Directors of children's and youth theatre – Philippe Besson

Biography

Philippe Besson © private

Philippe Besson was born in Berlin in 1962, the son of the Swiss theatre director Benno Besson. After attending the Polytechnic Secondary School in East Berlin, he trained as a sailor for inland waterways. In 1983, he moved to Switzerland and from 1986 worked as a theatre management intern at the Burgtheater in Vienna, the Schauspielhaus Zürich and at the Comédie de Genève, where his father was director at the time.

In 1989, Besson became assistant director at the Schauspielhaus Zürich, and in 1994 senior director at the Theater Ulm. Following three years as a freelance director, he became the director of the children’s and youth theatre section at the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam. Under his management, the section received the Brothers Grimm Prize of Land Berlin. Two productions were invited to come to the children’s and youth theatre festival “Augenblick Mal!” in Berlin as the German-speaking area’s best productions. His production of Wir alle für immer zusammen (All of Us Together For Ever) based on the award-winning book by Guus Kuijer in the adaptation by Philippe Besson and Andreas Steudtner was nominated for the German Children’s Theatre Prize in 2008 and for the theatre prize “Der Faust" in 2007 in the “best director of children’s and youth theatre” category.

The Berlin-based GRIPS Theater opened its second theatre venue in the middle of the formerly divided city in February 2009 with Lilly Unter den Linden, Besson’s play about German-German history for young people. In 2009, Philippe Besson went on to become senior director at the Theater Junge Generation in Dresden, a post he left in 2011 to work once again as a freelance director at venues including Dresden, Potsdam and Zürich. As well as producing plays for children and young people, Besson also stages plays for adults.

    Portrait

    Philippe Besson is a reserved director, placing his trust in the text and his actors. The stories on the stage appear to unfold by themselves, and yet there is a clear structure to what happens. In Besson’s productions, the inherent conflict in a play always takes priority over any concept about how it should be directed. The theme of his premiere of Ferne Fremde Liebe (Distance Stranger Love) by Norwegian writer Liv Heløe is the stigmatisation of loving relationships. Nina falls in love with Moreno, a gypsy, a socially inappropriate relationship, like that between her Norwegian great-grandmother Ruth and a German occupying soldier whom she married during World War II. In Besson’s adaptation of a book for young people, Wir alle für immer zusammen (All of Us Together for Ever), 11-year-old Polleke tells the story of her patchwork family, the rows between the adults, and her own problems with Mimun, who is not allowed to go out with her anymore because she is not a Muslim and she would like to become a poet. Like these narratives, much of the material Besson chooses lends itself to episodic staging, switching between dialogue and addressing the audience. This both brings events closer and sees them from a distance, putting them into perspective.

    Philippe Besson, who says of himself that he does not cultivate a recognisable style, can also stage a hearty production and does not shy away from using theatrical effects. In Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening) suicide victim Moritz’s head is on a long table, engaging in cheerful conversation with Melchior. There is violent thunder and lightning when the thirteenth fairy in Dornröschen oder Das Märchen vom Erwachen (Sleeping Beauty or the Tale of Awakening) utters her curse; the princess talks to a kitchen hand in broad Swiss dialect and she squeals as he chases her around the pillars of the palace. Philippe Besson’s modern productions of fairy tales, which, besides Sleeping Beauty include Die Zweite Prinzessin (The Second Princess), use gaudily-coloured props – in contrast to the rather minimalist, multifunctional sets he uses in other plays, such as the city plan used for the set of Rico, Oskar und die Tieferschatten (Rico, Oskar and the Deeper Shadows) or the semi-transparent window bars and rotating doors in Ferne Fremde Liebe.

    In some productions, such as Die Zweite Prinzessin, he uses a perfect combination of subtle and crude elements. The second princess feels that it is “an injustice that cries to heaven” to be the younger sister. Surrounded by bits of confetti and torn gift-wrap from the older sister’s birthday, she imagines what it would be like to rebel. Perhaps the bad wolf from the fairy tale would like to eat up her sister? Or a spider, rat or bear might want to take her from her castle so she can get married to someone in a cave? Or the cook, an evil witch, could make her shrink? Besson has found in Isabell Giebeler of the Theater Junge Generation Dresden a leading actress who is able to apply perfectly the concept of theatre as a game of possibilities. She is sometimes brusque, sometimes sad, demanding, docile and endlessly imaginative in using props such as paper cups and balloons to quickly make a figure symbolising the queen. The production feels as light as a feather and empathetic, without playing down the conflict between the sisters. Again and again, the second princess mutates into an evil sister, pushing her older sister’s face into a cake.

