Dom Juan or The Feast with the statue - Interview de Steve Tientcheu
How did you find yourself on stage at Théâtre de l’Union?
I started theatre when I was 25, training at Cours Simon in Paris. I ran into someone I knew, Alice Diop, who made a documentary about me: Danton’s Death. She followed me over two and a half years, as I was working on a theatrical production, filming my relationships at the school, with my fellow students, my teachers… Straight after training, I mostly worked in cinema. Jean Lambert-wild and Lorenzo Malaguerra saw Danton’s Deathin a festival in 2015 or 2016, and that’s how they got in touch with me.
Had you done any theatre before going to Cours Simon?
Never, no. My first time on stage was at Cours Simon. But you know, life is theatre, it’s drama! Especially where I grew up, in the City of 3000 in Aulnay-sous-Bois: it’s drama! There are many born actors there, so you see, I had my own training!
It is quite unusual to have someone follow you for two and a half years! How did Alice Diop find you?
We used to live in the same neighbourhood, in City of 3000: she lived in the building next to mine. This is why I was able to open up quite easily: we knew each other very well. She is like an older sister, so it wasn’t hard for me to let her follow me with her camera. I wasn’t fake, I didn’t lie when I answered her questions. At least, she had legitimacy, so I could really speak to her about the times I felt weak and the times I was happy. The documentary was released in 2011 and it won an award at Cinéma du Réel festival. Since then, it’s been like a business card for me.
What happened the first time you met Jean Lambert-wild and Lorenzo Malaguerra, after they got in touch with you?
We had agreed to meet in a café in Paris: they introduced themselves, explained what they did, and they invited me to a performance of Richard III – Loyaulté me lie. They were then doing a run of it at Théâtre de l’Aquarium, near Porte de Vincennes. After that, they invited me to a sort of audition, they cast me in the show and told me I was going to play Sganarelle.
Did you have any thoughts on how you were going to play Sganarelle?
No, but to be honest, it’s best not to have any! Especially in theatre, it’s best to build a part over time. I haven’t been on stage since I left Cours Simon. I have to admit, I don’t go to the theatre very often, I don’t really read plays. Not because I’ve been put off or anything, I really like theatre, but I find it’s harder to work in theatre than in cinema if you don’t know people. If Jean and Lorenzo hadn’t come to find me, I don’t think I’d be doing theatre today, even though I like it! Theatre is the real deal: it’s dope, it’s a real blast, it’s where you give all you’ve got… There is enormous pressure! Personally I prefer theatre to cinema, even though cinema is full of stars and glitter, people recognise you on the street! But it’s another kind of work. When you’re on stage, you can’t lie, the audience and their reactions are right in front of you…
What led you to Cours Simon, how did you tell yourself: this is what I want to do?
I had wanted to be an actor for a very long time. I didn’t speak to anyone about it, apart from two or three ‘grands frères’ from my neighbourhood who encouraged me. I couldn’t afford to sign up to a course, I wasn’t working, and it costs money to train at Cours Simon, Cours Florent, all these theatre schools. Then at 25, I had a job, I told myself that it was time to do it. I told my family, who were really supportive, but I still hadn’t told any of my close friends. They found out on my last day at Cours Simon, after three years, when I had to perform in a show: the day before, I told them to come and see me…! I discovered Cours Simon while I was working as a security guard at a doctor’s surgery in my neighbourhood. I’d told the receptionist that I wanted to take theatre classes, and she said: ‘go to that school, I wanted to go but when I arrived outside the building I got scared to go in’. She gave me the address, and that’s how it started. I didn’t even know Cours Simon before then. When I had talked to one of the ‘grand frères’ about it, I had thought I was going to attend local classes at Théâtre Jacques Prévert, in Aulnay-sous-Bois, and that I would take it from there. But then, aged 25, it really was a big ambition for me.
