Author, singer, actor, director, Abdel SEFSAF is a multi-faceted artist and human smuggler, who was appointed director of the Sartrouville Theatre, a national drama centre, on January 1, 2023. The DRAC Île-de-France went to meet him to highlight his atypical career path, his commitments, his vision of the territory and his project for this emblematic theatre of theatre decentralization founded in 1966.
After training at theÉcole nationale supérieure d'art dramatique de Saint-Etienne, Abdelwaheb Sefsaf participates in several productions by Daniel Benoin and Jacques Nichet. In 1999, he founded Dezoriental, a world music group with a meteoric rise that gives more than 400 concerts in the most prestigious national and international festivals and signs several albums at Sony Music with the prestigious Dreyfus Label. In 2006, the group was awarded the Coup de coeur de l'Charles Cros Academy.
Abdelwaheb Sefsaf, the new director of the theatre of Sartrouville © Émile Zeizig - MASCARILLE.COM
Then, as an actor-singer, he works with Claudia Stavisky and Claude Brozzoni around the show When will you kiss me? , theatrical and musical adaptation of the texts of Mahmoud Darwich and Jacques Nichet with whom he receives with Georges Baux the Grand Prix of the Syndicate of Critics "Best Stage Music" for the show Casimir & Caroline Ödön von Horváth. In 2011, together with set designer and visual artist Souad Sefsaf, he founded the company Nomade In France with the ambition to develop a musical theatre of new forms that crosses the ages, cultures, traditions and genres, a theatre of openness and decompartmentalization. From 2012 to 2014, he was Theatre of Roanne – Scène régionale (Loire). In 2014, he created his first theatre text, Medina Mérika, which will go on tour for more than a hundred performances and in 2018 receives the prize of the Jury Momix, international festival of creation for the youth of Kingersheim. Since then, there have been seven shows, including the last two So far so close and Ulysses of Taourirt form an intimate diptych on the story of his childhood and the story of his Algerian immigrant father who arrived in France in 1948. He created in collaboration with Georges Baux, Marion Guerrero, Marion Aubert, Rémi Devos, Jérôme Richer, Souad Sefsaf, Nestor Kéa, Daniel Kawka, André Minvielle and a large team of technicians, actors, singers, visual artists, directors, in a permanent exploration of the relationship between music, theatre and video. In collaboration with the ensemble Canticum Novum, his next creation Kaldûn, around the deportation of Algerians and Communards in New Caledonia is scheduled for autumn 2023. In parallel with his creative projects, he leads large-scale cultural projects involving writing, theatre, music and video.
What are the challenges for a director of a national drama center in this territory of Sartrouville and Yvelines? What will be your priority objectives?
The first challenge is to be able to encourage creation. To do this, we must be able to develop the theatre’s resources in order to support creation and develop audiences, increase them and meet them. It takes an audience to see the creations, which is why the first objectives are there. That is why I wanted to associate four artists, Margaux Eskenazi, Odile Grosset Grange, Mathurin Bolze and Maurin Ollès, with my project, in order to give this impetus and indicate the intrinsic multidisciplinary nature of the project. This pluridisciplinarity is proposed in the identity of this place since it exists, since it is a national scene that merged with a youth CDN, thus having at the same time, in its identity, youth theatre and a multidisciplinary character.
© Christophe Raynaud de Lage
What project will you implement towards the inhabitants?
imagine a transversal project aimed at bringing these audiences together
The department of Yvelines is a very dichotomous territory, with priority neighbourhoods, poor cities, other rich, some hyper-urban, others very rural. It is a very extensive territory, a territory of History in which lives a history of immigration and a history much older than the History of France. There are indeed very important heritage sites, not to mention the Palace of Versailles! In short, it is a place where contemporary history and the history of France mingle. For me, it is a real challenge to imagine a transversal project aimed at bringing these audiences together; the challenge is precisely to circulate them, at the same time as the artistic proposal is being circulated. That means a lot of outside walls, especially through the festival Odyssey in Yvelines, which in essence is a nomadic festival, reaching out to the Yvelinois public, and offering proposals in the program that will be for the outside the walls. That is to say, proposals that can be created on the trays but that will have a version outside the walls, which we will accompany with a device that we will equip ourselves with next season: a carbet. A carbet is an Amerindian construction whose principle is a roof and no wall, to allow precisely this nomadic character, in the cities, the countryside, on the squares, protecting itself from the elements but not from the looks. By settling under a carbet, we will obviously arouse curiosity, and that is precisely the goal.
I met theatre through decentralization, through the very notion of cultural law that embodied the idea that we were all entitled to culture. So I was not left out when, sociologically speaking, I was not predestined to meet the theatre. I met him anyway and I made it my job. So I know what I owe to that idea.
