A man of his times
Stéphane Braunschweig
The ceiling in the Italian-style auditorium, painted by André Masson.
Inaugurated in 1782, the former Théâtre-Français is today regarded as the oldest theatrical monument in Paris.

Under the stewardship of Stéphane Braunschweig, the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, “Paris’s most beautiful theater,” is spotlighting bold young directors in its new season.

Stéphane Braunschweig is dreaming of a jungle. Autumn is in the air in Paris and the round windows of his office nestling under the roof of the Odéon theater look down on the Jardin du Luxembourg. Yet he is dreaming of lush tropical vegetation, “giant ferns and dripping plants, a cruel nature from before the birth of humanity.” This decor will form the backdrop to his next production, the first to be performed in the red and gold auditorium since he was appointed director of the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe in January. This film lover chose to begin with Suddenly Last Summer, Tennesse Williams’s rarely staged black diamond, a play often eclipsed by Joseph Mankiewicz’s film version. “For me, the Odéon is an inspiring theater. I have directed two works here, Franziska and Tartuffe, and for both productions I set myself real challenges. So when I arrived, I decided that I wanted to do something I’d never done before, namely explore the American repertoire, and rediscover the ambiguity of this work and the madness of the characters.” Cruelty, madness, ambiguitythe words are softened by his smile and his gentle voice. Braunschweig is a quiet person, and displays his enthusiasm with discretion. He “never dreamed of being an actor,” seeing himself, since childhood, more as a puppet-master, a conductor of characters and imaginary worlds.

Shared encounters

After philosophy studies, he was a pupil of Antoine Vitez, going on to become director of the Théâtre National de Strasbourg, then of La Colline, following a route that seemed mapped out to lead to the oldest theatrical monument in Paris, one he made no secret about wanting to direct. Aged 52, Luc Bondy’s successor is focused on doing what he does best: bringing together different perspectives and generations, and sharing his interests with the largest number of people. “I want to continue staging works by European directorssuch as Krystian Lupa, Thomas Ostermeier, Deborah Warner and Ivo van Hovebut also to explore lighter forms and discover the young writers who’ll be the big names of tomorrow, if they aren’t already.” Although he likes to “shake up” spectators and directors, he does it in his own quiet, thoughtful way, through the mixed sensations of “hope and fear” that theater is capable of arousing. “His” contribution this year will be in the form of the artists he has brought in, who will make their mark from one season to the next: the Australian Simon Stone (the “enfant terrible,” he says, almost with relish), the Brazilian Christiane Jatahy, and the French Caroline Guiela Nguyen and Sylvain Creuzevault, who emerged at La Colline.

For Stéphane Braunschweig is very loyalto writers for a start; his own career path has Ibsen, Pirandello and Chekhov as its guiding lights. “What interests me in the theater is exploring a world. When I enter a home, I want to see all the rooms. I’m a visitor, a go-between, not an author. In Ibsen’s work, you enter a play and you realize that they are all interlinked, that you are in a maze of themes and characters. The more of them I do, the more at ease I feel.” After all, he is capable of co-translating a play from the Norwegian (which he does not speak) by drawing on German (which he does)as he did when he discovered the young playwright Arne Lygre. “Lygre is a great writer. I want to accompany him: he captures our times without addressing them head-on. He belongs to the Internet generation, and his writing has a speed to it, with stories branching off and identities that have a certain fragility.”

The art of surprise

He is also loyal to his sources of inspiration. This Parisian, the son of a lawyer and a psychoanalyst, was not born into the theater. But he realizes how lucky he was to have seen “a few very good productions when I was very young.” One was Le Malade imaginaire performed by Jacques Charon, which he saw at the Comédie-Française with his grandfather when he was seven. It stayed with him: “I remember the beginning clearly: there was no stage curtain, just a net curtain that a servant drew open by hand. And I’ve always loved using tulle in my productions, even when I staged Britannicus in the same theater many years later.” What can we wish him for the new season? To continue creating surprises, perhaps. “The loveliest emotion, for me, is astonishment. Because once an emotion becomes familiar, it has already lost some of its strength.”

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Astier Nicolas