At Your Home, Without Me: Ramatuelle, Jacqueline Franjou’s Essential Festival
Tonight, August 1st, 2020–and until August 10th. If you are in Ramatuelle, a little village above the Mediterranean Sea near Saint Tropez in the South of France, you might be among the luckiest people. While almost all summer cultural events have been canceled in France, Jacqueline Franjou is opening the 2020 Festival of Ramatuelle, a series of plays, stand-up comedies, and concerts under the stars and the songs of crickets. A must attend annual event, a rarity this year.
This summery feast has been scheduled every August since 1985. But with movies, theaters, operas and museums still closed in most places around the world because of containment and a very much still present covid19 pandemic, the mere possibility to see comedians and musicians on a stage has become an extraordinary experience. This year’s Festival is an act of audacity and resistance, against all odds, a small, yet safe step to keep us on the pace of being humans, together.
I was fortunate to attend last summer and I remember fondly the performance of French actor Gérard Depardieu (Golden Globe 1991 for Peter Weir’s movie Green Card) sing Barbara’s most iconic songs in a soft and elusive voice.
I cannot go this summer but will have a special thought for Franjou, the co-founder and President of this Festival, a woman I was lucky enough to work with for a few years and who has never been afraid to be disruptive to keep all of us thinking beyond the obvious. We need this festival, we need culture to fill our hopes and dreams, we need words and scores and stories to pave our immediate future.
Next is the translation from a French interview I did with Franjou while I was still confined in New York and she was already planning this week’s performances (published in Le Petit Journal).
While she was contained in the south of France, Franjou never considered cancelling neither the Festival de Ramatuelle, nor the Musical Nights that precedes it.
“For three months (during confinement), all we talked about was death,” Franjou says. “Going back to the movies, to theaters, listening to live music again, all of this mean we are back to life.”
Franjou created the Ramatuelle Festival with French actor Jean-Claude Brialy almost by chance 35 years ago. Brialy was looking for a house to buy in this discreet, yet charming, village, then shadowed by the nearby loud and jetsetter village of Saint Tropez.
Franjou, one of Ramatuelle’s council members, and the actor met. While he kept talking about his current play, she voiced the idea of a festival in this village, famous for being the burial home of French actor Gerard Philipe. The conversation between the two went on like this:
– Do you have a theater, asked Brialy?
– No, we do not, Franjou replied.
– Do you have money?
– No, I don’t have any money.
– You have no stage and no money, and you want to start a festival? But you’re crazy…
“Crazy?” Franjou? If so, she is in the most enthusiastic way. Throughout her personal and professional life, Franjou has spent her career working tirelessly to give others a platform and a voice. She has made the impossible encounters possible, firstly in French corporations but also with the Women’s Forum, which she has developed all over the world, in Myanmar, Brazil, Mexico, Belgium, Italy, Africa and, of course, by sharing culture with the open-air stage theater in Ramatuelle, which she built in 1985.
Thirty-five years later, Jacqueline Franjou is still presiding over the Festival’s destiny, along with the complicity of French humorist and actor Michel Boujenah. She has just published Ramatuelle un Théâtre Sous les Étoiles, a memoir book of anecdotes and memories about the always sparkling theatrical and musical performances that have made this village nestled on the heights of the Bay of Pampelonne one of the most beautiful Mediterranean destinations every August.
I’m still stuck at home in New York, Jacqueline. So, thank you for welcoming me to your home in France, but without me. How was your confinement?
I’m ashamed to say it, but I was away from Paris, without the constraints of a small apartment, without children unlike many families who had no alternatives. For the first time, I saw nature reborn and alive, the beginning of spring. Quietly, I listened to the birds singing. For me who usually wakes up several times at night, I was able to sleep peacefully, without stress.
No stress but a great fear for many. Were we right to be afraid, at the risk of forgetting everything else that makes life happen?
No one could have ever imagined what happened. We realized that a pandemic could paralyze the human race. Because this is our chance of life or survival, medicine suddenly took over the political power.
