Eight years ago, Jean-Guy Lecat parted ways with the legendary director Peter Brook. At the ripe age of 64, the French scenic designer and theatre-architecture consultant—who, as Brook’s technical director and principal designer from 1976 to 2000, was in charge of scouting and transforming more than 200 spaces for Brook’s world tours in 165 different cities—decided to strike out on his own. After 25 years of devoted but largely unsung work—during which Lecat helped Brook convert into full-fledged theatre environments such found spaces as a rice silo in Arles, France; a slaughterhouse in Vienna; a boathouse in Zurich; a cloister in Lisbon; and a tram depot in Glasgow (some of which, like the depot, have lost their ephemeral character and become permanent theatres)—the Paris-based Lecat radically altered the circumstances of his life. He remembers the moment when he bumped into Brook in the corridors of the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, where the director’s illustrious Centre International de Recherche Théâtrale is located, and he pointed out to Brook that they had not spoken to each other all year. The director replied, “We don’t need to. We have no comma in between us.” Lecat realized that he and Brook (who is now 83 years old) had given to each other “the best that we had,” and that he had better make a move while he still had the age and the energy to start again. “Once you’ve worked with a man like Peter Brook,” Lecat says, “you’ve lost yourself as an artist. You have been left in his shadow.”
Not surprisingly, what Lecat did not change was the fundamental direction that had informed his innovative work with Brook. “Creating a space is not an objective in itself—a new space must first of all have been willed by someone, and this is what endows it with significance,” says Lecat. Consciously engaged in questions that challenge the necessity of using proscenium spaces, traditional elements and forms, Lecat now spends his time as a globetrotting director/designer (of set, costumes and lighting) and a highly sought-after theatre consultant, working alongside architects on conceiving, rebuilding or reanimating new theatres and old spaces. And although he never thought of himself as a teacher, he is frequently engaged by schools, international festivals, design competitions and world theatre organizations to educate student designers, directors and architects, who come from all around the world to participate in his mind-expanding workshops and seminars. There they examine the interdisciplinary dynamics of space, environment, dimension, design and live performance.
“I see a lot of confusion today in the education of the arts,” Lecat says. “Young people today are quite clever. We live in a society where people have to react very quickly. You never know if your job in the future is going to use what you’ve learned in school. People today change jobs three or four times during their lives. We have to help young people gain a wider education—not just to learn how to work in a little theatre box.”
After stints as a fitter-model maker, a draftsman in a Paris factory (Thomas-Houston) and a stage technician (beginning at age 23), Lecat apprenticed for Claude Perset, a set designer and architect who specialized in theatres in France, while working variously as a flying machinist, props man, set constructor and stage manager. “During the day I worked with Claude,” Lecat recalls. “At night, I worked in the theatre. From that period, until I met Peter Brook, which was about 10 years later, I realized that there are a lot of connections between architecture and theatre. Unfortunately in the schools, the teachers miss the architecture dimension. It’s a real shame.”
Because of Lecat’s 40-year experience in making over dilapidated warehouses, abandoned factories and monasteries into viable performance spaces—because of his immense body of knowledge in the uses of scenography, the history of design, the importance of good acoustics and, most significant, the relationship of actor to audience—Lecat is considered a world leader in the field of theatre and design. His guiding hand can be gleaned in the construction of Teatro Azul de Almada in Lisbon, the building of the New Young Vic in London, the major renovation of the historic Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the conversion of an old Norway factory into theatre spaces and schools, and the remaking of the Naves del Antiguo Matadero into a performing arts space in Madrid.
Lecat’s first experience with transforming found spaces took place when he was working with the French director Jean-Louis Barrault, who staged a play by Paul Claudel in the old Gare d’Orsay, and the railway authorities had to be persuaded to change the platforms for certain trains so that the actors’ voices would not be drowned out. Lecat started with Brook in 1975, scouting spaces for the U.S. tour of The Ik. Not overly familiar with his work at the time, Lecat asked for advice that might guide his research. “You will see on your own,” Brook said. “You will recognize the spaces. What is most important is that these spaces be full of life.”
Lecat’s 2003 book The Open Circle, co-written with the architect Andrew Todd, tenderly chronicles his transformation of a ramshackle music hall in a rough section of Paris into the Bouffes du Nord theatre, a pockmarked building that met Brook’s desire for a suitable acting base at once frayed and dignified, after several years of performing in African villages, Persian tombs and European city streets. Removing the proscenium stage, Lecat replaced it with a platform that juts out into the audience. He rearranged the seating so that the audiences surround the performers on three sides, forming an “open circle.”
