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Playwrights Corner


Author's Notes

Suzanne Lebeau
© Josée Lambert
Playwrights corner | An Interview with Suzanne Lebeau


Sabine Bossan I was determined to meet you to talk about the theme of playwriting for young audiences, and I’d like to thank you for accepting my invitation. I really wanted to meet a playwright who had decided to write for young audiences from the start.

Suzanne Lebeau I started out as an actress and came into contact with young audiences by accident when asked to perform in a show for children. It was love at first sight with them. More than love at first sight. A crucial experience.

SB What was the play?

SL It was a commedia dell’arte show; I don’t recall the title but I remember that Gilles Maheu played a silent Pierrot character. One thing in the show really struck me and triggered my desire to write for young audiences. It was the way the children linked reality and fiction. I was playing a talking character, so the children would come to talk to me after the show. But with Gilles, who was playing a silent character, they expressed themselves through gestures. That’s when I started exploring this issue, and haven’t stopped since.

SB Were you already a writer?

SL No. It was a decision I made to devote my life to young audiences, first as an actress and then as a writer because I wasn’t satisfied with the plays I was performing in. I wondered what writing for an audience of children would involve. My experience that summer gave me the impression that perhaps I should move in the direction of using the body more in my work. So I went to study with Etienne Decroux in Paris, and acrobatics with Étienne Bonot. I subscribed to ASSITEJ (Children’s and Youth Theatre Association) and spent entire days reading. I read and read and read. I read everything that was being done in developing activities for young audiences, by Maurice Yendt, Léon Chancerel and Catherine Dasté. In fact I worked on activity development with Catherine Dasté, as well as with Claire Etchérelli. That year Catherine Dasté opened the show Jeanne l’ébouriffée which created a lot of waves, mainly because of its open ending and structure in the form of a quest that never ends.
I was studying with Decroux and exploring what was being done for children. I was looking for something that would really satisfy me but never really found it. I was exploring all possible avenues. I was open to all types of experimentation. I worked with Annie Lavedan, whose group (GRAAL) gave schools the idea of using history-related plays for the children to act in.

SB Stage plays?

SL Stage plays with an upfront didactic intention to approach official history from a performing arts perspective. I explored everything possible. At the end of that year in France I went to Poland to see some children’s theatre there. It had started at the end of the Second World War in a newly Communist country that was following in the Russian tradition pioneered by Nathalia Satz in Moscow after the revolution in 1905 or 1917. It was sometime at the beginning of the 20th century at any rate. Children’s theatre in Eastern Europe already had a past and a solid tradition.
Puppet theatre was especially alive for two important reasons. First, one readily associates puppets with children because puppets are a symbolic language in themselves, and you can say some very complex things with just a few visual elements. There’s another reason why puppets became so popular in countries that experienced long occupations such as Poland and Czechoslovakia. ‘‘Art’’ was censored and the larger theatres were used for the invaders’ official productions, while puppetry was a smaller genre that was closer to the people, less censored and more mobile, and could easily escape from police control. So great artists were happy to work with puppets.

SB It was theatre as a form of resistance. That seems quite clear from what you’ve been saying.

SL Absolutely. So this repertoire and the various forms of puppet theatre had been developing for over two hundred years, as opposed to our countries where puppets were long seen as a minor art form. In Eastern Europe, puppet theatre was intended for the entire family, and mainly for adults. The companies performed the classics and contemporary theatre, fables and popular legends through puppets. I can still recall some of the productions I saw thirty-five years ago. I remember, among others, a production of the Threepenny Opera using little wooden sticks, Aucassin et Nicolette, and a Passion Play by Ghelderode. In Eastern Europe puppetry is a very complex theatrical language.
After checking out the various towns and companies I decided to study for a year at the Wroclaw puppet school and Puppet Theatre. I knew I might find what I was looking for there ? even though I didn’t know exactly what that was.
I came back to Quebec after two years in Europe and was signed up right away by a company that did shows for young audiences. The Théâtre Soleil was presenting two productions, one for younger children called La Forêt Merveilleuse and another for 9-12-year-olds entitled Le Bal Masqué. Each production was performed over a hundred times in six months. In the first production I spent the first twenty minutes behind the curtain and only came onstage in the second half. It was a golden opportunity to listen to the play and to the children’s reactions. The play was in a conventional children’s theatre style, a moralistic fable with whimsical child characters who disobeyed and came back to the established order after being saved by the Angel Fairy. I was really dissatisfied with what I was performing in, and I got in the habit of going out to talk with the children in their classrooms and playgrounds after the performances, to find out what they thought about what they’d seen, and most of all what they would like to see. That’s when I wrote my first play.

