Theatre reviews are back!

I sometimes find writing introductions for a new post a bit difficult, so let’s not waste any time and get right to it.

I’m back seeing shows again (finally).

I’ve got two short commentaries to write here, but first, a note on how theatre-going in the time of COVID has felt so far:

To date, I have only revisited 2 out of my usual 4 theatres (yes, again, creature of habit / don’t much feel like changing too many things around right now / this could be good for comparative purposes). I originally wanted to make it so that I would start things off with a show at Bastille (the favorite), but performance scheduling deprived me of that symbolic moment. In any case, starting things off at Nanterre was a pretty fine substitute. 

Based on my experience at Nanterre and then at the MC93, I can say that, generally, it almost feels as though things have gotten back to normal, the most visible exceptions being that everyone is masked and that completely sold out shows with every seat filled are a thing of the past (for now). The bar/canteens in the lobbies of the respective theatres were also open when I visited (contrary to what I had originally thought might happen), as were their bookstores. As for seating, the general rule was to have one seat between each party of spectators in a given row. The result was something like this (s = spectator ; x = empty):

Row 1: s s x s x s s s x s s x s

Row 2: s x s s s s x s s x s s s

Row 3: s s s x s s x s s x s s x

As you can see, front to back spacing isn’t being factored in (because otherwise this nightmare jigsaw puzzle nonsense would only get worse). My guess is that for seated performances that adhere to a more traditional frontal dynamic, there is some sort of algorithm being used to determine how many seats could be sold to account for most possible seating configurations. At Nanterre, for instance, the ushers mentioned that the performance was sold out, so there is definitely some kind of a cap in place. I’ll also be heading back there tomorrow to see another piece whose staging/seating arrangements involve a takeover of the plateau of the main stage—similar to how Dying Together was staged a couple years ago—, and I am curious to see how seating or spatial restrictions will be applied to a piece that, based on what I know of the director, leans more towards a loosening of restrictions and a blurring of spectator/spectacle barriers.

But more on that (hopefully) later. For now, some brief thoughts on what I’ve seen so far.

Jamais labour n’est trop profond created by Thomas Scimeca, Anne-Élodie Sorlin and Maxence Tual. Nanterre-Amandiers, September 22, 2020.

It seems almost appropriate to have started things off with a comedy. 

Even more so one that touches on everything from environmentalism, climate change, collapsology, theatre in general and its former, current and perhaps future status. 

There’s quite a lot in there, but this is not necessarily to say that the piece itself was cluttered (there are some other nits I have to pick with it). In terms of plot, it’s actually quite simple. It centers on four actors living in what appears to be some kind of post-civilizational collapse commune. One of these actors apparently still gets offers for work or new projects (and the salary that comes with them), but at the start of the piece, his phone is taken and smashed by another actor, who persuades him to focus on what is more important: a machine they have invented that will help make their little community more self-sufficient.

A shit-powered generator. 

In fact, in this piece that revolves around the after-effects of the disappearance of nature, the most present “organic” element is quite literally a tub of hazardous, bacteria-ridden human waste. And yet, it is also this waste that, the staging suggests, allows for the lights to stay on, and the actors to engage in what they do best: perform. Extracts of Prométhée are interwoven with references to Hamlet (notably a reworking of the “Alas, poor Yorick” scene from Act V.1), a sequence reminiscent of the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey (only this time, instead of monkeys on a beach, it’s a monkey in a dumpster playing with trash) and an extended scene involving an attempt to film (with a stage light standing in for a camera and a broom as a boom mic) a scene suggesting a period piece, only with reused costumes and the bare skeleton of a set. Through all this, a small outhouse-like structure (whose fourth wall is missing so that, when it is rotated, the audience comes face-to-face with the outhouse’s occupant relieving themselves) remains slightly up stage right, with that, plus intermittent trips up to the shit-generator as well as periodic moments in which the lights go out for want of power, serving as a reminder for why we are all able to watch this in the first place. 

Beauty in shit. 

But with this also comes one of my primary criticisms on this piece, and no, it doesn’t directly have to do with the prevalence of scatological humor. To preface this, I should note that the creators of this piece were all formerly members of the Chiens de Navarre theatre troupe, known for its light, almost improvisational style and bent of humor, and whose work I had seen before (both times at the MC93…I even almost opted on writing on Jusque dans vos bras for my dissertation). The troupe is also known for the frequency with which they make reference to the fact that they are in a theatre and/or directly (attempt to) incite an audience to act supposedly against the bounds of what it is they are supposed to be doing while in the theatre space (an example: in Jusque dans vos bras, imploring audience members to come up and pull a boat of struggling migrants to shore, sarcastically admonishing them when no one crosses the barrier onto the stage, and then finally “attacking” the helpers via two actors dressed in silly shark costumes). This performance retained many of the elements that the performers no doubt honed during their time with the Chiens…, though it’s this question of audience participation and the veneer of disobedience that I want to focus on.

I mentioned earlier that one of the primary set pieces on the stage was an outhouse. Well, this outhouse also had a bucket in which shit and the like could be collected. At one point during the opening third of the show, two of the actors made an announcement that they would repeat periodically throughout the course of the play: any audience member who wished to relieve themselves was more than welcome to come on the stage and do their business in the bucket. If nothing else, it would aid in the running of the very necessary generator, and thus of the show itself. And this wasn’t just a quick announcement. In fact, the actors spent a good amount of time either singling out individual audience members and asking them directly if they wouldn’t like to help, or otherwise posing the possibility and waiting patiently for something to happen, for someone on our side of the space to act against what its normalized codes dictate. 

