The New Europe: theatrical adventures in Belgium, Italy, Germany, France and Norway.
Pasca, a founder in 1983 of the Swiss troupe Teatro Sunil, is emblematic of the new breed of European theatremakers gathered in this special section focusing on "The New Europe." These artists take winged flight in the shared belief that "in the theatre," as Pasca avers, "in a moment of communion, we play with reality." Just as the euro promotes an ideal of openness and harmony between the member nations of the European Union, so does the European stage propose itself as a currency of cooperation, creativity, intensive exploration and hybrid innovation distinct from that of other continents. Walls erected in the political realm are chipped, lowered or torn down. Crossing boundaries, even geographic borders, is key. Improvising, not holding on to tradition, becomes the active structural mode. Such principles drive Jan Lauwers's integrated shows in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium; the transatlantic endeavors of German Theatre Abroad; the medieval-drama peregrinations of La Compagnia de' Colombari in Italy; Eirik Stubo's radical assaults on Ibsen conservatism in Norway's Nationaltheatret; and postcolonial Francophone theatre's dare to blur the boundaries and to question France's nationalist spirit and gallicized identity.
In the vision of a New Europe, horizons are not fixed and unchangeable. Sometimes the dream takes the form of a come-dressed-as-the-wacky-soul-of-Europe party, like the Fellini-inspired Carnevale that Pasca staged for the closing ceremonies of 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. At other times, New Europe's impact is felt directly on North American shores in a parade as full of strain, sweat and sentiment as Corteo, Pasca's reinvention of Cirque du Soleil's new-age spectacles.
Personally, I think taking the voyage out is the ideal way to experience new Europe's changing states. That way, you are right there when an outstretched hand, like Pasca's in Icaro, invites you to commune with the live-ness of the art form.--Randy Gener
Some observations about art, politics and the pointlessness of being defined based on nationalism
THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO SURVIVE AS AN ARTIST, and that is to make the best possible art. This requires a lot of practice, making lots of rubbish, destroying a lot and never flinching. Constantly questioning, spitting in the face of your own works and tearing their heart out. Experimenting every day. Questioning your aims every day. Knowing every day that you will fail. Art is difficult--it has been said often enough, but it is the only truth.
What is the significance of theatre in the whole body of artistic thought?
In fact, the last thing one thinks of when talking about art is theatre. And yet it is my opinion that theatre is a very good art form. It is actually the result of just a few frivolous factors that theatre is treated so poorly: the vanity of actors, the false authority of directors, the tragedy of applause. There is no applause in art. Art is a serious matter.
Theatre is, furthermore, not economically advantageous as an artistic medium. Because it does not bend to the laws of the capitalist system, one cannot get rich in the theatre. The chances of getting rich in the plastic arts are very small. The chances of getting rich as a theatremaker are nonexistent. I like that.
Just about every official attempt to resist the overpowering art market, with its army of slavish followers led by a powerful museum director--who, despite his inspired passion, piously knows the market price of existing works of art by heart--are neatly twisted in the direction of profit and investment. But in theatre, this is quite out of the question. One cannot invest in theatre. On the contrary, subsidies have to be pumped into it if it is to survive.
And because it is pumped full of subsidies, a lot of people have a distinct opinion about it--people who confuse art with entertainment, for example. A lot of people who consider themselves as belonging among the "ordinary people" think they know exactly what these ordinary people need. They are called populists. And how I loathe populism! One third of Flemish adults vote for those perfect populists, the Vlaams Belang, one of the largest political parties in Belgium and on the far right. I am fed up hearing that the voter is always right--the same voter who finds that the refugee in the gutter in front of his hard-earned front door stinks too much. I detest these masses (for there are plenty who vote for intolerance) and their so-called taste. Only individuals are welcome in the theatre. I hope there are plenty of them.
The masses mean little to me; they are too easy to manipulate. In this respect the power of the Belgian press is clearly underestimated. The man the press asked to come and talk the most about art on the Flemish broadcasting company VRT in the past year was Filip Dewinter, leader of the Vlaams Belang. One sees that almost the whole of the press bows to populism.
I recently read a sour interview with Karl van den Broeck in Etcetera, a Flemish magazine that stubbornly tries to survive in the wilderness of the written press. In the article, van den Broeck, the editor of the Brussels weekly Knack [the Belgian equivalent of Newsweek and Time], said that he considered reality TV and Pieter Aspe [a Belgian/Flemish writer of detective stories] to be avant-garde, and that the most innovative work he had seen in Flanders in the past season was a production in which there was real acting and the set was really a set. I would have expected a more subtle view on the current state of theatre, dance and performance in Flanders from van den Broeck, the former head of culture at De Morgen newspaper, but unfortunately this is the tone of the many reviews and articles published for us.
Yes, I know that most critics do not have a chance anymore: They have no control over the final form of their writings. They cannot even choose the titles of their reviews. They have to write at night because the deadline is too tight. I can assure you that if artists worked like that, art would have died out long ago. But the press and criticism are too important to leave in the hands of the populism that is currently overrunning everything in Flanders. Stricter criteria are urgently needed. The better critics are increasingly refusing to work for mainstream Belgian papers, which have neither time nor space nor money to spare for any sort of depth.
As a theatremaker, I don't need framed insets, with stars to indicate their verdict. That's really of no use to anyone. No--I want to see more interesting questions asked: questions about the distinction between repertory theatre and authorial theatre, presentation and representation, form and content, quantity and quality, lifestyle and art. At present it is the artist's ego that is increasingly the chief subject. When one reads an article about the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans in the newspapers, to give an example, one learns nothing about his qualities as a painter, only how much is in his bank account. There is, in fact, enough quality writing among the critics of the written press, and it is a pity that they increasingly have to resort to the trade journals, Theatremakers in Flanders are fortunate to have such alternative initiatives as rekto:verso, de witte raaf and Etcetera: Let them be elitist.
Recently, in Quebec, a television journalist (I was never given her name) asked me why the Flemish make such radically different and highly interesting things. I said I didn't really understand the question. The companies she named--Troubleyn, Jan Fabre's multidisciplinary company that produces theatre, dance and opera in Antwerp; Ultima Vez, a movement-based company of artists and actors created by director-choreographer Wim Vandekeybus; and Rosas, the Brussels company founded by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker--comprise dozens of different nationalities and are headed by artists whose first act was to leave their Flemishness behind them.
The Canadian journalist persisted, though, saying that in Quebec people know the Flemish above all because of Jacques Brel [the famous singer/songwriter known for being so impeccably French, though he was of Flemish descent] and that this gave a rather negative image of those in power who suppressed the French-speakers in Belgium, and that today's Flemish theatre ensembles have changed that image. (Our minister of culture will be pleased to hear this.) I interrupted her and said that Jacques Brel was an artist, and that when artists enter into politics it is usually combined with a degree of muddled sentiment.
I share this anecdote because I have noticed that more and more questions are being asked about nationality. I believe, however, that the only way to give any meaning to one's nationality is to ignore it completely. Because I am a man without a city, I am probably not the right person to say anything meaningful on this point. Though I was born in Antwerp, I left it as an adult when I found that I had become a real, arrogant, slightly xenophobic Antwerper, and I didn't like it at all. I do feel that a man needs a city; I have been looking ever since. I have lived in Ghent, Frankfurt and Seville, and now I live in Brussels. Half my time is spent traveling from one city to the next with the Needcompany, but I find none of these cities convincing--I would not die for any of them. (Isn't that the essence of nationalism--wanting to die for your mother country?) But then, if you live in a fragmented country like Flanders, where everyone just fiddles their way through, and the word "nationalism" is used mainly by people who are sometimes very, very wrong in their thinking, I am very happy that Needcompany and the other ensembles mentioned above have built up such overwhelming success. That we are suddenly said to be very Flemish--sometimes ascribed as part of a "Flemish new wave"--can only be called curious, and is based purely on coincidence and a good subsidy system.
FLANDERS DOES HAVE A GOOD SUBSIDY SYSTEM FOR theatre and dance, which makes it possible to work in a limited but comfortable way. In the Europe of the future we should put this system forward as an example for other countries. In which country is it possible to have four Moroccan actors play leading parts in one of the biggest theatres? In which country is it possible to give foreign performing artists the same chance of obtaining subsidies? In which country can a philosophical journal of the highest standard be distributed for free? This is only possible in Flanders. And it is only possible in Flanders because we want nothing to do with any narrow-minded and unpleasant nationalism.
Does it strike you that the groups the Canadian journalist mentioned are considered "dance companies"? Almost all the major festivals where Needcompany appears, as well as the prizes we have won, have come under the category of dance, even though I am not a choreographer at all. This year, for example, Isabella's Room won the critics' prize for the best dance production in France, so we sent our prima ballerina Viviane De Muynck (an actress, one of the key members of Needcompany) to receive the prize. The internationalism of dance is obvious. For theatre, internationalism is just exotic.
Well, there you have it--the life of an international theatre company from Flanders: It is a curiosity.
And what can I say about the recent e-mail from a festival director in Jerusalem, who asserted that if we did not appear at his festival we were giving in to international terrorism? I was recently speaking to an Iranian festival director who wanted to invite us to a major festival in Tehran. But how can you go and work in a country where there's a real chance that one of your homosexual staff gets hanged? Einstein called nationalism one of the growing pains of civilization, but internationalism isn't easy, either. Too much exoticism. Too many world problems you have to solve--just like that.
