Brisbane French Theatre is a Francophone theatre troupe based in Brisbane which stages plays in French. We spoke with Isabelle Johnson of Brisbane French Theatre about the new play Les uns contre les autres (“Us and them”), an original play written by Thomas Smith of the Brisbane French Theatre troupe.
To start, I’d like to talk a bit about the play, then a bit about you and of course about the Brisbane French Theatre generally. So, you’re the director of this play?
Yes, that’s right. So I am directing this play and I’ve directed a few plays for the Brisbane French Theatre.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’ve lived in Australia since 2006 but I was born in Montreal, in Canada. A lot of people in Australia don’t realise that there are about 8 million Francophones in Canada, mostly in the province of Québec, from where I come.
I’ve always liked theatre, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do professionally. It’s mores so a personal passion. Amateur theatre in particular is a a great opportunity for individuals to express their creativity and to meet interesting people, all while keeping culture alive. I am really happy as an expatriate to be able to do that, in French, in Australia.
It’s something that I was not expecting at all because I didn’t know that French theatres were popular. I discovered in 2016 that it’s something that exists in lots of cities across the world and in several cities in Australia. With a little group of passionate francophones we decided to found the Brisbane French Theatre to bring plays in French to the French, francophone and Australian francophile populations. We also realised that a lot of Australians are fascinated by France, by the culture, and look for opportunities to practice, so we are happy to be able to add that cultural aspect to our little city of Brisbane.
Actually, I had a few questions prepared and you’ve already touched on them. Were you among the 5 people who founded the Brisbane French Theatre?
Yes, we were initially recruited by a young Australian francophile who decided to put on a play in French with surtitres in English, with a local community theatre group, Growl Theatre. After this wonderful experience, we were all hooked, and as there weren’t any opportunities to do theatre regularly in that cadre, we founded our own entirely French theatre company. There are only 2 original members left today, Thomas Smith and I.
You said that French and Francophones come to your show as well as Ausatralians who are learning French. What ages? Is it children, adolescents, young and old? A bit of everything?
We present plays for audiences of 15 years and over. There’s nothing really shocking in our plays but we decided to enjoy ourselves with plays which treat more mature themes, as that’s the sort of theatre that we like.
That said, a lot of high school students comes to see us, that is students from 14 to 16 ans who come to see us with their teachers.
It’s great that French students can come to see a play in French in Brisbane. Is it true that the Brisbane French Theatre is the youngest of the companies?
Yes, absolutely. I know that in Melbourne, it’s been 44 years, and in Perth, Sydney and Adelaide, it’s between 5 and 15 years!
So your next play is Les uns contre les autres (Us and them). It’s an original play. Could you please tell us a bit about this play?
Yes, of course. So the play Les uns contre les autres (Us and them), was written by the Brisbane French Theatre. It’s a play which explores more mature love themes than we’ve dealt with in the past.
We looked at the people around us. We looked at our own experience of lockdown, of coupled life, questions that we often ask ourselves in our 40s: are we living our best life? Are we as happy as we deserve to be? In the play, our female characters ask themselves if they are really fulfilled. If they are happy with their partner.
And men ask themselves questions too “But what is it to be a man in 2021? What do women want from us?“
So there are serious themes but they are treated with humour. We hope that people will leave the theatre having laughed a lot, and having been touched too. I think that people will identify with the characters.
I am proud of the writing work of Thomas for this play, it’s going to be a great show and a new chapter in the evolution of the BFT.
The play follows an evening among 2 couples and a newly single female friend after a COVID-19 lockdown. Could it simply be a night together after not seeing each other for a long time?
Yes, indeed. The play starts at an evening at a couple’s house who are hosting a couple and a newly single female friend. Through the night, the girlfriends, who are somewhat dissatisfied with their own marriages, will listen with envy to the new life of the single woman, and the men will feel threatened by the new perspective that the single girlfriend brings.
So in the tradition of French tragi-comic cinema and theatre, there are truths that are going to come out.
So it’s really the moment for these couples to examine their relationship.
Yes. The couples come to a to a crossroads where decisions have to be made. Should they try to mend fences? You have to come to the play to find out.
There are 5 characters in the play. Are they all played by French people?
The character of Coco is played by a Belgian.
Ah, a Francophone Belgian from Wallonia?
Yes, exactly. Coralie Vangeyte, comes from the city of Liège, in Belgium.
And this play was written by Thomas Smith?
Yes, Thomas was born in the North of France, and has lived in Australia since 2011.
In this play, are all of the characters people born in Francophone countries rather than students of French?
Yes, that’s right, they are all native Francophones. And the play takes place in Lyon, so we are going to transport you to a universe which is just like French life.
And your plays are always performed by native Francophones?
In general, yes, but it depends on the play and the characters. It’s important for us that it’s credible. We have had the pleasure of integrating Australian actors into our plays in the past, when it was appropriate, that is when there were roles for people with an Anglophone accent.
And apart from your work as a director with Brisbane French Theatre, what do you do?
I am a a communications specialist at heart, and today I help companies to adopt new ‘circular’ business practices.
Ah, that’s quite a change. What is the ‘circular economy’?
The circular economy is an economic model that aims to minimise waste and pollution, to regenerate natural environments, and try to extend the life of objects and materials. It is a green economy, in short.
And so you migrated to Australia in 2006 or had you come to Australia before that?
Yes, I came in 2006. It was my first trip. I came with an Australian boyfriend on a backpacker’s visa, and I fell in love with Australia and the city of Brisbane. So I stayed.