    Since 1992, when Besson began his career as a director, he has staged plays as different from one another as Brecht’s parable Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Szechwan), the comedy Pension Schöller (Guesthouse Schöller), Molière’s caustic comedy Der Menschenfeind (The Misanthrope) and Simon Stephens’ working-class play Port. One of the things he enjoys most is to watch how his young audiences watch. He can still well recall his own early experiences of the theatre. After all, he comes from a theatrical family – his father Benno Besson was acquainted with Brecht, and Katharina Thalbach is his step-sister. He was three years old when his father’s production of the fairy-tale-like parable, Der Drache (The Dragon) made him excited about the theatre. He would like to share with his audiences the feeling he had at the theatre as a child. And so Philippe Besson, who works for children, young people and adults, wants to “keep coming back to the children”.

    Elena Philipp

    Productions (selection)

    Philippe Besson is a reserved director, placing his trust in the text and his actors. The stories on the stage appear to unfold by themselves, and yet there is a clear structure to what happens. In Besson’s productions, the inherent conflict in a play always takes priority over any concept about how it should be directed. The theme of his premiere of Ferne Fremde Liebe (Distance Stranger Love) by Norwegian writer Liv Heløe is the stigmatisation of loving relationships. Nina falls in love with Moreno, a gypsy, a socially inappropriate relationship, like that between her Norwegian great-grandmother Ruth and a German occupying soldier whom she married during World War II. In Besson’s adaptation of a book for young people, Wir alle für immer zusammen (All of Us Together for Ever), 11-year-old Polleke tells the story of her patchwork family, the rows between the adults, and her own problems with Mimun, who is not allowed to go out with her anymore because she is not a Muslim and she would like to become a poet. Like these narratives, much of the material Besson chooses lends itself to episodic staging, switching between dialogue and addressing the audience. This both brings events closer and sees them from a distance, putting them into perspective.

    Philippe Besson, who says of himself that he does not cultivate a recognisable style, can also stage a hearty production and does not shy away from using theatrical effects. In Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening) suicide victim Moritz’s head is on a long table, engaging in cheerful conversation with Melchior. There is violent thunder and lightning when the thirteenth fairy in Dornröschen oder Das Märchen vom Erwachen (Sleeping Beauty or the Tale of Awakening) utters her curse; the princess talks to a kitchen hand in broad Swiss dialect and she squeals as he chases her around the pillars of the palace. Philippe Besson’s modern productions of fairy tales, which, besides Sleeping Beauty include Die Zweite Prinzessin (The Second Princess), use gaudily-coloured props – in contrast to the rather minimalist, multifunctional sets he uses in other plays, such as the city plan used for the set of Rico, Oskar und die Tieferschatten (Rico, Oskar and the Deeper Shadows) or the semi-transparent window bars and rotating doors in Ferne Fremde Liebe.

    In some productions, such as Die Zweite Prinzessin, he uses a perfect combination of subtle and crude elements. The second princess feels that it is “an injustice that cries to heaven” to be the younger sister. Surrounded by bits of confetti and torn gift-wrap from the older sister’s birthday, she imagines what it would be like to rebel. Perhaps the bad wolf from the fairy tale would like to eat up her sister? Or a spider, rat or bear might want to take her from her castle so she can get married to someone in a cave? Or the cook, an evil witch, could make her shrink? Besson has found in Isabell Giebeler of the Theater Junge Generation Dresden a leading actress who is able to apply perfectly the concept of theatre as a game of possibilities. She is sometimes brusque, sometimes sad, demanding, docile and endlessly imaginative in using props such as paper cups and balloons to quickly make a figure symbolising the queen. The production feels as light as a feather and empathetic, without playing down the conflict between the sisters. Again and again, the second princess mutates into an evil sister, pushing her older sister’s face into a cake.

    Since 1992, when Besson began his career as a director, he has staged plays as different from one another as Brecht’s parable Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Szechwan), the comedy Pension Schöller (Guesthouse Schöller), Molière’s caustic comedy Der Menschenfeind (The Misanthrope) and Simon Stephens’ working-class play Port. One of the things he enjoys most is to watch how his young audiences watch. He can still well recall his own early experiences of the theatre. After all, he comes from a theatrical family – his father Benno Besson was acquainted with Brecht, and Katharina Thalbach is his step-sister. He was three years old when his father’s production of the fairy-tale-like parable, Der Drache (The Dragon) made him excited about the theatre. He would like to share with his audiences the feeling he had at the theatre as a child. And so Philippe Besson, who works for children, young people and adults, wants to “keep coming back to the children”.

    Elena Philipp