Subsidies are a democratic means of safeguarding freedom of thought. Imagine that we were to question the subsidies for soldiers. Well, dear Mr. Soldier, you can defend our country, but you will have to provide your own food and rifle. No problem, says the soldier, and off he goes. In the distance he sees a farm and thinks to himself: I'll find some food there. He knocks at the door. The farmer opens it. The soldier holds a knife to the farmer's throat and says: "I want a bowl of soup and then I'll defend you." White with fear, the farmer gives him his bowl of hot soup.
Now let's replace the soldier with, for example, an actor without subsidies. He knocks at the farmer's door but he hasn't got a knife. He says, "I want a bowl of soup." "Why should I give you a bowl of soup?" the farmer asks. The actor replies: "If you don't give me one I shall recite a monologue by Jan Fabre right here in front of you." "Oh, no!" screams the farmer, "Not a monologue by Fabre, not a monologue by Fabre...."
Why should the arts always have to defend themselves? Why is so much social and political correctness required from them? I think it has something to do with the freedom they symbolize. They are defenseless because there is no power connected to this freedom--only responsibility. For artists do indeed have responsibility, as the Italian arte povera artist Michelangelo Pistoletto says. Because artists are placed at the top of the social ladder, freedom without consequences amounts to laziness. But at the same time, it is increasingly required that art become involved in politics, that it become "committed," that it stop behaving in an elitist manner.
WHAT MIGHT THAT BE, ART THAT IS not elitist? Folk art? Surely every form of art that manifests itself in superficial political statements can, in essence, be reduced to entertainment. Art must stand with both feet in society. Art takes place in the twilight zone where invention and reality stand in each other's way; it is up to the viewer to decide what the meaning of it all is. And that is the difference between art and entertainment. Art can only be used for strictly political ends when the interpretation of reality is a confirmation of what the spectator already knows--in which case the spectator cannot himself decide what the meaning of the whole thing is, but simply assumes that what he sees is the truth. This is why "politically committed" art is a false concept and reduces art to entertainment. To put it more simply: Burning an American flag or giving someone from an ethnic minority the leading part, not because he is good but because of his origins, has nothing to do with art but with politics and demagogy.
Politics is politics and art is art, but both should be engaged in life itself. Life and life alone is what it is all about--only there will art and politics come together. Art can never change the world and "truth" is never its aim; it should return our gaze and ask questions.
Is entertainment absolutely forbidden in art? Of course not. Entertainment always crops up. It is typical of the greatest artists that even the darkest questions they pose are full of light, clarity and humor. It is a constant characteristic of great art that, in spite of everything, it seeks out beauty and consolation--and this makes the line dividing art and entertainment quite delicate. But the distinction does not have to be made that if the aim is entertainment, it is not art.
What does it mean to be an artist in this society and in our era? An era in which it is increasingly proven that we, born and raised in the richest part of this planet, suffer the greatest fear, make the most fuss, vote for fascists--and at the same time demonstrate against war, violence and the break-up of the ozone layer, and demand that the world change, but will not make any similar effort to change ourselves. It is in this world that theatre has to ensure its survival, and it has no trouble in doing so. Just as art has always existed and has always survived. Just like Orson Welles's scorpion.
If you abolish the theatre, you abolish the most unassailable medium that has ever been invented. Theatre is the one medium that has never changed. There have just been changes of accent due to the spirit of the age. It is exactly like drawing: There is virtually no difference between a drawing by Michelangelo, Beuys or Klimt--all are about something other than originality and ego. They are simply, in spite of everything, about a sort of archiving of everything that has to do with humanity. Sometimes it is hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is above all the theatremakers themselves who do not take theatre seriously enough.
In the theatre there is too little really essential activity to be found. I see far more radical ideas in other media. In the past, one could put this phenomenon down to the individual nature of the medium, but now one can no longer say that. Nowadays, if one says that theatre is not interesting, it is only because not enough interesting theatre is being made. It is not a repertoire that theatre needs, but artists.
IT IS ALSO CLEAR HOW MUCH INFLUence the theatre medium has in the other artistic media: Lars von Trier's Dogville, Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle, Jeff Wall's photos, Paul McCarthy's sculptures. The finest examples are Tino Sehgal's dancing museum attendants. In this attempt to redefine visual art, Sehgal rediscovers theatre in its purest form. It is essential that more artists become involved with theatre, because only artists are able to redefine the medium. And it is precisely this side of art--art as a redefinition of itself--that is found too little in the theatre. That is why several so-called Flemish theatre-makers score so highly abroad: In France or Germany, where almost the only thing that counts is conventional repertory theatre, such attempts to redefine theatre get hardly any chance to develop. If as a visual artist you have to pulverize your own virtuosity in order to arrive at different questions, as a theatremaker you need that virtuosity intact. Theatre is much more complex as a medium, at least the theatre I am proposing: theatre in which all the different media called for come together to form the "image." So is the repertoire superfluous? Certainly not; I myself have directed plays by Shakespeare. But then, I'm more of a director than an artist.
In the past, before people started doubting the existence of God, everything was much clearer and easier. An artist like Leonardo da Vinci worked only for the church and no one else. While he was painting the Mona Lisa, he was also designing attack helicopters for God's private army. The framework was uncomplicated.
Did the last century ruin us? Too fast? Too superficial? Too many new things that we still don't understand? A century with too many deaths, too many lies and too much deceit, too many inventions and too much dirt? Too much Western supremacy? Too much exoticism and false tolerance?
With a God whom some declare dead and others ridicule?
Or is this actually the ideal biotope for good art?
And does this not mean that art is more than essential?
And so should art not be pursued very seriously?
I think most artists are very serious people. And that there are many ways of carrying out this serious task.
Art can be dark and obscure. Some works of art depress me. Some are bright and clear. Others make me smile. Yet others make me turn away in disgust. Some are virtuoso and pretentious. Others crawl painfully into a corner because they have failed again. There they all stand, the one more striking than the other, watching silently like stubborn witnesses to the immense mistakes mankind has made in his own name. And they have one thing in common: They were all born out of that indispensable love of this same humanity that again and again forgets and forgets and forgets.
This is precisely the function of art, and therefore of theatre: to make this eternal forgetting understandable and therefore more bearable.
Jan Lauwers is a dramatist, director and artistic director of Needcompany, whose Morning Song, King Lear and Isabella's Room have performed in the United States.
BY JAN LAUWERS
Jan Lauwers's training as a painter at the Academy of Art in Ghent has greatly impacted the way his Brussels-based ensemble Needcompany challenges the boundaries of realistic theatre and linear narrative. One important concept in this writer-director's theatre, which freely blends such various media as dance, visual art, video, film and performance, is his idea of "border-image," the place where elements collide and the image forms its own identity. This essay is adapted from a "state of the union" speech that Lauwers gave at an annual international theatre festival in Belgium in August 2005.
gospels on the piazza
During the feast of Corpus Christi, a new ensemble congregates in the streets of Orvieto to reinvent the medieval drama cycle
ORVIETO, ITALY, 25 MAY 2005, NEAR MIDNIGHT: Tables covered with flying white cloths and laden with food appear out of nowhere for a crowd of 400 in a piazza at the edge of the cliff, in the oldest part of this old city. Strings of dazzling lights stretch across the square as a dove flies up and the bells of the 1,001-year-old church San Giovenale clamor in the black night. Actors in white linens shower the crowd with tiny flower petals. This night's itinerant theatre performance has transformed into a banquet in which actors and audience are no longer separated, the barriers gone. On these ancient stones is laid out a banquet of laughter, food and wine, and all are invited.
This is the culmination of our journey through the streets of Orvieto, our revivification of medieval city theatre. We call it Laude in Urbis: Mystery Plays in the 21st Century. Just as Orvieto is an ancient city in the modern world, so our plays seek to connect the medieval roots of theatre with contemporary life. The core group of performers--Italian and American--members of La Compagnia de' Colombari, the three-year-old ensemble I formed in Orvieto and New York City--are joined by locals of all ages. Orvieto is a kind of ground zero for the English medieval drama and hence the re-emergence of Western theatre. Medieval dramas were staged in cities across Europe, an outgrowth of the feast of Corpus Christi, established by Pope Urban IV in the 1260s in celebration of the entire life of Christ. In England these dramas were transformed into full cycles of biblical history; since the first Corpus Christi feast (attended by Thomas Aquinas) in Orvieto, this city has nurtured a rich tradition of pageantry, in the form of devotional parades.
Orvieto sits high on a tufa rock cliff in the Umbrian hills about an hour north of Rome. Of Etruscan origin, the city had come to be known as Urbs Vetus (literally "old city") when it was under Roman control. The name stuck and evolved into Orvieto. Inside the rock on which the city is built is a labyrinthine system of nearly 4,000 caves and tunnels, a whole invisible life beneath the visible. If one looks closely at the tufa cliff itself, one notices many areas of carved-out niches or colombari (dovecotes). These were chiseled in the Middle Ages to store food for the city during times of siege. Dominating the entire cityscape is its Duomo, a 13th-century cathedral richly decorated with relief-sculptures of biblical figures and huge areas of gold, creating a facade like a vast shield of light.
