COMEDIE DE SAINT-ETIENNE - Centre Dramatique National
The extraordinary vitality of theatrical life at Saint-Etienne draws on a long tradition.
Molière would have willingly spent time here....
Is this another case of "Napoleon's syndrome", which, if we are to believe all we are told, has affected half of French towns, always ready to attract tourism?
Instead, here the frequent sojourn of numerous travelling drama groups, dating back to the 19th century, offers a more serious testimony of this vitality based on a type of quality amateur dramatics whose talent is partially drawn from the city's numerous working communities.
Having arrived from Grenoble, Jean Dastè installed his company entitled Les Quatre Saisons here in 1946.
Thanks to the commitment of Jeanne Laurent, an exceptional promotor of theatrical decentralisation in the post-War government, one of France's most important drama centres was set up in October 1947.
Dastè continued to be its director until 1971.
Twenty-five years of theatre at Saint-Etienne, focused on a repertoire that was initially based on French classical authors, although the contemporary Brecht also frequently appeared on the billboards.
Twenty-five years of theatre at Saint-Etienne which left the mark of a profoundly popular theatre, often staged outdoors in the city's squares, or under a marquis.
These were the years of the attic of the Ecole des Mines, the venue where the newly formed Comèdie de Saint-Etienne was first set up and rehearsed, the years of the acrobats and tourneés through the villages which have been immortalised in Ito Josué's photographs.
When Jean Dasté retired at the beginning of the 1970s, he was replaced by Pierre Vial who took over managing a theatre that was in complete harmony with the city. At his new production of the antique settings of "Les Mutilés du Travail", Vial attracted large and enthusiastic audiences from a wide range of social backgrounds.
Pierre Vial was succeeded by a "two-headed" management team: Guy Lauzin and Daniel Benoin. From 1978 onwards, Daniel Benoin took over single-handedly. At under thirty, he became the youngest director of the Centre Dramatique National de France. Having previously worked with the Théatre dell'Aquarium as an innovative and talented producer, he embarked on an intense restructuring of the Comèdie and extended its field of action.
Contrary to the trend at the time, he set up a permanent artistic company as the cornerstone to his creation; Daniel Benoin used decisively modern aesthetic choices to re-interpret the classics, but above all relied on the contemporary repertoire. For the past twenty years or so, the cultural setting of this region has been distinguished by a modern theatre, enacting modern life.
However, this did not mean overlooking the popular base and commitment of a public theatre. Owing to the presence of a permanent company in the city, the Comédie was able to attract a much broader audience to its new theatre, which was inaugurated by Jack Lang in 1981, culminating in today's 10,000 season-ticket holders. With a total population of around 300,000, this is a record and is the outcome of 50 years' work.
Concerned with the importance of leaving an inheritance and a teaching structure, Daniel Benoin set up the Ecole de la Comèdie Saint-Etienne in 1982, which was destined to become one of the leading drama school in France. Admission tests are held to select talented young actors from all over the country, and occasionally from abroad, for one of the ten places available. After a three-year course, the links with the city are well-established and many young artists have moved there. Within the space of just a few years, Saint-Etienne has become a melting-pot of talent in the field of life entertainment. There are now about thirty theatre companies who perform for most regional, but sometimes national audiences.
This is also one of the strong points of the Comèdie's policy: decentralisation, a constant process of decentralisation, to ensure that CDN helps new talent to emerge. By regularly welcoming different regional authors, the Comédie also offers them technical systems and the audience of a major institution.
In this context, Daniel Benoin was appointed director of the Theatre du Parc d'Andrézieux-Bouthéon in 1991, at the request of Francois Mazoyer, the then mayor. This cultural structure boasts a medium-sized theatre (368 seats) and stages about 20 plays every season of which 2 are produced by the Comèdie de Saint-Etienne.
From January 2001 onwards, a new theatre, known as "l'Usine", conceived as a creative, modular and alternative venue, will be opened in January 2001 and will allow plays to be staged, but also musicals and dance, in a constant interrogation on the classic relationship between stage-setting and the audience. Particularly focused on youth creativity, through a purely contemporary repertoire, it is hoped that this additional space will attract a new audience.
In 2000, the first performance of "Crave" by Sarah Kane in France, in a production by Daniel Benoin, provided a foretaste of the spirit underlying this place.
But the most characteristic feature of the past few years was undoubtedly the European inauguration of the Comèdie de Saint-Etienne. Founded some twelve years ago, through Daniel Benoin's initiative, the Convention Theatrale Européenne now numbers over 30 theatres in 20 different countries.
It forms an extensive European network which aims to foster cultural exchanges of people and ideas, and share production resources. The focal point of the network is the Forum du theatre Europeén, which was set up at through the initiative of the General Council of the Loire and the Comèdie de Saint-Etienne (the fifth meeting was held in June 2000 on the topic "The actor at the dawn of the 21st century").
These meetings have become key appointments for European professionals who testify their personal experience and form a basis for future creations. An extraordinary issue of the magazine "Du thèatre" published the main points discussed at the Forum. Every year, one of the countries present reviews the situation of drama throughout Europe.
The general public regularly attends performances of foreign plays. A few years ago, it was Wilson's turn to perform at Saint-Etienne, followed by Ronconi, Vassiliev, and Lev Dodine last year. In the same way, the Comèdie's plays regularly tour abroad. In fact, since 1980 Daniel Benoin has been one of the French directors who has most frequently worked in major European theatres. He recently produced the sets for "Don Giovanni" in Antwerp (1997), "Herr Puntila and his man Matti" at the theatre in Bonn (1998), "The Miser" in Stockholm (1999) and Seneca's "Trojan Women" in Seville (2000).
The Comèdie decided to open its doors after 1992 precisely in order to allow leading foreign directors to stage their first performance in French, like: Jerry Grzegorzewski (Don Giovanni), Manfred Beilharz (Le reveil du printemps), Dusan Jovanovic (Lorenzaccio)...
This simultaneously enhanced the level of local productions, through the vocation for popular theatre, and also ensured a European diffusion that defined the actions and policies of today's Comèdie de Saint-Etienne.
The dynamism that this body has retained since its foundation gives us hope that we will be writing at even greater length about it in a few years' time.