interview with
Claire de Ribaupierre & Massimo Furlan,
makers of Dans la forêt

by Wilson Le Personnic


portret Furlan_RibaupierreThe forest has always awakened the imagination, been perceived as a source of danger, refuge or adventure. The great American writer and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, frequently wrote of his insatiable love of nature and his real fascination with the forest. In his essay, Walking, he wrote: ‘When I would re-create myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable and to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a Sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow of Nature.’ With Dans la forêt ('in the forest'), Claire de Ribaupierre and Massimo Furlan offer an extraordinary physical and sensory experience: that of walking along woodland pathways by moonlight. In the silence of a dense, dark forest, alert to the slightest noise, a fantastic landscape emerges in the darkness and in the heightened imagination of every watchful walker. An encounter. 

You’ve been working together for almost twenty years. How has your shared writing developed over the years and through your creations?
Claire de Ribaupierre (CdR): ‘We live together and we work together. And all of this is so closely bound together that it’s sometimes hard to say where life stops and work begins, when and how a project is born, who does what in the creative process. Our projects take shape through musing and dialogue. Most of the time we regard ourselves as joint authors of our plays because we’re constantly exchanging roles and points of view during the process, we’re caught up in the flow of creation. But if we had to describe how we collaborate and which roles we usually take on, then Massimo’s role is to invent and set up the images, the scenery, while my contribution is more that of ‘playwright’ because I provide the building blocks for the narrative, the structure of the play or project. Sometimes Massimo signs as sole author of a project when he’s director or performer, especially performances such as International Airport (2004), Tunnel (2015) and all those performances that are linked to his personal memory and his interest in football and re-enactment.’ 

When you look back, do you notice any leitmotifs in your collaborative work?
Massimo Furlan (MF): ‘We never concern ourselves about form. Sometimes we might switch from one aesthetic to another or from one subject to another. But we always try to consider what we understand by ‘theatre’. When I began studying drawing and painting at the Beaux-Arts College, I was working with the theme of memory. At the time, Claire was writing a thesis on archives, and her reading of William Faulkner, Claude Simon and others had a big impact on the way I thought about my own work. Then when I started doing performances, I developed my research around the idea of memory, especially my own life story. This interest is still present in our work today. Carrying on from the theme of biography, there is also an interest in storytelling and bearing witness to events. I’m thinking especially of Hospitalités (2017) and Les Italiens (2019). For the latter play we worked with retired Italians who met every day on the terrace of the Vidy-Lausanne Theatre to play cards. These ‘documentary projects’ have led us to work regularly with amateur actors and we’ve followed this up by working with professional thinkers, as in our plays Concours Européen de la chanson philosophique ('European philosophical song competition', 2019 and Les Héros de la pensée ('the heroes of thought', 2012), which call on the talents of philosophers, theoreticians, anthropologists and so on.’ 
CdR: ‘So, yes, you could say that we do have leitmotifs in our work, and these are to do with individual and collective memory, community and living together, as well as the concept of thought and its transmission.’  

Your new creation Dans la forêt seems to be an urgent response to the present-day context and makes many allusions to the pandemic and the ecological crisis. Can you tell us how this creation came about? 
MF: ‘Although this project might look like a response to the current situation and has everything it needs to be Corona-compatible, it began over a year ago. It’s also the first part of a trilogy. For several years, walking and running have been part of my practice. I started before 2006 to prepare for my Numéro 10 performance. This involved replaying, at the Parc des Princes, Michel Platini’s role in the 1982 World Cup semi-final, faithfully reproducing his every run and every move. I’m not a dancer, so I had to prepare myself physically for this performance for several months. So that’s when I started running in the woods above Lausanne and discovered a lot of trails that I kept on using afterwards. Then Claire and I carried on walking together in the woods. As well as this personal activity, we’d started our Travelling projects, where we lead small groups from the audience out of the theatre, by bus, train or boat, and go to explore a particular place. As part of these projects, we sometimes stop and get out to walk for a bit… Then, one day, Claire and I came and walked in this forest at night. It was such an intense experience that we wanted to share it.’ 
CdR: ‘Just the simple idea of moving in silence, observing, indulging our inner thoughts, exploring a landscape in darkness, by surveying it at walking pace, was an authentic experience, and we wanted to turn it into a project. This project made it possible to arouse senses that we hardly ever explore in the theatre, such as the sense of smell, touch, kinaesthesia, imagination, and of course hearing, and in this case night-vision... And so we built this experience as an artistic act, to be shared, to be experienced together.’ 

This isn’t the first time that you’ve created a play in-situ or for a specific site. For you, what are the challenges involved in this journey, which takes you outside the confines of the traditional stage? 
MF: ‘I didn’t start out in theatre, and I’d always asked questions about who could go on stage and what ‘doing theatre’ means. By extension, the whole idea of scenic location was something I absolutely had to subvert. I’m well aware of the possibilities offered by stage technique: lighting, sound and space. Finding out that anything can be a stage is very stimulating. We’ve done performances in an airport, a caravan, a road tunnel, a football stadium, in trains etc. We don’t see these places as stage settings but rather as vectors. In 2018, we presented Travelling in Athens. I remember at one point we got off the bus to go into an abandoned stadium in the centre of Faliro, where the beach volleyball events had taken place during the 2004 Olympic Games. This type of amazing experience can create much more developed physical and sensory experiences, allowing you to look at your environment differently, with much more intensity.’ 

