How actor Philippe Maymat makes it matter
But he graciously agreed to chat with me between gigs before he took a brief break for the holiday period.
I first met Philippe on a visit to Paris in 2014. I was lucky enough to see him in his role as Claudius. Perhaps it’s his height and the depth of his voice, but Maymat’s presence on the stage at first captivates, then commands. Off stage, he is funny; confident. Watch him as he glides fluidly from one group of admiring patrons to another. Without skipping a beat. There’s something boyish about Maymat, but he can also get serious too.
During this interview, we talked about his main passion: a small theatre company that brings kids from a range of cultural and ethnic groups together. Plus, he shares the secrets to successful crowdfunding and happiness in the ego-saturated world of the actor.
How do you give it mouth?
If I have something to say, obviously (laughs).
There are two parts to my work. I work as an actor in many roles and with many directors. And I have also worked in a theatre group with my wife and some kids in the suburbs now for almost twenty years. And this is the most evident part of my social activity.
When Christine, my wife, founded this theatre group, she just wanted to make theatre with the energy of those kids who are powerful on stage and very creative. It was only after we discovered the social impact of this. But this was not the first goal. The first goal was artistic, it was theatrical … however this part of my work can obviously be understood with a social meaning.
Is that the theatre company Tamèrantong?
Can you recall any moments that brought home the impact of the theatre productions? Can you tell me about any memorable moments?
You know the first impact is often when the parents come [to watch the productions] and they can’t recognise their own kids because they are sometimes lazy pupils, they are sometimes very bad at school, they are sometimes totally stressed at home. So it’s not a vision of a kid who’s creative…but through the techniques he finds his own freedom.
We work with them in ways that are like martial arts. We say do it again, do it again, do it again. So when the parents are watching their own kids, they can’t recognise them. The purpose also is for the parents of these Chinese and Muslim populations who don’t dare to go to theatre because theatre is like a forbidden area for them in Paris. And because of their kids they go themselves to real theatres to see a real plays, Molière, Shakespeare and so on … so it works on families as well as the individual kids.
And it’s always happening like that. We also did a big thing with the kids of Mantes la Jolie … a suburb 60 kms from Paris. We made Zorro [with them]. You know Zorro? (Philippe makes a swishing noise, to mimic a sword.)
(chuckles) Yeah I know Zorro.
So we did a Zorro based on the indigenous people of the South-east of Mexico.
Did you write the play?
No, Christine wrote the play. We went there in the beginning of 2001 and we brought the kids from Mantes la Jolie to make the show in front of the dispossessed Indians in Mexico who are fighting for their dignity and their rights. So I think those kids will never forget the experience. And the kids even learnt the play in Spanish … we performed the play in a big theatre in Mexico.
So that was 15 years ago. Do you keep in touch with any of the kids, I guess they’d be adults now?
Sure, some of them have difficulties in giving up the theatre because it was such a great experience and they are like “what can I do now?” There are many adults taking care of them, being on tour, being a part of an artistic and collective experience. So [the kids] eventually have to stop because they get too old. And now we prepare them over the last two years. Because we work in the long term with them.
We can get a kid who is six years old and he can keep doing theatre till he is fifteen or sixteen years old. You see, he can spend ten years of his youth with us. So now we prepare them to give up in their last two years with us. We say you have to think about your future, to do other things. We don’t prepare kids to be professional actors, but just to grow up through the theatre.
Have any of them gone on to work in the creative industries?
Some of them. Some of them. After getting into theatre schools. Some others are very talented but they are working at the grocery store, you know there is no rule. It is totally different for each person.
What about aspects of cultural capital. Because it sounds as though you place the kids in an unfamiliar cultural space. Is that disruptive at all for them, to have the pleasure of the new space but then to not be able to access it at home for instance? Or do they find a way to recreate it when they go home?
We don’t put them out of their universe. We bring them information, some writers, but the thing is not to bring ‘culture’ to the ‘poor uncultured’, but to make them know that this culture can be built from them because of their own personality and their own ability to build something from their own bodies and emotions and so. We also want to mix the populations. We take half boys half girls, and we take some bohemian bourgeois. Even if they are living the same area they can’t meet each other, so we take a part of some population and part of another. The result is they are very different from each other.
How do they work together? Are there any problems?
It used to be like that because in the beginning we had to build this. But now we’ve been doing it for years and years and there’s a turnover. In each group there are 25 kids so each year there are 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 guys who are leaving so you are coming into a group already built. The rules are already established.
How does the project get funded?
