Theatre Contemporain


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Grand Magasin

Playing with description and fiction

Interview by Clyde Chabot



When and how did you meet?

Pascale Murtin: Pascale and Francois in 1982, after both abandoning their short pasts as dancers which had allowed them to meet the year before. We met at Phoenix last century and decided to spend the 21st century together.

Francois Hiffler: Pascale Murtin met Francois Hiffler in 1981. That exact same year, Francois Hiffler met Pascale Murtin. This happy combination of circumstances encouraged them to found Grand Magasin in 1982. Eighteen years later, they met Phoenix Atala, who around the same time, made their acquaintance. This new coincidence forced them, in 2001, to march forward together.

Phoenix Atala: Pascale and Francois already knew each other when I met them, since Grand Magasin began in 1982. At that time I was actively preparing for entry into 1st grade. I therefore met Grand Magasin in 1995 and all three of started working us in 2000.

How have you been able to keep your artistic relationship alive for so long?

F.H.: It’s mainly because time passes quickly.

P.A.: It was not so long ago.

P.M.: We won’t risk asking the question for fear of abridging it. We’ve asked ourselves that question from the beginning, which has allowed us to continue asking it every year.

What do you feel you’ve broken with?

P.A.: I do not feel I’ve broken with anything.

P.M.: Do we have to name names? In generaI, people who offer up stunning images charged with understated references that the audience recognizes despite him/herself and the great emotion that overwhelms him/her.

What motivates you?
PA.: The possibility of making shows exactly how we think of them or how we’d love to see them. Since the result is always right at the limit of satisfaction, it makes you want to continue. It motivates you.
P.M.: Sometimes finding a way of saying things that changes our way of seeing, sometimes seeing a way of doing things that changes our way of saying things, sometimes laughter.
Why do you get up in the morning?
F.H.: The morning light, the sound of the alarm clock, the desire to drink coffee, street noises, an important appointment, etc.
P.A.: For breakfast generally.
P.M.: For the butter.


How do you develop the text of your shows? Before or during rehearsals?
P.M.: At our table, with a sheet of paper, a pen and lots of Liquid Paper, where flies come and get stuck: on the sheet, and very rarely on the floor.
P.A.: The shows are written entirely beforehand, and are written in great detail. They are not the result of improvisations. Everything happens around a table. We discuss, first, then we jot down the ideas that seem most sensible, funny, interesting. Finally, after several hours, days and months in this situation, the show begins to take shape.
Of course, little by little, we also think of our ideas spatially, but the basic actions are so simple (sit, stand, go right, go left…) that there’s no real need to rehearse them, since they are actions that everyone, including us, practice every day.
F.H.: We first write the texts, scores with words and actions, and then try to execute them in time and, space. During these tests, it generally appears that modifications are needed. We make corrections, we try it again a few times and so on, until we are more or less satisfied.
What is the nature of your writing?
P.M.: There have been moments in the past where we have written sketches in the countryside of an urban character.
F.H.: I do not understand the nature of this question.
What inspires you?
F.H.: A sentence overheard, daylight, the sound of the alarm clock, the desire to drink coffee, street noises, an important appointment, a paragraph I’ve read, an annoying show in a theatre.
P.A.: Everything that happens within eye or earshot is a source of inspiration: a newspaper lying on the ground, a construction site at the end of the street, our neighbors’ music. The fact that we perceive all these things and how we perceive them is also a source of inspiration. It is the amount of time you spend being attentive to something that makes it inspiring.
P.M.: Our mother tongue, its misunderstandings, the repercussions it has in life, the homonym synonyms that one day gave us synhomonymes, its paradoxes as well as its tautologies.

What degree of permeability do current events have for you?
P.M.: Our own permeability, the fact that we are obliged to be contemporary.
F.H.: Our permeability to current events is so strong that it passes through us without any leaving residue behind. Curiously, however, most of our concerns are sooner or later relayed by the press, publishing, advertising.
In what way is your writing current?
P.M.: Insofar as it is not apocryphal.
P.A.: Because we are writing right now.
F.H.: The postmark on our manuscript proves it.
What is your most complete text and why?
P.M.: Laurel and Hardy at School because it saw itself as a Socratic dialogue on hostility or rebellion against the elements that surround us and the difficult, though comic, adaptation of the human race to its environment.
What is the function of text in your shows?
P.M.: The language is powerful. Its evocative power is such that it allows us to describe what we do or not do to explain what we should have done. It allows us, to act in total contradiction with what we are saying or even to refrain from doing anything. It helps us to present, to represent ourselves, to represent us, to the point that it can replace us. Fortunately, it still needs us to express itself.
P.A.: The text often comes in to nullify or confirm an action. It allows us to direct the viewer’s attention to what I’m doing, what my neighbor is doing as I speak, or what I’m not doing. For example, if I close a toolbox, I can say: I’m closing a toolbox, but I can also just as well say: I’m not opening this toolbox, nor sitting, nor getting up, nor reading the newspaper. All these formulations are true, they nevertheless do not seem to describe the same event.
F.H.: The text, on the one hand, has a musical role and, on the other, of criticism – to confirm or contradict – what is being shown. Without this constant sanctioning by the text, our shows would probably be of no interest. The purely visual aspect of our services, while polished and pleasant, remains very poor. We try to separate the scenic tableau, the scenographic image, and try to attain a paradoxical form of invisible spectacle in which, under surroundings that are nevertheless colorful, it principally calls out to the spectator’s imagination and intellect. Language has this power: it is known.


