Small Companies and Community Theatre ~ theatre notes

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Small Companies and Community Theatre

But of course money isn't everything; great theatre can be made with very little, as it is in Australia, over and over again. It's simply a pity that it can't be made a little easier . . . but for that to happen, you’d have to have a government that actually cared about culture and not the gang of moral and cultural bankrupts that are in power at the moment, who seem determined to silence creative voices and reduce us all to frightened, well behaved children. You'd also have to have an audience that felt empowered, that felt the theatre was something important, and that it belonged to them and meant something to them.

Last night, playwright Daniel Keene delivered the keynote address for graduation students at Swinburne University of Technology's Small Companies and Community Theatre Course. His experiences working as a writer in French theatre give a different slant to the possibilities of theatre's place in the community. For the full speech, click on...

I've been invited here tonight to say something about my experience as a playwright, with specific reference to my work in France and my involvement with French theatre companies, particularly concerning those companies’ Community Theatre work.

I should first explain briefly what my involvement with French theatre is.

My work has been produced in France, in French, for the past five years. I have had six volumes of plays published by Editions Theatrales (that’s 22 plays in all). My plays have been performed at Scene Nationales (National Theatres) in Toulouse, Calais, Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Nimes, Strasbourg, Nantes, Challon, Douai, Limoge and Marseille among others. It has also been produced at theatres such as the Theatre de la Ville in Paris (which annually attracts the largest audiences in the city, and has two theatres of 1,000 and 800 seats respectively), at the Theatre de la Commune and Theatre du Rond-Point, both also in Paris, at the Theatre de la Moliere in Bordeaux and at the Avignon Festival. I've had five plays produced by France Culture (French National Radio) and one broadcast on Arté (French national television). For the past six years I have travelled to France at least once or twice a year, staying for about two months each time.

I am at present working on a number of commissions for French theatre companies, including two opera librettos, a play for marionettes, an adaptation of a novel by the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare and a play for Maurice Benichou, an actor/director who has worked with Peter Brook at the International Centre of Theatre Research in Paris for the past thirty years.

The theatres I work with are all state funded. I have not been involved in the Private Theatre (what we’d call Commercial Theatre) which is limited to musicals, light comedies and bedroom farces, the tackiness of which sometimes defies description: basically, private theatre provides slick, popular (if expensive) entertainment for the upper middle class. For me, it's what Peter Brook describes as 'deadly theatre' in his book The Open Space, which remains one of the best books ever written about theatre and what it can mean.

The funding and structure of French theatre is a complex business. But to be very brief, the two main tiers of state funded theatre are Scene Nationales (National Theatres) and CDNs (National Dramatic Centres). I probably needn’t tell you that the funding theatre receives in France makes the funding it receives here look like a mere pittance (which in fact it is).

I currently have three plays running in Paris: Paradise at Theatre de la Commune, (a co-production with Theatre de la Ville), Because You Are Mine at Theatre de l’Opprimé (the Theatre of the Oppressed, which was founded by the Brazilian director, playwright and theatre activist Augusto Boal in the 1970s during his political exile in Paris) and Black is the Colour at La Boutonniere (The Buttonhole: a small, newly established, studio theatre).

For me, one of the many reasons for working in France is the breadth of the theatrical possibilities it offers me. While in Australia I am considered a "fringe playwright", in France my work is produced in popular, mainstream theatres. Of the plays currently running in Paris, Paradise is the largest production. It opened in September and will run until March next year, playing in at least five cities. The budget for the production is 600,000 euros (that's just over one million dollars). There’s a lot you can do with that much money.

But of course money isn't everything; great theatre can be made with very little, as it is in Australia, over and over again. It's simply a pity that it can't be made a little easier . . . but for that to happen, you’d have to have a government that actually cared about culture and not the gang of moral and cultural bankrupts that are in power at the moment, who seem determined to silence creative voices and reduce us all to frightened, well behaved children. You'd also have to have an audience that felt empowered, that felt the theatre was something important, and that it belonged to them and meant something to them. But perhaps all of that's another matter, for another time.

To get back to France:

Theatre de la Commune, where Paradise is currently playing, is a CDN. The theatre is subsidised by the both the National and Regional governments (80 per cent of its budget comes from government sources, 20 per cent from Box Office: an interesting fact when you consider that government funding for the MTC is only 15 per cent of the MTC's budget). Funding for CDNs is triennial and requires an explicit commitment to the goal of extending theatre to new audiences. There is at least one CDN in each of the 22 Regions of France.

