Features NYC Features Published 19 October 2015

Gare St. Lazare Ireland: Excavating Beckett in the Big Apple

Judy Hegarty Lovett talks bringing Beckett's prose to the stage, the challenges and pleasures of making theatre with her husband, and taking on Godot for the first time.
Molly Grogan
gare-st-lazare

Gare St Lazare Ireland consists of the married couple, director Judy Hegarty Lovett and actor Conor Lovett.  From their home outside of Paris, they have been sifting carefully through Beckett’s singularly rich prose and transforming it into surprisingly comic, acclaimed theater for 20 years, and touring it to as many countries.

Their repertory of seventeen Beckett titles features monologues, primarily, developed from Beckett’s fiction. The company is in New York for one month, performing Waiting for Godot at NYU’s Skirball Center and two pieces in Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival: a monologue, The End and Here All Night, a devised piece “for soprano and actor.”

Exeunt New York’s co-editor Molly Grogan was the first theater critic to review a Gare St Lazare production, in Paris, in the early 1990s and has followed the company ever since.

Molly Grogan: How did the choice to do Beckett come about?

Judy Hegarty Lovett: I suppose that it started with the very first play I ever saw, which was Waiting for Godot, I was 14 or 15, in my teens, I saw that in a small production in Cork at the Ivernia Theater. I think that must have influenced me in my formative years. It was around the same time that I would have met Conor, and we both shared an interest in Samuel Beckett as a writer. It wasn’t again, I suppose, until we moved to Paris together in 1991 that Conor used extracts from [the short story] “Molloy” for an audition piece. Together we developed it from a 20 minute piece into an hour long and then it got longer and it got very longer because we went to work on the writing from there. I suppose that’s part of 20 years now.
Once you founded the company, was it a natural choice to continue with Beckett?
It wasn’t planned out in any way. We joined the company in a very sort of organic and unplanned way. I suppose as we’ve gone along we’ve got more organized and a little bit clearer about what we are doing and what we want to do. I would comfortably say that the first five or six years at least were unplanned, we didn’t have the sense of being a theater company; we were just kind of doing work and moving along. I’d say that projecting and looking into the future, in terms of being a company, has only happened for us, I’d say, within the last 10 years.
After so many years deep in Beckett’s work, do you still find there is enough to explore there?
Oh, we do other projects, but it’s definitely true that it’s been mostly Beckett’s work for the last 15 years. That’s a special interest that will continue. Our current work that we are bringing to New York is all Becket and our current new work is How It Is, which is one of Beckett’s later prose works, which we are working on now and expect to work on for the next three years. That’s the time we’ve given that work. It’s in three parts, it’s a biggie, and we want to give it the time. Alongside it, I’m doing a Ph.D. at Reading University, on How It Is, but mostly I’m going to talk in the Ph.D. about bringing the prose works to the stage and the experience of that. In terms of there being an argument, I think that [the Ph.D.] argues for the value of bringing the prose to the stage. Obviously it hasn’t been hotly contested, but it has been considered a transgression, I suppose, that gets people wondering if this is the right thing to do, and I firmly believe that it is, that it has been valuable for the work to go from page to stage.
Does your dedication to Beckett’s work and your reputation as perhaps the premiere company performing Beckett today, bring with it responsibilities? 
Certainly, over the last 10 years or so we’ve been largely focusing on the works of Beckett and we would definitely be leading interpreters of the work but he is an international writer and we are very conscious of the other companies in Ireland now as well, like Pan Pan Theater Company and Company SJ, who are also doing Samuel Beckett’s work, not focusing as heavily as us on the work, but who are putting on a number of productions over the last four or five years and both have been very successful Beckett productions. So we are very aware of sharing our space.
Samuel Beckett’s estate is notoriously strict in its oversight of stage productions of his work. Has the relationship always been an easy one?
It has actually, for us. I’m sure other people have had different experiences, but I do have to say our experience has always been a good one. I suppose in a way we listened mostly to what they asked, which was not to add stage props and stuff like that, or other characters. So we’ve kept the work very stripped back and simple, and I think there is an appreciation of that. So it’s always been and hopefully will always continue to be a good relationship with the estate.
You began by bringing Beckett’s prose to the stage and only now are you taking on Godot, which is where a lot of theater companies might have started. While you were working on Godot, you also developed a musical performance of Beckett’s writing and music (Here All Night). Is that a logical progression for you?  
From our point of view, it’s just consistent with how much we love the work, and It shows a good sense of variety in that we are able to do the play in an 800 seat theater with full cast and set and production values and then a solo piece, much smaller, a chamber piece, in a very simple rendering for the White Light festival and then, I suppose, to show that with all those years of experience of working on the writing, we were very well placed to be a company who brings the  music that was written by Beckett across his canon to the stage. It just shows our flexibility in working with all aspects of the writing.
I saw your short video asking a slew of theater artists and other personalities the question: What does Godot mean to you? So I’m going to ask: What does Godot mean to you?
I suppose it means what most of Beckett’s work means to me. It means a lot to me in that it is writing that I really, fully identify with. I was brought up Catholic, and when I first met Beckett’s work, I was leaving that behind in my teens and looking for other ways of understanding and meaning in life. I definitely found that with Beckett’s writing; the humanity that is available in his writing and the philosophy that is available in his writing has spoken very clearly to me and very strongly to me. And then on top of that, I just think the writing is brilliant. It’s been kind of a deep excavation ever since, and all of it has been valuable and liberating. I suppose it has also taught me great lessons in humility and another way of looking at life.
Godot is an iconic work, and so many productions have preceeded yours. Were there any that inspired you or did you try to start, if possible, with a blank slate?
It would be very hard to start with a blank slate with what has come to be known, I suppose, as a classic, and it comes with all that belongs to a classic. I think it would be a mistake to ignore that. As I said, the first production of Godot I saw was at the Ivernia Theater in Cork. The next time I saw it was The Gate production directed by Walter Asmus which was for me an absolutely beautiful production of the play. They were very different renditions of the play, but the core values were there and most of the stage directions, which are really important, appeared in both productions, and I think I appreciated and enjoyed the play for that reason as well. I think I brought the memory of those works into rehearsals in workings and reworkings, but still it’s different from any other Godot.
Was it important to you to have Walter Asmus’ blessing?
Very much so. I really admire Walter. He is a very good friend. And I was very conscious of the fact that he had spent a huge portion of his life working on Beckett and working with Beckett and working in particular on that play. Most of the rights in Ireland were occupied by The Gate theater for very many years. We were the next people to take the torch and run with the next major Irish production of Godot and we were very pleased and very honored.
So it is a passing of the torch?
Yes, and this was very much through the Dublin Theater Festival in 2013, That’s when we first performed this Godot at The Gate Theater.
Is there a design and continuity in bringing these three works to New York together?
The continuity, from my point of view, is obviously that all three works have the same author, which is Beckett. I do believe he has a unique and very recognizable voice in the theater and it will be interesting to see that same voice appear in the prose works. And we certainly wouldn’t be the first people to do that. Jack MacGowran, Barry McGovern, Joseph Chaikin and many others brought the prose works to the stage. Jack MacGowran was, in fact, given permission by Beckett to do that.  So I suppose a part of him understood as a writer that it was possible to bring these prose works to the stage and give them a voice.
The other thing I think that’s important is that Conor Lovett appears in all three works. He is the person I have worked with the most closely on Beckett’s writing over these 20 years, so I suppose he is brining his unique interpretation of the work to the stage, which has been hugely appreciated by audiences internationally.
Judy Hegarty Lovett:

