In the early 21st century, the biggest changes afoot revolved around the emergence of new working collectives that revolutionised the established hierarchies. Alongside this, the stage itself became much more central to the creative process. Finally, the various moving parts that go into a production began being considered in their own right, rather than as supporting secondary elements.
For a long time, working collectives were not prominent in French theatre. A handful popped up in the late 1960s, but with few lasting or rising as high as the Théâtre du Soleil or the Théâtre de l’Aquarium, based at the Cartoucherie at Bois de Vincennes. Working groups and companies did indeed exist, but most followed the sector’s conventional hierarchical structure, built around a central director, and generally a writer.
Making theatre differently
Several countries take a different approach to working in theatre, such as Argentina and Brazil. Belgium has shone particularly brightly over the past few years, with tg STAN, whose members met in the late 1980s at Antwerp’s conservatory. These collectives all have their own quirks, but one aspect they share is a drive to make theatre differently, using new materials, or embracing ‘on-stage writing’ processes, a turn of phrase that covers a very broad range of different experiences.In France, the success of writer and director Joël Pommerat (Compagnie Louis Brouillard) gave innovations such as these a new lease of life.
Most collectives reflected on the importance to be given over to plays and directors within their work, in discussions that shook up standard rehearsal processes. This can sometimes stem from ideological belief in the idea that equal weighting be given over to all artists, with each individual’s thoughts on a project mattering on the same scale. It can also be an artistic choice, in which a production’s various components are treated equally: sound, lighting, video, and stage design all occupying the same space. These approaches are sometimes combined, as if casting off working structures and materials (the end of a text-centric approach) were similar.
These sweeping descriptions paper over situations that are complex and sometimes full of conflict, as achieving equal balance in the artistic process takes a number of forms and political debates can sometimes trigger unmovable roadblocks. Most of the time, rehearsals are longer, and structured differently. As an example, Ariane Mnouchkine has always worked with variable, extensive time-frames for her Théâtre du Soleil, postponing shows for as long as is needed, and thereby altering each production’s budget.
tg STAN - Les Estivants in « Des mots de minuit » (France 2)
Writing and improvisation
In French, it is important to distinguish between ‘on-stage writing’, ‘stage writers’, and ‘the writer on stage’. As a general rule, theatre is increasingly tending to give more importance over to anything that happens ‘on stage’ during rehearsals, as opposed to whatever generally happens ahead of time: writing, the playwright’s desk work, and even the director’s presentation and ideas for the project. There are notable exceptions to this, however, such as tg STAN: the collective spends several weeks hammering out the text around a table, reflecting on its potential with respect to the audience from different angles, and rehearsing on stage only fairly briefly.
Stage writers (Bruno Tackels refers to Pippo Delbono, François Tanguy as well as Castellucci, Rodrigo Garcia and Angelica Lidell) write on stage, directly for the stage. Anything goes. The writing might be a solitary endeavour, in which the writer works to support the on-stage process: once upon a time, they would attend rehearsals and work with the actors. Rodrigo Garcia is a playwright who writes for his actors, on their behalf, rather than for characters. On several occasions, Ariane Mnouchkine has requested writers attend rehearsals, “in line with Hélène Cixous”, as she once said of one of these writing processes. But she has also worked on collective productions in which the show is written directly using actors’ improvisations as the source material.
This is primarily how Joël Pommerat works, spending several months with actors (and not necessarily those who perform in the final show), offering up daily improv ideas. In this way, he crafts the production’s final draft, combining it with other materials and working with various sound and lighting specialists he has worked with several times over. Just as he doesn’t write his plays “beforehand”, Pommerat insists on not having the lighting “added in” at the end after the writing and staging, but rather on incorporating it, having the lighting “form a part of it just like all the other elements, such as sound and movement, bodies and costumes”. However, his plays are published without these directions, under his name, and can then be read and staged by others.
Mots en scène - Joël Pommerat - part 1 (SACD)
Meaning and emotion
What we now refer to as “new stage material” enshrines the use of film, art installations, circus performers, sound, and choreography on stage, in a range of new configurations. With each new production, this list grows longer, lending new meaning to the concept of “staged performances” that develop alongside the writings, shaking up the old ways of doing things.
Pelléas and Mélisande by Maeterlinck and staged by Julie Duclos at the Festival d’Avignon (2019) is an example of a ‘classical’ play in which the combined effects of stage design, film, sound, and acting shatter the boundaries of the writing itself.The forest, the sea, the castle, locations key to the action, are brought to life in order to immerse the audience in the heroine’s sense of imprisonment in a place that is initially entirely foreign. The supple, almost invisible ties that exist between the arts help audiences step into the plays.
Audiences have welcomed these upheavals to varying degrees, with some regretting the golden age of theatre, in which plays looked like plays - a nostalgic, yet pale definition. It was undoubtedly inevitable that artists would take over the open spaces at their fingertips, freeing themselves from imbalanced experimentation and gratuitous forms.In the melting pot of creative productions, whether collective or not, art forms that were once distinct are coming together to create “meaning and emotion”.
From theatre to theatres. Never before has the plural been so necessary in describing the sheer diversity of aesthetics and productions we see today. A quick glance at each season’s line-up is enough to take stock of the huge variety of theatre productions now available.
Interview with Julie Duclos (ARTCENA)
- TACKELS Bruno, Écrivains de plateau, Les Solitaires intempestifs (6 volumes depuis 2005)
- BENHAMOU Anne-Françoise, Les Dramaturgies de plateau, Les Solitaires intempestif, 2012
- DANAN Joseph et NAUGRETTE Catherine, Les Nouveaux matériaux du théâtre, in Registres, Presses de la Sorbonne nouvelle, Paris, 2018