On the state of things

It never ceases to amaze me that, with regards to the history of popular revolt and revolution (especially in France), the first thing that comes to mind to many State-side is a commercialized musical.

I say this less as a way to harp on Les Mis and more as a result of a reflection on two things: the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune and a New York Times article on theatre that I read yesterday. In the case of the former, it is rather telling that a popular movement (and let’s get more specific – one that saw the involvement of several anarchists) such as this one has joined the ranks of several others like it (not just in scope or in aim but also in the fact that it was suppressed – violently – by the powers it directly challenged and destabilized) in being largely lost in the American imagination. Then again, there are several socio-ideological reasons behind why leftist history in America tends to be pushed out, leaving only traces – symbols – behind. These symbols then get picked up, sanitized, and, divorced from their context, sold off to a public willing to buy a facsimile of a revolution, singing along to “Do You Hear the People Sing” while the image of a red flag waves in the air. It’s condensed enough to be turned into a slogan you can put on a button or a t-shirt, the illusion of being close enough to revolt while still retaining a sense of comfort that, fundamentally, not much will change once the piece is over.

To illustrate this point: I remember going to see the revival of Hair back when it returned on Broadway in 2009, and in particular, how excited I was to finally get to see something from an era I was starting to dive more into. Yet, what I most retained from that experience – and what, thinking back now, somewhat informed my approach to Re-Paradise at Nanterre a few years ago – was how empty it all felt. Holding up anti-war signs, inviting the audience up to dance on stage with the actors, extolling the merits of free love and self-expression and criticizing the war machine sending young men off to die rings more hollow in a gilded theatre space where tickets are prohibitively expensive. But nostalgia sells tickets.

This is all more or less to say that, albeit with some exception, American theatre has difficulty truly getting political. What I mean by this is that the system – as it is – fundamentally does not allow for the kind of formal and contextual reckoning that could move what goes on the stage to a point beyond consumption of “political” imagery to actual confrontation and potentially discomfort. Now, America is not unique in this (I have already spent ample time writing on my frustrations with similar trends on French stages), but I want to make this point to link to the NY Times article I read this week which concentrated on the occupation of theatres in France by performing arts students and workers that has been underway for the better part of this month.

In brief, while these occupations may on the surface seem only to be about re-opening performance spaces – that is, divorced from the reality of the pandemic – in actuality (and it is here that I believe the article should have leaned more heavily towards) the fact that they are happening at all is a direct result both of the recognition of the very real consequences that COVID and its aftermath will engender, and at the same time that these consequences did not just come out of nowhere. Rather, they are the results of what I would argue to be decades of an eroding away of public funds combined with an increased mépris for those who work in the industry. It says quite a lot, in my opinion, that the current Minister of Culture, for example, has absolutely no background in the industry (her background is in pharmacology), yet is a lover of opera, which apparently counts as a qualification.

To return to the occupation, if one were to look at the list of demands (provided here, in French), one will note that chief among them is not the mere gesture of reopening – in fact there is an explicit recognition that that is not going to solve the larger problems at hand – but rather, and this is where the Times article starts to connect, without providing much detail, back to the question of American theatre, that of labor. More precisely, the demands concern the very real worries of students and those who work in the industry (called intermittents du spectacle because of the irregular nature of their work) regarding their employment and benefits status, as well as the lack of communication from the Ministry.

(A brief side note: the Minister of Culture did speak on French radio following the start of the occupations, calling them irresponsible. Ma’am, irresponsible is not communicating with representatives from the sector your Ministry supposedly advocates for.)

Now, in non-pandemic times, intermittents are normally eligible for some unemployment benefits in periods when they are out of work, provided they complete a certain number of work hours over the course of a year (the fact that theatre jobs are as erratic and irregular as they are is largely the reason behind why the system is set up like this). However, access to these benefits can be revoked if the work hour minimums are not met. When the pandemic hit last year, the government initially declared that 2020 would be what is called an “année blanche”. In other words, given the circumstances, the work hours requirement would be waived, giving intermittents at least a little security. Crucially, however, the année blanche was set to expire at the end of August 2021, presumably under the expectation, at the time, that work would have picked back up by then (or because Macron’s government is simply not a fan of distributing monetary aid where it’s needed, but we’ll get to that in a bit). Since the theatres closed again in October after having reopened again for a hot second, there has been little to no communication with artistic directors or union representatives regarding any projections for the rest of the year. Rehearsals are still allowed to happen to some (read: minimal) degree, but this doesn’t mean much when it is impossible to know whether or not, in the end, the performance will be able to be seen at all. But more pressingly, the lack of communication also extends to whether or not there are plans to extend the année blanche beyond its original deadline, meaning that thousands of folks are suddenly finding themselves in a very precarious position.