There are government funds, but less and less because there are changes in [government] priorities. We can’t say there’s less and less money, but the money is used differently from what it used to be. And so we have less and less money from the government. We have private foundations sometimes, but it stays for one, two, three years and then it’s over and we have to find some more euros. But there are many people working on this. The first weapon is the human one.
Are there any special strategies you use to get funding for this incredibly sustained project?
We have people full-time working on getting funding for the project.
That must take a lot of energy and resources to sustain?
It’s a bit hard because after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, everyone was saying there is a lack of culture in those suburbs and poorer areas and the trick is to…not just punish them but to make them be cultured before being lost, totally desperate and finally: violent and being a terrorist or hard right-wing voter. And weeks after, the money of the government was cut for our work. So you see on the one hand they’re saying make them be cultured, make them do some arts, and days after they cut the money. So it’s long term work.
And it’s a good balance for me because I couldn’t do this if I wasn’t an actor. Also, I couldn’t be an actor on the other side if I couldn’t do this. You’re on stage and you play the plays and you’re always on your own and you feed yourself and you feed yourself so what can it become? And this part of my work is a gift because I can share the energy, I can share all this emotional and artistic food with these kids and they bring me back as well. So it’s very much about not being what you talk about, caught in the will of success and money.
Have you had any special relationships with the kids where you’ve formed a mentoring bond?
Not individually because we actually have a policy of not giving too much attention to one kid. The purpose of the collective is collective work. So sometimes we assign an adult to a child and say “you look after him”.
And we have a thing called ‘The Council of the Thongs’, where we sit in a circle and we make them speak about the attacks, the violence, the problems of society, the meanings of the plays, the happiness of a birth, the difference between their cultures – you know they’re Muslims, Christians, they are Chinese, they are Jewish – so today it was the sheep’s neck, you know, the sacrifice. And the Christian says “that’s barbaric” and the other says “no it’s not, it’s part of the culture”.
[Point is], we are making them think about these things. So it’s not just the work on the plays, it is also learning to live together, to grow up and to know the more they are different from each other, the more they can learn from each other.
It sounds like a big emphasis on the value of diversity?
Yes, acceptance of diversity and to find out it’s a real treasure – a good thing for them. Because before this they were afraid of difference, “he’s not like me”. [For instance] …currently there’s a group on tour and they’re doing a production about a gypsy and an English lord, in small French village.
Now we have lot of problems because of [gypsies], not because of [anything they do], but because of the way they are not accepted by the society. There’s a group in society that says everything bad that happens to you is your fault, and now in France the Romani are considered like that. So Christine did a play about this gypsy group trying to settle in France who are not accepted by the village.
Now the kids in the theatre group are always trying to find some new guys totally different from them. When there are new guys getting involved in the group, the questions from current kids is “is he different from me because I already know myself and I want somebody different. Is it a girl, is it a black guy, is it a Jewish guy because they want to know some different people.”
Tell me about T’es pas né!, your play about your brother. Last time we spoke you were crowdfunding that. Do you want to tell me how that all went?
There is some really good news with that. Originally the crowdfunding allowed me to book a theatre and perform the play ten times and that was due to be done last November. But at the beginning of the season I went to the theatre with my teaser because there were some errors in the copy and I met the director of the theatre. I said, “How is your season?” and he said, “It’s pretty good but I just found out my one man show has to be cancelled because he’s busy on tour.” So I said, “Well take my show.” And he said, “Show me it.” I told him, “Okay, let’s find a room and I’m going to show it to you.”
So you did it then and there?
I did it and he said okay I will produce it and you’ll perform it 50 times instead of ten, in April. So I could use my crowdfunding to create it but now I can keep it to do the French festival in July in Avignon, which is the biggest in the country. And now the theatre will produce the play. It’s a pretty good story. It’s pretty cool.
Finally, do you have any tips about crowdfunding a project?
Yes, yes. It was pretty successful actually for a small theatre and for one guy. I was hoping for 8000 euro and I got double. And people said “how did you do that?” and well, I shared my experience: I kept on my computer saying “Yes! Yes!” and I kept positive about my experience. But I was also lucky because my sister is a doctor, my brother was a lawyer so in this area there are some people with money. So the average for this kind of project is 45 euros but in mine it was more that 75, something like that. I had many friends who gave a little but I had some of my brothers friend, the lawyers, BOOM 500. Something like that.
Did you offer rewards for donations?
I was pretty generous because 20 euros was a free seat. So many gave 20 euros. After we have 100 euros for two free tickets and a dinner with me. And the top was, because I have a first-floor flat, for 1000 euros you get two tickets, the dinner and a night in my flat.
How many gave 1000?
Oh, three but one is my mum (laughs).