An important point to note is that these subsidies are granted only if the theatre fulfils a legal requirement that the theatre provide a public service. This public service can take many forms and is often called Social Action (it's what we in Australia would call Community Theatre). The same goes for National Theatres. There are many kinds of Social Action, ranging from actors and directors running workshops or performing plays in prisons and in hospitals, working with handicapped people, running classes and performing in schools and workplaces and running workshops for specific groups such as new immigrants, the unemployed, single parents, retired people, etc. All of this is offered to the people involved at no cost to them.

What all of this means, of course, is that theatre is obliged to participate in and contribute to the wider social, cultural and political life of the community in which it exists. This is not seen by the theatres as any kind of burden, but as an essential part of the theatre's work; in fact, it is considered one of the fundamental reasons why the theatre exists at all. In France, theatre is considered and has always been considered to be a central part of the social, cultural and political life of its community. What is most important is that the community understand that the theatre belongs to them: it exists for their benefit, to help express their concerns, to celebrate their lives and their culture and, ultimately, to defend and maintain their right to free and open public expression.

I could go on about how the role of the actor is perceived politically and culturally (and it is important in relation to the place of theatre in French culture) but that's outside the scope of what I want to talk about tonight. Suffice to say that actors never talk about working in an "industry". Culture is perceived as its own reward; its value isn't measured by how many jobs it creates or how many tourists it attracts or how much income it generates, as it generally is here. Actors have an important role within the culture, not merely a job promoting it; and this role is recognized and supported by the state, even when an actor isn’t actually employed. But all that’s another, complex, matter.

To get back to the point . . . this sense of "public ownership" of the theatre is at the heart of Social Action, which is, in effect, the establishment of a genuine, working relationship between the theatre and its audience.

I have been involved in a number of such "Actions". I’ll begin with the most simple example.

The National Theatre of Challon is in the heart of the Champagne region on the river Marne. It's quite a small town, maybe a little larger than, say, Castlemaine. It's about two hours by train from Paris. It has a large, modern theatre with two performance spaces (800 seats and 250 seats) and an exhibition space. Like all National Theatres, dance and music events are also presented by the theatre. I should also add that all National Theatres and all CDNs have a year long program of Theatre for Young People (from pre-schoolers to teenagers).

Anyway, in Challon every second Saturday (market day) the theatre puts on something that it calls "home from market". An open invitation is issued to the town's residents: lunch will be served at the theatre at one o'clock and all are invited. All you have to do is bring something to eat (some bread, some fruit, some cheese); this will be shared among all who attend. The theatre supplies its own food as well, and wine and, of course, champagne. The theatre's staff attend the lunch, including the administrator, the public relations officer and the artistic director. Actors and directors are also invited, as are writers. The event is very informal.

About two months ago, I was a guest at one of these lunches. There were about 50 "guests" from the town. Before lunch began, the artistic director made a short speech, briefly outlining what work the theatre would be presenting over the next few weeks, what theatre companies would be involved, etc. I was then introduced and made a short speech, explaining why I was in Challon and what else I was doing in France. Then it was time for questions, which lasted about half an hour. Lunch lasted for about three hours. As I've said, the event was very informal, and people talked (and ate and drank) non-stop. It ended with everyone being invited to a play reading later that afternoon. Admission was free. The actors reading had travelled from Paris, where they were preparing a production of the play. The play to be read (Low) was one of mine and I would be available afterwards to answer (more) questions. More than half the people at the lunch attended the reading, as well as a few dozen others. This time the questions lasted for over an hour and a half.

That evening, I went to a large house on the outskirts of the town. Three of my plays, all monologues, were to be performed in the house. One in the bedroom (Brief Darkness), one in the cellar (What Remains) and one in the living room (The Rain). There were about twenty audience members, invited by the woman who owned the house.

The actors were from the champagne region and often worked at the National Theatre. The performances were fantastic. Very simple lighting was used; almost no technology was involved. It was all about the actor and the text: the most simple and dramatic equation. The audience sat, or stood, where they could. It was an extraordinarily open and generous event. Then we had dinner. And more champagne. The three plays are still being performed in people's houses and apartments in Challon, and will be until the end of the year; all someone has to do is call the theatre and "invite" the plays into their home. They then invite their audience (the theatre may also invite some people, depending on the size of the house).

All of this, of course, costs money. The theatre considers the expense an investment in its community. It is holding the doors of the theatre open to anyone who wants to come in, as well as taking its work, literally, into people’s homes: in this way, the theatre can become a part of people’s every day lives. The theatre is, of course, creating and educating its audience by doing this; and it is creating in the minds of that audience the idea that the theatre is an active part of their community and its life: the theatre is something that belongs to them.