“What is true for sets is also true for the space in which a performance is to be performed,” Lecat writes in his 2007 book, One Show, One Audience, One Single Space, published by the International Organization of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians (OISTAT). “We cannot think that the space in which the show is mounted does not have significance, but quite the contrary, especially in a theatre such as the one Peter Brook chose in Paris, as it became a most efficient permanent neutral-set space.”
In the U.S., Lecat and Brook justly polished their reputations in 1987 when Lecat transformed a literally crumbling 1904 space, two blocks from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (formerly the Majestic, it had been boarded up for 20 years) into the BAM Harvey Theater, following a $5-million renovation paid for jointly by BAM and the City of New York. The newly refurbished Harvey was built specifically to house Brook’s nine-hour production of The Mahabharata and his subsequent The Cherry Orchard. Given an hour to draw up a plan, and without using a tape measure (“My measure is my own footstep,” Lecat says enigmatically), the French designer did not exactly clone the Bouffes du Nord, but he did recreate its warmth and intimate atmosphere (although the theatre space at the Harvey is much larger) and intentionally evoked the elegantly distressed poetry of an authentic ruin.
“I thought, ‘If I make just a decorative change, I will make a very temporary change,’” Lecat says. “This is why I decided to work on the volume of the entire space. By changing the volume I touch at the architecture’s proportions. The Harvey became simpler, more compact and more cubic, with better acoustics, and so more universal. My challenge was to transform this theatre to give a beautiful object to Peter—and then to create a space that was good for everybody else after. I pushed the gravity center outside of the arch-proscenium. The geometric center of the stage is the center of nothing; it is just a place to be. I worked with a view of the future—and not only for The Mahabharata and Peter.”
Recently, Theatre for a New Audience artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz hired Lecat to be a consultant for the architectural design of the New York troupe’s new home in the BAM district, located on Ashland Place between Lafayette Avenue and Fulton Street. Designed by architect Hugh Hardy (who had coordinated the Harvey’s reconstruction) and (before he later pulled out) Frank O. Gehry, the TFANA building is slated to open in the fall of 2011.
“I commented on the drawings,” Lecat says. “Jeffrey and I worked together, but the problem is the location of the place, which changed three times. Theatre for a New Audience must be a theatre for one company. That company has a certain size, a certain reputation, a certain way of working, a certain desire. Jeffrey and I worked on the quality of the materials to give the space life.”
In Lecat’s workshops and seminars, “life” is a word he frequently utters. He also lingers on the key words “simplicity” and “lightness.” As in: “The ideas we have on stage must be simple, which is difficult,” or “The hardest thing in theatrical life is keeping things light and simple, because you have to have ideas.” Quoting the architect Renzo Piano and the writer Italo Calvino, Lecat distinguishes between “light intelligence,” which is related to an agile mind and intuitiveness, and “heavy intelligence,” which asserts a personal objective. He insists he doesn’t have any system, because his desire is “to please the play” he is working with—and to please the directors and the audience. His pronouncements, as a result, can sound oblique and sibylline. Asked how he knows if a space is right, he replies, “I sit in silence and I wait.” During the oracular discussions, scenofest workshops and slide presentations he gave at the 2007 Prague Quadrennial on how to explore the dynamics of theatre spaces from the audience’s viewpoint, he bred a culture of uncertainty among his students, because he has a guileless way of proffering questions that receive answers but ultimately meet no resolution, and of greeting strong opinions with ruddy smiles and Gaelic shrugs.
It would be a mistake to view Lecat’s working method as being simply about choosing intriguing and odd places for performances, because he will be the first to state that that search is actually one of the last things to consider (“Space comes last in the list of priorities,” he says, arguing that the minimum requirements of theatre are “an idea, a text to express this idea, actors to perform the text and an audience”) and that altering the space of a theatre is often unnecessary. “What do we mean by changing?” he ponders. “Can we just adjust by adding colors or changing the light, something simpler, and keep the theatre as it is?”
An engaging provocateur, Lecat likes to upset the formulaic preconceptions young students might have about the right way to approach creating a performance space. And he is an inveterate flaneur—his favorite mode of teaching is to walk and watch and observe. In one workshop in Romania, he and the students just walked down the streets for five days and looked at the sky, the houses and the people. In Barcelona, he conducted an exercise in which he asked designers to cast the roles of King Lear by taking photographs of regular people in the streets. “I have spent a lot of time traveling around visiting spaces (maybe more than 2,000 over the years), so one might think I have become accustomed to doing this. But every visit has unique features.”
