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Playwrights corner

Sarah Vermande
© DR
The Alchemy of a Hit
A face to face talk | Michel Vinaver and Jean-Charles Morisseau
An interview by Sabine Bossan

Michel Vinaver's play, 11 septembre 2001, was performed on the tenth anniversary of the event by fifty high school students from Seine-Saint-Denis at the Comédie de Saint-Etienne, the Théâtre de la Ville and the Forum du Blanc-Mesnil. The outcome of a remarkable experience, it won popular and critical acclaim. Michel Vinaver and Jean-Charles Morisseau tell us about it here.

How the Project Developed

Michel Vinaver I received a request through the Société des Auteurs on January 29, 2010 for the rights to perform my play 11 septembre 2001, and for a film, from Mr. Jean-Charles Morisseau, a businessman. The letter of motivation accompanying it stated that he had chanced upon the published text of my play fortuitously and wished he could see it on and if there were no such opportunity he would produce it himself. This is how the project was initiated.

Jean-Charles Morisseau A few days later I found myself with Jean-Marc Giri, the future producer of the film D'un 11 septembre à l'autre, facing Michel Vinaver. The "cross-examination" by Arnaud Meunier was less solemn but equally forthright. While I ended up being one of the co-producers and a sponsor of the play, the project as a whole eventually obtained most of its funding from national and regional institutions. We simply accelerated the process for the production. As Arnaud has explained so well, in the subsidized system it takes two years of work, one to raise the funds and one to do the project.

MV That's a minimum. Mounting a project like this would have requested two years before getting started. But we wanted to hit the tenth anniversary of the event.

JCM We got together with Arnaud and Michel in April-May 2010. That's when I said something a bit unusual, i.e. that I would finance whatever the State wouldn't.

MV There was one sentence that proved to be a key: "In any case we go ahead with it." And that was most unusual. We didn't have the money but we were going ahead with it. That sentence triggered the enthusiasm that spread among all the participants in the project, including the institutions. Usually you go to institutions begging for support. It was different here. You could say it turned the order of things a bit upside down.

Integrating the High School Students into the Artistic Process

JCM The project offered Arnaud Meunier an opportunity to bring young people who normally have no access to it into the artistic process. He proposed having the play performed by young people from Seine-Saint-Denis – a "hot" suburb of Paris -, which gave the project an exceptional dimension. He called upon the Citoyenneté Jeunesse organization, run by Jean-Michel Gourden, which carries out cultural initiatives every year in high schools and junior high schools in that département.

MV Arnaud Meunier had already worked as an associate director at the Forum du Blanc-Mesnil and runs frequent workshops with young people in that area. After observing that most candidates applying for admission to the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts came from the privileged classes, it seemed perfectly clear to him that he should try to bring young people from other social and ethnic backgrounds into the arts.

JCM Three high schools were chosen in Aulnay-sous-Bois, Bondy, and Noisy-le-Grand, mainly based on the teachers' involvement. The high school students from those classes took part in weekly workshops led by five professional actors from Arnaud Meunier's troupe who incidentally were included in the final cast. It was only after several months that they were offered the choice to continue the adventure or not. Desire and regularity of attendance determined who ultimately would be the fifty actors on stage. Seeing how much the high school students developed their concentration, artistic sensibility and interest in literature was extraordinary.

MV There was something particular in the producer's stands from the beginning, i.e. budgetary considerations were not an issue in discussing the options proposed. In particular, the one to work from the start with a hundred high school students and ultimately fifty high school students on stage, which would exclude the possibility of tours. And those were totally radical limits. The financial impact of this decision turned out to be even more drastic than what we first thought, after we found out that we were legally required to pay all the young people a salary per performance due to the fact that there were professional actors in the production. So it was a hybrid project, partly amateur partly professional, and since all the actors had to be paid, it meant that a considerable part of the budget would go to paying the young high school students who weren't asking for anything.

Democracy and Citizenship

JCM The pedagogical work was remarkable, on the part both of Citoyenneté Jeunesse and the teachers. Citoyenneté Jeunesse took them to see theater and dance performances throughout the year as well as art exhibitions and films, and the teachers worked on the project in their classes. In their French classes, for instance, where they were asked to elaborate on their feelings about the work in progress, orally and in writing.