SB How old were you?

SL 28. I also met Gervais Gaudreault at the Théâtre Soleil and we founded the Carrousel where we staged the play I wrote after talking with the children, entitled Ti-jean voudrait ben s’marier... mais. I wrote it and we both performed in it, and toured it. Then I had my son, François-Xavier, for whom I wrote Une lune entre deux maisons. He was barely three and I took him to see all the shows that weren’t targeted for such little children. He wasn’t the only one. They were receptive, liked going out with their parents, and there were so few cultural activities really geared towards them that parents took them to see things meant for the older ones. My son made me want to write for little kids and Une lune entre deux maisons, the play that brought attention to my work in France, remains a pivotal one for me. At the time, I was working with three- to five-year-olds in creative workshops. So I knew them really well and loved their way of approaching the world and other people with an inexhaustible string of ‘‘why’s’’.
Une lune entre deux maisons was the first play I wrote after closely observing the audiences I was trying to reach, and in my writing over the following thirty years I remained close to those audiences I was trying to get across to. There are many reasons for this ? all of them quite valid ? including trying to understand audiences going through constant biological changes and their perception of the world, hearing the words they use to talk about it, convincing the adults related to these children that, yes, you can talk to them about the world they live in and you shouldn’t create a parallel artificial world in two dimensions and pastel colours that may be prettier but is also false. Spending time with children on a regular basis helped me to understand that they are always far more subtle and intelligent than we think, far less vulnerable than we imagine, and far better informed than we would like, even if the information they are getting is often fragmented and reduced to big headlines that are more terrifying than information that is assimilated and well-thought-out.
After writing Une lune entre deux maisons I remained present for the children, taking risks with form and content from play to play, tackling sensitive issues that adults would rather have hidden from the children, as if children didn’t already know way more than what they could learn from a show. For me, writing involved a long series of limits to be pushed back, borders to be crossed, and constraints to be negotiated in order to reach my goal.

SB What kind of constraints?

SL Constraints coming from adults who want everything we say to children to be strictly monitored.

SB Which adults wanted that?

SL The ones who came to the shows, bought the shows, promoted them and reviewed them. At the opening of L’Ogrelet in Montreal, one critic wrote: ‘‘for gifted children only, accompanied by their parents’’.

SB They seem more like barriers and prejudices than constraints.

SL Yes, real barriers. And fussy censorship. Adults have a hard time when anyone interferes with the idyllic image they would like to have of their own childhood or the protective bubble they want to surround their children with. And I was constantly fighting my own self-censorship, flushing it out, hunting it down and silencing it. I remember when I was writing La Marelle. I was working on the relationship between children and the elderly, unproductive time, and the life cycle that takes us from lying down to standing up, walking and lying back down at the end of our lives, with all the accessories designed for infants such as diapers, baby food, liquid food and so on.
I started a play entitled Les enfants ridés, which I never finished because I was afraid of the terrible parallel between these two life cycles and especially because I didn’t want to present the children with that vision of reality that was so depressing. I stopped writing that play and began writing La Marelle, a much more consensual play about a wonderful day spent by a grandmother with time on her hands and her grandchild who is just sick enough to get to stay home for the day.

SB You wrote something really beautiful when you introduced yourself: ‘‘I want to talk about life in all its complexity, without trying to give simple answers to questions that are anything but simple.’’

SL For me, the only true questions are the existential ones. What am I doing with my life? Does anyone love me? What am I going to do this morning?

SB So they really are simple questions, for me at any rate.

SL They may be simple questions that are necessary and obvious, but they require more than simple, definite answers. The answers are as complex as life itself. They follow the movement of life, with its doubts, changes and ‘‘approximations’’. Wanting to be right when it’s a matter of existential issues is very dangerous. I don’t want to be right when I’m talking to children. I can easily accept the idea of just being one human being with another human being. That’s the way art works.
When you work with and for children you have to be careful not to fall into the trap of the traditional one-way didactic relationship that exists between children and adults, where the adults are the ones who know and the children are the ones learning. I prefer to share my doubts and questions with them because the answers are always temporary and personal, and hard to apply to everyone in every situation.

