How did you end up being involved in this adventure with seven young Senegalese actors?
I work for the French Community of Belgium, and I came to Dakar in 1993 as a technical assistant on a cooperation mission. In Senegal, there is a theatre arts section which used to be known as the Douta Seck National Conservatory, and which has now become the National School of Arts. I was given a class for four years on an experimental basis.
It was your job to help re-inject new dynamism into theatre arts.
The section had been closed for ten years, since 1980, after Senghor’s departure. It was initially set up in 1964-65, in the same spirit that saw the creation of the Festival des Arts Nègres and the foundation of the Daniel Sorano National Theatre. At the time, the actors who graduated from the school with their awards were naturally recruited by the National Theatre, which was more or less a synthesis of the Théatre National de Paris and the Comédie Française. It was, and for that matter still is, the only subsidized professional theatre. At the end of the Seventies, two problems emerged. On the one hand, the theatre could not longer absorb the stream of actors who graduated each year, and on the other, several groups had emerged which, in political and union terms, were a little too vociferous. It was thus shut down in 1979. Then, in 1989, there was a political desire to reopen under pressure from the Sorano actors and other cultural and theatrical players who were worried about the lack of new blood, as the Sorano actors were getting old… So, there was a sudden move to try to regenerate the troupe.
« Les 7 Koûss » were in the class you were given?
Yes! The show we presented at the MASA was a school piece, an exercise.
It is a very sparse show which depends on the actor alone and which depicts Dakar life with a great degree of derision. What motivated this aesthetic choice?
I found myself faced with a contradiction. How to find a balance between the know-how I was supposed to transmit, and to transmit something that had nothing to do with the reality of the African actors. Of course, I am a little bit African myself! (laughter). I was obsessed with finding a balance between working on realities, individuals, and transmitting acting techniques. That is why I worked on private moments, which, moreover, are the very basis of the acting exercises invented by the Actors’ Studio. It is a matter of working on the self in a somewhat dialectic manner, between the self and the other, between the interior and exterior, whilst at the same time working on the major texts. In order that the actor finds a relation with his/her existence, experience, every time.
You give the students a method, a real pedagogical orientation, then?
The private moments are exercises which accompanied them throughout their studies. In the second year, I suggested that they compiled photo albums of their personal stories so that they could continually work on themselves whilst at the same time working on the texts. I think that for the actor, it is essential that each discovery of a text be a discovery of the self, a deepening. For that, it is necessary to create a memory of memory, it’s an acting technique, but it is also an exploration of the self. It is amusing that what was initially purely an exercise, a thing which in the milieu is destined for the bin, a means to an end, turned out to be the most interesting thing to perform, and hence the show was developed.
Did these young student actors find it difficult to turn the school workshop exercises into a professional show performed before an audience?
I was worried myself! Was it interesting beyond being an exercise? There was a risk of verging into a reality show, or into subjects that were too personal, which only concerned the individual’s own little stories, or which flattered the actors’ narcissistic exhibitionism. But it turned out that the nature of the photographic work, the observation of the Avenue Ponty, and the fact that they worked with no props or costumes, converged towards an aesthetic which went well beyond the performance, or challenge that the actors had given themselves.
At the end of the day, has it become a deliberate style?
They appropriated an aesthetic which I had suggested to them, and have managed to develop and to defend it. And this style is present in the very name they have given themselves: the Koûss are a kind of fighter elf with magic powers.
Do you defend « a poor man’s theatre »?
Absolutely. Grotowski is unavoidable. The theatre has the force to be poor. It doesn’t have to compete with film and television. I was also fascinated by Philippe Caubère, and the ability to do anything on a stage with nothing. And that is handy in Africa! (laughter) It is much easier to decentralize when all you have to do is show up with your body!
Have you had to make choices?
Working on the private has always been very delicate: you want the individual to go far, to explode, to delve into the very heart of him/herself. At the same time, I try to be extremely careful, and not to play with fire. It is very dangerous: you can destroy someone. There too, a balance needed to be found: what space do I reserve for myself as a teacher in order to push them further, and what is their own domain, in which no one should go nosing around? They were able to show the albums, they also did automatic writing. But we had to respect the idea that this was theatre, not psychodrama! (laughter)
How did you decide which moments of the work to keep?
I chose in function of the success of the work in theatrical terms, in terms of the interest for the spectator. And then there were those moments they became set on. Domestic violence: Cindarella for example! Unmasking that on stage is not at all easy for a Senegalese actress. There are real cultural issues at stake.
But the audience reacts favourably. You can tell they feel concerned. That’s what struck me at Grand-Bassam during the performance in the street where the children remained transfixed, clearly fascinated, with an amazing capacity to listen.
I’m sorry I didn’t see it at Grand-Bassam. I have some psychiatrist friends who were there, and who were deeply moved. They didn’t understand how people could laugh at these situations. They saw it as something deeply violent and dramatic. In the private moments, the characters are indeed practically all victims.
Have « Les 7 Koûss » got any other projects lined up?
They have just had the experience of having a piece commissioned by the French Cultural Centre in Dakar and the Ambassador of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and which was performed before a Youssou N’dour concert. They worked in the same style. They started out from real experiences and improvisation. But the thirty articles are particularly opaque and abstract, and they had to work hard at reappropriating them based on something concrete. The result was a 35 minute presentation, and we have been asked to make a whole show out of it. Above all, there is also the proposition of Monique Blin and Jean Claude Idée, the Belgium theatre director, who have decided to put on William Sassine’s Indépendan-tristes with « Les 7 Koûss » at the next Limoges Festival.
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