Mormon Artist

Jean-François Demeyère

Photo courtesy Jean-François Demeyère

How did you become a member of the Church? 

My mother joined the Church when I was a little child. I was baptized at the age of eight. My father did not join the Church until I was twenty-one.

How did you first become interested in theatre?

My parents were teachers, but they worked in a very proactive way. They were involved in new pedagogies and included a lot of art in their work. I always performed in theatre and when I was a child, I wrote plays so I could direct them. I used to invite friends in my neighborhood to perform in plays with me during birthday parties, special occasions, and holidays.

Who are your favorite playwrights? What themes are you particularly drawn to?

As a classical author, I like Pierre de Marivaux, a French novelist and dramatist who lived in Paris from 1688 to 1763. Marivaux was a Christian dramatist who often wrote about love—what love really is—and showed in his plays how we need to feel a deep changement de coeur, or change of heart, before loving with all our being.

Recently, I more often find myself directing contemporary plays and am very much engaged in a sociologic or political way. For example, in 2004 we staged a play about the September 11th attacks, and in 2008 we staged a play about the Chechen War.

Where did you study?

I studied in Belgium, in the Mons Royal Conservatory and in the Brussels Royal Conservatory. I graduated in 1993.

You direct plays, but you also write them. Can you describe your process and the main differences between these two crafts?

To direct plays is a collective project. A director needs to work with actors, to experiment with some of their feelings, to understand what information and which comments they need to receive to help them to play at their best. But the director also needs to deal with costumers, scenographers, sound and light creators, and technicians. And, of course, playwrights—when he has the chance to meet the playwright before beginning a project.

To write a play is a totally different activity. Writers work alone in connection with their own feelings and thoughts and without any constraints. I feel freer when I write, but directing actors is more exciting.

You have also expanded from theatre to coaching and communication. How did that come about?

Theatre helps us to express our feelings more easily, to feel comfortable before an audience, to work with our voice and our body. And those qualities are receiving increasing praise in the business world. A friend of mine who is a member of the Church urged me to give some communication lessons in two communication schools. Since then I have developed a lot of tools I use during communication seminars.

Photo courtesy Jean-François Demeyère

Tell us about some of the major theatre projects and activities you have been involved in during the past few years.

I created an amateur dance and drama school in south of Brussels in La Hulpe called La Maison de la Création. This school is accueille, or home, to nearly 500 students every week. Each year, the ten teachers prepare forty plays and shows that are performed in a theatre at the end of the term.

We produced a play about 9/11 that we performed during the Festival d’Avignon in 2004 and it was a tremendous success. A lot of journalists spoke of our project with high praise, including in Le Monde, l’Humanité, and Les Echos newspapers and on Radio France International.

How did your 9/11 play come about?

I directed this play, written by one of the most famous French dramatic authors, Michel Vinaver. I read the play—11 septembre 2001—in a library in 2003. It was a shock to me. I always desired to speak about the attacks in Manhattan and the play was exactly what I wanted to put on a stage. Working in collaboration with Michel Vinaver was a very exciting moment and we seemed to agree on everything. He was very proud of our performance and invited all his friends to come and see the result, so we met a lot of big names in the French theatre scene.

How has the gospel influenced your work?

First of all, I try to work with the spirit. This means I try to direct actors like I teach a class in the Church, with love, understanding, and knowledge. I often tell the actors that theatre is a magic moment when the audience must feel something that they probably won’t be able to identify with their thoughts or words.

After that, let’s just say that I try to create inspiring projects with Christian themes. Sometimes the subjects are hard; they can deal with violence, racism, parents not filling their responsibilities, etc. But there is often an idea behind the show—we can do better, we can improve ourselves.

You are currently writing a play based on the correspondence between Joseph and Emma Smith. What was the genesis of the project? How is it currently evolving and what is your vision for the show?

I think we must speak about the love that existed between Joseph and Emma Smith. When I first read the Joseph Smith correspondence in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, I was deeply touched. I wanted to know more about this couple; I wanted to partake of what I discovered. I think we should read by heart the letters as they were written, without adding anything, just as we read the scriptures. But at the same time, I would like every person involved in the project to talk about those letters—about the qualities of Joseph and Emma as husband and wife—and even to ask the audience to take part in the project.

Tell us about the plays you perform with students and amateurs in people’s homes.

It is a great pleasure to be invited in people’s homes to perform plays. When we play in the kitchen of a resident of my village, we are so close to the twenty or thirty persons sitting there that it creates a very warm atmosphere. It helps friends and neighbors feel closer to each other. It is always something special to speak with the visitors after the show.

Photo courtesy Jean-François Demeyère

Your wife is also a theatre graduate. How does that help or complicate matters professionally?

She helps me with everything. She gives me advice. We pray together when we need to make a big decision. I speak to her when problems occur. She understands because she also works in the theatre. She helps me to build scenery, to find accessories, to welcome the audience. And she helps me stay wise with the budget. Without her, I could not live my passion.

How has the gospel influenced your work?

Mormonism is a creative way of living. Every member of the Church is invited to create in his or her own life and own relationships. With the help of God, we are chef d’oeuvres—masterpieces. Art is a precious way to praise God. It does not mean to always directly preach the gospel or to convert the world.

Art has little to do with delivering specific messages. We as artists need to let the audience form their own idea about a subject, just as good missionaries do. But above it all, there is a power—the creative power that can touch lives.

In this age of multimedia, how can theatre still speak to younger generations?

Theatre evolves. It now has little to do with texts only. We can create shows with sound, video, and body performances. The essence of theatre is to meet one with another in a special place to experience an emotional moment. The younger generations are as concerned by the theatre art as the older ones.

Do you have any particular project you would like to see come to fruition in the future?

I would like to produce and direct my last play in Paris. The play is called Youssef. It explores racism, violence, and the difficulties entrer en relation—relating one with another in this world. But it also speaks about a world where we can all be brothers and sisters. ❧

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