Accueil Biographies Biographies en anglais The Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis, a biography - Page 5
The Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis, a biography - Page 5
Article Index
The Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis, a biography
Page 2
Page 3
Page 4
Page 5
All Pages

Jobless, Saint-Denis accepted his only viable option, the directorship of the Centre Dramatique de l’Est (CDE) in Alsace, the first of France’s postwar decentralized theatres, which had been established in 1946. Theatrical decentralization was part of a larger governmental scheme to revivify the French provinces culturally and economically. As the Centre’s third director – the previous two having failed to win the population’s confidence – Saint-Denis was by far the most experienced in setting up theatrical institutions.  In taking on the position, Saint-Denis was returning to his roots when as a Copiau he struggled to create a viable company in the provinces. However, in 1953 he was fifty-six, his health compromised by a stroke several years earlier, and emerging from the devastating disappointment of Old Vic Theatre Centre. With an effort of will, Saint-Denis put aside his ambivalence and embarked on the project with energy.

 The task assigned him was to develop a drama school, serve as artistic director of the center’s theatrical troupe, and to oversee the design of the building in Strasbourg that would house them. Thus, he would realize his ambition of running a company and school in tandem and would have the satisfaction of designing a theatre in its entirety, once again with Pierre Sonrel as his partner. (Inadequate funding had forced Saint-Denis and Sonrel to abridge their plans for the Old Vic.) Saint-Denis began by engaging the troupe, which proved harder than anticipated. Actors were reluctant to leave Paris for what they regarded as the boondocks. A further obstacle was his relative obscurity to a younger generation of French actors. Jacques Duchesne was a national hero; Michel Saint-Denis the director was a stranger. Undoubtedly, having to persuade unknowns to come to Alsace with him was humiliating to Saint-Denis who had directed England’s greatest actors.  The inexperienced troupe placed an added burden on Saint-Denis; rehearsals sometimes resembled acting classes, as he strove to raise the performance standards.

The troupe operated on similar principles to the Quinze, touring almost constantly, carrying with them a flexible set, designed by the gifted Abd’el Kader Farrah, the last of Saint-Denis’ designer-collaborators. However, since Saint-Denis wanted to reach as wide a public as possible, he split the company into two sections of ten so that the tours covered seventy towns and villages, mostly in France, but included Belgium and Switzerland as well.  His first production (1953) was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, favorably greeted by audiences and critics alike. One positive aspect of Saint-Denis’ return to France was his freedom to experiment with Shakespeare. 

That same year while awaiting the completion of the school’s building in Alsace, acting classes were initiated in Colmar; technical classes were added when the school was completely set up. Initial coursework was rudimentary because of the limited facilities, small class size, and the tiny faculty of three: Saint-Denis taught improvisation, general culture, and theatre and art history; Magito, movement and acting; and Daniel Leveugle, a French director, acting. When the Strasbourg school opened in 1954, Magito was appointed its director, although the curriculum was Saint-Denis’. Actor training was expanded to three years: Saint-Denis had always judged two insufficient for all the speech and voice work that the students needed; additional movement classes were put in place; much of the student repertoire was changed to conform to French culture; and the student body was opened up to “foreigners capable of working in French.” This last was a necessity – at least at the beginning – if the school were to attract qualified students. Potential students reacted in much the same way as the actors Saint-Denis had auditioned in Paris. Once settled into the Strasbourg facility, Saint-Denis avoided similar problems with his faculty by bringing in a number of his trusted Old Vic teachers.

Saint-Denis’ multitasking with limited resources took a toll. He commuted approximately 50 miles from Colmar where the troupe rehearsed to Alsace to supervise the building of the theatre and to teach. In order to make the Centre more salient in the region, he wrote articles, gave public readings, and lectured. He struggled with his recalcitrant actors who resisted his perfectionism. (Approximately fifty percent of the company was replaced each season.) Pressures grew and in 1955, he suffered a severe second stroke, which temporarily left him paralyzed on one side, incapable of speaking clearly.

 Unable to continue for several months, he brought in two more of his Old Vic colleagues, John Blatchley and Pierre Lefèvre, to help Suria Magito run the school. Partially recovered, Saint-Denis’ health did not permit him to continue as the head of such a multifaceted organization as the CDE. He soldiered on directing plays until the end of the 1955 season when worn out, he relinquished the direction of the original play Le Pays noir Pierre Lefèvre. He submitted his resignation with the stipulation that he stay on until the theatre was up and running, though it would never be his to run.

Saint-Denis was not ready to abandon his career, albeit his ill-health. Nor could he afford to. A lifetime’s work in the theatre had not provided him with retirement funds.  Serendipitously, the renowned Juilliard School in New York City, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, had decided to integrate a Drama Division into its Music and Dance School. In searching out the best person to undertake its creation, they discovered Saint-Denis. Saint-Denis left the Strasbourg school in the hands of his loyal disciple Pierre Lefèvre and the theatre in the charge of Hubert Gignoux, a French director whose background was linked to the Copeau legacy.

The last dozen years of Saint-Denis’ life were productive. He advised, set up, and activated drama programs in the United States, Canada, and Europe. In 1960, he opened Montreal’s National Theatre School of Canada (NTS), which like Juilliard followed the Saint-Denis training model, with cultural adaptations. NTS was a prime mover in the development of professional Canadian theatre. In addition to setting up the curriculum, he engaged the faculty, and went to Montreal periodically to supervise and critique the work. In 1962, Peter Hall, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and admirer of Saint-Denis invited him along with Peter Brook to become his associate directors. Saint-Denis’ special mandate was the creation of a studio to train the less experienced company members how to approach differing styles, particularly epic and absurdist plays that were still new to English actors. After more than ten years of preparation, the Juilliard Drama Division opened in 1968. It was a leader in providing an alternative to the dominant Method-based teaching in the U.S. Saint-Denis devised Juilliard’s curriculum, consulted on the design of its theatre spaces, hired the faculty, and taught and directed a reading during the Drama Division’s début year before being struck down by a third stroke, which put an end to his professional life.

After leaving Strasbourg, he continued to direct in England. In 1960 he directed his first opera, Stravinsky’s oratorio Oedipus Rex at the Sadler’s Wells, conceptually different from his earlier production of Sophocles’ Oedipus. The highly lauded mise en scène remained in the company’s repertoire for fifteen years. At the Royal Shakespeare Company, he mounted Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (with Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, and Judi Dench) in 1961 and Brecht’s Squire Puntilla and His Servant Matti in 1965.

He was a very active proponent of actor training giving lectures internationally, involved in the International Theatre Institute (ITI), and writing. His first book, Theatre: The Rediscovery of Style is regarded as a classic in the Anglophone world. His second book Training for the Theatre offers a practical approach. 

    His death in London in 1971 saddened the theatre community, perhaps most in England where he had garnered his greatest reputation.