SB Can you raise the issues of death, illness and birth with children?

SL They’re the only issues that are worth looking into.

SB The wonderful thing with you is that you refuse to give simplistic, formatted answers.

SL Absolutely. Taking the example of death, before starting to write I ask myself what image of death the children I’m dealing with have. Before the age of nine a child can’t assimilate the idea that death is universal and irreversible. That’s the first constraint.
Then I have to accept the idea of only speaking in my own name, about my own relationship with death, while knowing full well that my relationship with death has changed over the years and will continue to do so. That would be my starting point for working on the theme of death, with the memory of the experience I had at my father’s death. My daughter was three and a half, my son was twelve and I was forty. We each had our own way of saying that it was serious, painful and incomprehensible, that we couldn’t explain death in itself or know why death appeared at that precise moment in our lives. Here’s a comical anecdote that illustrates the logic of a little child faced with the inexplicable. At the age of five, my son had a goldfish that died shortly after he got it. I bought him another goldfish, which also died. We bought a third goldfish that joined the other two in the toilet. For my son it had become a normal path. The fish was in the bowl. It died. I threw it in the toilet. It came back to the bowl. I was confused. I wondered what I should do. Buy another one?

SB Your plays have been frequently staged abroad. I’d like to know what it gives you to be confronted with other writers, other ways of writing and other ways of thinking. What do get from the reactions of children in other countries?

SL My first experience of a foreign audience was in Lyon during the RITEJ (International Children’s and Youth Theatre Meeting) in 1981, with two productions, Une lune entre deux maisons and Les Petits Pouvoirs. It was a big shock. The first show, which was for really little children, had gone unnoticed here, whereas the second one, designed and written for 9 year-olds and older, was very well-received by the audience, promoters and critics. In France, it was just as cut and dry, but in the opposite way. Une lune… turned out to be a big success that kept the show going for two years, and Carrousel performed it over 800 times. The play was translated into five languages and performed by many other companies in various countries, whereas Les Petits Pouvoirs shocked French audiences which couldn’t identify with these ‘‘ill-behaved’’ children. There was no follow-through, no translation, no foreign production, even though it was a big hit in Quebec.
It was our first contact with foreign audiences. Since then I’ve met a lot of them, and every time I’m really surprised. L’Ogrelet, which was mildly successful in Quebec, was well received in France and caused a scandal in English-speaking Canada, and South American audiences literally adored it. Since 1981 my plays have had an ongoing international career. L’Ogrelet was translated into 9 languages including Greek, Russian and Mayan. Salvador was translated into and published in Spanish and even in Persian, Petit Pierre is going to be performed in Mandarin next summer in Taipei and probably in Hong-Kong and Shanghai. These experiences are troubling and fascinating. They continually challenge your point of view and context. I love experiences that force me to closely observe these different audiences and wonder about their interest or lack thereof, their ability to enter into an intimate situation and world view or not. Why the resistance, why the fascination? These questions remain a vector in writing for young audiences as marked by their age as adults are by their culture and association with a particular socio-cultural group.

SB Could you talk about your current work in Quebec and in France, the performances and new plays?

SL 2008-2009 is an important season for me in both Quebec and France. First Théâtrales is going to publish two books, the first French publication of Contes d’enfants réels, a play that is quite sought after in France but is hard to find, and my latest play, Le bruit des os qui craquent, which is going to be published in Quebec by Leméac. Then the production is going on tour in France in January, February and March, followed by performances in Quebec at the Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui, a theatre for adults.
Like many of my plays, Le bruit des os qui craquent triggers some very strong reactions from adult audiences. It was particularly intense this time, and I don’t really understand why. I’m used to challenging adults and their vision of a sweet, idyllic childhood. I’m used to the kind of shock waves that grow every time you connect children with real ? and negative ? emotions. Ultimately, adults can tolerate real joy, but real anger experienced in the moment ? as opposed to being described ? is far more threatening. This play talks about the everyday reality of child soldiers, a reality that unfortunately exists, even though people pretend it doesn’t.

