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An Introduction to issues facing the performing arts in France.

It would be a difficult task to cover the entire range of issues facing the performing arts in France in just one article. If we were to pretend, one thousand pages might not even suffice. This article does not attempt to be exhaustive, but rather would like to offer a first look into the material and serve as an introduction to issues facing the performing arts in France today.

First of all, we will look at how the state, at the end of WWII, designated theatre as the heart of its cultural public service. We will conjure up the origins as well as the functional principles of a model of cultural policy which was founded with the objective of decentralisation and the ideal of a cultural democracy.

We will then look at how current cultural policies are responding to the challenges of today, taking into consideration a gloomy economic climate, the rise of populism, aggravated tensions within communities, and the triumph of commercial discourse in the artistic sector.

Finally, we will mention some of the artists and companies whose works are considered among the most remarkable today. Again, our goal is not to create an exhaustive list of “the most talented” current French artists, but rather to convey – by evoking certain names and practices – a certain image of the French artistic landscape, caught in its youthfulness and inventiveness.

I. Theatre, the heart of French cultural public service

After the liberation of Europe, the topic of “culture for all” imposed itself as a way of fostering reconciliation on a national level. Theatre, considered to be the art form most apt at celebrating the intelligence and the civic spirit of the people, saw itself therefore assigned with a mission of “public service”. Spearhead of this new government policy were the first “Centres Dramatiques Nationaux”, which were created in 1946 for the purpose of ending Paris’s monopoly over culture and to permeate the entire French territory with a quality artistic offering. “Make the greatest works of humanity available to the most people,” is what André Malraux proposed in his speech before taking over his duties as Minister of Cultural Affairs on July 24, 1959.
We are of course talking about “public theatre” in the sense of “popular theatre”, a theatre “in service of the people” where the ideal of celebration, ceremony, and social communion resounds. Breaking the codes of a bourgeois theatre accused of elitism, this new theatre intends to conquer a popular public through experimentation with new techniques and research into new aesthetics. At the Théâtre National Populaire, run by Jean Vilar, balls, apéro-concert, and student matinees are organised. In order to attract an audience of labourers and low-wage employees, some changes are made: lowering prices, removing gratuity, programme and cloakroom free of cost, canvassing the employee representative committees, and changes in timetables which allow suburbanites to return on public transit. Brecht’s theatre is on a roll, defended by such emblematic figures as Bernard Dort. This theatre which speaks of the people and to the people and depicts them through monumental representations. The scene opens to the outside and the amateur actors join professional players, like in the Théâtre du Peuple in Bussang, where Maurice Pottecher intended to offer “a theatre within reach of all audiences, amusement made to bring men closer together and erase social and cultural divides.”

Identified as a pivotal moment in the history of French theatre, this era also created the basis of the current model of production and distribution for the performing arts in France. This model, which intends to reconcile artistic quality and cultural democratisation, developed over the years through a complex mesh of diverse competence structures spread out over the entire territory of France. In 2015, this network consists of the following: 15 state operators, which include the five national theatres (establishments whose public funding comes exclusively from the ministry of culture), which come with a dense network of structures for creation and distribution financed in partnership with the regional communities (35 Centres Dramatiques Nationaux, 70 National Stages, 19 Centres Chorégraphiques Nationaux, 12 Pôles Nationaux des Art du Cirque, 13 Centres Nationaux des Art de la Rue…)
These “accredited” establishments have distinct missions and competencies: some are dedicated exclusively to just one discipline, genre, or aesthetic, while others present a multi-disciplinary programme; some are directed by artists, others by programmers; some are producing and distributing at the same time, while others are only authorised to distribute performances that have already been created. Different from the model of repertory theatre, the prevailing model in France is the theatre “en suite”: the productions do not change over the course of the season, but are instead presented continuously one after the other over a period which can sometimes encompass several months (although the current trend is a reduction in the duration). Theatres are therefore associated with companies, whose works they produce, co-produce and/or distribute. Less numerous are theatres that function in a different way. A rare example is the Comédie-Française, which hosts a permanent troupe and possesses a repertoire of all the plays played by the theatre’s actors on the main stage. The shows are nonetheless rarely repeated after one season. Other examples include: Humain trop humain (CDN de Montpellier) directed by Rodrigo Garcia, which is equipped with a permanent troupe consisting of four actors. In regards to the Comédie de Reims directed by Ludovic Lagarde, its programme includes the works of “an artistic permanence”, including an associate author, actors, and three young creative directors in residence.

