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Act French à New York : Notes and reflections

 
     
  http://actfrench.org/
Act French, six months of contemporary French-language theatre in New York, ended on 13 December 2005. It was the first theatre initiative of that scale in the Big Apple – a collaboration between afaa and the cultural services of the French Embassy. Tom Sellar, who is the editor-in-chief of Theater Magazine, as well as the theater and art critic for the Village Voice, became a «professional spectator» at the festival, while playwright and director Kevin Doyle was a «spectating professional.» They share their thoughts about the experience, and Denise Luccioni, coordinator of the festival, responds.
 
     
 
New York Critic’s Notebook:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Act French

A year ago, when I first learned that the French Cultural Services would present six months of new French theater in New York, it lifted this critic’s heart with hopes. American drama, at this moment, mostly corresponds to our national politics: smug, self-satisfied, and often willfully ignorant of the precedents, standards, and developments of the rest of the world. And New York theater is in an equally fallow moment, with everyone waiting for the Next Big Thing while looking for cash and watching an art form decline in the face of conservatism (in its audiences and institutions). The exception – maybe, and sometimes – can be found “downtown” among the self-proclaimed avant-garde. (Many “downtown” ensembles and artists have now moved to Brooklyn, having been forced across the river by rising rents and property values during the 1990s, along with virtually all young people and everyone else of modest means.) So I hoped that the French would stir things up and challenge New York with some dazzling new ideas – as the French have done before at crucial moments in American history.
I also wondered about something: Act French was billed as “A Season of New Theater From France.” But how could a selection of “new theater” ever be representative of all that is taking place, of all that is “new” in France? Would the festival focus – as every program must inevitably – on certain aspects of French drama, for example, new plays, or Francophone playwrights? Would “France” mean “Paris”? If it wasn’t representative, then would Act French be proudly eclectic, an assortment of personal enthusiasms on the part of the presenters and producers?

The past seven months have offered a pleasurable immersion in French theater as I raced around town trying to keep up with all that Act French had to offer: play readings, productions, symposia, lectures, workshops, roundtables, and films. I met with many of the French artists, editors, and scholars passing through the city, and gathered as many impressions as I could.

If my original question was whether the festival would prove representative or only eclectic, the conclusion I reached is that Act French was both. The program was profoundly eclectic – and, therefore, it was also representative of “new theater in France.” Over and over again, the French artists I spoke with told me that in France – as in New York and the United States – there are few unifying ideas or aesthetics, not even a common political impulse, linking the work of directors, playwrights, ensembles, and festivals. Perhaps it’s just a sign of the times: an era that is post-ideology and post-community, among other things. On the other hand, because the producers developed such close relationships with their New York partners, the passions of the American organizers for each individual presentation could be persuasive.

Eclectic, but also representative: We had a taste of France’s master directors with productions by Ariane Mnouchkine (Le Dernier Caravansérail) and Claude Régy (Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychose). We had emerging performance artists who were still finding their voices, like Superamas (Big #2: Show/Business) and Philippe Quesne (La Démangeaison des ailes). We caught a glimpse of the dance-theater world with Pascal Rambert’s Paradis (Unfolding Time). And – perhaps most important, since texts can last forever – we were introduced to old and new voices in playwriting (most of them new to America), including José Pliya, Koffi Kwahulé, Jean-Marie Besset, Valère Novarina, Olivier Cadiot, Jean-Claude Grumberg, and Marie Ndiaye…

It’s dangerous, of course, to make generalizations about such a diverse range of work – especially when the artists themselves caution against making connections. But that is the critic’s task and I can report a few observations from my notebook.