The city is divided lengthwise by its main drag, Corso Cavour, where every evening at around 6:30 the passeggiata (walk or promenade) commences. The entire community comes out to meet, talk, do last minute-shopping, see and be seen. This is the soul of the city--the Orvietani. For what is the city but the people? For centuries the Orvietani have celebrated with particular attention two moveable feasts: La Palombella (celebration of Pentecost, taking place six weeks after Easter) and Corpus Domini (celebration of the miracle of Bolsena, one week later). La Palombella finds its final expression in an extravaganza of sophisticated fireworks; Corpus Domini (what we call Corpus Christi) ends in a holy parade by the Orvietani and their bishop. Because so many people from around the world gather during these occasions, it is at these times that Orvieto becomes an international stage.
There are two main government-supported theatres in Orvieto. Teatro Mancinelli, under the artistic leadership of Enrico Paolini, is located in a beautiful neoclassical building and operates mostly as a presenting house, although it is also developing a school for theatre design studies. Laboratorio Teatro Orvieto, under the leadership of Massimo Achilli, a talented photographer, is a collective of theatre artists who labor under heavy teaching schedules and create performances in a place called Sala del Carmine, a deconsecrated church. For Laude in Urbis, we had the good fortune to collaborate with Achilli and his group; Elisabetta Spallaccia, one of his company members, portrayed a serpent, a penguin and a crazy woman, and led the bar mitzvah dance in the streets. Laboratorio's Valentina Marini and her sister, Claudia, were the event's choreographers.
I had been interested in the medieval plays since college days, fascinated by their sheer scale (from creation to doomsday), the large, resilient imagination that placed irreverence side by side with the holy, the playful game aesthetic, the populist spirit of these plays that pressed outside the church walls into the streets. Laude in Urbis (laude being a Latin spin on "game" and "praise," urbis a Latin spin on "city" and "world") is a recovery of the medieval-city model of the Corpus Christi drama, re-envisioned for a modern global audience. Our script is mostly drawn from the English medieval cycle plays (named after the cities of York, Chester, Coventry and Towneley), translated by Walter Valeri into Italian. Along with these plays I inserted disparate pieces of texts, both old and new, by such writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Erik Ehn, Carl Hancock Rux and Dante Alighieri, as well as a Hebrew psalm, a Latin passage from the Vulgate and an Italian text from the 1200s. And there are songs, fusing gospel and jazz with modern classical idioms, in English, Italian, Latin and Hebrew.
In our contemporary mystery play, God is on the move. We follow Jesus through the streets in the frame play, Christ's Appearance to the Disciples, from the Coventry Cycle. Taken from the Gospel of Luke, it includes three characters: Jesus and two disciples. As interlocutor or carnival king, Jesus takes the disciples--and by extension, the audience--on a passeggiata during which he asks them to remember five moments of divine intervention: "Creation," "Noah," "Abraham and Isaac," "Second Shepherds' Play" and "Inferno." The company stands by, some to play all the parts of humankind, others to portray the Holy Trinity and the angels. An intermezzo enacts a song, an argument, a dance (or whatever naturally extends from the end of the previous play), engaging the audience while it moves from one location to the next.
The making of Laude in Urbis feels more like a Fellini film than a piece of theatre. There are sheep to wrangle, doves to feed, children to keep entertained, weather and cars to negotiate, permissions to get, bystanders to bring up to date, not to mention corralling the professional actors who are being asked to hurry up and wait (without a trailer). The Orvietani--whose city streets have become our daily rehearsal hall--humor us in our theatrical exercises. We are surrounded by the cacophony of the market, the orchestra of life that brings a welcomed infusion of city energy. Yet the challenge in making the piece was always walking the line between order and chaos--it's part of the game.
HOW ARE WE TO BREATHE NEW LIFE INTO THESE OLD plays? I was looking for dynamic modern spiritual expression. Working with the suggestions of John Skillen, my friend and colleague who proposed the structure of our cycle, I turned to writers like Ehn and Rux. For the play Abraham and Isaac, Ehn refashioned Abraham's response to God (at the end of his test of faith) into an astonishing piece of poetry: "i've already turned you inside out in my mind. i've already painted secret signs in angel blood...." For the Ark play, Rux wrote witty song lyrics in which he gives a hilarious account of Noah's task: "And the Lord said / Noah Noah / in his 600th year / .... You, Japheth, Shem and Ham / gather all you can / all the beasts of the fields / string 'em up to the wheels / make them an indoor barn...." Then I turned to American spirituals, as well as James Weldon Johnson's exuberant poem "The Creation" from God's Trombones; an exhilarating piece of a sermon from Hurston's 1934 novel Jonah's Gourd Vine; the final passage in Dante's Paradiso; and part of a poem by Pope John Paul II. In this way, the new and the old were fused together through their spirit. A new dramatic trajectory was in hand.
Since Laude in Urbis begins at the edge of twilight, we needed lighting that moved! Designer Chris Akerlind found a solution: Instead of hanging lights in the traditional way, he used powerful hand-held spotlights in the piazza to sculpt entire scenes. For the intermezzo movements, Chris devised 12 long portable battery-powered light-sticks to illuminate the moving actors.
To convey the radical nature of Jesus Christ's birth, the Nativity scene has to be carved out of the crowd. For an audience to be involved in the abject poverty and emotional richness of the event, the birth has to happen suddenly right in their midst--out of nothing. My visual inspiration is the chiaroscuro effects of Rembrandt and Carravaggio, so the baby in arms becomes the source, rather than the object, of the light. Peter Ksander (another lighting designer) swirls a powerful, unwieldy light source very, very slowly while actor Patrice Johnson (playing Mary) gently cradles and rocks the light. (There is no doll.) Its rays land on the children (fresh from playing the sheep in the "Second Shepherds' Play"), who have formed a circle in the midst of the audience. All eyes are on Mary's strikingly serene face. The Nativity star is held high by a young Orvietana actor while the Holy Trinity and the angels look on. From Trazana Beverly (playing the role of God) comes a gospel song: "Mary had a baby...," the phrase repeated until the entire company joins in the chorus.
The "Creation" story, with its focus on the breath of life, has to happen in front of the Duomo, the heart of the city. I was duly warned about the acoustics on the steps of the Duomo--God would not be heard, people warned me, because the piazza was too wide and deep. Tell that to Trazana Beverly! One Thursday morning we take our rehearsal to the steps of the Duomo in a tourist-filled piazza. Trazana strides up the steps of the Duomo and begins speaking the words of Johnson. The gelato-carrying tourists turn to listen as her fierce-tender voice soars through the vast piazza and upward to the Duomo's peak. In Trazana, we have an actress who doesn't need a microphone.
As much as any other, this moment is a metaphor of our project: An African-American actress, a force of nature, in front of one of the towering icons of medieval Europe. In my mind, they are an equal match. Yet it isn't a competition--it is a joining, a meeting, an intertwining, each element giving breath to the other.
Like engaging a community, making a community takes work. A team needs to practice its moves. A fundamental step is the process of learning each other's language. All the American actors are required to speak some lines in Italian. When Patrice Johnson, from Los Angeles, plays the part of Eve in the "Creation" story in Italian, the Orvietani audience is visibly moved. "Adamo, Adamo," she shouts, calling for Adam, and even improvises a little: "Mio marito, mio caro (my husband, my dear)!"
The Italian actors have it easier, using their native language but occasionally improvising in English in some comical sections. For Gianluca Foresi, from Orvieto, this facilitates a populist, sometimes startling fusion of the irreverent and the holy. In the story of Noah, when God calls him to build an ark, Noah accepts, but his spiritual excitement is ruined by a voice from the domestic front--his wife's. Working from the giullare (jester) tradition, Foresi freely moves from English to Italian for certain choice moments. Our 10 light carriers are in hot pursuit as the squabbling Mr. and Mrs. Noah, locked in a bitter, hilarious battibecco (quarrel), walk two blocks from the Piazza del Duomo, banging angrily on doors en route to the site of the ark. When the audience arrives, they see Mrs. Noah (played by Elisabetta Moretti) sitting on the roof knitting and Mr. Noah standing on a ladder making finishing touches to the ark--both muttering to themselves about the other.
The muttering eventually devolves into raucous insults. Noah shouts to his wife: "Conservatista! Comunista! Animalista! Turista...." Pleading for her understanding, Noah says in a mix of English and Italian: "I'm not working just for me. I'm working for you! Lavoro per te, lavoro per tutti, for e-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y!" With the deluge imminent, wearing a rain hat and using a megaphone, Noah calls the animals of the world and urges his wife to go inside.
But Mrs. Noah remains unmoved. Appearing suddenly, the Holy Spirit (played by 14-year-old Matteo Dragoni, also from Orvieto) picks up massive water pistols and squirts Mrs. Noah out of her certitude--finally she goes into the ark. Out of all the earthly fuss and madness, stepping out of his usual comic role, Foresi's Noah achieves a sacred moment: He leads the entire company (which has turned into a great herd of animals) in a prayer of gratitude to God.