Judy Hegarty Lovett:

What are the challenges of working so closely as a couple from home while touring around the world?

That has been hugely challenging and hugely beneficial for us both. I suppose the challenging part is the usual stuff that comes with a couple working together in that it’s close quarters and it’s hard to separate the work from your personal life. And then the benefits are that it has been very easy for us; we work very easily together and being able to organize international touring on a small scale like that has been less challenging than bringing huge productions. So it has been very manageable for us to get to a great many places very easily because the work is very portable and ready. But I think also that it’s not often that  – both our parents worked together, our parents on both sides ran their own businesses – I think, for us, it’s a very normal thing.
Is it important for you to be based in Paris, where Beckett chose to live?
It certainly wasn’t planned. It has been hugely helpful that most of Beckett’s work was first written in French. It’s really great to be able to read the work in both French and English and to have a good understanding of how he plays with the language in French. What’s really interesting for us now, as well, is how our kids reading Beckett are much more absorbed into the language than we are. They are sharing with us all the nuances within the language that they are spotting, which wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t live here!
The eye opener for us with bringing Godot to the stage in 2013, particularly at The Gaiety Theater, was the very young audience that were coming to the work there, in Dublin, which was new I suppose for us. A lot of the prose works that we’ve been doing, the audience was kind of 40+, and here we were meeting a new audience. And the other thing is they were new to Beckett. I suppose the thing that we don’t often realize or remember is that so many of these young people may have heard of this work but not ever have seen it. So I think this again is a great opportunity for students and New Yorkers to make their way to see a pretty decent production of Waiting for Godot by a company who has been working on his writing for a very long time.
Gare St Lazare Ireland will be performing at Lincoln Center, New York, from 2nd-7th November 2015

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Molly Grogan

Molly is a New York Co-Editor for Exeunt.

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