Dans la forêt takes place at night, deep in a forest far away from the town. How did the concept of ‘Nature’ take root in your research? 
CdR: ‘I think the issue of the environment and nature have been present in our work for several years, through the in-situ projects that Massimo was just talking about. But we also brought these ideas into Les Héros de la pensée and Après la fin, le Congrès ('after the end, the congress', 2015), a performance with historians, anthropologists and philosophers, all wearing the same three-piece costume, and a skull mask, talking to us for 26 hours (one hour for each letter of the alphabet) about the world “before” a catastrophe had wiped out all life. They improvised on words we’d chosen, which in many cases were the names of things found on Earth: rivers, trout, pigeons, ants, wolves, willows, the wind, and so on. And it’s really wonderful to see how everyone, from the point of view of their own discipline, talks about these entities around us, their qualities, their way of being. But the question of the environment is an essential issue today and the artist works with “what happens”. This issue is so urgent that you’d expect Nature and ecology to be at the heart of a lot of artistic projects these days.’ 
MF: ‘It’s also proof that the ecological crisis is very worrying. Wanting to develop a project based on the forest also came from the fact that I didn’t know anything about it. When I’m in a forest I can’t even name more than two kinds of tree. Also, when I’ve met forest rangers, I’ve learned that our forests really are in a very bad state. And though I may go there regularly and feel good there, I don’t realise how bad things are. It’s only when you look at the forest from the inside, you can understand that this change is dramatic and it’s getting worse all the time.’ 

How did you find a basis for your dramatic writing?  
CdP: ‘Our ideas have been developed by talking to anthropologists, philosophers, ethologists and ethnologists who are involved in current ecological thinking, and reading their work. I’m thinking especially of Vinciane Despret, who we’ve collaborated with several times, and her works on animals, Etre bête ('being a beast') and Habiter en oiseau ('living as a bird'). There’s also Philippe Artières and his essay Le dossier sauvage ('the wild file'), which talks about people in the 19th and 20th centuries who chose to live their lives in the forest, away from society. Then there’s David Abram, an American philosopher and ecologist, who wrote The Spell of the Sensuous and Robert Harrison, with his book Forests: the shadow of civilization, and Baptiste Morizot, author of Manières d’être vivant ('ways of being alive'), whose research focuses mainly on relationships between humans and the rest of the living world, and also Peter Wohlleben, who is a forestry engineer and writer. This reading has really gone hand in hand with our own observation of the forest and given us a heightened awareness of this environment. And it was reading these works, among others, that allowed us to write the few spoken lines for our ‘actor guide’, who occasionally steps up to express in words what we’re experiencing. And then of course we’ve drawn on our own experiences and sensations. Night sharpens your hearing and apprehension, which very quickly takes you back to childhood and your experience of darkness, your fear of the dark, fear of the wolf… It’s a very powerful trigger for the imagination. I remember the first few times I was always on the lookout, just on the verge of being scared. But eventually, after several night walks, you realise that the forest isn’t full of threats, at least not from animals.’ 
MF: ‘In the end, we’re offering a fairly simple experience. But it would be almost impossible to do it again on your own, because you wouldn’t have the knowledge of the terrain or the feeling of security that you get from a group, that sense of solidarity. We’re living through an experience that’s very intense, almost unique. We tried to create a route and a setting that highlighted the space around us, in order to give our full attention to the forest and what might come out of it. So silence was essential: it allows us to isolate ourselves but also creates a really strong feeling of community, we’re really aware of being a group and being dependent on each other. This experience raises a lot of questions around the idea of being a spectator, who is watching and who is being watched...’ 

Dans la forêt is the first work in a trilogy about the way we inhabit the Earth and cultivate the land. Could you tell us a bit more about the challenges and ideas that run through this long-term project? 
MF: ‘At the moment, the two remaining projects are still at the conceptual stage, but for now we can say that the second part of this trilogy will be about the hunter and angler, and by extension it will explore the idea of the predator, their relationship with the prey, the landscape, solitude, tracking and waiting... We plan to explore these practices through personal accounts, and the play will probably take shape on a theatrical stage. Nothing is set in stone. Then the last part will talk about our relationship with the land, especially through the work of the peasant and farmer.’ 
CdR: ‘For this last part of the trilogy, we’d like to work with people who make their living from the land, but also actors who’ve got dual experience, both from the stage and the land, who work with their hands, in contact with animals or plants. It’s a long-term venture which is going to involve a lot of meetings, travel and reading…’

This interview was originally published in November 2020 on

Dans la forêt

23 September - 9 October
Smithuyserbos, Hilversum
more information & tickets