But what about, say, Vinaver’s 11 Septembre/ September 11? This has been one of the most talked-about French dramas in recent years, and – perhaps because the play was previously read in New York – it was hard not to notice its absence in a year full of terror and warfare.
Second observation: A preoccupation with language – its form and its function in society and the imagination – remains very much at the center of French theater. This is surprising, more than 50 years after the great experiments of literary modernism and in a time when artists and audiences are deeply skeptical about the power of words. Faith in the theatrical capacity of language was essential to Isabelle Hupert’s virtuoso performance in Claude Régy’s startling (if stark) 4:48 Psychose; it was apparent in José Pliya’s flights of literary lyricism (no small accomplishment for the American translators); it resounded throughout the fanciful, sometimes fun stagings of Olivier Cadiot’s texts; and it nourished and sustained projects as diverse as push’s frenzied reading of a Sapphire novel, Valère Novarina’s Adramelech’s Monologue and L’Animal du temps, Pascal Rambert’s Paradis, and Marie Ndiaye’s Hilda. When the French theater’s reliance on lyricism succeeds, it looks – undeniably – like its greatest strength; when it fails – and just feels like a long poetry reading with too many lights – this appears to be its fatal weakness.

And a final, lighter observation: besides an awareness of language and a sense of social justice, Act French demonstrated that not all French drama is heavy, laden with speeches and ominous pauses and silence. It can, and often does, reflect a great national sense of humor – and the French sense of humor, slightly eccentric, alluding to the absurdity of life, and delightfully méchant, is a something I have always relished. This quality was made spectacular, in unpredictable ways, in my favorite pieces in this festival: Quesne’s La Démangeaison des ailes and, especially, Grand Magasin’s 5th International Forum of Corporate Cinema – two pieces making gentle and great fun out of our aspirations to fly, to invent, and to create. Contrary to American perception, all French theater is not Koltès and Patrice Chéreau; the pauses in which you wonder whether or not to laugh can be pregnant with hope, not always with menace or existential gloom. A season of new theater from France, eclectic and representative à la fois, taught me to stop worrying and look for such pleasures too.

 
     
  Tom Sellar
Editor of Theater Magazine, published by the Yale School of Drama,
Theater critic and Arts journalist for the Village Voice,
19 January 2006
 
 

 
 
Remarks delivered at New York City’s Public Theater as part
of Act French 2005 final session

