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Editorial : Winds of Change

An unexpected movement named EAT (Écrivains associés du théâtre/ "United Playwrights") has surprised everyone just when subsidised theatre was in need of a second wind, as a brilliant period of invention in staging and reinterpreting theatre classics draws to a close. Who'd have thought that contemporary playwrights would come out of their sacred seclusion in the laboratories, hothouses, monks' cells and other nooks and crannies and small theatres where they had been working for quite some time underground? Without such places to fall back on - the laboratories and showcases where this business of dramatic invention was kept alive in the nick of time - they would probably have become as rare as artisans working in gold-leaf or viola makers. The EAT revolt, deemed incongruous and uncalled-for at first, is actually a fabulous adventure that exists as a dialogue. People were expecting arguments and quarrelling, and instead it has been one continuous conversation. It has lasted a year and a half now and has spread to all theatre circles. Yes, the theatre is where the eternal in us can speak out, but that part of us will shrink even further unless it is confronted on the stage with situations from out times. Yes, it is the sign of a fragile era that dooms itself only to the authority of the ancients. Yes, the oppressive weight of the "culturally correct", like a lid stifling emotion and pleasure, must be removed. Yes there is an enormous need to reconnect between directors and playwrights, between the theatre and audiences. Yes it is time to call the writers back from exile, back to the home that was theirs for thousands of years.
In less than twenty months EAT has examined our institutions, met with the various actors and partners involved, criticised hypocrisies and those in "lifetime positions", proposed new procedures, and promoted progress. (See their "assessment" published last summer by Actes Sud, Quoi de neuf? L'auteur vivant!) Above all they brought to light a deep need for change that in fact goes beyond the playwright problem - such as the project for creating companies within theatres. But for the winds of change to really affect French theatre, a political gesture was needed to open a bridgehead inside the impregnable citadels of the subsidised world. It had to be a courageous gesture clearly signalling a change of era and sharing the undisputed power of the directors who run the major public theatres. The mayor of Paris and the Minister of Culture made that gesture on 21 November last year when they appointed writer Jean-Michel Ribes - current president of EAT - to be director of the Théâtre du Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées. This "storming of the Bastille", a "historic event" as it was called by the media, foretells the symbolic end of a period of thirty years of wandering in the desert for playwrights.
This life on the sidelines of the theatre didn't always have the panache of the avant-garde or literary salons. It was miles away from liquor-laced samizdat readings, resembling something far more austere - a kind of solitary underground. The truth is that, although no one was asking them for anything, those writers excluded from the stage were continuing to work, moving into unknown territory, digging their own way forward, exploring the theatre's potential with total freedom. People rightly said that contemporary French playwriting was going every which way and that is couldn't be "pinned down". Let's say that it was enriched by much experimentation and by a variety of possibilities that are waiting to blossom now from an invigorating connection to the stage. Those underground years haven't borne all of their fruits yet. The best is yet to come, not long from now; very soon in fact. Having come back into the fold, playwrights are bringing with them new skills and new ways of approaching the legends of our times.
More and more theatres are opening up to contemporary plays, and more and more directors are priding themselves on helping budding writers to blossom. We shall soon see this true theatrical literature developing with its audiences, and shall see that contemporary theatre is theatre, full stop.

Jean-Daniel Magnin