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Drifting
 

Yannick Mercoyrol, Cultural Attaché in Chicago, tells Actes du Théâtre about the project he has undertaken since the beginning of the year to create a two-month festival of contemporary French theatre in the Midwest capital in the fall of 2004. Ensuring high-quality presentations and obtaining essential help from French institutions that support contemporary productions abroad -as well as from American sources- has required a phenomenal amount of energy.
This is the first part in a two-part report, as we will return to Chicago in early 2005 after the festival to read about how it went.

It's hard to express what a powerful influence Tintin has had on generations of young -and not so young- readers in France. Chicago, among other grievances, was one of the everlasting victims of the dashing Belgian reporter, who used his pistol, his dodging abilities and his fists against the gangs and shady police in a city overrun with crime. Al Capone remains to this day the tutelary figure of the third largest megalopolis in the US, included in certain theme tours for tourists from Europe in need of adventure. Needless to say, the city has been striving to rid itself of the unsavory image of prohibition and its giant slaughterhouses. But despite repeated efforts, the results have been inconclusive, and Chicago can't seem to free itself of the remnants of a tunic of Nessus which it longs to shed…
That's the way it is. Clichés are hard to overcome. In fact, what the Midwest capital should rightly bring to mind is a cultural city whose hair-raising ways have been traded in for curtain-raising, on musical and theatrical stages. But, isolated in the Great Plains far from the splendour of the two coasts, Chicago remains unknown for what it is by being too well-known for what it used to be. How many people know that the city today boasts two hundred active troupes, and over a hundred theatres, several of which are internationally renowned in the English-speaking world (the Goodman, Lookingglass, Court, and Shakespeare Theatres); that John Malkovitch cut his teeth with one of those great ensembles, the Steppenwolf Theatre, which he remains one of the founding members of and where he returns to the stage on a regular basis? Naturally, it takes more than a mere onomastic magic trick to turn a town's reputation around. Yet what strikes me as a theatre-lover here is the frenzy of all these companies, the explosion of repertoires mingling in a wealth of free programming advertised every week in the Reader. Every Thursday there are ten new performances all over the city. One hosts readings of plays written by young still-unknown playwrights, another restages the classics, a third has a field day with improvisation matches -a local specialty-, and yet another stages an English play while his neighbour puts on the great social issues rooting him in the origins of the theatre's political function. From within this bubbling culture which is unique in America, like a permanent turmoil of words on stage, a desire to take part in the celebration quickly emerges, to introduce part of our repertoire here if possible, and to establish a theatrical inventory for that purpose, in other words, to carry out a kind of survey.
The idea of creating a French theatre festival in Chicago was born from the confrontation between two maps: one of the city's dynamic theatre scene, and one of our repertoire from the past twenty years, with an emphasis on more recent contributions. Today these two maps hardly coincide. The boldest theatres, which we know quite well, still consider Koltès to be a playwright to be discovered, one to impose on audiences, and they are quite right… over here! The discrepancy between the context in France and its repercussions in the outside world is complicated in this case by a double geographical and cultural distance. More isolated than one might think judging from New York, the United States has fostered a tendancy towards cultural isolation due to a nearly inexhaustible reserve of audience members, by the need to constantly renew the founding myths, and by a system of support for artistic creation that is rarely adventurous. The obviously partial encounter between the two dynamics mentioned above -the very purpose of the festival- comes up against three obstacles inherent in how the Chicago theatre world is set up.
The first obstacle, not surprisingly, is the lack of knowledge which I spoke about regarding the contemporary French (or any non-English-language) theatre scene. Our initial task was therefore to establish a list of available translations, working closely with the SACD International Promotion and Licensing Division and Entr'Actes, in order to give the potential participants something to sink their teeth into. I will use this opportunity to stress once again the vital importance of translations for promoting our way of thinking and aesthetics abroad, and particularly in a country such as the United States, where the original versions (with surtitles) are far from having acquired the same status in the theatre that they have in film. Starting with a first selection of about thirty plays -including the "indispensables" Koltès, Vinaver, Minyana, Lagarce, Duras, etc.