A monthly series profiling cutting-edge creators of all stripes with ties to Montreal.
If you’re hanging out with playwright/actor/musician/multi-hyphenate Emmanuel Schwartz, an impressive amount of ground can be covered as you wait for the Internet guy to show up at his front door. He’s the kind of curious mind and skilled conversationalist who’ll gleefully engage in whatever topics you throw at him, from Kendrick’s new record and visual anthropology to Bertolt Brecht. A quick glance at Schwartz’s resume will remind you of his ubiquitous footprint in the Montreal arts arena of the past decade. He co-founded a production company with Wajdi Mouawad, danced with wild abandon for Dave St-Pierre, transformed on screen for Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve, took to the stage for Olivier Choinière and Éric Jean and broke in a class of UQAM theatre pupils, all the while churning out a remarkably prolific string of his own creations (two of which, Bérénice and Alfred, will be brought to the big screen).
To say he’s had a busy year would be a punch-drunk understatement. Last fall kicked off with a starring role in Théâtre du Nouveau Monde’s Tartuffe (portrayed by Schwartz as a Woodstock-era groovy priest) and capped off in late spring with the Festival TransAmériques (FTA) premiere of Exhibition – L’exhibition, his part-theatrical installation, part-mystical odyssey into the minds of three co-creators. When we visited his Montreal apartment this summer, he’d just returned from a much-needed time out in the Magdalen Islands, recharged and ready to take on a whole gamut of new creative challenges. Over the course of our wide-ranging talk, Schwartz shared some unmastered rap cuts from his forthcoming EP with beatmaker Thomas Furey as Textile (a nod to their shared Jewish Montreal roots), his thoughts on the “enormous poetic power” of David Mamet’s fiction and his unifying theory about chromatics. Stay abreast of Schwartz’s next endeavours if you’d like to see some of those ideas unpacked and applied in the most unexpected of ways. For this Q&A, we delved into the perilous process of transforming ideas into art, his reluctance to fly the flag for rule breaking and how he hit rock bottom on the road to redemption at the Chateau Marmont.
Since its FTA premiere, there’s been interest in an English adaptation of your latest production Exhibition – L’Exhibition in Europe. So take us back a little: how did that project come about?
The idea was to create a kind of walking-talking instruction manual for an artwork, to bring the audience into the creator’s mindset and his motivations in the simplest way possible. The double entendre of the title implies it’s an art exhibit but also someone who’s stripping, both visually and emotionally. I got into some auto-fiction, tried to redefine what my two colleagues and I on stage were there for. It’s a twist on reality in which I play the part of a playwright trying to put something together, but I’ve got nothing. The question of the relationship between the audience and the performer is what I wanted to use as base material – and that’s what opened the way to the idea of this “exhibition.” How to give the audience all the keys?
Are there parallels between Exhibition and the type of auto-fiction you imagined with Mani Soleymanlou in Un, Deux and Trois?
It’s an odd outgrowth of everything I’ve been doing – Wajdi [Mouawad], [Olivier] Kemeid, Mani. It has given me a lot of freedom to observe how everyone works and to wonder: why can’t I just do this? Let’s open up the box, because that’s what theatre and writing can do. You can delve into something and go at it in the most obscure way. And as you’re digging, you’ll find out what tools you have, what space you’re working with, and things start to define themselves. If as collaborators we’re talking about, debating or searching for something, why shouldn’t it be a part of the show? Why shouldn’t the actual tension that this drama is creating be the show? It became a bit confrontational between the three of us, but I also feel as though that’s part of creation. We’re friends, we drove each other to our limits.
Would it be fair to say you’ve always yearned to break the mould of conventional theatre?
It’s not so much breaking free from an actual model but rather to not make boring shit. It’s always been about that for me. I’ve seen a few interesting plays in my life, and when that happens, it’s just magical. You feel like you’re so lucky to be there, so that’s what I’m going for.
What about playwright Bertolt Brecht’s famed Verfremdungseffekt, or “distancing effect”, which keeps an audience on its toes and thinking critically about the narrative. Has that always resonated with you?
That’s the idea. For the actual sentiment to be pulled from the spectator while at the same time stimulating his reasoning. To me, that’s what a good play does. About me breaking with tradition, what I realized recently is that perhaps for the generation after me, I represent a form of délinquence, in that there’s an irreverence in the way I use tools that have traditionally been used another way. And that’s always what I’m aspiring to do.
About that younger generation, you began teaching theatre at the university level this past year. What’s that been like?
It’s just awesome, one of the best experiences I’ve had personally and professionally. I told them there’s nothing other than overtime in our line of work. If you live with the material and you really delve into it, you’re going to go deeper because you’re spending time with it. That part is not magic. You have to make yourself available, because you never know. Run to auditions, run to things that interest you because there’s a small possibility something might happen. You never know what kindred spirits are just floating around. To contribute in any way to seeing an artist bring their vision to life will help you understand how it’s done. I’ve been lucky to see so many interesting people work that I now have some sense of how great ideas are lost and diluted, and how those same ideas can be carried out successfully.
