Les Zinspiré.e.s : Writing and Imagining Adolescence

Written by Isabelle Kirouac-Massicotte – University of Toronto

Since 2011, Les Zinspiré.e.s has been a playwriting contest for high school students in southern Ontario (teenagers from 14 to 18 who speak French either as their mother tongue or as a second language).  In so doing, it promotes the use of French in Ontario to younger generations. The five selected finalists see their plays performed on stage at the Théâtre français de Toronto. The idea of ​​having young amateurs (who may become professionals in the future) collaborate with experienced theatre practitioners is reminiscent of the community and semi-professional origins of Franco-Ontarian theatre. Needless to say, the Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario, the first company in French Ontario, was founded in the early 1970s at Laurentian University in Sudbury through the efforts of young artists themselves barely past their own adolescence. Likewise, the Théâtre d’la Corvée, founded in 1975 in Vanier (Ottawa), was a semi-professional company where most of the actors were amateurs who learned the trade by practicing it. The Zinspiré.e.s teenagers, with support from writers and actors, participate in a creation process true to these Franco-Ontarian roots and is inclusive and non-elitist (though the idea of elitism still clings tenaciously to the theatre). Thus, they are free to express themselves in their own words, with their own expressions and vocabulary: these are issues that are still relevant today, especially in a minority Francophone environment where linguistic insecurity is still very real. The 2019 version of Les Zinspiré.e.s scripts stirs together normative and oral forms of French – isn’t the orality already implicit in the name “Les Zinspiré.e.s”? – and English, whether it is integrated into the text or emphasized in its difference with italics. In any case, they are free to write as they wish which allows for great inventiveness.

It is indeed an adolescent form of writing – Alain Masson would call it “écriture sauvage[1]”, writing that, without carrying a pejorative meaning, is characterized by its originality and its non-conformism, its immediacy and its refusal of any form of opacity.  It also brims with a distrust of institutions hearkening back again to the pioneers of Franco-Ontarian theatre. For the most part, these short plays display a rebellious relationship to authority as embodied by the figure of the teacher, that invariable icon of adolescence. But the scripts of Les Zinspiré.e.s have nothing childlike or frivolous about them: they reveal the anxieties of youth. Far from showing the superficiality and narcissism we associate too often with adolescence – this isn’t about “boy meets girl” or the football player choosing a university that his father doesn’t approve of – these “damned youngsters” manage to translate the immediacy of the everyday, which may seem  banal but actually leads to observations about society as a whole. The anxiety – the anguish! – about academic achievement, this feeling that accompanies us from childhood to adulthood, is a pretext for looking at issues of productivity and hyper-performance. Moreover, the lessons learned at school, be they La Fonction sinus or La Troisième Loi de Newton, serve as metaphors for more universal realities. The most advanced form of school anxiety is certainly linked to the obsession with school shootings, as seen in such vehicles of popular youth culture as 13 Reasons Why or Degrassi: Next Generation.

The creations of Les Zinspiré.e.s challenge the idea of disengaged youth. They are a reflection of a generation that is aware and hungry for social justice. Its targets are widespread: from the education system to poverty endemic among indigenous children, from plastics in the oceans to gender stereotypes. But the different forms of anxiety, including eco-anxiety, are also offered with humor; some of the scripts are educational in nature, minus the moral tone. In a way, Les Zinspiré.e.s is a potential incubator for the next generation of Franco-Ontarian theatre. This is no small thing: to encourage and support our successors in a minority setting is an important challenge, crucial for the vitality and future of theatre.

Isabelle Kirouac-Massicotte – University of Toronto

[1] Alain Masson, Lectures acadiennes : articles et comptes rendus sur la littérature acadienne depuis 1972, Moncton, Éditions Perce-Neige, 1994.