Ariane Mnouchkine is one of the world's most pre-eminent female directors. She was born in Boulogne-sur-Seine, France in 1939 and began creating theatre while she was studying at Oxford University in England. She returned to Paris and directed a student theatre group before leaving again to travel extensively and her travels in the East had a particularly strong influence on the development of her work. After her return to Paris in 1964, she and a number of her former colleagues founded the Theatre du Soleil (Theatre of the Sun). The company was established as a workers' cooperative based on socialist principles and still actively pursues and demonstrates an alternative power structure. While all members respect the autocracy of the director they all agree that collaboration and shared labour is essential. The French government gave the company a home in 1970 in an old munitions factory in the Parisian suburb of Vincennes called the Cartoucherie. Since then, Theatre du Soleil has taken on a cult status in the French popular theatre movement and has also attracted international acclaim. While they still rehearse and perform in Paris, they now tour productions internationally and they performed in Australia for the first time at the Sydney Festival in 2002.
Mnouchkine and her theatre company first received international recognition when they staged a production in a Milanese sports arena in 1970 entitled 1789, The Revolution Must Stop When Complete Happiness Is Achieved. The production provided a Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution and utilised a variety of popular theatre styles and Brechtian performance techniques. While most of the company's earlier productions were clearly Marxist in their orientation, later productions have continued to explore power structures and their influence on ethical and emotional conflicts. Mnouchkine uses a variety of material to investigate these themes and has produced plays by Shakespeare, the Ancient Greek tragedians Euripides and Aeschylus as well as work by the contemporary French feminist writer and playwright Helene Cixous. All these productions have appropriated and synthesised many Eastern and Western theatre styles and performers are encouraged to adopt any kind of technique that might serve the needs of their character. Performers and performances do not try to replicate or account for the traditions associated with these styles and post-colonial theorists might question the motives behind this kind of cultural appropriation. Nevertheless, with members of over twenty nationalities the company continues to explore and develop a shared store of theatrical images. Major influences include Japanese, Indian theatrical traditions like Kabuki and Kathakali, Chinese theatre traditions, Italian commedia dell'arte and Classical Greek theatre.
Mnouchkine encourages company members and audiences to think of the stage as a sacred space. Productions always include the ritual of performers putting their makeup and costumes on in front of the audience and the impressive and usually extremely detailed staging created inside the Cartoucherie is rebuilt from one show to another. Rehearsals usually last for six months and since casting is based on improvisational sessions it can take weeks or months to determine. During the rehearsal process pictures and books are used to stimulate thoughts and responses about characters and the development of sets, lighting, costumes, styles of makeup, masks, sound and music. Like Brecht, Mnouchkine sees the actor as primarily a storyteller and performances by Theatre du Soleil are therefore highly physical and often demand athletic and acrobatic skills. Actors are also required to represent and convey strong emotions and images by recognising what Mnouchkine calls ‘the state'. Basic states can change according to circumstances, but every actor is encouraged to locate and depict a central feeling that dominates the physical and emotional life of a character before exploring such changes.
In keeping with the utopian ideals of the company, Theatre du Soleil's work is non-militant yet socially and politically relevant. The company has remained a uniquely collaborative project and all members of the group perform a variety of tasks and all technical, artistic and menial work is shared. For example, Mnouchkine refuses interviews, avoids assuming or being granted any privileged or celebrated position and is often seen selling programmes or collecting theatre tickets. All members enjoy equal salaries and voting rights and although Mnouchkine is the Theatre's director, she emphasises the collective effort of the company and encourages practical and creative input from all members. Some might question whether a company based on one person's artistic control can be egalitarian, but she sees herself more as a master editor of her actor's collective creations. In any case, Mnouchkine remains an interesting and often mysterious theatrical figure whose political and artistic ideals have inspired many others.