THE COLLISION OF CULTURES IS FOR me an opportunity to be seized. The reader may think I'm over the edge, but I look at a Fra Angelico painting and hear jazz. (Try it yourself: Check out the angel at far left with hand on hip in a syncopated jazz pose, leading the blessed into heaven in The Last Judgment in the Museo di San Marco, Florence.) Our opening song, "Don't You Remember?", driven by trombone and punctuated by tuba, comes from the Dixieland tradition and sets the tone for the rest of the evening. Another melding opportunity is creating a bar mitzvah for Isaac in the "Abraham and Isaac" story. The idea is met with blank looks by the choreographers Claudia and Valentina Marini and the Orvieto dancers, something outside their experience. But once we play the klezmer-based music, one actor, Elisabetta Spallaccia, shouts the "Hopa!" and gets it on the first try--the clapping, the rhythm, the shouts, the spirit. Recalling the rehearsals, Elisabetta says: "From the first moment I didn't have a single difficulty. Communication came spontaneously. It was as if we all spoke the same language, on the human level and the professional."
For our African-American actors, theatre-in-the-streets in Orvieto brings other challenges. Says Patrice Johnson, who is of Jamaican descent, of her experience: "When I first got to Orvieto, it was obvious that there were not many black people there. Though people were polite, I would inevitably catch the stare of children who would either want to touch me or were actually frightened."
All of that changes, however, the night she performs Laude in Urbis for the community. Patrice goes on: "I played iconic figures in religious history--a black Mary and a black Eve. We sang and acted and interacted with the natives of Orvieto, and the magic of theatre that always breaks down barriers happened for us that night. The people gave us their hearts and took in the cast, including the black actors, as we traveled through the streets and led them through Hell and back into the open piazza. There the entire cast showered them with blossoms of rose petals."
At the banquet, Patrice recalls, the people of Orvieto "who were until this night very polite and removed, started hugging and kissing me effusively on my face and forehead, at times lifting me off my feet. I was no longer someone or something to fear. I was known to them and by all of them, intimately and in an instant."
Laude in Urbis begins and ends at the piazza, where our international company finally merges with the audience in a feast. The piazza becomes the scene of a great convergence--the vast history of art and architecture in Italy and the music of the USA, specifically jazz, blues, gospel, spirituals. I remember hearing the critic Stanley Crouch say on "Book TV," "Mahalia Jackson and the early Italian renaissance--they're the same thing." This convergence, this collision, this breaking of bread shows how right he was.
In Laude in Urbis, our subject is God and man, but our medium is the community. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book The Sabbath says: "We share time, we own space. Through my ownership of space, I am a rival of all other beings; through my living in time, I am a contemporary of all other beings. We pass through time, we occupy space. We easily succumb to the illusion that the world of space is for our sake, for man's sake. In regard to time, we are immune to such an illusion."
When Trazana Beverly steps in front of the Duomo and speaks, I hope to capture--or at least touch--Heschel's vision of the eternal now.
Karin Coonrod is artistic director of La Compagnia de' Colombari and a lecturer in Shakespeare at the Yale School of Drama.
BY KARIN COONROD
deutsch stock exchange
An upstart transatlantic company exports the latest obsessions of new German voices
NEW FOREIGN PLAYS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN A VERY tough sell in the American theatre--plays from non-English-speaking countries, that is. America has no equivalent of, say, London's Royal Court Theatre, which considers constant vigilance about continental developments a matter of principle. In the U.S., inertia and lack of good translations too often combine with fear of the unfamiliar to create indifference and even hostility. International festivals like the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave make a dent, of course, as do the occasional pet discoveries of star directors, maverick publishers and academics, but it's rare for the contemporary drama of any non-Anglophone country to have dedicated advocates within our theatre.
That, nevertheless, is the role German Theater Abroad (GTA) has taken upon itself for the past 10 years. Founded in 1996 by Ronald Marx, a German-American actor living in New York City, and fellow actors Christian Kahrmann and Jarreth Merz, this irresistibly earnest organization has striven to bridge the yawning gulf between the American and German theatre worlds, introducing dozens of translated contemporary German plays in staged readings in New York and a smaller number of translated American plays in readings in Berlin and Dusseldorf. Started with humble aims, as a means of generating acting parts for its founders, GTA has grown into the most important organ of German-American theatrical exchange--flourishing even after its founders moved back to Germany.
In 2004, after several seasons of mostly no-frills readings at Cherry Lane Theatre, GTA reconceived its New German Voices program as a festival at the Public Theater in collaboration with LAByrinth Theater Company. Eight new German plays were given ambitious staged readings that mixed German and American actors and directors, and the Public's Shiva Theater was transformed into a beer garden used for panels, talkbacks and socializing. The latest GTA project--called Stadttheater New York, at HERE Arts Center in May--is an outgrowth of that festival. Two plays read at the Public--Roland Schimmelpfennig's The Woman Before and Ingrid Lausund's Slipped Disc--are receiving full productions (once again with mixed casts and crews), and HERE's gallery has become the beer garden, host to another lineup of discussions, panels and readings.
Schimmelpfennig is something of a hot property at the moment, the recipient of profuse international attention over the past few years. Born in 1967, he worked for a year as a translator in the U.S. in 1998, then moved to Berlin to become dramaturg and writer-in-residence at the Schaubuhne. When The Woman Before opened at the Royal Court last spring (having played in Bern, Vienna, Munich and Stuttgart), Schimmelpfennig was feted at the German Embassy in London. Unlike most playwrights on the GTA roster, he has already been produced in New York. His Push Up 1-3, about erotic and professional one-upmanship, was produced by Desert Apple Theatre Company and directed by Cynthia Dillon in 2004. Moreover, this past March, director Marcus Stern staged Schimmelpfennig's Arabian Night, about the nightmares of five Berlin tenants happening simultaneously on one summer night, at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.
The Woman Before, a sort of sinister modern fairy tale with a supernatural ending, is closer in style to his other plays. The situation seems straightforward enough at first: A woman rings an apartment doorbell and announces to the man who answers that she has come to hold him to a promise he made 24 years ago to love her forever. This promise was made when she was 17 and he was 20, and the two haven't seen each other since. Romy, the woman, expects Frank to abandon his teenage son and wife of 19 years and take up again with her. This demand is played off against a reluctant farewell between Frank's son and his girlfriend (Frank's family is about to move), which is badly handled in another way, involving impulsive violence.
Violence hovers like a toxic mist as the story develops into a noir-ish psychological thriller, replete with cliffhanger blackouts and characters framed seriocomically in backlight. Schimmelpfennig keeps ahead of his audience by fracturing the action, parceling out information in small, suspenseful bits and moving his scenes back and forth in time. His terse, elegantly brutal dialogue recalls Neil LaBute and Patrick Marber, while the fractured structure recalls Harold Pinter: think Fatal Attraction meets Betrayal. The noir-ish glibness deliberately clashes with the play's aspirations to mythic grandeur, apparent in a horrific Medea-like ending.
Ingrid Lausund, 40, is both a playwright and a director, an increasingly common combination in Germany. Since 2000, she has been a house author-director at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. Her reputation rests mainly on comedy--social satires about compulsive conformity, competitiveness and selfishness in easily recognizable but not entirely realistic situations. Remarkably, she has said she is unafraid of superficiality and cliches, telling one interviewer that she finds it "mendacious not to work with [the superficial] on stage."
Slipped Disc is an absurd office satire set in a workplace anteroom where the "DOORTOBOSS" bears a red light that makes "a humiliating sound" whenever someone is summoned and a mysterious hollow column offers opportunities for improbable escape. No information is ever provided about what the firm does.
Five employees, two women and three men, represent an array of attitudes toward their vague but anxiously competitive circumstances. One is a friendly "winner type," another an aggressive alpha male, another a considerate patsy who "still believes that team spirit counts." The action is a series of vignettes that magnify various episodes of humiliation, aggression, self-scrutiny and more. A man emerges from the boss's office wearing a silly paper hat and holding his cut-off tie in his hand. Later a woman comes out with a large butcher knife in her back, which a colleague politely removes but then reinserts when he can't figure out what else to do with it. A simple request to borrow a pen is treated as a colossal affront. At one point, all the characters transform into dogs, playing a madcap scene that culminates when the Irish Setter snatches a coveted file from the Dachshund and the Pomeranian suffers a vaginal cramp.
Some New Yorkers will no doubt feel that Lausund's vignettes are no substitute for a developed and connected plot, but the chances are those people will also laugh deeply and often in appalled recognition. Asked why he chose these two plays for production, Marx said simply that they seemed "the easiest for American audiences to relate to." Another play in the same 2004 reading series that dealt with the theme of office-induced madness, The Vineta Republic, by Moritz Rinke, didn't elicit nearly the same warm response: A group of businessmen is brought together for a meeting in an exotic location, ostensibly to plan an idyllic island community and theme park, but the place turns out to be an experimental sanatorium for those too emotionally unstable to cope with being fired.
THE OTHER PLAYS IN THE 2004 NEW GERMAN VOICES festival were quite various: Kristo Sagor's Thirsty Birds, about an emotionally disturbed woman who befriends a homeless man and a drug addict while waiting at an airport; Igor Bauersima's Futur De Luxe, a situation comedy set in 2020, when a scientist reveals that his sons are clones of himself and Adolf Hitler; Oliver Czeslik's Khadaffi Rocks, a monologue by a lovelorn, sad-sack suicide bomber who considers himself an artist; and Albert Ostermaier's Fathertongue, a monologue by a young man estranged from his father for many years, who, after his death, reflects on the father as a metaphor for 20th-century Germany.
