School of English, Film, Theatre, and Media Studies, 2017.
Phil Mann shares his experiences as an island-hopping cowboy with Theatre student, Lisa Kiyomoto-Fink.
At one end of the stage Phil Mann swaggers forward, gun in hand ... mimed, of course. At the other end, Jim Spalding faces him off with the mean glare of a cowboy villain. The fight begins; a whirlwind of blows, rolls, and slapstick routine.
“The audience loved it. We had to stage extra fights for them sometimes.”
Théâtre des Îles, in English ‘Theatre of the Islands’, was the French-speaking theatre company dreamt up by former Victoria lecturer Jean Philippe Jugand. With funding from the French Government, they toured New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Tahiti in the 1970s, bringing theatre to places no theatre had ever been before.
“It was incredible to perform to the children especially because they had no expectations. Although they’d never seen drama, they understood mime … Jim [a former Theatre lecturer] didn’t speak a word of French. But he was very good at mime.”
Although slapstick and comedy were a large part of creating accessible drama, Théâtre des Îles mainly performed absurdist theatre.
“If you wanted to characterise Théâtre des Îles you’d say Molière, absurdist drama, Ionesco, Alfred Jarry.”
Absurdism is a philosophical movement where it is believed that the quest for meaning will fail; in other words, everything is absurd. In theatre, this means that random and illogical characters and events are often on stage for no reason.
Phil mostly directed, and Jean Philippe and Victoria lecturer Claire Jugand, often played the main roles. As native speakers, they had the most capacity for French.
Students from the French department were exposed to real, living French by acting and could improve their language skills. There was plenty of educational motivation, but the most important thing was that the cast and audience enjoyed themselves.
Phil quotes David Garrick: “‘We who live to please must please to live’. If people aren’t interested in what’s going on, they won’t come.”
They wrote their own plays as well as performing French playwrights. Take all of the cowboy films you’ve ever seen ... and roll them into one. There you have ‘Du petard a ditchwater’, written by Phil and translated by Jean Philippe.
“Writing our own work was quite important”, says Phil. “We were really quite a radical group, [in terms of] what we were performing.”
Travelling overseas didn’t come without its challenges. “We found it very difficult the first time [we toured]. There were 15 or 16 students, we brought costumes with us, did everything ourselves. In New Caledonia we travelled by bus all the way around the island, creating theatres as we went.”
When there weren’t any suitable places to perform in, the company had to build their own stages.
The company became smaller after the first few tours, a close-knit group of regular performers. “Everyone had their own adventures”, swimming, diving, dining ... and the time Phil knocked his two front teeth out. He just so happened to be staying with the local dentist, so after a quick fix it was back on the bus and on his way.
The locals were extremely hospitable, with plenty of people offering their homes to stay in when there wasn’t other accommodation.
“In New Zealand in those days, if you didn’t have something, you made it.” That’s what Phil, Jean Philippe and Claire did, providing new opportunities for both students at Victoria and audiences overseas. After the three moved to China, the theatre group disbanded.
Phil concludes, “Théâtre des Îles was of its time … I call it a great adventure”.