- we decided to add a few "new" playwrights such as Durringer, Py, Cormann, Melquiot, Haïm and Spycher. Other playwrights rounded off this fine bunch. Israël?Le Pelletier, Pliya, Ghazali, Gaudé, to name a few, filled out the ranks of the troupe which we hoped from the start to be as diverse and representative as possible of the vitality of French-language theatre today. Such was in fact the very argument which we constantly repeated to our potential partners during the many meetings required to "stage", so to speak, the first year of an event of this kind. French theatre has perhaps never been this good or varied at any other time in the 20th century. So it wasn't a matter of concocting a closed list, caught between arbitrary entitlement and indigenous singularities, such as the one in France differentiating public and private theatres. In the same way, far be it from us to exclude a theatre's individual initiatives. Playwrights not on our list are welcome to join in the dance, provided that they are contemporary. Cultural cooperation is not about dictating good taste.
If the list is now considered to be definitive, it's only because it contains about sixty plays. Beyond that, its virtue of openness could morph into a dangerous free-for-all, turning into quicksand. It isn't perfect, of course, and is only claiming to be one of many possible anthologies of our contemporary repertoire, answerable for the same kinds of advantages and shortcomings as any other anthology. Trying to be representative presupposes certain lapses. But what doesn't exist cannot be made up: translations of several masterpieces worthy of the name -which I won't mention-, several less British-sounding versions, as these can often be a problem for American ears, and some prejudicial absences like Novarina and Serena. We'll make the best of it, etc. And if some fabulous patron suddenly mislaid a handful of greenbacks for our good cause, there might still be time to make up for the insult by scheduling two or three performances of some great forgotten playwright, en français just for the occasion…
The second difficulty encountered in setting up this kind of project is of a structural nature. Venues known as black boxes here -on the fringes of the few big theatres where new work is produced (not counting mainstream Broadway productions)- are a specificity of American theatre. There is no real equivalent in France to these often dynamic little theatres, with a house seating forty to a hundred spectators. You could try to situate them somewhere between semi-professional and established theatres. The actors are rarely paid, and the directors often have other sources of income; yet the overall quality of these productions doesn't equate them in any way with likeable amateurs. In this context, it is easy to understand how tricky it is to solicit partners whose financial equilibrium is more than precarious. What's more, they often have no place of their own to present productions and are forced to chase after cheap rentals and other generous offers from the city's cultural services in order to present their work. Yet they are often the most inclined to offer bold programming, which has its audience in Chicago -people who don't "dress" for the theatre. But in addition to the time spent finding a venue where productions can be presented (likely to create a bit of feverish impatience while the programming is being settled), it is absolutely unthinkable not to make a financial commitment to help these theatres and thereby share part of the risk they're taking by staging Visniec, Vinaver or Ribes, total unknowns in the land of Bob Wilson and Tony Kushner.
And that's the final difficulty to overcome during the development process. Naturally, all presenters are perfectly familiar with such budgetary woes -from unkept promises to unforeseen overspending, and from disappointed hopes to last-minute miracles. It would doubtless be rather tedious here to go into the various negotiations, strategies and squirming required to obtain the funds- the size of which is still a mystery to this day -that would make it possible to launch the ideal festival. There are still too many imponderables (starting with the final number of about ten participants) to venture a precise figure. Clearly this is not a matter of proposing a package deal, as they say here, but rather to succeed in getting commitments for about ten plays, with the risks involved being assumed by all. You can't buy a festival, you must invent it in partnership with local theatres, public and private patrons, with willing and inquiring minds. With a shared desire.
It is a huge, disproportionate task to be sure. Our lack of human resources -I'm working on this alone with Artistic Attaché Diane Eberhardt, and we're both busy with other assignments and projects- has turned us into schizophrenics, if not masochists, because gratification is a formidable stimulus: a festival in virgin territory to be explored right here in the heart of America. It's like a David Lynch script! It is the desire to see plays we know in someone else's hands, taken up and assimilated by other people with other traditions and references to create a kind of delightful hiatus.

