Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sunday Feature: Pierre Simpson on Les Zinspirés 2.0

Écrire à coeur ouvert
Writing with an open heart or How teens can blow your mind
by Pierre Simpson

Pierre Simpson is a bilingual actor and director whose roles have included L’Emmerdeur, Le Dîner de cons, Les Médecins de Molière (Dora nomination and Rideau award), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Canadian Stage), Strawberries in January (Great Canadian Theatre Company) and The Bookshop (National Arts Centre). Directing credits include Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska and Ducharme’s Ines Pérée et Inat Tendu (Théâtre de la Licorne) as well as co-directing Oz by Vox Théâtre, whose cross-Canada TYA tour ran several seasons. Film and TV credits include Hannibal, Nikita, The Border and Let the Daylight Into the Swamp (National Film Board, Toronto International Film Festival). Les Zinspirés 2.0 is his second venture directing for Théâtre français de Toronto (TfT).


Creating Les Zinspirés 2.0 for TfT has been a long, exciting journey.

Spurred on by the success of the first edition of Les Zinspirés, version 2.0 started in September 2012 when we launched the writing contest that would find the source material for the show. Along with a team of writing coaches, I gave several conferences in Toronto-area French-language and immersion schools talking to grade 10-12 French and Drama classes about le conte urbain (the urban tale) a form of writing where a character appears on stage to share directly with the audience a story they’ve lived – be it zany, fantastical, spooky or tragic. After receiving approximately 100 short stories from schools across Southern Ontario, a jury at Théâtre français chose their 12 favourites and those young writers were invited to spend a long weekend at TfT where they received one-on-one coaching from professional authors and feedback from young professional actors who would bring their characters to life in a public reading to be held on the Sunday afternoon for friends and family. After repeating the exercise in the second semester, over 20 stories had been reworked. From these, five lucky finalists were chosen. This final group met to hear each other’s urban tales, reflected on how they could perfect their stories and brainstorm on ways to make them all part of one cohesive, yet eclectic whole. Multiple working sessions, Skype meetings and rewrites happened over the summer and by the fall : voilà! a solid draft was ready for the new team of actors to sink their teeth into. After 100 plus hours of rehearsal (and a few more tweaks to the scripts), the show is ready for its audience!


Le Conte urbain is far better known in Québec since, in the 90s, Montréal’s Théâtre Urbi et Orbi revived traditional storytelling in an urban and theatrical setting. Then, Théâtre le Clou, a wonderfully daring youth-focused theatre company, created Les Zurbains (a play on words of contes urbains where the ‘s’ sounds like a ‘z’) gearing the tales to a teenage audience – who would also be invited to write them. Critics and audiences raved and soon other cities joined the party : Québec City, Toronto and then Ottawa - which meant at least one story from each city was part of the mix of the Montréal-created show which then toured to each city. After being part of the team for several years, TfT’s artistic director Guy Mignault decided to see what might happen if not one, but all five stories came from Toronto-area youth, and the production were created by a team of local artists.

And so Les Zinspirés was born ! (The title loosely translates as ‘The Inspired Onez’). In February of 2012, thanks to an amazing troupe of actors, designers, staff and writing coaches backed by school and community partners, the show was met with both critical and public acclaim. The team was even nominated for two 2013 Dora Mavor Moore Awards in the Theatre for Young Audiences Category: Outstanding Ensemble and Outstanding New Play. I nearly fell off my seat when I heard the news. A year’s worth of work was not only warmly applauded, but also received peer recognition, I couldn’t have been more elated.

L’ANNÉE 2 – ET MAINTENANT ? (YEAR 2 – Now what?)

The stage was therefore set to give me sleepless nights and migraines heading into version 2.0. How could we top what had been unexpectedly achieved in year one?  The important thing was to start afresh: receive the new batch of stories as if year one hadn’t happened (yet I’ll admit we made sure to learn from a few rookie sidesteps in the previous edition).

Choosing the five finalists was no easy task. Year two saw an increase in participants – over 160 stories from 20 different schools. So many interesting stories had been workshopped, so many amazing young minds had captivated us, it made choosing a group of only five tales seem next to impossible. Even more so since in year one we had found a way to make certain characters reappear from one story to the next. But the range in tone and writing styles in year two was too wide to even consider that option (existential stand-up, a zany bromance, an online tutorial, an obsession-inducing soap opera, an examination of the impact of terrorism, etc). Then it occurred to me: “Hey, that’s interesting, we have quite a lot of stories that are set in or around hospitals…” And our connecting tissue was found! Of course, some stories weren’t initially located in a hospital, but were too good to pass up, so we simply found a way to massage them into the right milieu. 

And what a pleasure to get to know the new team of young writers: Emma, Eleni, Karen, Célia and Gab. They each have such a different view of the world, a different life path, and each with their own sense of humour and imagination. It has been a delight – and an inspiration – to work with them and their writing coaches over the past months going over characters’ motivations, clarity of narrative, central themes, expanding dialogue, making them more playable (as there is a wider gap in French between the correct written language and oral traditions and accents) right down to choosing the perfect word – and of course the perfect timing for a good gag!


After a shout-out on Equity’s e-Drive and Casting workbook, we held three solid days of auditions seeing over 60 inspiring candidates (who knew there were so many Francophone and Francophile actors hiding in the woodwork!) not including artists already well-known to TfT audiences. And I couldn’t be happier with the wonderful crew of actors we’ve assembled. Coming from very different backgrounds, training and working methods, somehow magically the chemistry has clicked once again this year and we’ve had a ridiculous amount of fun rehearsing, ending up doubled over in laughter while we explore these hilarious, oddball and touching stories.

Add to the mix a rockin’ design team – which includes none other than my set-designing Dad – and this strange hospital is popping into full colour.

I’m therefore more than excited to soon be sharing these ‘medical’ tales with a larger audience and welcoming you all into the insight and insanity that prevails.

After all, in the theatre, telling a good story is our raison d’être !

Runs Nov. 18 - 22

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