In all the media, the daily information on hospitalized patients, deaths, clusters were terribly frightening. Many people learned how to work online and have finally found a certain happiness in being contained at home with their families. There has been a kind of self-focus. But there were also a number of depressions; couples broke up; and for the first time, children wanted to go to school because they were not able to share their lives of little men and women with their friends for weeks.
Did we withdraw too much from our daily habits?
There is something completely absurd and crazy about this confinement. It has revealed our extreme fragility of no longer being able to work, of earning a living, of moving around freely and of being able to see other people. Even during the war, theaters were opened, and people were able to see each other clandestinely. This time, secrecy was not an option.
Seeing others! Everything has been indeed centered around illness, health, and containment. The “others!” We seem to have forgotten them, those who are in suffering, loneliness, armed conflict, domestic violence, and economic misery.
We have forgotten that dying alone, far from one’s family, is awful. We have forgotten about the many diseases that could not be treated during this lockdown. We have forgotten that in some countries, murders and abuse within the family continue. We have also forgotten that the world is changing terribly with a divided America, a China that has lied—willingly or unwillingly—and with an Africa that has received little attention. We have forgotten the mass graves in Brazil. And we suddenly realize that there are countries where money has taken over the mere concept of human beings, and which are run by madmen who do not care about humanity.
One word seemed dangerous to me during this confinement. The word “essential” was used in the absence perhaps of the word “vital,” that is: food, drinking water, care, and security. The word “essential” imposed itself, and we took the risk of letting a very small number of leaders decide “what is” and “what is not” essential. Aren’t art, culture and books also the essence of life?
We faced a vital problem: saving lives. When the enemy is unknown, saving lives becomes very complicated. It leads to conscious and unconscious uncertainty, and in the end, we have to estimate what is necessary for survival. Cultural life effectively took a back seat because our intention to save lives and not get sick was such that culture may have seemed futile.
Is it really futile?
It is not futile, especially in France. Hundreds of thousands of people in the museums, theaters and in publishing make a living from it. This cultural economy is integrated into the tourist economy, and that is what keeps France successful.
Culture is also the expression of our social exchanges?
Culture allows us to find out we are and to appropriate to our advantage what we find in theatre, music, books, sculptures. Artistic emotion exists: It allows us to communicate with others.
Is that how you decided to maintain the Ramatuelle festival this summer, or at least not to cancel it?
I said right from the beginning of this crisis that if I didn’t have to cancel the festival for health reasons, I would maintain it. It was not my decision to make. The artists, the comedians, the technicians have also confirmed their presence, with the exception of the American musicians who cannot travel to Europe at the moment. So, we are organizing the festival, of course while observing health constraints and protective barriers.
How are you going to seat the spectators in the open-air theatre of Ramatuelle?
I have respected the necessary compulsory distances among people—between 32 and 39 inches—by creating diagonals. We will therefore open the shows to a restricted audience of 560 people. If the situation keeps improving, and in agreement with the services of the French local and national governments, I will increase this capacity.
You are maintaining the festival but with half the number of spectators, aren’t you running an economic risk?
With so few seats, I lose money. We operate like a public theatre. A show costs about $80,000 euros. With 1,100 seats (ticket sales cover between 45 and 53% of the average price of a performance) the festival has to reach out to patrons, partners and public funding to balance the costs. It’s obviously more complicated this year with a half-full gauge. We need patrons and companies who, like me, believe in the role of culture in our society.
Thirty-five years ago, you and Jean-Claude Brialy built this green theatre just in a few weeks. Do you have the impression that you are living similar challenges this year?
Thirty-five years ago, we were all young, crazy, and we wanted to do something—which we thought would only last for a season. At that time there was a lot more carelessness and much less red tape. It would be impossible to launch a festival like this today or to call friends and institutions to make it happen. That recklessness no longer exists.
Yet we need life, a renewed energy?
For three months, all we talked about was death. Going back to the movies, to theaters, listening to live music again, all of this mean we are back to life.