In this system, which is based on an association between performance venues and companies, the latter consists of key decision makers. Numerous funding programmes exist thus with the purpose of allowing for the economic viability of these privately held organisations. But on the difficult road to economic and symbolic recognition the success of a company is measured above all by its ability to invade the most famous venues in the profession (in particular the accredited establishments), all while securing production capacities thanks to long-term public financing (most importantly multi-year subsidies). The centralisation of the French system, which wants Paris to remain the inevitable stop for any artist who wants to become well known on the national stage (and eventually internationally), seems to be a proving ground for those who want to succeed. In this context, only a handful of artists today are able to take advantage of comfortable work conditions, since the large majority of such artists work in a state that is much more precarious, marked by increasing competition, fragmentation of work contracts, and a decline in the unit price of performances.

II. Cultural policies faced with crisis

In spite of the famous “cultural exception” which designates in France the principle with which culture may be excused from the ordinary logic of the economic market, the economic crisis in France did not make any exceptions in reaching the cultural sector. In fact, if the state’s culture budget had been augmented in such a way between 2006 and 2015, this change did not keep pace with inflation. Thus, apart from “regional operas”, the means allocated to all the different accredited establishments have diminished at constant exchange rates. Yet, this policy has benefited to a larger fairness in regards to regions and disciplines. For example, the creation of three new accredited establishments in 2010 allowed for better visibility and recognition for contemporary circus and street arts. Nevertheless, from the side of the regional governments, affected by the reduction of their donation from the state, the mobilisation of financial means necessary for the ambitions of their cultural policies is proving itself more and more challenging. Many organisations have therefore announced a significant reduction in their public subsidies: the Ferme de Buisson and the Théâtre Sénart in Seine-et-Marne, the TJP/CDN of Alsace in the Bas-Rhin region, the Théâtre du Nord in Tourcoing …

If the alleged justifications for a reduction in funding are often economic, they are sometimes political, like at Blanc-Mesnil is the Paris region, where the municipal council voted in November 2014 for the closure of the Forum du Blanc-Mesnil, renouncing at the same time funding coming from the department, region, and Department for Culture. This closing, decided by the justification that “the people of Blanc-Mesnil do not recognise themselves in the programme [of the theatre],” conveys the rising power of a populist discourse whose main target is a supposed elitism of an artistic sphere considered distant from the populace because of its arrogance and decadence. What’s more, as the extreme political right grows in France the tensions between elected officials of the extreme right and cultural venues, festivals, or artists are multiplying. For example, in Orange, where the general director of the Chorégies d’Orange Raymond Duffaut resigned in March 2016 after an assistant to a mayor of the extreme right took a position as a festival chairman, his aim being to take control of the programme of the festival. The situation, regarded as a “power grab”, led to an intervention by the Minister for Culture and the president of the PACA region with the threat to withdraw their funding from the festival. How many more times will French political representatives rise up to condemn such political meddling and defend artistic freedom, considering that the norm of “economic benefits of culture” is the supreme principle of cultural policies?

Symbolic of the many tensions between the artistic world and the public powers, the debate over the statue of intermittency conveys the crisis of a cultural policy model that France prides itself on, but judges nevertheless to be too costly. Intermittency is a system of financial compensation which was created with the intent of bringing financial stability to artists and technicians of the performing arts, cinema, and audio-visual sectors. In effect, intermittent employment reflects the rhythm of artistic jobs, characterised by a collection of short contracts (maybe even just a day) and a rotation of busy periods of time offset by times without much income. In order to be eligible for unemployment insurance, the intermittent worker must declare a minimum number of hours within a certain time period (507 hours over 12 months, according to the last agreement from the 28th of April 2016). A difficult requirement, which only 38% of intermittent workers are able to fulfil, and the remaining 62% will not be compensated due to an insufficient number of hours. Crucially, this system of compensation is described by its critics as a privilege which benefits only a handful of individuals and greatly contributes to the global unemployment insurance deficit. In fact, up to 75% of this deficit is said to be attributable to the 3% of subsidized intermittent workers. However, this advanced number is pretty much contested, insofar as this method of calculating disregards the principle of interprofessional solidarity which is the basis for the system of unemployment insurance. In a purely budgetary context, this special calculation serves no purpose but to overwhelm a profession alongside public opinion and allow the passage of a reform known for economising “on the backs of intermittent workers.”
The question of reform for intermittent employment regulation is often brought to the table, with familiar consequences: strikes, cancellations of performances, cancellations of festivals, and more recently, as part of the “Nuit Debout” rallies, occupations of theatres. The violence of these movements expresses the anger and restlessness of intermittent workers whose working conditions are deteriorating, while it proliferates a discourse of disdain towards performing arts professionals, often accused of being “privileged”, and “deadbeats.” Behind the bitterness of these debates over the regulation of intermittent work is the breakdown of an ideal and the end to a certain idea about the mission of the state and the role of thinkers and artists within society.

III. Panorama

Without assuming to be an exhaustive piece, we will attempt to develop here — by mentioning certain names and describing certain practices — an image, subjective of course, of the artistic landscape in France, caught in its youthfulness and creativity.