Interestingly enough, this lineup provoked a heated polemic in the prestigious German weekly Die Zeit by the critic Robin Detje, who criticized GTA for stressing "playability" at the expense of more ambitious values. The selected playwrights, he wrote, "shamelessly indulge in attitudes and whims, fleeing before the threatening everyday economic and scientific reality of globalization and gene manipulation, or whatever." Detje was obviously mourning the loss of the sort of socially engaged, Brechtian playwriting that was once common in Germany. On the 10th anniversary of Heiner Muller's death in December 2005, an editorial in the journal Theater der Zeit, entitled "The Silence of the Intellectuals," made a similar point: "The post of an artist and intellectual capable of commenting on the times as weightily as Heiner Muller, and hence of reaching a larger public, has remained vacant."
Marx, for his part, is unmoved by this polemic. GTA's play selections, he says, are a fair representation of current German playwriting: "There was a certain time when you had more political writers, but 1968 is long past." For better or worse, the young German playwrights who have generated so much critical excitement since the fall of the Berlin Wall are uninterested in revisiting the Nazi period, or any other historical past. Their obsessions are largely romantic, and if they bother with social critique, the targets are usually consumerism, media-culture and generalized notions of postmodern malaise.
Besides, Marx adds, GTA has covered much more diverse dramatic territory over 10 years than any one year of readings may imply. Their first reading in 1997, for instance, was of Klaus Pohl's The Beautiful Stranger, a disturbingly frank depiction (controversial at its German premiere) of the provincial ignorance and brutality behind foreigner-hatred in the former German Democratic Republic. The protagonist is a female American tourist who witnesses the senseless murder of a Pole and is then sexually humiliated by the murderers. When the authorities deny her justice, she wreaks awful vengeance on her own. (An English translation of The Beautiful Stranger is published in Drama Contemporary: Germany, edited by Carl Weber.)
In 1999, the New German Voices series included Heidi Hoh, by Rene Pollesch, who Marx once called "my most beloved serial killer." Pollesch insists that his plays, whose printed texts look like impenetrable thickets of profanities, capitalized expostulations and obscure movie references, are not literature. "What attracts attention are the performances," he says (he prefers to direct his work himself). "You could hardly make sense of the texts alone if you had not attended one of our performances." Heidi Hoh's text consists of the stories, film obsessions, namedropping and disconnected talk of three women who, in Pollesch's original production, shouted at each other until their necks throbbed while running around a 1970s retro apartment environment. The title character says she's a customer service advisor for Daimler Chrysler but she's really one of Pollesch's signature "sampled personalities"--the true subject of the play being the insidious construction of female identity from media images, cheapened, secondhand language, and commercialized stereotypes.
Pollesch doesn't usually allow public readings--he canceled one last year at New York Theatre Workshop, which is planning a production with him--but GTA won his trust by making theirs a performance, adding a live DJ who mixed music and sound effects under the text. Which raises a basic conundrum: Many of Germany's most innovative theatre artists (Pollesch, Christoph Marthaler and Frank Castorf, for instance) are auteurs who create their pieces in a lavishly state-supported, ensemble-centered Stadttheater system that has no corollary in the U.S. The very choice to concentrate on readings in order to introduce as many new writers as possible implies a preference for packageable texts suitable for the Off-Broadway and regional theatre circuits.
Marx responds: "Look, I'm an actor, not a dramaturg. I grew into this position of artistic director. I didn't start out that way, but I found out I was good at getting the money together and all that stuff. Our operation is a first step, to see what's possible in terms of real cultural exchange with American and German theatre artists working together." The rest--solving the problems of importing riskier and more elaborate projects, discussing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the American and German theatre systems--is food for debate in the panels and post-show discussions. "I mean, that's why we have the beer garden," says Marx. "It's a very important part of our programming."
Even published plays aren't always exactly safe, of course. Would Marx consider pushing the envelope still further, introducing, say, some of the rebellious young writers of the current "Blood and Sperm" movement--Marius von Mayenburg, for instance, who made his name with a play called Fireface in which a man kills his parents and lives with the corpses for several days?
"I have nothing at all against him," says Marx. "We'll probably do him this year at Stadttheater New York. We try to give an overview, and sometimes we miss somebody, but if we do, we'll show him next year."
Jonathan Kalb is chair of the Hunter College theatre department and the author, most recently, of Play by Play: Theater Essays and Reviews 1993-2002 (Limelight Editions, 2004).
BY JONATHAN KALB
The French Misconnection, or What Makes a Writer French
Will the revived francophone scene change the face of contemporary French theatre?
But French no longer belongs only to France. --Abdou Diouf, former president of Senegal
MARIE NDIAYE MAY BE THE LUCKIEST NEW mongrel playwright to emerge from France since Yasmina Reza, the Paris-born writer of Hungarian/Russian/Iranian descent, dazzled Sean Connery into financing the Broadway production of Art. Ndiaye's first stage effort--Hilda, written in 1999--so impressed Laura Pels during a London reading that she gave it a splashy first production in 2002 at her own Paris space, Theatre de l'Atelier, where it took home the Grand Prix de la Critique, the French critics' prize for best new play of that year. Immediately Pels, a French-born American producer, commissioned an English translation of Hilda and, with American Conservatory Theater's artistic director Carey Perloff at the helm, arranged successive stagings this past fall at A.C.T. in San Francisco, the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., and then 59E59 in New York, where it ran as part of the Act French Festival. Hilda received a deluxe U.S. media treatment, capped by a New York Times profile of Ndiaye datelined in Bordeaux, 30 miles north of the tiny village of Barie where Ndiaye (pronounced N-di-I-ye) lives with her husband and three children.
Hilda's strong legs are not, however, the sole extent of Ndiaye's specialness. In France, the daring subjectivities of her plays and novels are praised and estheticized in terms more often reserved for francophone dramatists and postcolonial authors from Africa, India and Latin America--which is odd, since she has had precious little contact with her West African heritage. Sired by a mostly absent Senegalese father and a French mother, who raised and educated her, Ndiaye is very much a French wunderkind: She published her first novel at the age of 17 and has completed nine others, one of which is a 100-page tome comprised of a single sentence. Her autobiographical third play, Papa doit manger (Father Has to Eat), about her mixed parentage, holds the unusual distinction of being only the second play by a woman--of any race or color--to be admitted into the repertory of the Comedie-Francaise. (The other woman is Marguerite Duras.) The Mali-born actor in Papa doit manger, Bakary Sangare, by default, became the first black actor ever to be accepted into that institution in its 325-year-old history.
In late October and November--when Hilda was about to begin performing in New York with American actors--riots broke out in the French capital, the wave of arson and nightly firebomb clashes spreading from its immigrant suburbs to scores of cities throughout France. A 1955 curfew law, which, ironically, dates back to the French war in Algeria, was invoked and enforced for more than two months. Sales of gasoline in cans were banned. In scenes that were broadcast nightly, Paris was literally burning. Rather than Muslim zealots, the rioters were French-born children of immigrants from former colonies who reside without jobs or social mobility in the ghetto neighborhoods referred to as the banlieuses. Since Hilda was a stylized indictment of bourgeois liberal hypocrisies and social stratification in France--a sort of No Exit nightmare in which Madame Lemarchand, a vampire of upper-middle-class bohemia, literally devours the identity of her immigrant maid--Ndiaye, a black French writer, was asked, during her U.S. visit, to shed light on what was happening in France. "It was imminent something like this would happen," she told an American journalist. "But it's a shame it is being done in this delinquent manner. There are some deep issues, but I'm afraid all this might eventually help the exteme right."
Meanwhile, in a fringe theatre in the working-class Saint-Ouen suburb north of Paris, a different Ndiaye--Alioune Ifra Ndiaye, an "actual" Francophone from Mali--was making a strong impression, less celebrated perhaps, but no less focal and meaningful. In Bougouniere invite a diner, the delicious satire A.I. Ndiaye and his longtime collaborator, the French philosopher Jean-Louis Sagot-Duvauroux, devised and created together, the very essence of Africa's postcolonial realities (and by extension, France's colonial heritage) was being hilariously caricaturized and critically interrogated. A France-Mali financed production of Compagnie BlonBa, a Malian ensemble that Ndiaye and Sagot-Duvauroux established eight years ago in the capital of Bamako, Bougouniere had just made its European debut in early October in the industrial city of Limoges, roughly three hours by train south of Paris, as part of Les Francophonies en Limousin, an annual international festival of French-speaking theatre. As part of its tour, BlonBa has returned to the banlieuses to perform Bougouniere before one of its core audiences in Paris, where the second largest concentration of Malians, after Bamako, resides.
With the spectators seated in ordinary chairs and installed cheek-by-jowl to BlonBa's three performers, the modest, one-room environmental setting of Bougouniere invite a diner resembles those makeshift canopied spaces propped up in the African countryside and powered by the electricity of a truck's battery. This adept comedy about an African couple's dashed hopes and familial despair is a contemporary urban update of the traditional genre of Mali social satire, the koteba, fused with the celebratory spirit of a soumou gathering (since a meal simmers away in a pot throughout the show). The redoubtable Bougouniere, a recurring comic figure in the theatre pieces of Ndiaye and Sagot-Duvauroux--something like Charlie Chaplin's tramp in Modern Times--is waiting for the arrival of a big fish from the local United Nations developmental agency. Bougouniere and her cynical architect of a husband, Djeliba, are on the hunt for subsidies; they wish to lure a financial backer from one of the wealthy European countries with an authentic West African meal. Djeliba's audacious dream is to build a huge panoramic restaurant resembling a giant hippopotamus on the hill of Hamdallaye, which dominates the Malian capital.
