Marie-Catherine Conti: “Looking beneath the surface of words”

Photography : Camille Noyon - Text : Elisabeth Grosdhomme
Marie-Catherine Conti - BAT

An actress and director, Marie-Catherine Conti has happily explored every aspect of the acting profession: cinema, for which she played in a dozen movies; television, with roles in more than thirty series and TV productions which have become classics (Les Brigades du Tigre, Julie Lescaut or Profilage); radio, doing voice-over on a regular basis for France Culture or Arte; but mostly theatre.

Right upon graduating from Cours Florent, the most famous actors’ studio in France, Marie-Catherine Conti was offered to play in Dom Juan, Molière’s master piece, at the Théâtre des Mathurins in Paris – and even to play two opposing roles, Elvire and Charlotte, during the course of the same play. From then on, many more proposals kept arriving year after year. After Dom Juan, it was « Six Characters in Search of an Author » by Pirandello at the Comédie Française, then « The Game of Love and Chance » at Théâtre 347, and so on, about one play a year.

Forty years spent acting on the most prestigious stages, from the Avignon Festival, both in and off, to Chaillot National Theatre, from the Cartoucherie de Vincennes to the Théâtre de la Tempête. Forty years spent taking in authors from all time periods and styles, from Shakespeare to Thomas Bernhard, Corneille to Garcia Llorca or Harold Pinter.

For Marie-Catherine Conti, the essence of acting is not « showing off » and putting yourself forward; it is embodying the voice of an author, « waking up the dead » and bringing to contemporary life the thoughts of dramatists of ages past. It is the pleasure of rehearsals, of working the lines until she can inhabit them (« it’s all about the text, » she says). « It’s sharing the secrets of poets, making eyes sparkle and giving in to our dreams. »

Sooner or later, having played so many roles under the direction of so many producers, you end up willing to go through the looking glass. Marie-Catherine Conti took the leap, and went for the challenge of adapting prose writings for the stage. Inspired by « The Eighth Day of the Week », a novel by Christian Bobin, she asked for an appointment with the author, met him on an auspicious day in 1994, hoping he would allow her to adapt his work. « You love these texts. So they are yours », he said. « Indeed they are from you ». Strengthened by such an encouragement, she got to work: turning the novel into a theatre play, imagining the lighting, the scenery, the sound track, the costumes, …

So intense was this first experience that it called for others. Of all those that followed, the one that stands out was the encounter with the « Lettres de Toussainte », an epistolary novel composed of letters that a woman, born in Corsica in the 1900s and later becoming a teacher, working and living in overseas France, sent her brother year after year until her death, spanning the century. Moved by those writings, which she had discovered during a voice-over reading for a TV production, Marie-Catherine Conti decided to make a play of them.

Carrying the story of this « tiny slip of a woman » from town to town for ten years, from Paris to Marseille with stops in Naples, Aleppo or Bamako in French cultural centres, is an unforgettable experience and, for Marie-Catherine Conti, the very essence of theatre.

Then came « Quand Même », a play made up from interviews with the author Danièle Sallenave, answering the question: « Why do we do theatre ? And what sort of theatre ? »

Almost forty years after her first appearance on stage, Marie-Catherine Conti now wants to pass on what she has learnt: teach her know-how to young comedians, set up reading workshops to share her sensitivity to words and texts. And sometimes, still, go back up on stage, to direct or act.

At the helm of L’Atelier de Raray, she regularly conceives lectures and shows presented in the wonderful setting of Raray’s Castle. Lately « Môssieur Prévert » and « Deux Rien ». Before that, a memorable performance of « The Human Voice », that play by Jean Cocteau which shows a woman on the phone, getting the last call from the man she loves but who will marry another. In an open-air showing on the esplanade in front of the castle, Marie-Catherine Conti literally spoke in the ear of spectators, through headphones given to all for the occasion, bringing together the intimacy of the play with the magnificence of the location.

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