights have often been very politically involved, and theatre offers time and again critiques and comments on current events and society. So of course Perrin had something to say about the darkness of recent events in France and the rest of the world. War torn countries in the Middle East, and targeted countries in Europe have certainly made for a bleak outlook on globalisation and travel in recent years. But, he feels that for those us of who can, it must be expressed that we continue to live our lives: “Of course we are affected and we think about it. But I refuse to be scared, I refuse to stop living my life the way I want to.” Taking pride in one’s culture and language is necessary in such times, as is the willingness to be open and share these things of which we are so proud with the rest of the world. “It’s my passion,” said Perrin, “and in any case, I’m not scared.”
He is fearless as a man, and confident as an actor, but surprisingly, Perrin still gets stage fright, even after 50 years of a successful career. To prepare for his performances, he has a few tips: “Being calm, getting into costume, putting on makeup, always making the same gestures, [it’s a] sort of ritual, not of superstition but of concentration.” We couldn’t help but wonder whether Molière himself had stage fright. Perrin thinks so: “Of course, it’s impossible to go on stage without being a little scared…”
Many actors often say that they see themselves in the characters they portray. But on a personal level, Francis doesn’t identify with Molière, which will come as a surprise to anyone who witnesses his performances. “Where you there, or what? It’s like you were there!” his friends and spectators often exclaim. Contemplative, Perrin told us, “I know him so well; I’d really like to meet him up there when it’s my time… we’ll have so much to talk about… but no I don’t [identify with him].” However, on stage, it’s another story. During his performances of Molière in Spite of Myself, when talking about everything Molière overcame, his jokes, his muses and his lovers and relationships, Perrin does in fact identify with the man he plays. This may be thanks to his constant research. He believes you need to know the character to embody him or her on stage. Perrin does this with such class and such ease, you’d think he’s experienced everything his characters lived.
Perrin also says that the audience can greatly influence performances: “You have to let them interpret things, make them laugh.” In comedy, he says, “Laughing is so important. If you don’t make them laugh, if you’re not funny, you’ve failed.”
In addition to making people laugh, Francis has also directed many plays and has written a few books, and even considered quitting acting for a while when he was 40 years old: “I would have liked to, but I didn’t.” And he has no regrets. Perrin also directed his favourite play by Molière, the Misanthrope. Today, if he had to choose between acting, directing, and writing, the choice would be simple: “It’s acting.” He would even encourage anyone interested in theatre to pursue his or her dream, but, “You have to be motivated,” he says. “You have to want to do this job like a true artist, by working, all the time, by constantly learning and educating yourself, by reading a lot. Culture is so important. You have to know theatre, read theatre, American theatre, English theatre, Russian theatre, everything… You have to know it all. But nowadays, I think that all of that is getting a bit lost.”
Sincerely fearful for the loss of interest in culture nowadays, (“less so in the English-speaking world” he too-kindly adds), the actor encourages everyone, especially young people, to appreciate art a little more, to read more, and to travel, to enjoy theatre, musicals, and comedies alike, and to share that passion.
If he had just one thing to say to international audiences, and theatre-buffs alike, it would be a quote by Molière himself: “It is a strange enterprise to make respectable people laugh.”