Comic mishaps mount in the form of Bougouniere's three good-for-nothing sons (all portrayed by the rap star Lassine Coulibaly), each one sending their mother to the limits of heartbreak and anxiety by bringing in the wrong ingredients for a very important meal. Her three sons, it turns out, are running after mirages. The first son, a devout follower of an Islamic sect, sees only the mirage of Islam and detests any contact with the Western world; the second, a born-again Christian, is a delirous American-style evangelist; and the third, an alcoholic artist just fired as the local department-store Santa, spouts the holy grail of emigration. Each son is therefore symbolic of the divisions of Mali's contemporary political landscape. "This burlesque comedy reflects the political despair of a society in which all collective solutions to social problems seem to be exhausted," says Sagot-Duvauroux. "It is up to individuals to find their own solutions and not count on government interventions."
WHILE THE POLITICAL CRISES DESCRIBED BY Bougouniere invite a diner takes on a specific significance in Mali, a former outpost of the French colonial empire and one of the poorest Francophone countries in Africa, the play's moral dilemmas strike a powerful chord in the blighted banlieuses, where a significant proportion of the disaffected French youth and their Arab and African immigrant parents lack a clear place in French society. Needed for their inexpensive labor, they struggle against poverty, unemployment and the sense that even after the second or third generation they are still treated as immigre. Not unlike Hilda, Ndiaye's too-oblique drama about ruthless power, Bougouniere attains an eerie pertinence, as the riots prompt newly pressing questions and soul searching around France's success in fully including ethnic minorities. Both plays refract and subtly expose the deadends of the traditional French model of assimilation in which immigrants are expected to adhere to French norms and policy decisions to gain acceptance.
Unfortunately, the American reception to Hilda was laughably stuck in the 1950s: Every review kept comparing it to Genet's The Maids, just because Hilda is ostensibly about a servant--and despite the terribly inconvenient fact that Hilda was physically off stage throughout the piece. Though structured as a series of verbal confrontations between Lemarchand and Hilda's blue-collar husband, M. Ndiaye's play really belongs to the exasperating Lemarchand, whose bullying monologues dominate it. By laying out a one-sided argument, Hilda scores wry points about the corrupt and enslaving tendencies of overly generous liberal powers that lord their status and money over the underclass. (Since the maid is an American, there is also a subtextual comic wish-fulfillment fantasy of the French humiliating U.S. identity.) Bougouniere, on the other hand, reflects the absurdities of "the African problem" only to cannily point a finger on the schisms and contradictions within France's own borders. The political forces and cultural tensions that tear apart Bougouniere's family (and affect her meal) are tightly bound to the viability and realities of France's lofty nationalist ethos.
Immigration to France has put to the test its reputation as terre d'accueil (land of welcome), with 100,000 new arrivals every year. In the past several years, the country has been wresting with what it truly means to be French. The word communautarisme, roughly translated as "community centeredness," is a hot topic of debate, because it rubs salt on the supposedly unique French model of integration individuelle--this idea, forged in the fires of the French Revolution, is that the individual is first and foremost a citizen of the republic and not primarily identified as a member of smaller ethnic, racial or religious communities. People tend to disappear inside French culture, as one would disappear into a great forest, it is generally believed; so-called hyphenated identities common in American culture are not a normal part of the French lexicon. Affirmative action is a taboo. Many nations do aspire and fall tragically short of ensuring equality among their own citizens, but the belief in a transcendent identity--a secular vision of being French (etre francais)--has allowed ghettoization, discrimination and alienation to thrive among many immigrants and offsprings of immigrants, a growing fragmentation deepened by the country's colonial legacy.
But as recently as 1998, France has taken measures to celebrate its multiethnic richness as well as to address the challenges of a diverse society. That year, the country's ethnic rainbow of soccer players nabbed the World Cup. Several French government officials have called for policies of "positive discrimination" and egalites des chances (equal opportunities). A new Islamic wing is expected to open soon at the Louvre Museum, and a new museum on the history of immigration is scheduled for completion in Paris, on the Quai Branly, later this year. Above all, the use of French as a world language is being stoutly championed. Throwing down the gauntlet to English, Spanish and Chinese, France has actively supported and subsidized the French-speaking movement, known as Francophonie, promoting it in the European Union, the educational sector, the field of information technologies, the French-language TV channel TV 5, and most especially in Les Francophonies en Limousin--the mother of all festivals of world francophone theatre. So while Paris has been touted--at least until the explosion of violence and protests this past fall--as, head-and-shoulders above all others, the nation's center of cultural and religious diversity, the determination to increase the influence of French, to update it and give it greater credibility in the international scene, has actually been happening elsewhere, for more than 22 years now--in Limoges.
THE PAINTER PIERRE-AUGUSTE RENOIR WAS BORN IN Limoges (pronounced Leemozh), the regional capital of the verdant Haute-Vienne departement, located in the central southwest. Drenched in 2,000 years of history, Limoges (pop. 200,000) used to be a fertile spiritual arts center for Christian converts and pilgrims in the Middle Ages, famous for its illuminated manuscripts, liturgical theatre and European polyphonic music. Today, only a hardy few ever make this quaint, charming sojourn with any degree of regularity. Those who do have probably heard that it is a city with two hearts--La Cite, the old quarter with terraced botanical gardens, half-timbered houses and narrow cobblestoned streets on a plateau overlooking the Vienne River; and the large commercial quarter on an adjacent high-rise where you can hang out, shop or hop over to the Musee National Adrien Dubouche to see the celebrity services and fine chinaware once owned by Napoleon and other assorted French royals.
Founded in 1984 by Pierre Debauche and Monique Blin, Les Francophonies en Limousin is France's global face to the francophone world, creating a sort of elective-affinity club out of disparate countries on five continents where French is one of several official languages or the principal vehicle for business or education. In Africa, in particular, says the Belgium publisher of French-language plays Emile Lansman, Les Francophonies enjoys "an excellent fame." When he launched Les Edition Lansman in 1989 with the publication of the late Congolese dramatist Sony Labou Tansi--one of Limoges's great discoveries for whom the festival has named a prize--Lansman immediately earned the reputation of being a publisher of African plays, though his original intent was to discover talented new writers in the French community of Belgium.
For a non-French visitor, the Limoges festival is hardly as huge or as popular a theatre destination spot as Festival d'Avignon or Festival d'Automne. Budgeted at an annual cost of more than 1.5 million euros, with about 85 percent of its resources coming from public subsidies, Les Francophonies does not invite big names just to create a festival hit. Says the Quebec-based Suzie Bastien, one of Limoges's resident playwrights: "France's big national dailies and directors frequently look down on the event. It is not where you find the latest talk of the town. Many theatre people don't really appreciate this festival. But it is a place where the Africans are welcome, and you won't see anything else like it in France." Offering no supertitles or simultaneous translations in English, the festival rarely blips on the radar of the world's majority of Anglophones--the guidebooks actually steer you to go elsewhere if you think a French/English dictionary is all you would need to get by. A Parisian tour guide looked perplexed when I informed him that I had just spent nine days in Limoges. His reactions made me feel, for an insecure moment, as if I had been limogeas--banished, like those clueless World War II generals who were dismissed by their commander-in-chief to the back of the ranks in Limoges. (The verb limoger, derived from Limoges, means "to dismiss.")
And yet Les Francophonies has been the trailblazing enabler of new dramatic talents and new international collaborations in the postcolonial Francophone theatre. The most feted dramatist to emerge from Limoges is the 2000 Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian, renowned as a Chinese dissident writer even though he holds French citizenship and has lived in France since 1987. The most emblematic: Labou Tansi, whose carnivalesque provocations disgruntled his Congolese brethren, who accused him of writing a theatre for the French, and later ran afoul with his French sponsors, who disapproved of his 1993 play, Monologue d'or et noces d'argent pour douze personages (Gold Monologue and Silver Wedding for 12 Characters), for being too political. Quebecois auteur Robert Lepage, one of Les Francophonies's earliest discoveries, brought to Limoges the original version of his La Trilogie des dragons (The Dragon Trilogy) in 1987 and staged a reprise in 2003. The festival's latest star, 37-year-old Quebec-based Lebanese exile Wajdi Mouawad, achieved notoriety for declining the 2005 Moliere (a French theatre award) for best French-language author for Littoral (Coastline) as a gesture of protest against the indifference theatre directors have displayed toward his francophone work. The Limoges festival also counts among its splendid finds the Algerian Slimane Benaissa, Mauritanian Moussa Diagana, Quebecois Michel Marc Bouchard, Senegalese Boubacar Boris Diop and French-Algerian Ahmed Kalouaz.