The play features a young girl, Elikia, who is 13 when we first meet her, and she is fleeing a rebel camp. We learn about her life with her family before she was kidnapped, her life with the rebels (from age 10-13), and the last two years of her life (from 13-15) in a hospital, through a notebook in which she writes things that cannot be spoken, and through a nurse who stands in Elikia’s place before the Commission that has summoned her. The play goes back and forth between the girl’s story of her own childhood and the story of that same childhood as told by the nurse who takes her in.
I was thinking of the children whom I wrote the play for, and consulted with them at several points in the writing process. With my experience of children, I feel that Le bruit des os qui craquent was really written with them in mind. It tells the story of Elikia, a child soldier, but others can also identify with her. The characters, Elikia and Joseph, are pro-active, still capable of affecting their own destiny. They are never just helpless victims. I also took care to preserve the kind of trust in adults that children want and need to be given. The nurse is the counterweight to the adults who kidnapped Elikia, beat her, mistreated her, raped her and dragged her through the war’s most horrific atrocities.
This hope that children receive cannot be perceived as directly by adults. They identify more with the nurse who wasn’t able to prevent the death of Elikia, who finds herself before a lukewarm and indifferent commission. The adults all feel implicated as if they were members of this lukewarm, indifferent and helpless commission. In a more direct way than any of my other plays, this one asks the following question: can a play that moves adults also be shown to children? The questions have only just begun, but the performances already appear to be generating a lot of intense debate. The readings have triggered some moving and fascinating exchanges between children and adults.
I’ve always thought ?and still think ? that a good children’s play or production can reach adults and touch them directly, since they were all children at some point in their lives. And I’ve always thought that a production that isn’t good for adults isn’t good for children either. The adults grabbed hold of Le bruit des os qui craquent from the first reading in December 2006 and immediately decided that it was too harsh, too raw, too powerful, and too moving for children. I know all about that ‘‘TOO’’, which reminds me of something Joseph II said at a rehearsal of The Abduction from the Seraglio: ‘‘Too many notes, Mozart’’.
I know that ‘‘too much’’ all too well ? in the eyes of adults, parents, teachers, promoters and critics who accompany their children to performances. The ‘‘too much’’ can be used to judge and qualify the aesthetics, the gravity of the subject, the intensity of emotion, or the complexity of the dramatic line. Everything is subject to censorship in the eyes of the adults judging a work made for children. So I take the adults’ comments into account mainly to try to reassure them, the upset adults, and sometimes to convince them of the children’s subtlety and moral strength. In writing I focus on the children’s comments, which guide me through the various phases of an idea, in the choice of a metaphor or structure, in the transition to the stage, in how I present the show to them: the size of the house and their age (I remain very involved in what happens with my plays after writing them). And I am extremely fortunate to be part of a company.
It isn’t the adults’ condescending or critical eye, or the comments often tinged with subjectivity and inspired by the best intentions that make writing for children so difficult. It’s the fact of being an adult who wants to ?and absolutely has to? avoid the traditional didactic relationship between children and adults. The relationship with art cannot be founded on a relationship where one of the sides possesses the truth and the other side is there to learn. I can only share a partial and biased vision of the world with the children, a snapshot made from two intimate experiences ? mine, which is that of an ageing woman with her passions and likes, her rages and aversions, and sometimes indignation, and that of each member of the audience. That unstable and always precarious balancing act is what stimulates and excites me, keeps me alert through all the complexity involved in playwriting. It’s a tightrope act. I enjoy writing for children at sixty just as I did at forty, but as a different person then, for different children ? those from twenty years ago. And there’s one thing above all that people tend to block out and forget when it’s about ‘‘the children’’, which is that you’re writing for children whose one common ground is their age, if that, while their experiences, temperaments and environment are all completely different.
For ongoing and future projects, as well as those already fulfilled in the 35 years during which I’ve been writing for young audiences, there have been few compromises, and no consensus about my work. I’m suspicious of a widely consensual response to a play, and it’s a miracle when it happens. I really don’t think you can write, produce work and create while trying to generate or build a consensus. In the arts it just doesn’t work that way.

  Suzanne Lebeau interviewed by Sabine Bossan  
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