(Side note: in the spirit of situational presence—and in the improv-esq spirit of Chiens…—, at one point during the initial plea, the actors went on a short tangent about how much better it would be for us as spectators, especially those of a certain age, to use the bucket since the toilets at Nanterre are located at the basement level, requiring several stairs and almost a tour of the building to get to. Despite my critics of this sequence, I will grant that they are right on this point. The toilets at Nanterre are somewhat of an inconvenience to get to). 

Here’s my critique, though (and this comes from having thought about this through my research on audience participation-based theatre, and especially some thoughts I had while writing on Re-Paradise): based on other instances of similar calls for spectator action, I am beginning to come to the conclusion that arguably one of the most direct ways to enforce a traditional spectator/spectacle dynamic is to draw attention to it via an impossible request. In other words, the only way that question could have been asked of an audience is if it was done so on the assumption that no one would actually follow through. Would it have been an interesting experiment if someone had? Yes. But it also risked destroying the theatricality of the experience by bringing in an unavoidable (stinking) reminder of the real onto the constructed/imaginary playing space. Of course we know that the actors aren’t actually sloshing around in shit when they go and examine the generator, but we can suspend our disbelief enough so that, after they step out of the tank, the mud caking their boots takes on the symbolic association with shit in our minds, hence reactions of disgust. Bringing in the possibility of real human waste into this risks breaking the illusion.

What I find still more pressing, however, is the fact that often requests like this are made with an air of potential rebellion, of upending a status quo in order to open the possibilities for something different. Yet, rather than creating possibilities, calling for action while likely anticipating the exact opposite (that is, for spectators to behave as they more or less normally do) not only draws a distinct line between actors (those who do) and spectators (those who observe), increasing the distance between the two primary bodies both spatially and temporally. In other words, it becomes an act that re-enforces a traditional dynamic rather than one that works to poke holes in it and thus imagine possibilities outside its paradigms. 

Now, this might not always be such a bad thing. In fact, one could read it in this case as a way of highlighting a return to a more “skeletal” (“primitive” is a word that popped in my head also, but it’s not quite the right term, and also I have some reservations using it in general) relationship to theatre, one that brings it back to its pre post-post-modern roots. Often, however (and I would argue that this is what is happening here), this is not the case. Instead, you get the illusion of rebellion while maintaining an already established relational structure.

And speaking of audience/spectacle relations…

Watch: “voyages diverses” created by Oliviere Fredj, Shani Diluka, Matias Aguayo and the Paris Chamber Orchestra, MC93, September 25, 2020

I feel like one of the most frustrating things about the MC93 is how much some of the programming visibly tries to be out of the box innovative and just comes up a little bit short.

Case in point: this show.

In brief: this piece is composed of loosely connected vignettes, each one centered on the theme of “Time”. Time as a linear progression, Time as notions of past/memory, present and possible futures, Time as measured, Time as a commodity (lost time, borrowed time), Time as in dual temporalities on stage and in the house. It was this last one that the show opened with, with a direct address to the audience via asking someone what time it was and then noting the time on the back wall in chalk (the show started about 15min late, which was a fun surprise…). From that point, we (as in those of us in the house) were supposedly absorbed in the “stage time”, spatial union merging with temporal union.

As to the texts, these were composed following a series of various workshops the creators held in hospitals, retirement homes and prisons in the nearby area; in other words, in spaces occupied by folks for whom time takes on a significant weight. It’s a communal effort and judging by the presence of several participants/their friends in the audience that evening, a highly successful one. Which is fine. Honestly, I have no gripes with this when it’s done well (see Ils n’avaient pas prévu qu’on allait gagner for when it’s not…), and I don’t want to discount the effort put in by the volunteer participants to collaborate and create something. 

But why, seriously why, does it still seem to be the thing to do to try and address “high concept” things in a “meaningful / deep” way that more often than not results in a mess of meh?

To get back to the beginning of the show, the asking of the hour (which happened periodically throughout the production, each time with the hour being noted on the timeline along the back wall) could have been an interesting avenue in order to explore the passage and marking of time, had it have been accompanied by conscious control of rhythm and pacing on the part of the actors (I think some of them were beginners or amateurs, but cannot say for certain). As it was, the pacing veered from the overtly artificial / theatrical, to rushed, to steady but sometimes with mumbling. Consequently, all this served to do was throw into stark relief the reality that, as spectators, one of the key elements that defines the distinction of our temporality from that on stage was almost denied us:

The liberty of being bored.

If time is constantly marked, and there is a pattern of constantly marking it, the risk is that instead of then creating a new rhythm to “bleed into” (so to speak) the one that otherwise marks the temporality in the house, the result is one in which the most present thing is the eventual possibility of an end to all this and a return to a more autonomous sense of control over one’s temporality. It becomes, in other words, a process of disengagement rather than immersion. 

Again, though, this is not to discount the collaborative work that went into this—nor the feeling in the room when the piece finally (yeah, they did one of those fake-out endings where they announce that it’s going to end and then spend another ten minutes talking about how to end things/Time and endings) came to a close. There could have been a way to tackle this subject without resorting to cliché or even documentary-style theatre. What it needs is honesty. 

But that will be for the next post. 

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