What is the nature of your stage work?
P.M.: Matching the gesture with words by sometimes putting the cart between two horses.
How much do doubt and incertitude play in your creation?
F.H.: A lot. With only very few skills in the various sectors mentioned (music, dance, writing and pronunciation of a text, etc.), We need to start again from scratch every time with only our sole ambition as our weapon.
P.M.: It’s the point of departure of our projects. If we were certain we would reach the goals that we set for ourselves, we wouldn’t even try.
Is there an element of improvisation in your shows?
P.M.: Very little, unless randomness is the main theme.
F.H.: The amount of improvisation is virtually nil. However, there have been occasions where we give ourselves several formulations of a sentence in advance, for example, with the flexibility to choose the moment when we will pronounce it.
We have also instituted, for the “5e forum international du cinema d’entreprise,” (5th International Forum of Corporate Films) the GAME OF PROFESSIONS, which consists of players taking turns and freely articulating a list of occupations that are not their own.
P.A.: It is reduced to a minimum, for example, in the 5FIDCE, where the only improvised scene is the game of professions where the rules are so simple that the improvisation is relaxed: it’s a matter of enumerating all the trades we do not practice. I am not a baker, I don’t work on railroads, I am not glazier … It’s a way of evoking realities that are more or less distant and exotic while still remaining in the realm of self-description.
What are you looking to achieve? Do you sometimes achieve it?
F.H.: We seek to create shows that we would like to watch. Perhaps sometimes we reach that.
P.A.: We often like to say that we’d make an invisible show. There is a scene in 5FIDCE where we say that we haven’t always made the best choices, that there must probably be an ideal situation in which we would not be there, in the process of saying these words, and each of us begins to describe everything he/she is not doing while doing this very action. I give a folder, and I say: I will not give this folder. I give a second one, I say: this one neither. I think denying what we do at each step makes the scene disappear at the same time people are sitting there, watching it.
P.M.: Thinking out loud. Finding logics that we never suspected existed. Discovering mysteries in obvious facts, and delighting in it.
What has been your most complete show? Why?
P.M.: Every new show. The last show always leads to the next one.
Could one of your goals be achieving the most radical reduction in terms of representation?
P.A.: Yes.
F.H.: The word Representation has numerous accepted meanings. It is often used and rarely defined. If Representation means “evocation by various means of a thing, a state or an event which is not truly present here and now,” it’s true that this is an issue which we constantly return to. We constantly oscillate between the feeling that it would be impossible or vain to talk about something other than what is happening right here and now, in this precise moment, and the desire to tell stories, to string scenarios together. Therefore, back and forth between the joys of pure description of the present and the allure of fiction.
What is the nature of the relationship you offer your viewers?
P.M.: If we are succinct enough in our presentations to make them resemble demonstrations or instruction booklets, the viewer can practice a bit of mental gymnastics with us which is rather pleasant and funny, and even informative.
P.A.: It is difficult to assume what the viewer thinks, or how he/she is reacting. But the shows are designed so that the viewer’s attention is always active, so that he/she will create the links between such and such a scene with us. A bit of an effort in terms of memory and prediction are asked of them.
The principle behind the shows is to start off where the viewer’s knowledge is equal to ours, and to use whatever we have on hand to build a plot, a speech, a demonstration. This is why we do not refer to books or films that the audience might have seen to understand our message. That is also why we often resort to repeating certain passages, or even looping (in order to create a communal memory) as well as self-referencing.
F.H.: A privileged relationship.
What is the function of theater?
P.M.: To enable minds.
What is the most accurate piece of feedback anyone has ever given you on your work?
F.H.: (Feed)Back to square one.
P.M.: The death of the subject.

Movement / Future

What have you not yet written?
P.A.: I don’t think I have ever written this particular sentence. But, I guess I have now.
P.M.: A play.
What will be the subject of your next creation?
F.H.: I’ll tell my life from A to Z in order to probably realize that, at the end, I haven’t said anything at all.
P.M.: Retrieve memories that are so forgotten that they could belong to someone else.
P.A.: As for me, I’m writing a movie on the theme of incoherence.
P. A. / F. H. / P.M. / C.C.[/one_half_last]

Paris Art

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PARIS art – October 2009

(cultural magazine – France)

Grand Magasin – Ouvert pour inventaire

Paris 19th – Le Plateau (art gallery)


By Nicolas Villodre


The duo, now a trio, takes humor very seriously; it blows the dust off the cabaret routines of yesteryear! Those of knife throwers, singers, clumsy magicians, self-taught musicians, ventriloquists a with puckered lips… Grand Magasin doesn’t do Lac des singes but an art of the absurd that is, let’s say, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, Stuart Sherman, via Princess Sappho, Alfred Jarry, Richard Huelsenbeck, Maurice Lemaitre, Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée, Joe Pass, etc., etc…[/one_half_last]




Since 1982, through a series of experimental and playful shows, the theatre company Grand Magasin has offered the public a form of philosophy in action, by putting into play both an intelligence of the body and of the mind. A catalogue of reflections, programmatic gestures and actions which defy the spatiotemporel conditions of the stage, striving to prove through action that dance –– the discipline they claim to practice –– is truly “cosa mentale”.