How did you go from actor-singer, songwriter and director to theatre director?
© Renaud Vezin
It’s not all separate. I went to a national drama school. So I trained as an actor and I started by being an actor, before becoming a director out of desire, that of playing certain works and certain roles, especially. It was a desire of actor, I was director also to play me these roles and to direct my friends. Indeed, my first company was rather built around my graduation from school. Then, as I went along, I had to write for the director that I had become texts that went to places where I had things to say, things that I wanted to hear and that I didn’t necessarily hear in the theatre. Gradually, I became an actor, director-author. Music, in the end, has irrigated all this from the beginning. I actually started with music. When I was a teenager, I had a band, and when I started my first company, the first musicians in that company were my younger band. It was with these musicians that we founded the band Zoriental. We didn’t expect the band to be successful, we started composing together in March, in June we played at our city’s music festival, Saint-Étienne, in July we recorded in the studio, in October we signed with Sony and in July of the following year, we were at the Francofolies de la Rochelle, etc. It happened very quickly and I didn’t expect it at all.
I really wanted to do musical theater
For a while, the music completely took me out of the strict sphere of theatre, because it took up a lot of space. We did 80-90 dates a year, with international tours, which takes a lot of time. It was an adventure where I was constantly busy with my profession, and it was there that I greatly deepened my relationship with music. I also trained in music through this experience, my academic training being theatrical. I only did music for seven years and when I came back to the theatre it was no longer possible for me to separate the two. So I really wanted to do musical theatre, which is a theatre that integrates those two disciplines, which are my two passions. I naturally wanted, when I had the feeling that I had created an identity, artistic in particular, to share it with others. For me, the best way to do that was to integrate equipment, to integrate a theatre, because that’s where you can build from. The CDN have the particularity of being directed by artists, and to accompany the projects of this artist. The identity of CDNs, for a time, is the identity of the artist. At some point, and for me, it comes with a certain maturity of the project, which was necessary. It was to there’s this notion of transmission, of sharing, and that’s what led me to this desire to run a place.
You mention the word "identity" several times. Do you think it is possible to have an identity? Is it possible to give an identity to a licensed theatre? What is the identity for you?
identity is the inverse of immobility: it is movement
An identity is something in perpetual motion. Identity is the opposite of immobility: it is movement. An identity is written every day, it is written as we meet. Simone Signoret said "We are the children of the people we meet". I will do for the first time, as part of the festival Odyssey in Yvelines, a young audience creation, a fantasy I’ve always had. I’ve always pushed back the deadline, but when I took office and inherited this magnificent festival, I said to myself that I couldn’t go back, I had to start. So I create my first young audience show, which will be called Beautiful Malik. Malik is the story of a musician I’ve been working with for a number of years. Taking reality into account, I have put together a fiction, a count that addresses children from the age of 8 and which, I hope, will be an intergenerational count. Malik was born under X in the slum of Nanterre. He was adopted by a couple of fishermen. On the occasion of a trip to the sea, they throw the nets and bring a violin to it… Malik will take care of this violin and, as he plays the notes of this violin, he will pull up the thread of his identity. For me, Malik’s identity was a blank page, more than any of us. He wrote it, literally and figuratively, throughout his life. We always have a part of our heritage in our identity, and a part of things that we build. We sort through what we are given, and then we build, day by day. For me, cultural identity is this: the notion of sharing, of movement. An identity is built more from the point of view of where we go, what we put in the common pot, how we build a cultural identity, a common culture, how it is inclusive, how, in relation to the notion of national identity, we are all future French, if not all past French. It is something that fundamentally brings us together and puts us all on an equal footing so that we can all contribute, regardless of our heritage.
As a multidisciplinary artist, what inspires and nourishes your creations?
reveal the intimate can be the most universal form of artistic expression
© Émile Zeizig - MASCARILLE.COM
What feeds my creation is the encounter with people. Very often, I write shows after meetings, based on testimonies. What stimulates my desire to write are other works and reading. I had, literally, emotional shocks through readings. It often makes me want to start writing. Quite often, when I go to the theatre, or see shows, and I take a big slap, the first thing I want to do is write myself. It is as if my inner being were vibrating, because daily life extinguishes it. We tend to become dull, to dry up. And there, suddenly, in front of a work of art, we can find this state of vibration. That’s when I want to write. This is where I think I am most fair and most profoundly saying what I am fundamentally. Because it’s about revealing myself and others. The only works that challenge me are, I believe, those that are immoral in the sense that they really tend to say one thing about the artist who speaks to me, without cheating, without varnishing, with a desire to reveal oneself and to go deeper into the intimate. Revealing the intimate can be the most universal form of artistic expression, because when you provoke the intimate, you realize that feelings are universal. This is what makes me want to write or compose. What inspires me the most is the exchanges.