One of the singular achievements of the Limoges festival is its principle of cross-pollination and experiment, which has reversed the direction of the North-South split between the more highly developed nations and less-developed peripheries, thus privileging work from the South. A simple game of numbers offers another way of looking at the picture. The 2005 festival, under the artistic direction of Patrick Le Mauff, presented three productions from Belgium, two from Switzerland, three from Quebec, and one each from Mali, Burkina Faso, West Africa and Haiti--more than third of which were either intercultural productions composed of mixed French/African creative teams or French-subsidized co-productions like Bougouniere. The 13-day event also presented hip-hop evenings, spoken-word slams, readings, visual art and live music from Algeria, Brazil, Chad, Croatia, Cote D'Ivoire, Congo, Egypt, Madagascar, Senegal and France. Another feature unique to Limoges, and one in which almost 100 francophone dramatists have participated (although it exists outside the festival proper), is a three-month playwright-in-residence program, La Maison des Auteurs, and the publishing opportunities to which it has led for many of them.
Francophonie did not originate in France. Historically, the concept's founding fathers--a Senegalese, Leopold Sedar Senghor; a Nigerian, Hamani Diori; a Tunisian, Habib Bourguiba; and a Cambodian, Norodom Sihanouk--all accepted their shared colonized past. Since his 1962 manifesto, Senghor, the first African member of the Academie Francaise, helped form a bridge between continental and colonial French. In the early 1980s, France took control of the Francophonie idea and wielded it into a political and institutional instrument to fight the widespread illiteracy that was officially rediscovered in francophone countries. But while French is a linguistic criterion of the Limoges festival, it is neither the sole basis nor the unifying factor. According to Le Mauff, Les Francophonies's aim is to present and support a plurality of artists--not to advance a political discourse, advocate a cause or "any other extra reasons." During his five-year tenure (his new successor is Marie-Agnes Sevestre), the Limoges festival purposefully widened and diversified its scope beyond a recognized interest in Africa. Le Mauff, who has since returned to his first love, acting, had made a point of inviting one or two foreign-language productions every year. Flemish was the featured language in 2001, Tunisian Arabic in 2002, Zulu in 2003, Dutch and English in 2004. Last year, it was Romanian, courtesy of Radu Stanca Theatre of Sibiu's folkloric Elektra, imagistically reconceived by Romanian director Mihai Maniutiu. "When you throw a family dinner, you always leave a seat open for somebody from the outside," Le Mauff says. "Les Francophonies is a reunion of countries that speak French, but all languages have the capacity to carry France's republican values."
BECAUSE OF THE NORTH/SOUTH DIVIsion in the francophone world, Le Mauff says he had to be wary of political entanglements and ethnocentric positions. "We are not an NGO," he says, explaining that it would not be a good thing for the festival to invite francophone artists just because they come from marginalized or disadvantaged countries where the current political situation does not support a vibrant theatre scene. He is careful to present African shows on their own terms and is cautious not to wrench, say, a griot from its Mauritanian context. Four years ago, he invited the Arab-speaking actors of Theatre Phou of Tunisia to perform their Au-dela des rails (Beyond the Rails) "because there are a lot of Arabs in France," says Le Mauff. "French Arabs speak many languages, and the perception of them in France has been influenced by historical conflicts. I felt that the Tunisian company had to perform the play in Arabic, in their own language. If an Arab is seen speaking French, an entirely different perception is created." In the end the Tunisian actors were restricted from traveling to Limoges by a last-minute 24-hour visa, because the French consular services considered these young independent artists unemployed people who constituted "un risque de flux migratoire (a risk of migratory flow)."
In opposition to the criticism that Francophonie is an outmoded idea, Les Francophonies writers evoke their love of French while reinventing it by marrying it with their own cultures and their respective languages. Often the results are uneven: French adapter-director Stephanie Loik's dreary stage version of Ken Saro-Wiwa's eponymous novel Sozaboy (petit minitaire) filters the Nigerian writer-activist's coming-of-age army tale through the alternating rhythms of a trained actor and a spoken-word poet. In others, the linguistic openness charms: The idiosyncratic stories that populate Quebec storyteller Fred Pellerin's solo evening Un village dans la bouche (A Village in the Mouth) are fully of slangy digressions and "Northern Exposure"--like convolutions that are quite specific to the nutjob inhabitants of his small village in the Mauricie region, Saint-Elie-de-Caxton. Pellerin's approach, he says, is "a kind of free jazz" in which he rescues the memories of the lumberjacks, witches, beautiful lasses and a toothless grandmother who imparted to him their wild-but-true tales.
Hybridity and interdisciplinary thinking are clearly animating principles of the 2005 festival. Carmen Falinga Awa, a large-scale West African urban musical transposition of Prosper Merimee's Carmen, is glorious fun, a high-octane swatch of theatre, music, song and dance, even though the choreographer Irene Tassembedo of the National Ballet of Burkina Faso made a complete and utter hash out of the narrative. Performed inside a gym with spectactors milling around, Shift ... Centre--Paris-based choreographer Opiyo Okach's mobile dance-theatre reflections with the Kenyan dancers of Compagnie Gaara Projects on the nature of multiple subjectivity and split-directional truths--depends greatly for its fractal beauty on the translucent panels of French scenographer Jean-Christophe Lanquetin and the biomorphic figures of French sculptor Polska.
THE BEST CREATION OF THE LIMOGES festival, Qu'est-ce que penser? (What Is to Think?), is a French premiere from Belgian company De Onderneming, in which writer-actors Ryszard Turbiasz and Carly Wijs swing from seriousness to whimsy as they demystify the intellectual rigors of Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. Wijs's soft-spoken Arendt strives to sum up her intense feelings for Turbiasz's remote Heidegger who mostly faces a computer. Foregrounded by a video of the Adolf Eichmann trial, abruptly interrupted by Aretha Franklin's "Think," this collage work audaciously interpolates low-pitched monologues and lectures about Bach and soccer with projected excerpts of the Monty Python "Philosophers' Football Match" in which the Greek team (Plato, Socrates, Aristotle) and the German team (Heidegger, Marx, Nietzsche) walk in circles--unable to kick the soccer ball unless they are struck by one bright idea. Confucius is the referee. De Onderneming's sly homage to thinking revolves around the banality not just of evil but also of love, the thoughtlessness that allows smart people to behave without stopping to consider the ethics.
By contrast, the limpid dynamics and sparse lyricism of Benin-born French dramatist Jose Pliya's Nous etions assis sur le rivage du monde ... (We Were Sitting in the Shores of the World ...) seems more in line with Corneille or Racine--but with an understated French-Caribbean creole twist. Set on a sunny beach on the island of Martinique, this languorous drama pits a woman, full of nostalgia and sincerity, who returns to her native land after years of living in the city against an angry man who, stretched out on the sand, tells her that she no longer has a place in these shores ("times change, the country changes"). Though they are both black, he says, they do not have the same color of skin. In this parable about the borders of self and society that divide people, even a secret desire for each other's bodies pulls them apart.
"The quest for identity is the main subject here in the French Caribbean, because of slavery and colonialism, because of the melting pot," says Pliya, speaking from Guadeloupe, where he is the new director of that French overseas departement's national theatre, l'Artchipel. Born of the encounter between two tongues, creole identities are a rich source of hybrid poetics and politics in the francophone Caribbean, prompting the Czech-born French author Milan Kundera to coin the phrase "le francais chamoisise." The son of the Beninese writer Jean Pliya (whose Kondo le requin ushered in that country's modern French-African drama), Jose Pliya describes himself as "Francophone by the accident of birth, Hispanic by inclination and Anglophone by experience." "For my father's generation, writing is a social mission to educate people," Pliya says. "My way is to write a play in French, and that's all. For me, writing is more personal and intimate, a way to cure the sadness of my childhood, for instance. I am a poetic writer. There is no political intention. My quest is always the same: the invention of a new language."
Like Marie Ndiaye, Jose Pliya toys with ambiguity, power struggles and the straddling of cultures, as well as blurs the labels of "traditional" and "francophone" writing. L'Avantscene theatre, a cutting-edge French theatre review, has published his recent plays. His most famous work, Le complexe de Thenardier (2005), about an African woman who takes in a desperate refugee whom she brutalizes into servitude, has been produced in major French theatres. Pliya himself staged his own Les effracteurs at Comedie-Francaise Studio Theatre in 2004. "Pliya's texts," says Gilbert Doho, a Cameroon playwright, "are the kind that ravish the metropolis. His play Neggrerences captures the situation of marginalized immigrants, portraying them as more of a scamp philosopher than an angry person in a racist France after the uprisings of May 1968. I would align Pliya with Aime Cesaire, one of the founding fathers of Negritude, whose works constantly question France's unjust system built on the blood of others."
In the past several years, scattered signs seem to augur that expansion and renewal may be ascendant, as more francophone writers are slowly being recognized in France. In 2003, Jose Pliya won the prestigious Prix du Jeune Theatre from Academie Francaise. Moreover, the organizers of last year's Act French Festival in New York City set aside several readings and programs for francophone writers. Actes du Theatre's important new three-volume collection, From Godot to Zucco: The Anthology of French-language Playwrights 1950-2000, sensitively edited by the French playwright Michel Azama, offers bright trails through the dark woods by paying particular attention to Francophones and French nationals who adopted French in their careers after starting out with a different native tongue: Irishman Samuel Beckett, Argentine Copi, Romanian Ionesco, Algerian Kateb Yacine, Cuban Eduardo Manet and Cote d'Ivoirian Koffi Kwahule.