You trusted your instinct…
Yes, and when I first walked on stage, something happened in me, something divine or spiritual maybe, I don’t know how to say it, but in my heart and my mind, it was like an earthquake. I had never experienced that, it was like I’d been struck by lightning. The lights caught my eye, I totally panicked, but it wasn’t an ugly panic… It was something else: I had found my path. I had prepared a text but after three sentences, I forgot everything, and the teacher said: ‘stay here, come to see me at the end of the class’. And I remember very clearly: as I was waiting, in my head I was thinking: ‘do I behave like a banlieusard, tell myself this isn’t for me and clear off?’ Because to be honest, to tell you the truth: when I first got into the class, I was the only tall Black person there. The room was full of white people. It was a new context with new codes. When you get to Paris, you think you know Paris but you don’t: there are codes, ways of being… It is a fortress, and we, we’re the peasants around it. At the time, I had a real tendency to never finish what I started. And especially to not believe in it. But I stayed until the end, and the teacher said – it was the first time a teacher spoke to me like that: ‘you, you stay here, I want to keep you here, it’s obvious that you’re a good person, I want to work with you.’ I’ll remember that forever. I got home and I told my mother: this is what I have to do. Because to be honest, I hadn’t done well at school, I stopped in my second year of high school, I had barely done anything in my life. I hadn’t done anything bad, but yes, I had my little life in the suburbs. If I had left that day, if I had left that room, told myself ‘this isn’t for me’, I think I would have screwed up my life.
I find it moving that you speak of it like an almost spiritual experience. I imagine then that it is a pleasure for you to go back to performing on stage?
At first, it’s hard to get to know the stage again, but after a while, I think it’s like cycling: as soon as habits return, it’s OK! When I left Cours Simon, I didn’t have good memories of Molière! But now, I understand it better, I read in verse better, and I think it is magnificent.
So if you weren’t too keen on Molière, what convinced you to go back to it? Was it because it was an opportunity to return to the stage, or was it the fact that this is a slightly unusual project?
Both! And the opportunity to work with Jean and Lorenzo. When I saw Jean’s CV and Lorenzo’s CV, I thought: they are really hardworking… It’s a big challenge. I couldn’t afford to say no. It was a re-assessment for me, and a way of bringing myself up to standard, to see what I was capable of, because I haven’t been on stage in such a long time… This comes at the right time, it means I can see where I’m at. The rehearsals are absorbing. It’s tiring, but it is a good work routine, for me it really means going back to work. This is why I couldn’t afford to say ‘I’m not doing it’.
How do you see the collaboration between Jean Lambert-wild, Lorenzo Malaguerra and the Academy’s students?
What I like is that when we work in this way, there are no status on stage. I am at the same level as the students, Jean Lambert-wild is also at the same level. Working in cinema on the other hand, there are always statuses, hierarchies, everyone knows who’s who. Here, when we get into the room, we all start from zero. It is a good way of working. If there is something I don’t feel good about, I can say, even if I’m not on stage at that specific moment. Everyone has their say.
It’s a good way of working…
It’s important, it means that if you fall, someone will lift you up to your feet, and that’s what makes a troupe’s spirit, a collaborative spirit. In fact, more than a troupe, we are a mission. This is rather how I see it: a mission of legionaries in the jungle. Because it’s nice to say we’re a troupe, but there are troupes in which things don’t go well! But on a mission, you have to help your mates when they’re on the floor.
How are you approaching playing the part of Sganarelle? You said you were going into rehearsals without preconceived ideas. How has the character evolved over the rehearsal process?
Sganarelle represents naivety, beauty, he is respectful of divine laws, but he is also impressed by Dom Juan, who is his master. He is impressed by Dom Juan’s life, his ways of thinking, he wants to see this dark side. When he sees Dom Juan, he learns that hell, the devil, exist. But he has to respect Dom Juan, because it’s thanks to him that he eats! This is how I see Sganarelle: his naivety makes him nice.
How are you creating the part, in relation to Jean Lambert-wild’s Dom Juan?
With trust. Jean is a reassuring actor. When I work with him, when I’m onstage with him, I feel reassured. I think Jean is someone who gives 200% of himself: when he goes for it, he goes for it. I want to be at his level, so I pay attention to what he does, the way he performs… I also pay attention to what Lorenzo does, because Lorenzo doesn’t say much, but everything is in his eyes! That’s it: I am attentive.
This gives the impression of a rehearsal room in which everyone is very present, in the moment.
We have a really good team: technicians, costume makers, the administrative staff, everyone. The Théâtre de l’Union team created conditions that means I have to be on it. I only focus on the stage.
How important do you think it is to adapt this play today? You were telling me about the fact that Sganarelle sees that hell exists through the figure of Dom Juan: is it important for you to perform this now?
Yes, it is important, and it can also be timeless. Nowadays, I see more Dom Juans than Sganarelles: on the streets, in high places of the administration, in high places in religious institutions, where they can control quite a lot of people… nowadays, it is them who have the floor, in the media, more or less everywhere… When Molière was writing, Sganarelle was the star, Dom Juan was on his own. Well, they were many Dom Juans but they weren’t showing themselves like they do nowadays. The way Dom Juan thinks is written into the scenes, in the way he speaks. It is incredible that Molière was able to see that.