MV The Aulnay class greeted me one day with a reading of a play they had written collectively "in the Vinaver style" about the Tunisian revolution, entitled 14 janvier 2011.
Le Forum du Blanc-Mesnil organized an evening at Arnaud's request to present the work to parents and close friends during the rehearsal process. They asked Citoyenneté Jeunesse to put up a big exhibit on all the project's spin-offs, including ones in other artistic fields. It was remarkable from every standpoint. Another thing that struck me was the way five professional actors from Arnaud Meunier's company, La Mauvaise Graine, led a hundred hours of workshops thereby decentralizing the work. Arnaud couldn't have done it all himself. Likewise, Gourden had five project assistants who kept permanently in touch with the high schools and the families to keep up the pressure and find solutions to problems.

JCM It was the initiative of Citoyenneté Jeunesse to bring an ethnologist and a sociologist into the classes to get to the bottom of the issues that were necessarily raised by the play. What did it mean to be a Muslim? An Arab? A fundamentalist? A terrorist? This approach really got the young people excited and thinking about these issues, and especially got them talking about a question quite common on a lot of web sites, namely conspiracy theories. After contributions from ethnologist Mourad Hakmi and sociologist Luc Boltanski, most of the issues lost their usual stereotypical connotations. The young people understood that the world is complex and they realized that a variety of visions of the world exist. Their outlook broadened. The change in these students' relationship with adults was also noteworthy. Especially with their teachers, they felt like they were listening to them more. Right from the beginning of the theater workshops the teachers took part to the exercises with their students. That totally broke down the codes, without impairing the teachers' authority.
Goodwill has always been one of Arnaud Meunier's watchwords. And it was the motto among all of us coming from different backgrounds: theater, education, business. We worked together in a very decentralized fashion. There was no boss. Everyone had a lot more energy and got a lot more enjoyment out of it because each one of us knew exactly why he was part of it and how to do it.

MV One day Jean-Michel Gourden, who escorted me from school to school, said: "What did we do today? We produced democracy."

From Project to Stage

JCM In January 2011, Arnaud Meunier was appointed director of the Comédie de Saint-Etienne. He soon announced his intention of organizing rehearsals and two previews there. It was totally unexpected and very distressing for those young people to travel so far from home in the middle of August, just during Ramadan. Arnaud found host families in Saint-Etienne for all of them. The impulse from Arnaud transformed the initial project into lots of other side events that constituted the final project.

The Alchemy of an Extraordinary Adventure

JCM I can't help adding that Michel's support and enthusiasm were always there for the project. As it moved forward, Michel played a considerable role through his presence. He attended rehearsals, he came to meet the young people in each of the classes, and they welcomed him like an ideal grandfather because of his way of always listening and being open to new things. I also want to ad that I was impressed by their professionalism on stage. They fully invested themselves in their parts, yet asserting their differences. They became proud of themselves, personally and collectively.

MV I was confident it would be a feasible project after the Morisseau-Meunier-Gourden trio was formed. It was a rare convergence of three people giving everything they had to a project - including their expertise in finances, the arts and education. Each of them fed the other two. The project had found its scope and specificity. They were full of enthusiasm from beginning to end. That's what distinguishes this adventure from everything I've known until now.

More :
(An excerpt from this interview was published in the SACD's Magazine des Auteurs :

D'un 11 septembre à l'autre, histoire d'une compagnie éphémère
(From One 9/11 to Another, the Story of an Ephemeral Company)

A film by Guy Girard produced by Jean-Marc Giri, Le Veilleur de nuit, and Jean-Charles Morisseau, to be broadcast soon on France 2.

This film features principally the population of three junior classes based in the Seine-Saint-Denis area, a Paris suburb. Throughout the entire 2010-2011 school year they rehearsed together on Michel Vinaver's text, 11 septembre 2001, written during the weeks following the destruction of the Twin Towers, with the intention of reflecting on this major event of the beginning of the 21st century and of examining its current conscious and unconscious impact on young people who were 7-8 years old at the time and are from highly diverse social, cultural and religious backgrounds.

The film, directed by Guy Girard, follows the students, who have no theatrical experience and who from one school to another did not even know each other at the beginning of the year. All the major phases of a true metamorphosis are evident in the young actors here, from the first meetings presenting the project to the students to the performance on the stage of the Théâtre de la Ville on September 11, 2011, including weekends and weeks of rehearsals during school vacations when they were focusing on this shared objective. As in Michel Vinaver's play, all clichés have been removed, leaving a film that vibrates with emotions, humor and poetry.

Their personalities gradually emerge and assert themselves, new challenges arise, and another story develops parallel to the theater project. Guy Girard's documentary tells it all with infinite goodwill without concealing the moments of tension that criss-cross this artistic and very human experience with the September 11, 2001 events as a backdrop.

D'un 11 septembre à l'autre, histoire d'une compagnie éphémère
© DR
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