Since 2018 the Académie Charles-Dullin has been offering an online course based on MOOCs (online classes) and masterclasses focusing, amongst other things, on stage direction. Claire David, editorial and artistic director of the Académie Charles Dullin, is invited to the 2021 edition of the Avignon Festival to conduct the masterclass “Theatre in Sub-Saharan Francophone Africa”. She describes these projects as well as the current state of writing in the French language.
Before becoming the director of the Académie Charles-Dullin, you were publishing plays with Actes Sud-Papiers for over thirty years. What is your view of playwriting in French?
As a publisher, the origin of the language concerns me less than the writing itself. Stepping back a bit, I also realise that I enjoy plays that tell a story. So my analytical prism does not necessarily represent the whole spectrum of what we call “francophonie” or writing in the French language. When I started out I, in fact, received few texts from authors writing in French. Events like Les Francophonies in the Limousin region helped these works circulate and gave them some visibility. I find these texts very rich, free, maybe less restricted by literary references. On the other hand, this playwriting is intense, sometimes driven by an urgency to speak out, to denounce things. Sometimes I find this conflicts with the time required for writing, which demands a certain distance. Theatre is not well suited to “spontaneous” writing. In my opinion, what we should expect from playwriting is strong analysis, a viewpoint and resilience.
So what is distinctive about this French writing?
I think French language playwriting is based on the existence of a theatre that makes use of innovative forms little known in Europe, like “forum” theatre, social intervention theatre and educational theatre. Starting from a health, social or political issue, they provide an overview of a problem and the stakes involved, to create a debate, teach, and develop awareness. They also contribute to social harmony and enriching the usage of the French language. Theatre also contributes to a sort of professional integration.
Are there emerging names or movements?
The French language authors I publish, Ahmed Madani, Nasser Djemaï, Amine Adjina, Nancy Huston, or Wajdi Mouawad, write in French and live in France, but their work often echoes their dual culture. This dimension makes their texts particularly rich and raises identity related questions. I also see the emergence of more activist writing, following on from texts like Traces by Felwine Sarr or Le Iench by Eva Doumbia. These authors shape a denunciatory political theatre rooted in a postcolonial vision of art.
Alongside your publishing activity you are one of the people who developed the Académie Charles-Dullin’s new training programme, launched in 2018. What guided you in this activity?
In the 1980s, I followed the 3-year course at the Académie Charles-Dullin to become an actress, but then I realised I could never exercise this profession! Twenty years later, I was invited to become a member of the Board of Directors to save the establishment that was beset by numerous problems. We soon realised that the best solution would be to close it down, which we did in 2011. We then held discussions with everyone involved in training in France, as well as with playwrights, in order to understand what needed to be reinvented. While France has a large number of actors’ schools teaching a range of methods, few establishments train people in stage direction, which has become essential to the creation of performances since the end of the 20th century. Historically, in theatre the stage director was often an actor who descended from the stage. Today, directing a play is like managing a small business and requires a range of skills in addition to actor direction. It also involves technical notions such as lighting or scenography, as well as administrative knowledge… The director is also the person who spearheads the project. It is she or he who will put his or her desire for a show out there on the stage, and he or she will be the main representative. Beyond this role, I think the idea of a stage director also includes everybody involved in performance, be it the 15 000 amateur theatre troupes present in France, the primary school teachers, educationalists, higher education teachers… Our training targets everyone involved in performance.
What do you offer and how do your courses fulfil the requirements of present day stage directors?
The Académie’s founding principle is to open up the gaze to see the diversity of ways of practicing stage direction. I often quote the phrase by Zola that says: “There is not a theatre, there are many, seek your own”. And to do this you have to go into other people’s workshops and show this diversity of practices and aesthetics; video has been a very useful tool for this. It’s all about relevance. So we offer MOOCs (online classes) that provide the most exhaustive approach possible to a fundamental aspect of stage direction, and we also offer masterclasses that leave room for an author’s subjective vision. The subjects are: actor direction, reading theatre, the stage space, the relationship with the audience, the profession of stage direction and its trends, designing and directing a performance project (administrative).
Anyone can sign up for our classes, there are no prerequisites apart from access to an Internet connection. The classes are a series of videos to be viewed (24 per MOOC), put together with the aim of sharing knowledge based on the experience of the greatest stage directors.
For candidates who want to become professionals, these classes can be completed by interviews with active directors, exercises, online tutorials, and the delivery of a certificate, as well as the option to do immersive internships at partner theatres.
Since we opened 3 years ago, 11 000 applicants have followed our classes, there are free lancers, particularly for the classes for those who want to become professionals, as well as art students, young people who are exploring orientation options, or people who are just curious and want to cultivate themselves and discover the backstage world of a profession. Ninety countries are represented, 2/3 of the applicants are in France. Two of our MOOCs are subtitled in English and French.
The masterclass “African theatres” that you are presenting in Avignon in 2021 is part of this logic. What is it about?
It was born out of a partnership with Jacques Banyankindagiye, who used our MOOCs to create a theatre school in Burundi in September 2020. After this experiment, the French Development Agency (AFD) and the Institut français commissioned a special masterclass on theatres in Sub-Saharan Francophone Africa. The idea was to develop an overview of the sites and practices, as well as to encourage the creation of a network of actors present in this cultural zone. We created about thirty interview videos with playwrights, artists, and cultural entrepreneurs from 16 different countries. This content is accompanied by three introductory programmes created by the anthropologist Sylvie Chalaye, who offers a history of 20th century African theatres. What we find is a theatre where the power of the imaginary becomes a tool for freedom.
Does a project like this still fit in to the spirit of the “laboratoire d'essais dramatiques” (theatre laboratories”) that Charles Dullin believed in?
Of course it does! Beyond the wealth of the practices this masterclass highlights, there is the idea of decolonising minds. The African authors writing in French are imbued with a powerful imaginary, a desire to innovate, which are partly the result of the political and social restrictions in force in the countries they come from. This masterclass forces us off the beaten track; it takes us out of the European reading grid to confront other practices. And this is what helps enrich the artists’ gaze. Jean-Louis Barrault said that with his school, Charles Dullin was a gardener who nurtured men… I think our new school invites people to find themselves through a discovery of the other. Learning to see is to enrich one’s own artistic gesture and to be constantly seeking.
The Institut français is a partner of the MOOCs of the Académie Charles-Dullin.
The masterclass « Théâtres en Afrique », presented by Claire David during the Festival d'Avignon 2021, is following the webinar of the Institut français about French-language writing.
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