Deftly mixing pragmatics and theory, Lecat believes that the right theatre design is as crucial to a production as the actors, sets or costumes are. At the same time, he insists that frequently “you don’t need any scenography” at all. In the Socratic manner, he asks: “Do we have to build a set because the theatre hasn’t been designed properly, or do we need the space of the theatre because the play needs the theatre? If you have a good show, you can do without sets.” His favorite mantras are: “Do we need this?” and “What can you achieve through the simplest possible solution?”
“There are too many set designers who want to be original,” Lecat avers. “I don’t think to be original is interesting. I don’t try to be original. I just try to be good and simple. What happens when you want to be original? You have one or two ideas, and you’re going to force the whole play to go inside these two ideas. If the ideas are magnificent, okay, maybe we will get something. But if they are poor, you kill the whole play.”
A play can move closer to the audience, Lecat adds, not necessarily physically but through the imagination. “The idea of a zoom is always something I suggest to a director, and few would disagree,” he says. “Sometimes they think it is a good idea, but they never realize how it is possible to create a zoom on stage.” To jump from a wide-angle image to a close-up (such as an actor’s face) is not the same as creating a zoom effect. “The brain of the human being never sees the truth,” he explains. “You can get closer to the actor maybe by changing the light very quickly, or with the color of the set, or some kind of beautiful cloth material. To exist, a light needs a spot. You can see light on an actor, on the set or on the floor. For instance, a color like red becomes very close to black by changing the light. I love gold, because gold can be very bright and very dark at the same time, and the set can disappear completely.”
Just as Lecat is not a fan of modern all-purpose or polyvalent theatres (because they are sterile and cold), he views the use of video, film, projection and modern technology with deep skepticism. “This is the future, but I don’t say it’s a good future,” he declares, with a low-voiced chuckle. “Five centuries ago, during the Renaissance, when painters created perspective, immediately the theatre people jumped into perspective. This is what theatre people do: When there is a new technology, they immediately jump to use it. Because theatre is very difficult, the directors, designers and architects think they can be helped with the new technology. Of course, this is not true. The technology doesn’t help. The technology creates a new situation that is different, but all the questions and all the difficulties of the theatre stay the same. The question is: Do we need it?”
Although the term “maverick” has become much-abused in the media nowadays, it is actually an apt description of Lecat’s place in the pantheon. On the occasion of the publication of The Open Circle, Brook dubbed Lecat “Mr. Space,” because he thrives in the avant-garde of an entirely new profession that is neither scene design nor architecture—call it space design. Perhaps another way of looking at Lecat’s trade is that he is a stage manager of space, whose simultaneous aims are to lift the theatre experience to a new level, to bring the text forward, and to stimulate “the imaginary,” which he views as the real currency and lifeblood of theatre.
“Young designers should learn a little more about architecture,” Lecat posits. “In terms of how architects use natural lights and colors, there are a lot of things to learn for set design. I also think we teach too much form. In all the theatres and universities I work with, they jump too quickly to form. There is not enough reflection behind why this is the form that’s being used. You watch all the beautiful little models in the designers’ portfolio, but they never mention the first row of audiences. You may ask, ‘Where is the first row? What is the distance between the stage and audience?’ They don’t care. That’s strange. It’s the same with the architects: The presence of the actor and the quality of the relationship of spectators to the actors are determined not by the set but by the architecture first.”
Brook understands, Lecat further adds, that when a found space that was once not a theatre has been transmuted, the space itself becomes a set, and the audience discovers that it is now inside the same space as the play—“the audience is inside the set.” To this day, Brook’s own application in his productions, Lecat observes, is “to faintly refer to the space in the beginning of the performance, leaving the audience to build the rest in their imagination” as the plot moves deeper into the action. But to simply imitate Brook is to be trapped by form—because we cannot develop an idea by simply following somebody else’s idea. Lecat says, “I decided to teach young people in a different direction for one specific reason. The form can be the beginning of something—why not? Sometimes I get an idea based on the form. But we have to go back to the origin of the idea. Why does the form work? What does Shakespeare, for example, want to say? A great American architect, Louis Kahn, used to speak to his building materials—he would ask, ‘What do you like, brick?’ He was absolutely right: You have to ask the bricks what they want.”