Some of you (and in particular, those who follow me on other platforms) are probably wondering…
‘Say, Effie, you’ve been to quite a number of shows since you last posted. Why haven’t you written about any of them?’
Good question. In short, it largely has to do with two factors: the craze of my work schedule these past few weeks (because I still just can’t say no to things when there’s a payment involved, so guess who’s back to translating transcripts on top of a 22h/wk teaching schedule? Me), and the simple fact that I haven’t really seen anything to inspire the need to write about it yet. Given that I’m no longer in dissertation research mode, I’m giving myself a lot more leeway when it comes to putting more energy into critical engagements with pieces that either I didn’t like (though a strong dislike for something hasn’t really been a deterrent for me writing about it in the past) or worse, felt very ‘meh’ about. Yet, perhaps this also speaks to my larger frustrations with the state of theatre right now, something that has only gotten even more punctuated post-dissertation.
This in particular brings me to some things I have been (and am still somewhat) wrestling with regarding my manuscript revisions, specifically putting my own voice into things. Reading over my chapters again, I do wonder sometimes if the way I outline things truly speaks most accurately to my own views not just as a writer / researcher / scholar (etc.), but also in terms of where I align myself socially and politically. In other words, I personally value honesty and transparency in these things, yet I do wonder sometimes if I come off as disingenuous, if I read as though I speak in cliché.
More precisely, recently I’ve been ruminating over these questions (and personal judgements over my own work…as usual) with regards to eventual revisions / rewrites I am going to have to do on my conclusion, which, along with my introduction, is very likely going to be the chapter that changes the most if (no…“when”) I successfully get this thing published. One of the biggest things that has been giving me quite a bit of grief lately is an argument that I introduced in the original text – and that I want to develop further – regarding the need for continued State funding of public theatres / the arts in general in France. For one thing, the very notion of having to in some way defend the presence of the State is something that runs counter to my own politics regarding the need (or, you know, not) of this particular type of power / organizational apparatus. Yet, at the same time, even if I were to advance a formulation such as “If the State had to continue to exist, it should do so on the basis that it actively distribute its financial assets towards assuring truly equitable access to a plurality of forms of creative expression” (and note that I insist on the “if” there), that still does not address the fundamental problems on which the relationship between the State and culture / the arts in France was built on. And this is arguably where a lot of my frustrations with much of what I see come from.
(As an aside: though I wish I had time to write a detailed take-down of the latest manifest posted by Mouawad regarding his decision not to suspend a performance of an upcoming show due to the histories of some of those involved with cases of assault and, yes, murder, and his labeling of the #metootheatre movement as a “witch hunt”, time and other commitments have had to take precedence. Needless to say, however, it is likely going to be a VERY long time before I set foot in La Colline again. I bring this up here mostly because situations like this – in which predators are being protected and those who speak out against them are attacked – also make up a large part of my frustrations. For this, however, I want to focus on something that runs more deeply, yet also very much intertwines with this.)
One thing I think it is high time to acknowledge is that the decentralization project – particularly in the early, “official” days under Malraux, was a kind of colonialist project. Implanting centers of cultural production / diffusion in various territories, each with a direct link back to a centralized power (an arm of the State, if you will) with the aim of crafting or cultivating the imagining of a “unified” nation both in terms of concrete territory and in the linking of this territory to an abstract sense of identity is, in a rudimentary sense, colonialism. Look, we’ve planted our flag here. Now this territory is linked with us, which means our identity is also tied to holding on to this territory, etc. (you’re going to have to cut me some slack here, as it’s close to 1am and I am in full ramble mode). While the ideal of financing the creation of any and all pieces, supposedly without prejudice, seems rather nice on paper, it rings somewhat differently when one starts to reckon with the colonialist touches that this attitude is, in a way, a product of. I mention this briefly in my dissertation, but though it was ambitious, Malraux’s decentralization project was not exactly universally welcome, territorially speaking. Indeed, there were several critiques being leveled at the time of the planning / building of the Maisons de la Culture that they were being more or less imposed on the towns they were built in, rather than rising up organically.
In other words, a project that states as its aim that it wants to foster more creativity eschews the kind of grassroots development that could not only have allowed for this creativity to blossom, but to do so on more localized – indeed pluralized – terms, does so first on establishing a certain perception of itself as dominant / the common reference point. That is, it’s not just theatre that’s being created here. It is theatre that is being created under the umbrella of a certain imagining of the role of the theatre in the greater social fabric, specifically, an imagining that is derived from Malraux’s own conceptualizing of the role of “Culture” in shaping both an individual as well as the community / territory to whom that individual belongs. While this imagining has evolved over the years – now we’re, of course, in the neo-liberal “what [monetary] value does or can theatre bring to our society” stage – the presence of any kind of central imagining at all is already rather limiting as far as creativity is concerned. The way a State – and consequently, any extension of the State – imagines itself can have a tremendous effect not only on what kinds of spaces it creates, but what conditions it puts in place in order to access these spaces. These conditions can range from economic barriers to educational and /or professional qualifications to questions of language and jargon (specifically, a not-quite-implicit preference for certain terminologies or phrases to describe particular situations or relational dynamics, especially when the use of alternative vocabularies could result in a) the exposure of the illusory nature of these relationships and b) the destabilizing of a sense of control those in power have over delimiting / determining access to space), but regardless of how they show up, the fact that they exist at all to me speaks to a certain impossibility for any kind of existence of a truly pluralized – hell a truly decolonized, since fully decolonizing all spaces is something I fundamentally believe needs to happen within and outside the arts – theatre space so long as the decentralization model, and the State’s role in the development and imagining of this model, remain critically unexamined. We cannot, in other words, take it as a “given” that the State has a certain benevolence regarding the funding of cultural projects. This kind of complacency is what leads to the kind of creative stasis and frustration seen now, at least in my opinion.
This is not, however, to say that there are not folks doing very interesting work here. There are. Creatively and thematically challenging works about, yet the way the funding schemes are set up mean that not only will these works be almost in a constant state of competition among each other for – essentially – scraps, but it also becomes far more likely that voices that are already either underrepresented or shut out will continue to be so.
So with that, when I posit that “If the State had to continue to exist…” I truly mean “If” because as of right now, an alternative – and much more creatively open and autonomous and sustainable – model does not exist. That doesn’t mean that it can’t. But I think, and I’ll close on this, that part of the way we can get to a point where we can realize the possibility of creating such a new model is through both seeking out and seeing / reading works by artists whose voices are continually marginalized, yet who still speak out to pointedly critique this system, as well as embracing the notion of plurality (the politics of the ‘s’, as I call it) and – most importantly – not ignoring the tensions that arise when one confronts this notion directly with the State and the way it imagines itself through the avenue of cultural production / development.