We know that culture is essential. It allows people to talk to each other. They can entertain themselves—including in the philosophical sense of the word—so that we can function. Molière and Shakespeare are forces that bring people together and make them live as a group.
Each season is an opportunity to relive the year’s past performances in France, and this year, it was an obviously aborted season.
I suppose so, yes. Maybe the critics, the audience will say that scheduling this festival is arrogant. But I think, consciously or unconsciously for that matter, that one has to face the crisis, facing up to it and fighting when it’s possible that is. The Festival will generate fees and salaries for artists and technicians. The audience may also want to discover or rediscover these shows. Will the people accept to attend the program? That’s the big question.
You’re authoring Ramatuelle un Théâtre Sous les Etoiles. Why this book, written during the lockdown?
I needed to empty my “memory card,” and it was time to do so.
It is merely impossible to tell here all the anecdotes that make that book. What do you remember about the three immense figures of French culture who passed away recently in France and who came to Ramatuelle? First of them: Jean-Laurent Cochet.
Jean-Laurent Cochet is a great master. It was he who discovered the Depardieu, Lucchini and many other immense actors. He trained them and made them play. Jean-Laurent came more than 18 times to Ramatuelle, both as a director and as an actor. He called me again last February to tell me that what was happening in Ramatuelle will never happen again elsewhere. Then he died of Covid-19. I am neither a director, nor an actress, nor a comedian, but I learned with Jean-Laurent what it means to be a “Master” in this profession.
The second, obviously, is the singer Christophe.
I didn’t know Christophe very well, but he always attended the Festival. On one occasion, he showed up one evening in a short-lived restaurant we had on the beach. He sat at the piano—this is his picture in the book—and without notice, he decided to sing, and everyone sang along, and everyone was happy and joyful. Christophe was a very special guy. He used to say, “The important thing is to live, singing is living“.
The third one is Guy Bedos.
Guy came to Ramatuelle for the last time two years ago, not to play but as a spectator. I consider him, along with Pierre Desproges, as the stand-up artist who turned politics into comedy. I have the memory of a delicious, adorable, charming and tender man.
You have for life and for others so much passion and attentions, Jacqueline. If there was a dream that you could transform into a reality, right now, which one would that be?
My dream? I would like my beautiful grandchildren, my three grandsons whom I adore, to never forget their French heritage. Their mother is Chinese, and they live in Hong Kong.
My grandmother always told me to remember where we came from. My dearest wish is that my grandchildren remember their grandmother who participated, a little bit, somewhere in a small village, not in French culture, but in the transmission of a French heritage.
And this book, Ramatuelle un Théâtre Sous les Etoiles, is the perfect expression of that desire.
Gérard Philipe was not my father. But I realized without knowing it that I did for his children Anne-Marie and Olivier and for his late wife Anne what I might have liked to do for my father. I trembled, I even got scared when I sent the proof of the book to Anne-Marie Philipe to make sure if it was suitable for her. This work of memory is above all a work of sharing a page of our culture.
Are you bicultural yourself?
I’m French and I was born in the United States. My only son introduced a third civilization into the family, and while I feel a bit American when I travel across the Atlantic, I am deeply rooted in French culture.
So, culture is also the essence of a family.
Culture is a family, a society; it is friends, it is a heritage, and everything that surrounds us.
A soft, protective and invisible envelope?
I’m in Touraine right now, the country where my mother grew up. I buy rillettes and rillons (French pork specialty); I feel the wind of Touraine caressing me, a mixture of sand, of lightness, and the smell of the vines. I have a bit of Touraine in me, I loved the poems of Ronsard and Du Bellay when I was young. Something here fascinates me.
Festival of Ramatuelle : from the 1st to the 10th of August.
For more information: https://www.festivalderamatuelle.com/
Ramatuelle Un Théâtre Sous les Étoiles : https://livre.fnac.com/a14341572/Jacqueline-Franjou-Ramatuelle-Un-theatre-sous-les-etoiles