1. Minimum system requirements

– Three author-performers: Pascale Murtin & François Hiffler (initial versions), Bettina Atala (part of every version since 2000)
– Objects (quite colorful: plastic bottles, jerrycans, green plant, ladder, extinguishers…) as instruments of demonstration
– Inexpensive synthesizer with preprogrammed rhythms and melodies, for interludes that are sung and choreographed
– One or several paradoxical questions that are problematic and yet nevertheless essential
Optional: films & slides (projected interludes), invited performers (more or less anonymous individuals who have come to support the investigation).

2. General content

Themes examined:
– Mise en abyme / tautology of situations on stage
– Space and time (compression & extension of the spectacle / before, after, the stage and elsewhere)
– Truth (in what we see, or in what we say, or between the two?)
– The gaze (of the subject-actor or spectator: always unique!)
– Choice (the vertiginous and decisive responsibility of every movement at every moment…)
– Language (in its fundamental incapacity to transcribe ideas and reality)
– Language (in its fundamental capacity to spark ideas and found reality)
– Presence & Absence (tragic existentialism of the actor on stage)

3. Basic functioning

– Abstraction / Figuration: with Grand Magasin the universality of putting things into question, their simplicity, and the clarity of their enunciation result in an unexpected miracle: that of the formalized thought becoming flesh live on stage. Improbable magic of a grammar of evidence. Troubling.
– Humor: essential ingredient of all GM shows. Hilarity is stirred by an implacable, metaphysical logic that is subjected to physical laws and pushed to absurdity. And all of this with a distant and mechanical seriousness. Screamingly funny.
– Acting: For GM, the formalities of work take on an air that is more playful than didactic. But, even if they are always acting, they are never imitating. The performers, the actions and objects only represent themselves.
– Interaction: the public is associated with the trio’s experiments, not in a participative manner, but in direct address to his/her intelligence and status as observer –– an essential component of the theatrical pact.
– Determination: engineers of the stage, time and again GM demonstrate an unfailing will and and insatiable curiosity in the physico-intellectual exploration of the universe. Creating their own tools of analysis and modelization, they proclaim an enthusiastic and obstinate reappropriation of all the competences necessary to arrive at their ends (thinking, singing, dancing, filming), without any expertise whatsoever.
– Choreography: genealogically, GM’s performances come from dance. Movements of bodies and objects in space, gestures of thought are pretexts for veritable spatial choreographies. Bringing together gesture and speech, dance and theory, GM create a transference: games of the mind and of language into games of the body; and physics truly is the queen of the sciences.

4. Advanced functioning

– Do you see what I see? Throughout this illustrated conference, GM will explore a fundamental aesthetic enigma: how can several paradoxical statements describe identical situations, and how can contradictory situations correspond to the same statement? It is because the meanings of words inevitably vary depending on the speaker. Upon observing that, “I’ll never know what your eyes see, nor what you hear when you hear my voice,” they will jump on the occasion to address the question –– delicately, but not without emotion –– of a radical subjectivity in each and every gaze which forbids all certainty regarding a possible sharing of the tangible.

– 5th International Forum of Corporate Films: in a deepening of the themes of the aforementioned conference, GM’s most recent show tests the chaos created bythe collision of contradictory statements describing an upcoming action and observe the astringent virtue of acronyms, all of which is punctuated by different experiments with telepathic transference and physics. A vertiginous experience of the infinite possibilities offered by time and space, desire and reason, a matinée of permanent and dreadful suspense…

5. Caution

Warning: these performances can cause temporary blurred perception that seems to come from a mind-boggling illusionism that is, nevertheless, achieved without resorting to special effects. Offering the spectator a divergent illumination of the Real, they pin his/her incredulity against his/her desire to let themselves be taken over by sensation.

In the unapologetic absence of all technical virtuosity (dance, singing, music, dramaturgy) GM put themselves at risk, one which can lead to a certain clumsiness, always just grazing failure or an accident. But these acrobatics of the body and mind also stem from a certain grace: that of the acted-out experimentation of ordinary miracles.

6. Conclusion

Proposing a new artistic and intellectual investigation with each creation, GM invites us to adopt a new perspective on the performing arts by concentrating our attention on the reality “of what is there”. With a salutary and hilarious critical distance, this exercise in physical and cerebral music-hall awakens our consciences. As spectators, we are too often exhausted by the narrative laws of theatre, and we reconcile philosophical rigor in jubilation, the positivistic scientific ideal and the poetry of obvious facts.
Enjoy the show.

Guillaume Désanges
January 2005