My perspective on the Act French Festival is not the perspective of a critic, or a scholar, nor that of a presenter.
My perspective is one of a lover.
I love French Theatre and I sense that a conversation, a dialogue has happened during the course of modern/contemporary French Theatre – about what it should be and what it could become, that has not happened in America. We think it has, we like to believe we have had such a conversation, such a dialogue, but we have not – or – at the very least our American brand of this conversation has only happened in small circles – without any real effect on the larger national dialogue.
I am a lover of French Theatre.
My early education was consumed by the works of French playwrights. All the obvious influences were present for me as a young student – Jarry, Apollinaire, Beckett, Ionesco, Adamov, Genet, Vian, Sarraute, Pinget.
After I left my studies, I met with the usual frustrations that an aspiring writer and director encounters.
I will spare you those details.
In the Spring of 2003, French Theatre saved me. It literally saved me.
Not far from here, at the Ohio Theatre on Wooster Street, some very courageous people decided to mount a festival of the work of Bernard-Marie Koltès. I had heard of Koltès – but never had the opportunity to read him in translation – you see, I claim to love French theatre, and yet I cannot read French.
Figure that one out.   
At that time, I had begun to study and read in translation the works of Michel Vinaver.
The combination of encountering Vinaver’s plays on the page, and Koltès’ plays in
performance – had a collossal impact upon me.
This impact has led to an explosion of new writing that does not show any sign of subsiding.
I recognize this may sound a bit like a story from Alcoholics Anonymous, but I recount my experience to illustrate two points: one, that festivals of new work from abroad have a direct impact – one we might not readily perceive in a review – and two, I recount my experience in 2003 to shed light on my experience in 2005 with the Act French Festival.
My connection to the Act French Festival has been strictly that of an audience member.
A paying audience member, I paid for every ticket, sometimes 2 or 3 times for works that I completely feel in love with.
I work as a playwright and director and as the Act French Festival got underway, I had been having a succesful but fairly exhausting 2005. I directed and produced three productions of my play The Position, while other plays received multiple productions, readings and workshops in California, Quebec City, and Brooklyn.
Burnt out not only in a physical sense, but intellectually, spiritually, and creatively.
The timing of the Act French Festival could not have been better for me.
I did not fully realize at the outset of the Festival how desperately in need I was of discovering a new phase of artistic expression – a new exposure to innovative work.
I was unaware how such a rigorous work schedule had eroded my creative spirit and my receptiveness to experimentation.
I was clueless as to how low my own creative batteries had been depleted.
There are not many places left in New York where one can have my particular brand of battery recharged.
Our Broadway and Off-Broadway theatres no longer come equipped with such recharging stations. The late American artist, David Wojnarowicz, once said that we, as Americans, are born into a pre-invented existence.
A pre-invented existence, a pre-invented landscape, furnished with accepted codes and encased within reflective screens.
Thank god for the French.
With the Act French Festival you have turned everything upside down and inside out.
And for young theatre artists like myself – you have enlarged our perspectives and our pallets. Our approaches to creating new work has been radically changed.
Nothing will be the same for any of us.
I speak in the plural, because I am not alone.
And as I attended each event, starting in July with Ariane Mnouchkine, one began to notice something.
You began to see the same faces at each event.
You began to see the same faces at each event throughout the festival. People began to talk.
At first, conversations between audience members were a reaction to the work they witnessed, but then grew to include the artists and staff themselves. These conversations went well beyond the standard talk-back scenario. They extended well into the night in the lobbies and bars at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Dance Theatre Workshop, or the Ohio Theatre.
A community developed. A dialogue was sustained.
From venue to venue, an exchange of ideas was taking place and an exposure to new forms was underway.
I suspect that New York will be feeling the aftershocks of this French theatrical earthquake for years to come.
This was a once in a lifetime experience that does not have to be a once in a lifetime experience.
These sort of cultural/artistic exchanges between nations should happen more frequently.
I hope the closure of the Act French Festival is not the end. Perhaps it should be repeated again every few years – to keep us New Yorkers on our toes. Perhaps other festivals are in order celebrating the work of other French theatre artists – I think Michel Vinaver or Olivier Py would be prime candidates.
These events should happen more frequently because they shake things up. They get people talking, they get people thinking – precisely because they are presenting ideas, they are telling stories in innovative ways and within innovative structures which differ sharply from the pre-invented structures and pre-invented realities we are so accustomed to as American theatre-goers.
And I would put forth – this does not just have to happen in New York City.
The playwright José Pliya does not just have to speak to aspiring playwrights about dramatic structure or his use of monologues in Cannibals – at the Ohio Theatre. This can and should happen just as easily in Memphis or Kansas City.
I suspect the members of Grand Magasin will find audience members falling out of the chairs in hysterical laughter in Boston or Detroit – just as readily they saw me fall out of my chair at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn.
There are audiences for Olivier Cadiot in San Francisco and Seattle.
The plays of Marie Ndiaye can work in Atlanta just as easily and as successfully as the plays of Bernard‑Marie Koltès.
The playful yet menacing structure running through the work of Superamas is immediately accessible to any American student who knows the non-linear films of Quentin Tarantino.
And I suspect that out in the vast landscape of theater departments in American universities, there are students – writers and directors and actors – who are longing to see that kind of – well – the kind of unparalled production like Pascal Rambert’s Paradis.
Those students are out there just waiting to be exposed to this kind of work.
They are waiting out there, waiting to scribble 5 pages of notes like I did when I saw Paradis.
They are waiting to ask questions of French theatre professionals in a talk-back session.
They are waiting to see how live performance is integrated with other forms if media.
But most of all they are waiting to shaken up.
They are waiting to be challenged and excited.
They are waiting to be inspired.
They are waiting to be inspired and engaged on a new level, so that they may return home and get excited and inspired about their own work.
And therein resides the true benefit of such a cultural exchange.
It is not immediately perceived.
But the benefits will most assuredly rise to the surface in the years to come.
I cannot wait to go home and get back to work.

 
     
  Kevin Doyle
Playwright and Director,
19 January 2006
 
 

 
 
Looking towards the Future

What a delight to hear/read theatre critic Tom Sellar and playwright/director Kevin Doyle – tireless spectators at Act French events last fall – declaring the festival to be a resounding success. Now we can also get a perspective on what has been gained on the French side. The following is a brief – and personal – initial assessment.

