The company are preparing to bring their epic production of Les Naufrages du Fol Espoir (Aurores), or The Castaways of the Fol Espoir (Sunrises) in English, to Edinburgh in an all-too-rare appearance on British soil.
The production, loosely adapted from a posthumously published novel by Jules Verne, tells the story of a 1914 voyage of the Fol Espoir to Cape Horn, where the ship's passengers want to set up an idealistic community while the rest of the world drives relentlessly to what became the First World War. Meanwhile, a film crew attempts to tell this tale of doomed utopianism by using restaurant staff as actors.
On one level the tale reflects the existence, philosophy, working methods and ideals of Theatre du Soleil. When the company was founded, the Cold War was dividing Europe, nuclear warfare was presumed to be imminent and there was enough social, political and cultural revolution in the air to point the way towards the seismic events of 1968. Then Paris would be the focus of mass strikes and demonstrations.
The major difference, of course, is that, after almost half a century of creating theatre in its own unique way, Theatre du Soleil are still sailing towards its idyll. Much of this spirit is defined by legendary director Ariane Mnouchkine, who, despite the company's collectivism, is seen as the figurehead of the ensemble she co-founded with Philippe Leotard and other graduates of L'Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq.
Mnouchkine devises the company's work over long periods of group improvisations based around a particular starting point. Les Naufrages du Fol Espoir (Aurores) ended up being written in part by long-term company collaborator, writer, feminist and intellectual, Helene Cixous, with music composed by Jean-Jacques Lemetre, another Theatre du Soleil stalwart. Despite such defined roles, however, Theatre du Soleil members work co-operatively. They are all, including Mnouchkine, on an equal wage, while the actors make their own props, run the Bois de Vincennes bar during the interval, and effectively live and breathe Theatre du Soleil every minute of the day.
As with all such communal endeavours, the commitment required by company members can be exhausting at both a personal and professional level. Days are long and the work is hard. Yet those in tune with the Theatre du Soleil aesthetic stay with it for years, finding both family and home with the company. Two such actors are Juliana Carneiro and Duccio Bellugio. By the time she arrives in Edinburgh this week, Carneiro will have been with the company for a staggering 23 years. Bellugio can boast an even longer tenure. At 25 years and counting, he is the longest serving member of Theatre du Soleil aside from Mnouchkine.
"There is another one who was here before," says Bellugio, "but he left for 10 years and then came back."
It is this sort of loyalty that Mnouchkine inspires.
"Every three or four years, Ariane runs a workshop," Bellugio explains, "and gets to meet young actors. That is when the relationship begins.
"Ariane is very demanding of herself, so of course she is demanding of others, but the work is always about going forward. There is an exchange there, I believe, and even after rehearsing this play for one whole year, I still have the sensation of going forward."
Bellugio was training to be a dancer under Pina Bausch when he joined Theatre du Soleil, so he already had something of a track record. As did Carneiro, who had long held ambitions to join the company.
"I was working in Brussels at a school for dancers," the Brazilian-born performer explains, "then in 1973 I saw Theatre du Soleil do L'Age d'Or, and was so taken with it that I said to myself that one day I would belong to this troupe. I kept that in my mind for many years, then in 1990 I was a mother of two, living in Paris and working with a dance company. We toured to Japan, then the day I came back I had a phone call to say that Theatre du Soleil were looking for an actress to play Clytemnestra. After three days working with them, I was accepted, and it was marvellous."
But what was it about the production of L'Age d'Or, actually produced in 1975, that kept Carneiro so inspired for almost two decades?
"It was the sun," she remembers, still sounding awestruck. "The play was done in sand dunes, and the audience was moving up and down the dunes with the performance. At the end, the sun rose, and it was perfect. We suddenly had this enormous energy and joy in our hearts, and we started running through the dunes like mad, like everything was possible."
Making the impossible possible has been the raison d'etre of Mnouchkine and Theatre du Soleil's from the start, with the company's debut production of Les Petit Bourgeois, followed by a version of Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen in 1967. The company really arrived with the French Revolution-set 1789, produced in 1970 and 1971, the same year Mnouchkine and co moved into the Bois de Vincennes. Over the course of four decades, Mnouchkine has become such a theatrical guru to the extent that even her comrades can't help but put the 73-year old on a pedestal.
"She's someone who is in the present every second, and aware of everything around her," Carneiro beams. "She has a gift of giving she was born with, and will never ask you to do something that she's not able to do herself. She's always bringing us through a path of light, and bringing out things even we didn't see.
"Even the way we rehearse is so creative, because we don't know what we're going to be, so you can do anything. We worked on this piece for 11 months, and our only luxury is time, so we can really play and grow as actors in our performance. But if you ever have a doubt – and the way we work, you do – when you see the end result, you totally understand it."
Despite its status, Theatre du Soleil have stayed firmly out of the mainstream. Even so, the company arrives in Edinburgh at a time when artistic collectivism and something infinitely more significant than commercial forces are very much back on the agenda.
"We are navigating our way against the system," Bellugio explains.
"That's the only way we can work. Ariane says if she didn't work this way then she couldn't make theatre. It's a way of life."
Les Naufrages du Fol Espoir (Aurores) /The Castaways of the Fol Espoir (Sunrises), Lowland Hall, Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston, August 23-28, 6pm. www.eif.co.uk