From March through October of this year--the centennial of Leopold Sedar Senghor's birth--France itself, its sense of national identity still shaken and corroded by violence and demonstrations, is in the throes of francofffonies!, a nationwide festival of French writers and French-speaking authors (note the division being made here). Some highlights include Senghor's Les Orphees noirs at Comedie-Francaise, Lepage's The Anderson Project in Lyon, Lebanese poet-dramatist Georges Schehade's La nageur d'un seul amour in Paris, and Utafika Theatre of Congo's recovery of Bernard-Marie Koltes's Roberto Zucco. But the anchor event of francofffonies! is none other than Les Francophonies en Limousin. From Sept. 26 through Oct. 8, the 23rd Limoges festival will present the Algerian writer-director Ahmed Madani's L'improbable verite du monde; Seneca's Oedipe, rooted in New Caledonia; a new creation from Burkina Faso; and the national tour of Forets (Forests), the third part of Wajdi Mouawad's torrential tetralogy of war and exile, which began with Littoral and Incendies (Fires)--featuring Patrick Le Mauff.
It remains one of the contradictions in France that in certain intellectual circles, Francophonie continues to have negative connotations. It is not for nothing that francophone literature is widely taught in the U.S. but very little in France. The term itself has been judged as ambiguous and empty--a fiction or abstraction that gives an impression of the omnipresence of the French language. Perceived sometimes as biased and patronizing, the concept itself has been attacked as a new form of exoticism. Still other critics connect it to a strategy of conquest in neocolonial France.
THE GALLICIZED ESTABLISHMENT maintains a discourse and practice to keep at the margins the users of French outside continental France. In the European definition of a nation, citizenship can be granted a writer but national identity is a whole other matter. As the Guadeloupe novelist Maryse Conde explains, "A French writer has to be a French national, born in France and of course writing in French. A white writer, who expresses himself in French, can eventually be regarded as French. The question of race as a marker of identity is more important than any other. A black or Arab or foreign writer can eventually be introduced into the canon, but it takes a lot of effort, friends pressing hard for his or her admittance into the Academie Francaise, and visibility in the political domain." So although Marie Ndiaye is French, she will, in a sense, always be regarded as a "francophone writer," and there is no ambiguity about the likes of Alioune Ifra Ndiaye, Jose Pliya, Wajdi Mouawad and others who use French with great mastery. The term "Francophone" implies a difference in origin.
Whether francophone playwrights will ever be authentically integrated into the French theatre is an open question. "The way the arts are funded, promoted and valued in France makes it very hard for things to change," says Denise Luccioni, Act French Festival's artistic liaison. "The way the country is governed has nothing to do with the actual nature of French society." However, Bougouniere's Sagot-Duvauroux remains optimistic, despite admitting that representation in the French theatre lags behind life's realities. "Things are moving, and that is a good thing," he says. "It is, however, going to be difficult for Les Francophonies to alone correct the vertiginous imbalances and symbolic systems that characterize the relationships between France and the countries of its old empire. The French theatre is deeply Franco-oriented with close links to the government. In spite of vigorous proclamations in favor of world solidarity, it did not manage to be truly articulated or connected with francophone African theatre creations. A few African shows are being performed, but lifelong partnerships still remain to be built." In France, a dominant subconscious feeling about centrality reigns and persists. "This phenomenon," Sagot-Duvauroux adds, "is often reinforced in the African communities of artists who expect miracle solutions from abroad. Les Francophonies can be a real platform for artists to meet. Relationships built there can help to critically think and build an autonomous cultural community, less subject to old imperial ways."
Despite their present surface mutuality, the borderline between French theatre and Francophone theatre is likely to remain, while France strives to reconcile the notion of a world citizen with the reality of diversity. Rooted in humanist ideals, Francophonie may not be sufficient enough even to describe the full panoply of colors, the universe of extractions, that act under its banner--which is perhaps why the poet-novelist Daniel Maximin, born in Guadeloupe, has insisted that, in the near future, the concept itself should be more accurately amended to "Francopolyphonies."
Randy Gener's trip to Les Francophonies en Limousin was partly supported by a grant from the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association.
BY RANDY GENER
he's got Ibsen by the tail
Eirik Stubo leads Norway's National Theatre in unexpected new directions
"HENRIK IBSEN IS A GENUINELY destructive playwright--as far from an edifying writer as you can get," declares Eirik Stubo. If that sounds like a surprising opinion for a Norwegian theatre director to express, from Stubo's lips it becomes downright iconoclastic: He holds the post that many consider Norway's most important theatre job, the artistic directorship of Oslo's National Theatre.
What's more, Stubo will be represented for the first time in the United States this coming October at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with (who'd have guessed it?) an Ibsen production, his first--an updated, minimalist staging of The Wild Duck.
How did a declared Ibsen-phobe like Stubo end up directing one of the venerable master's most representative plays, as well as leading a theatre company that has for generations depended for its very identity on the Ibsen tradition, and that hosts a world-renowned biannual Ibsen Festival?
The 41-year-old Stubo was born in Narvik, a small town in the north of Norway, and studied philosophy (with phenomenology as his chief focus) before applying to Statens Teaterhogskole in Oslo. In his own words, he found himself uncomfortable with the prospect of being "locked up in a study with Kant." But having moved on to a career of professional directing, he still insists upon the affinities between the two fields, as theatre to him is a "philosophical practice."
"The most astonishing thing about theatre is that you in rehearsals can play your way into insights and truths," Stubo believes, "insights that a philosopher may have to spend a lifetime digging into."
Stubo made his directorial debut in 1995 at Torshov Theatre in Oslo, with David Mamet's Oleanna. In short order, he became a resident director at Rogaland Theatre in Stavanger, where he did a series of modern and contemporary plays, and--with the strong support of the company's actors--was chosen as artistic director in 1997. During his period at Rogaland Theatre he became noticed in theatrical circles for his success with playwrights considered difficult and unfamiliar, including Hugo Claus, Bernard-Marie Koltes and Thomas Bernhard. As a whole, Stubo's agenda gave the theatre a more continental profile than one would typically ascribe to a so-called provincial theatre.
Most notably, though, Stubo also managed to balance the budget and to win audiences. These qualities are not to be underestimated, and after only three seasons in Stavanger, Stubo was enlisted to assume the leadership of Nationaltheatret i Oslo.
Again, Stubo was the actors' choice. And that may say something about a longing for change. More than any theatre in Norway, the National is the institution that comes under scrutiny when state subsidies to the arts are examined and evaluated. In his new post, Stubo continued to act as an efficient administrator and encouraged the company's longstanding style of performance, more linked to an actor's than a director's theatre. But he wasted no time in declaring himself uncomfortable with the "Ibsen-tradition"--the Norwegian master, he suggested, had become much too much of a national symbol.
Even so, Stubo has in recent years managed to bring new audiences and "educate" the old by introducing a range of different contemporary theatre styles and aesthetics at the Ibsen Festival. Among the radical and adventurous productions he has imported to Oslo are Lee Breuer's Dollhouse, Thomas Ostermeier's Nora, and Sebastian Hartmann's Gespenster (Ghost) and John Gabriel Borkman (the latter two being examples of the post-Brechtian political theatre of Frank Castorf's Volksbuhne in Berlin). Another important director with whom Stubo has established a tight relationship is the controversial Hungarian Gabor Zsambeki.
Beginning in 2000, Stubo initiated a festival of contemporary drama that alternates with the Ibsen Festival every second year. In this context, he has staged the works of the Swedish dramatist Lars Noren and the Norwegian dramatist Jon Fosse, exploring a minimalistic approach to their plays--which one also recognizes in his production of The Wild Duck.
"The word 'minimalism' is not important," says Stubo, "but I want to reduce as much as I can, in order to keep what is necessary. Theatrical illusion doesn't interest me, but a bare language can make it possible to bring out the music of a play." Stubo's Wild Duck captures a vibrant sense of daily life, and the director also succeeds in showing how "a family can live under unusual conditions and suffer from psychological stress, without being aware of the discomfort of their own situation," as one critic wrote.
Stubo sets the play in the early 1960s. While stripping the stage almost naked, he allows for a telling use of props, costumes and music, all of which in a slightly ironical manner allude to the "innocence" of the time. The most radical thing about Stubo's production is his cuts in the text, made in order to avoid "explaining" the characters and their motives.
When talking about his attitude toward staging Ibsen, Stubo cites German director Peter Zadek, who has said that "in staging Chekhov, you have to discover the characters' secrets. But in staging Ibsen, you have to give the characters their secrets back."
Is Stubo's problem with Ibsen that he finds the plays old-fashioned? "Yes," he replies, adding, "I disagree with those who praise his perfectly worked-out expositions and lines. Ibsen's genius is of another kind, and has to do with all the many levels in his plays, and the complexity of the characters. For me, it is important to leave a play open for the audience to fulfil, and I always ask the actors just to deliver the text, without too much intonation."
Thus Stubo finds his own traces of genius in the work of this "destructive, unedifying" writer, and leaves it to the audience to say why the characters fall victim to complacency, to the coldness and arbitrariness of life as Ibsen sees it. As one actress who has worked with Stubo tells me, "He treats the characters as his friends, and never considers a character less intelligent than he is himself."
Therese Bjorneboe is the editor of Norwegian Shakespeare and Theatre magazine.
BY THERESE BJORNEBOE
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