Yet, their demands are not entirely restricted to the realm of live performance. Case in point: the demand that the government retract an upcoming reform on unemployment benefits. Intermittents themselves are not directly affected by this, but, the long and short of it is that should this reform pass (and given the right-leaning makeup of this government, this is likely), a lot of folks are going to see their unemployment benefits slashed. The post-COVID crisis is going to hit a lot of people very hard, and there’s been quite a lot written already about how, globally, the wealth gap is only going to get wider. I will not bore anyone here with my usual talk of why there haven’t been real steps (in France, but also in the US) to tax the wealthy – or better yet, actually do something about those who use Luxembourg as a tax haven to accrue more wealth than anyone would need in a lifetime – and instead close this with a final point to piggy-back on one touched on in the article.

As much as France can tout its institutional support for the arts (and it is true, it is rather generous compared to other countries), when it comes down to the people working in the arts, the actors, the professors, the directors, set / costume / lighting designers, tech crew, etc., there is a lack of consideration (by the heads of State, primarily) for the labor involved that makes the sector as rich as it is. This has been going on prior to Macron, and it will most certainly last after he’s gone, so long as the notion that some jobs are more “essential” than others persists.

Because as much as that word has become synonymous with a certain imagining of those jobs that are needed to keep things running – of hospital staff, grocery staff, postal and sanitation workers, teachers – when it comes down to concrete measures, it starts to become clear that this image of “essential” does not exactly align with reality. Public hospitals still face cuts (again, in France this has been going on for a couple decades), especially in number of ICU beds, essential, low-income workers are not always working in conditions conducive to their own safety. Hell, aside from hospital staff, everyone else mentioned – including teachers – are not as of yet prioritized for vaccines, unless they are of a certain age and/or have pre-existing conditions.

No, essential has meant that which aligns with a certain set of (capitalist / neoliberal) values for a while. It is an absolutely inhuman way to see the world, and yet here we are.

As of now, the occupation at the Odéon – itself a historical site of occupation, particularly in 1968 – is still going strong and shows no sign of slowing down. There are over 50 other theatres (and counting) across the country that have joined in. Call it the power of unions, or of the collective, but in any case, it’s the people holding the State responsible, of not waiting to be brought in to the conversation but making the conversation themselves. It is political in the sense that the people involved are, by virtue of speaking, challenging the State’s notion of “legitimized” political “actors”, of those who can or cannot have a say in policy based on the perception of their profession – and more precisely what it “brings” to the State – as “valuable”.

This is not, however, to say that this movement will lead to a glorious revolution, or a utopian reversal of the way things are done in the artistic sector. As much as I can hope for the creation of an anarcho-leftist society, this past year has also firmly cemented my cynicism. But I think, and I am having trouble wording this, that what is happening in France speaks to something that I think the arts in the US deserve in terms of recognition. There are so many folks who work in the arts back in the States whose labor is undervalued, ignored. And the lack of recognition on a federal level (to think the Federal Theatre project in the 1930s could have been a reality had FDR not nixed it…because you can’t have too much socialism, apparently) doesn’t help matters. It also does not help that the governing bodies of major theatres look almost exactly the same (because yes, any popular, labor-related movement worth it’s salt must include questions of race / gender / identity along with those of class), which, to take us back to the initial thoughts that opened the article, has a marked effect on the kinds of art that are eventually produced.

So this is what I have been thinking about on the anniversary of the Commune, on the eve of a third confinement (except this one will include unlimited outdoor time within a 10km radius), with absolutely no possibility to predict anything beyond tomorrow. I am tired, I am pissed off, and I have been this way pretty much over the past year.

But here we are.

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