The Kaldûn project is a perfect example of this, since in this project, there is a parallel project of video documentary around the notion of how we transform the encounter, the sensitive, into an artistic act. In this project, I rewrite what I am told, what I am told, but I am not making anything up.
What does your next creation Kaldûn say?
Kaldûn also tells the story of Aziz... The story of Aziz meets the story of others
Kaldûn tells the story of three revolts, three peoples and three continents: the Paris Commune Revolt (1870), the El Mokrani Revolt (7 months after the Commune Revolt) and the 1978 Kanak Revolt. Kaldûn retraces the fate of Louise Michel who was sent to prison for seven years in Caledonia, thinking she was sentenced to life in prison, even though she claimed the death sentence to join her comrades who had been shot. It is also the destiny of the Hâtai warrior, whose head was cut off, lost and claimed for 150 years after having been exhibited in France, and notably at the World Exposition, will not be buried until 2021 and, the mourning lifted in 2022. This fate without trajectory, without burial, is also that of other burials, since communards will also be buried without burial, in mass graves, without even knowing who is buried there, or even the exact place of the location of their corpses. Kaldûn also tells the story of Aziz, one of the two leaders of the insurrection, El Mokrani and Sheikh El Haddad. The story of Aziz meets the story of others, of Louise Michel, of Hâtai, and so many others.
Aziz will be deported to Caledonia at the time of the Commune, with all the others. The communards will be amnestied after 7 years and, on their return, plead the cause of the Algerians who get the amnesty of their sentence 24 years later, which is huge for having only defended their land. They are amnestied from their prison sentence but not from their prison sentence and are therefore always prisoners for life on what is called the rock, that is to say the main territory of Caledonia, the great land. It is the only population that does not have the right to repatriation, even though they were deported without their wife and their children, even though most of them had wives and children in Algeria. To acculturate them, they are forbidden to wear a Muslim name, they are married to make strain… We realize that in a single generation, they lose language and culture. This man, Aziz, will have part of his life in Caledonia, but tries to return to his land at the end of his life. He paid for a commercial boat to go to Sydney, Australia, then from Australia to Marseille before going back to Paris to join his communal friends. He joined Paris and more precisely Belleville. Tired, old and ill, he died in Belleville. These communal friends, aware of his desire to be buried on his land, contributed to each other and sent his remains. By announcing his arrival, thousands of individuals converge to welcome him. But, hearing the rumor, the governor of Algiers hijacked the boat and made the remains disappear. So this is the story of Kaldûn, which I will tell in music, by the verb and by the video, because there are several prisms to this story. The end for me, and the project, is to make through this artistic act a form of burial for those who have not.
You yourself have experienced racism in your lifetime, and even as a theatre director. How did you experience this violence and how did you manage to digest it?
diversity-parity is for me the same battle
Thanks to my father’s memory: he always had his values of appeasement. He could have been a diplomat had he not been an orphan and had to go to the mine. He has always gathered, appeased and I want to be faithful to his memory and his values.
© Renaud Vezin
When I think about my first memories of racist violence, I find it hard to tell myself that I really experienced it – I was outside, chatting with a friend of mine during Ramadan. There have been extremely violent manifestations of racism. It went through a lot of things, the way you look at yourself when you want to take an apartment.... There are plenty of examples like that. Finally, there are things where you simply want to live, to exist quite normally. But even in the cultural professions! When I start my company and I become a director, it is because it is not easy, when I am called Abdelwaheb Sefsaf, that I am distributed in the role of Dom Juan or in a major role of a Shakespeare play.
Today, we are in a cultural environment that seems to be more enlightened, more benevolent, but that still perpetuates that. Indeed, I very quickly become aware of the fight to be waged, I realize that I would be, if I do not fight, a child for life, just like the women who fought the fight to finally be considered adults. Because it’s exactly the same thing. Diversity-parity is the same fight for me. I recognize myself perfectly in women who are applying for positions and are well aware that they do not fit the dominant model. They have an obligation to create legitimacy, to convince themselves that they are legitimate to be in that place. The first path is that. Then, of course, it’s more difficult for them afterwards. We’re much more afraid. I personally experienced the same thing, I didn’t fit the model either, and I had to convince myself of my legitimacy first. Finally, I find this determination in the calm and soothing memory of my father. The motivation comes from my children. I want to build for them a world in which they will not encounter all this. It is utopian, but I have the impression that my appointment, which was not without difficulty, is still something that is going in the right direction. It’s still symbolic, even though it shouldn’t be anymore. Over time, I realize that you have to rise, as always Amin Maalouf, which is an example of appeasement and distance.