The Crucial Economic Factor

Artists in the French theatre world are astonished by how non-commercial American productions are financed. Such a low level of public support is unimaginable in our country. Taking part in Act French was an effort for the artists invited, despite all the institutional and private support. They were not going to the u.s. to strike it rich. Luckily, there are other reasons for accepting an invitation, and the reviews written by Tom and Kevin formulate them quite clearly. There is another reason for keeping up an ‘‘exchange’’ that is so shaky from a financial viewpoint. It provides an opening, a different perspective on your own culture, as well as considerable recognition from strangers. In other words, it is a superb cross-pollination of the arts and of people’s minds.

A Desire for a Future Beyond the Showcase: a Question of Scale?

Several events centred on playwrights deserve particular attention. The Pliya project was initiated by Philippa Wehle, a longstanding connoisseur of France and its writers. Also a translator, she convinced the Ohio Theatre to host the event, then raised funds for the event and found a way to invite a French production, Le Complexe de Thénardier, by the Colin company. Delighted audiences attended readings of three translated plays – Cannibals, An Ordinary Family and We Were Sitting On The Shores of the World – staged by American directors, performances by the Colin company, and discussions with the playwright, artists and participants every evening, a well-loved ritual on the other side of the Atlantic. At 59 E 59, Marion Schoevaert, a French director living in New York, put together a Cadiot project around two productions with the Lagarde company and her own version of Le Colonel des Zouaves – the brilliant, moving and hilarious awol – and organized a symposium at cuny (City University of New York) on the playwright with his translator, Cole Swensen, his American publisher, Douglas Messerli from Green Integer, Ludovic Lagarde and others. The Lark Company again worked on a translation in several phases by Chantal Bilodeau, then a staged reading of Misterioso-119 by Koffi Kwahulé. Finally, the Play Company augmented the performance of Marie Ndiaye’s Hilda with readings in English of Papa doit manger and excerpts from the novel Rosie Carpe read by the author in the same theatre. In every case, the passion of someone there generated the project, which then materialized with French support. There will be follow-ups also requiring support – American productions, tributes to other French playwrights and new invitations to companies. And there will also be follow-ups to the readings organized by Entr’Actes-sacd at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, in particular around radio theatre. The sacd is going to provide a database with American translations of French plays, for example.
American Off-Broadway theatre often comes close to militancy. It has nothing to do with consumption at any rate. What can we learn from that?

Reassessing Biases, and Alternative Artists

Sitting behind Tom Sellar on the opening night of 5th International Forum of Corporate Cinema, I watched him giggle – his hand covering his mouth and his shoulders jiggling with laughter – and thought, ‘‘Yale’s enjoying it – it’s a success!’’ Artists such as Grand Magasin and Philippe Quesne, considered alternative in France – perhaps even misfits – are immediately identified as ‘‘French’’ by Americans, although they don’t correspond to any stereotypes or preconceived ideas. In other words, laughter arises from recognizing a foreigner’s strangeness and being won over without feeling intimidated, particularly as those who enjoy multiple levels of interpretation are also challenged intellectually – and in a fun way. Laughter breaks down prejudices and potential ‘‘complexes.’’ It would be useful to analyze why these artists – considered misfits – are accorded such little importance here. More and more of them – in all disciplines – seem to be obtaining recognition abroad, yet are given little or no support in France.

A Shortcut Conclusion

At some point the French Ministry of Culture added the word Communication to its title, then promotion supplanted proficiency, and the globalization mindset forced the arts to have high visibility just to exist. With that frame of mind, only two things matter: how many seats are filled, and how much clout the newspaper reviews have.
To quote an idea that has been devalued in recent years, who can say what a single starry-eyed spectator or listener today may lead to tomorrow?
Since the American organizers had made their own choices most of the time, Act French succeeded in providing a different image of French theatre that included alternative artists. As a result, terrain filled with biases on both sides was replanted with new seeds. This new deal is not the least of what Act French has accomplished.

 
     
  Denise Luccioni
Artistic Liaison for Act French,
15 March 2006
 
 

 
 
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