American specificities
I say schizophrenics, because almost since the very beginning, in January 2003, we've had to do everything at once, to close ranks and move forward on all fronts in order to be ready to go in the fall of 2004 for about two months of festivities: renting theatres, creating the context surrounding the festival, developing a marketing strategy, putting together the budget, etc. There's also a list of "things to do" -pinned above my desk like a sword of Damocles- which runs on for months until the end of next summer. And there isn't a week where the list doesn't change, with an unfortunate tendancy to addition rather than subtraction. Getting back to the theatres, I've stopped counting the individual appointments, group meetings, mailings of résumés or of plays sent off, of returning calls and leaving messages in recent months. Approaches are different from one theatre to another -between the circle of "familiar faces" and the newcomers sometimes introduced by them, companies reduced to one person, and institutions necessarily approached more slowly. One would hardly imagine the American cultural attaché bursting right into Planchon's or Lavaudant's office with script in hand! But the level of institutionalisation is not the only criterion. While it is obviously important for the festival's visibility and credibility to have a few well-known participants, going after big names is not our priority. A far more important criterion in our eyes has been to find companies with the boldest artistic choices and practices, whatever their size -which has nevertheless been complicated by the degree of repertory "specialisation" that is far greater here than in France. Naturally, we have specificities in our own country, but they are often limited to structural modes of operation or to a director's personality. In Chicago -and this is doubtless true for many American cities- companies often "take up residence" in a particular, exclusive kind of repertoire, which they then stick to. In the land of gender studies and special interest groups, one theatre "does historical plays" while another chooses exclusively gay plays, or black or Asian actors. Discussing the historical and social origins of these particularities, or comparing the respective merits of French and American organisations in this area, would take us into a whole different debate -often rekindled- for which this is not the right place. Suffice it to say -and, in this case, to deplore the fact- that I had to return to my French sources several times in order to find a rare gem in the repertory, and in the end more than one interested theatre won't be able to participate in this adventure due to a lack, for instance, of gay and lesbian plays in France -in translation at any rate. For although that particular genre is developing by the day back home, there is often still a dearth of translations. Trying to force Koltès or Lagarce into that category would probably annoy their respective patrons, just as in other times it would have sealed the fate of the famous Proust vs. Sainte-Beuve controversy… So the race is on, and every week we have had confirmations and desertions, false hopes and real possibilities -like Sisyphus pushing rocks of varying weight.
The torment of trying to get people involved is not limited to theatres. All festivals strive to go beyond a strict framework in order to imbue their purpose with greater value. In this case, that inclination goes along with the systematic quest -on the part of the French cultural services abroad- for an optimum increase of far-ranging projects into various fields of cooperation. I felt that it was necessary to create the conditions for such openings starting at the festival's conception. We are therefore trying to organise an exhibition about Avignon during the fall of 2004. Along those same lines, we will make unselfconscious use of the extraordinary audiovisual material at the ministère des Affaires étrangères to screen a selection of documentaries, fictional work and filmed plays for which it owns the rights, in partner theatres. With this same idea in mind, we are setting up a day of discussions about contemporary French and American theatre with Northwestern University in Chicago, taking advantage of the presence of playwrights, directors and critics whom we can invite thanks to the French institutions supporting our contemporary works abroad. Moreover, there's no reason not to suppose that other Midwest institutions -universities, museums, galleries, art film theatres, schools, radio and television stations- won't join in the project along the way in order to ensure a full-blown promotional campaign, and thereby make the event their own. We're still at the stage of development where all ideas are still possible, and indeed are absolutely necessary for the project's momentum. There will be time later on to force it to lay down on Procrustes' bed…

Visibility issues
Whatever form it takes next fall, the festival must at this point ensure its visibility, especially in a city with such a prolific cultural life. An overall plan has already been drawn up to promote it, including posters, brochures, websites, and ads -a real dream. The City itself is behind us, and its experience and networks will be a precious resource. But I would stress once again that everything is connected and is moving unsteadily towards a horizon lit up by its own light. In order for the City of Chicago to take an interest in the project, the theatres must commit to it, so that it
can be promoted as widely as possible; sponsors need to see its relevance for them, and thus want its visibility to be ensured; and it can only be ensured if there are partners who commit to the project, and they can only commit if the promotion and budget allow them to, while the latter largely depend on, etc. There are many fairy godmothers standing over the crib, most of them waiting for the newborn to prove its worthiness before bestowing their gifts… It isn't just the story of the chicken and the egg. It's perhaps about proving your momentum by getting moving. It's above all a matter of conviction, tenacity, and a titillating mixture of lucidity and lunacy. And isn't presenting playwrights like Koltès, Novarina and Vinaver, even for a few evenings, a perfect way to start celebrating?

Yannick Mercoyrol