Ah, so you’ve still got family in Montreal?
Yes, my family is in Montreal, and I live here with my partner and son.
And have you been able to see them at all with COVID-19?
Unfortunately not. We all look forward to seeing each other when we can, so normally I’m always lucky enough to be able to go back every year for holidays and my family come to see me regularly. But right now, we’re really looking forward to seeing each other again. In the meantime, we’re having video messenger parties.
Technology definitely helps. Did you do any theatre before you came to Australia? Or before the Growl Theatre that put on the French plays? In Canada or in Australia?
Yes,. I’ve always liked community theatre, when I was little I always dreamed of doing theatre. I also studied theatre at university.
And do you ever perform or are you always directing?
Yes, when I can, I love being on stage. I’ve performed in a few Brisbane French Theatre plays and I love to direct. I find it is a very challenging and very satisfying challenge.
How does the Brisbane French Theatre choose the plays that it will perform?
In the beginning, we we were constantly scouring the French theatre libraries, looking for funny, interesting, modern French plays that had production rights available. It was quite a challenge, and another challenge we had was to find plays that matched the actors we had, because obviously French-speaking actors in Brisbane are hard to come by.
So we were lucky to find L’Étudiante et Monsieur Henri, and Pendant ce temps by Simone Veille, but it was so difficult to find the right one that Thomas at one point decided to try to write a bespoke play: Hélas Avril.
We soon realised that he had a lot of talent so since 2018, all of our plays are written by Tom.
Actually how many of you are there in the Brisbane French Theatre?
That is to say, we have a small community, we have a core group of people who are in the BFT, but then from play to play, we do auditions. Since its creation, the BFT has gathered about thirty actors and volunteers.
That’s great and also with your own writer, Brisbane French Theatre is the only troupe performing these plays.
Yes, I think so. I know that other theatres in Australia flirt with the idea, and I encourage them to do it because culture is something you have to keep alive. It’s really great to allow yourself to do it, to create new plays.
How many plays does the Brisbane French Theatre perform per year? Normally, when there wasn’t COVID-19 and lockdowns?
One or two, depending on our availability and timetables. Everyone has careers and lives outside of the theatre so it’s a lot of work to put on a show. So sometimes we find that one per year is more manageable but in other years, we have done two.
And how long do you spend in rehearsals? Does it depend on the play?
In general, there are a little more than 100 hours of rehearsals per play, without counting the writing and all of the production work. So it’s generally about 3 months of rehearsals, evenings and weekends. We had a mini-lockdown recently and had to do our rehearsals via zoom. So that wasn’t ideal.
What a challenge!
Exactly, we pivoted like the rest of the planet.
And if someone would like to perform in one of your plays, what should they do?
We are always really happy to meet new people who want to be involved in the theatre, whether it be as an actor, as a volunteer, as a member of the technical team. Sometimes we have open auditions, so we publish the date and everyone can come. But in any case, contact us if you would like to be part of the theatre in a future show. We love meeting new people.
Do you have a preference for them to be French, Canadian, Swiss, Belgian or could it also be French speaking Australians too?
French language skills are usually extremely important for stage acting. For some production roles, you also really need to understand what is going on. Depending on the play being presented, chances are good that the roles have to be performed by someone who can credibly pass for a French person, which is not even the case for everyone. As a Quebecer myself, it’s quite an effort to try to change my accent!
I was going to say at the beginning that you don’t have the very strong accent that I’ve heard in others from Quebec.
Yes, but that’s because I am making an effort for you. I want to make myself understood!
We always try to make room for Australians in our cast, but it just depends on the roles available.
And their level of French.
Yes, that’s right. It’s generally not for people who wish to learn French, but Anglophones can be volunteers, at front house for example.
What is your favourite Francophone play?
If I had to choose just one I’d say Art by Yasmina Reza. It’s a story which speaks to me a lot and which I find very, very fun and I dream of staging it for the Brisbane French Theatre.
You’ve presented other works by Yasmina Reza right?
We did two Yasmina Reza plays in Brisbane, with Growl Theatre. The first was Trois versions de la vie and the second was Le dieu de carnage.
Is there anything else that you’d like to tell me?
I’m often asked whether it is essential to speak French to come to our plays. Not at all! There are always a lot of Australians in the auditorium and the surtitres mean that everyone can enjoy our plays. We even simplify the text so that it is easy and fast to read and the feedback that we have had is that it is most definitely possible to have a great night at the theatre without speaking French.
We thank Isabelle for this interview.
Tickets are selling fast so if you’d like to attend the next play by Brisbane French Theatre, buy your tickets immediately!
KEY INFO FOR THE PLAY LES UNS CONTRE LES AUTRES (US AND THEM) BY BRISBANE FRENCH THEATRE
WHAT: Les uns contre les autres (“Us and them”), a play in French, with English surtitles from Brisbane French Theatre
WHERE: Queensland Multicultural Centre, 102 Main Street, Kangaroo Point
14 Octobre 2021 – 7:30pm
15 Octobre 2021 – 7:30pm
16 Octobre 2021 – 1:30pm
16 Octobre 2021 – 7:30pm
HOW: Buy your tickets via this link: https://www.trybooking.com/events/landing/777500
HOW MUCH: Ticket prices are as follows:
School students $15
Have you already been to a Brisbane French Theatre show or a performance from another Francophone theatre group in Australia?
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