So how can a really great idea get lost or diluted?
In theatre, it has to do with a bunch of intangibles. First of all, the space in which you’re doing something is very important. If you force an idea that doesn’t have the proper space, it’s pretty much doomed. I used to watch Wajdi walk around a chair and I’d be like, ‘what the heck is he looking at?’ Now I understand he was probably just wondering: ‘What is this going to become? What does this mean? What can it do?’ It’s never anything in the beginning, and then it becomes something. Most of the time, when things don’t work, it’s because people are trying to rush things. Egos make things speed up, because everyone wants to be right, and when you find something and you think you’ve got it, it’s really hard to alter it afterwards. It’s almost like you have to walk like a cat, never putting too much weight on anything, waiting patiently for the natural thing that works to reveal itself.
The past year has seen you juggling a dizzying number of endeavours. You have multiple film and theatre projects on the go, a debut rap EP that’s forthcoming and you also want to get your feet wet in the English market, from what I understand.
Yes, I have an English agent right now but I no longer have a French one. I’m just really inspired by a lot of what I’ve seen from Quebec directors south of the border. Denis Villeneuve’s recent projects have blown me away. I worked with him once, on the short film Next Floor, which was shot at Phi Centre. He was just getting back into filmmaking at the time, after taking a hiatus to raise his young children. And now he’s making Blade Runner! And who knows what Philippe Falardeau and Jean-Marc Vallée are making next. I also worked with François Girard this year [on Hochelaga, Land of Souls], who gave me some insights into how it works south of the border. I guess I need to put in some time to go to L.A., but not in auto-destruction mode.
Yes, I heard about the epic fun time you had in 2011 at the Chateau Marmont…
What can I say. My career was moving along nicely at the time, and then everything just sort of spun out of control, personally and professionally. I’m lucky to be alive, really, because I was on a destructive streak. When you’re an artist and you’re turned down or pushed away from something, you feel like you’re also being pushed away from a community, which was not the case but that’s how I took it. I felt I was somehow, in some way, being treated unfairly, and as a result of that I wound up turning to my music and to my English side, which I hadn’t tapped into very much. So I was off to the races to L.A. to get acting gigs. I met someone from L.A. who wanted to put me in touch with an A&R at Capitol Records and someone at the Writers Guild. When that didn’t work out three days later, I made all the wrong moves. I rented a suite at the Chateau Marmont for a week, was pretty obnoxious and brought the party to the Chateau.
I’m assuming that’s pretty par for the course in terms of what Marmont staff are exposed to on the daily.
It was tolerated to a certain extent, but they did kick me out on the fifth day. I managed to make my way back in, because I had just met Philip Seymour Hoffman. That actually inspired me to write the first few pages of a play that [Canadian playwright] Michael Mackenzie is now finishing up. My journey as a human being was ultimately tied to my yearning to be an independent artist and decide what I was going to do for myself. To reach the end of that whole journey and meet this man I totally admired, and have three short conversations with him... It meant a lot to me. So, going back to why I’m reluctant to say I break with tradition, I don’t believe going against the current necessarily makes it dangerous or vibrant. It will feel vibrant for as long as it does, but that’s because you’re hanging yourself out to dry. Kind of like a flame that’s about to die, giving off a last little struggle before it disappears and never lights up again. That can happen to artists, too, and I feel the balance is really delicate. I hope I’m using that same balance in the way I make art. It’s breaking with tradition, sure, but ultimately it’s really rooted in reality.
This past spring, you presented the Un, Deux, Trois trilogy with Mani Soleymanlou in Paris, around the time of the French presidential elections. Were you apprehensive about adapting something so personal, so rooted in your Quebec reality for a completely different audience?
Well, to be honest, there was a shooting on the Champs-Élysées one of the nights we were on stage… It was strange, because I had been worried about presenting the show there, because of something I say that could be criticized, related to the Jewish question, the Israeli conflict, where I recall a memory with my father. But in the end, I realized people there were ready to hear nuanced positions on thorny topics. My greatest takeaway from that experience was realizing the power of speech in France, and how they’re not afraid of verbal conflict, of explicitly calling out societal problems by name, which is quite different from Quebec. That was fascinating and profound. In interviews, you’ve often talked about how you feel a certain kinship to the oppressed and the underdogs. Does that continue to fuel your drive as a storyteller? I guess for a long time, I was really keen on calling myself oppressed or marginalized. Maybe my mind is changing about that, maybe I feel more like everybody else every single day. It’s as if, to hold onto my dream, I had to find what was different about me, what made me stand out. As that fear disappears a little bit, I don’t really feel marginalized at the moment. I feel lucky. I’m not the 1%, but I get to do basically whatever I want and that’s insane. I feel as though my struggle, if I were to use that word, which I find pretentious from my perspective, is to hold myself to a high standard and have some sort of overarching moral compass in this whole enterprise.
Interview and photos by Michael-Oliver Harding