At the origin of some of the most singular works of the last few years, the “collectives” have signalled their return with the success of young collectives like the “Chiens de Navarre”, the “Collectif La Vie Brève”, the “Collectif L’Avantage du doute”, the “Collectif In Vitro”, and the collective for documentary theatre “Berlin”. Representative of a certain return to the politics at the very heart of creative work, the collectives are critical of the production system, they refuse traditional hierarchies, they advocate a more democratic relationship to creation and they develop new scene writing. The collectives devise models of production based on mutual funds and the sharing of skills. They emancipate themselves from directors and celebrate the triumph of actors/authors. They play with the codes of performance and do not hesitate to bring real life onto the stage. Thanks to their freedom of acting, their scenic inventiveness, and a certain informal tone radically contrasting with the solemnity of traditional theatrical works, they brought a breath of fresh air into the French scenes, contributing to a lasting change in the relationship between actors and spectators. Among the most notable collectives, the “Chiens de Navarre”, founded in 2005 by the director Jean-Christophe Meurisse, has quickly become the most ferocious and wacky collective of their generation in France. With a dark irony, the performances of the “Chiens de Navarre” paint a portrait of a humanity torn between a dumbing social conformity and irrepressible savage impulses. Disaster is never far, hidden somewhere in the restlessness of “writing in real time” which favours improvisation. With huge visual power, their performances and shows — including Une raclette (2008), Nous avon les machines (2012), Quand je pense qu’on va vieillir ensemble (2013) and Les Armoires normandes (2014) — are presented on the most important stages in France.

The director — although his power has been a bit stripped by the success of collectives and the development of theories around “postdramatic theatre” — is still a vital figure of the theatrical landscape in France. The last few years have been witness to the emergence of a new generation of thirty-something directors whose shows are rapidly making a name for themselves due to their audacity and uniqueness. Most notably the young and newsworthy Vincent Macaigne, director of all of the racket and outbursts; or Sylvain Creuzevault and his deconstructive political theatre; or Julien Gosselin and his dizzying adaptation of novels; or even Jean Bellorini, author of musical performances and current director of the Théatre Gérard Philipe in Saint-Denis at just 35 years old… Younger, but no less interesting, Jean-François Sivadier and his extravagant baroque pieces (accompanied by his favourite actor, the explosive Nicolas Bouchaud); Philippe Quesne who directs the Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers; but also Arthur Nauzyciel, who directs the Théâtre National de Bretagne; Stanislas Nordey, director of the Théâtre National de Strasbourg; Olivier Py, the director of the Festival d’Avignon; Joël Pommerat… The heart of the revival of French theatre in the 1950s and 60s, the Festival d’Avignon is today a vital event in French theatrical life: a place of recognition for experienced artists as well as the perfect start for young directors hoping to see their careers take off. It is the place where the success of many works is decided, before their premiere outside of the festival.

Although instrumental in the programmes of accredited establishments, this theatre of directors and actors does not cover all that is offered in French theatre. Another scene shines in its vitality and creativity, a hybrid theatre combining circus arts, street arts, storytelling, dance, and music in their different forms, sometimes close to performance art. We should mention Joris Lacoste, his work with orality and his limited experiences with hypnosis theatre; Sébastian Barrier and his staggering onslaught of language; the storyteller Yannik Jaulin and his intrepid explorations of language; Phia Ménard and her object theatre with a rare visual power; Johann Le Guillerm, the alchemist, but also equilibrist, visual artist, and inventor; or the magician Yann Frisch and his amusing depressed clown character… These forms follow parallel distribution channels: they invade museums, abandoned spaces, the famous “workshops of artistic factories”, for which the Department for Culture announced the creation of unprecedented budgetary support in 2016, or even certain street art festivals more open to diversity in artistic expression. Yet, these singular forms can also find themselves on the stages of theatres with more traditional programmes, this is the case for the artists listed above, whose performances tour in the circuits of accredited establishments.

Finally, contemporary circus and street arts attract today the attention of many, not only because this sector gives birth to some of the most interesting experiences in the world of performing arts, but also because of a recent announcement made by the Department for Culture that these disciplines will receive increased support. We should mention two street art festivals: the “Festival international de théâtre de rue” in Aurillac and “Chalon dans la rue”. Guests can discover, among many others, “Generik Vapeur” from Marseille and “Royal de Luxe” from Nantes, as well as “Groupe Zur”, “Compagnie Carabosse”, “Kumulus”, and the zany “Trois points de suspension”. The world of contemporary French circus arts, which meets each year in Auch at the CIRCA festival, owes its dynamism to the presence in France of the two most important European schools for circus arts: the CNAC and the Lido. Johann Le Guillerm, Mathurin Bolze, Aurélien Bory, the company “Cirque inextermiste” and the collective “La Scabreuse” (among others) are all, in one way or another, products of these institutions.


Published 6 October 2016 (Article originally written in French)