This sense of ownership has one particularly interesting outcome, among many others: it is the possibility of the audience questioning the decisions of the theatre, feeling that they have the right to criticise the theatre's programming choices and feeling that they have the right to ask for the kind of theatre that they want. In other words a dialogue is possible, between those who come to the theatre and those who create it. It’s a (wait for it . . . ) relationship.

I should pause a moment here to say that the situation of theatre in France is far from ideal, even if I might seem to be describing it as such But I am giving a brief, rather schematic description of the situation of French theatre; I am talking about what I perceive as its ideals and what I have seen, what I have been privileged to experience at first hand. The broader politics and some of the harsher day-to-day realities of creating theatre in France are outside what I am properly able to discuss. But I know that many of the freedoms and rights of French theatre are under threat, as are all freedoms and rights in countries that have essentially right wing governments.

The creation of theatre is always and always has been a struggle, no matter where or when it is created; theatre is ephemeral, it lasts only a moment. It can only happen when an agreement is made, between those who create it and those who witness it, to come together in a certain place at a certain time to share a particular event: to witness the presence of the actor, who speaks the words of the writer (well, most of the time), in a space created by the designer, under the guidance of the director, for the benefit, for the delight, in the service of the audience. It's all terribly human, terribly fragile and can be enormously powerful.

So it is always difficult, because that's its nature: any situation where human beings attempt to work together towards a common end can always be a tragedy waiting to happen or impossibly comic. But the creation of theatre is even more of a struggle now, when the right to dissent, to disagree with those who hold power, to demand the right to speak, to hold culture above profit, to thumb your nose at authority or accepted wisdom, to celebrate difference rather than to fear it, is deemed to be a threat to the security of the state. I might seem to be exaggerating. I hope that I am. But I only have one pair of eyes and I can only see what I see. I fear for the rights we take for granted. I think that we all should, because we may at some time be called upon to defend them. And it will not be easy.

But that's enough of that. I tend to wander. I'll be here all night if I'm not careful.

So, to return to good old France:

More complex than the relationship that I have described between the theatre and its community in Challon is the relationship between the theatre and its community in Marseille, where I have worked each year for the past three years.

In Marseille I work with Michel Andre, a theatre director about the same age as me. His mother was Corsican and his father Belgian. He grew up in Belgium, a decent, working class boy who had no idea where he belonged. He was kicked out of school (because he had no talent for "academic" subjects) and became a motor mechanic. Theatre was the final refuge he found in his twenties, by accident; and he discovered that he was good at it. But that’s another story.

Michel speaks three languages. Unfortunately English isn’t one of them . . . and my French is appalling. He often speaks to me in Italian, which is a language I don’t speak at all. But somehow we communicate. I don't know how. It’s a small miracle.

Not so long ago, or should I say "Once upon a time", Michel was a well respected actor. Well, anyway, our story begins when he was in a touring production of a play by Moliere, playing to full houses in large, very swank theatres. He was having a great time, and so were the audiences. The production was a success and so was he. But prior to curtain one night Michel happened to look out of his dressing room window. What he saw in the near distance was a block of what we'd call commission flats: bleak, featureless boxes stacked one on top of the other where "the poor people" lived.

Michel knew that none of the residents of that block of flats would be attending the performance he was about to take part in. Well, that was bloody obvious, wasn't it? Well, perhaps it was. But Michel suddenly wondered (despite the obvious) why, actually, wouldn't they be in the theatre to see this rude, funny, beautifully written, well acted play? Apart from the fact that going to the theatre was too expensive and too intimidating (and full of wankers and other middle class dickheads), it was because the theatre meant nothing to them; it had nothing to do with their lives; it was a distant luxury that could be done without; it was meaningless. Michel was suddenly appalled. He quit the production. Yes, it was a rather extreme thing to do. But why did he do it? Because he couldn’t tolerate being part of something that could be considered meaningless by people who would actually be delighted by it, if they only felt that they had been invited to enjoy it.

Michel decided to "invite" people into the theatre; the people in those bleak, featureless boxes stacked one on top of the other where "the poor people" lived.

After Paris, Marseille is the second biggest city in France. It is a hard, difficult place. A century ago it was a thriving, wealthy metropolis. But times have changed, and they've changed quickly. You only have to see the dozens of boarded up "Grand Hotels" and derelict, obviously once fashionable department stores in the centre of the city to know this. Today, Marseille has enormous unemployment problems. Racial violence is common. It's a city of immigrants, of refugees, of itinerants, of outsiders. It's a harsh, troubled place. It's where France comes face to face with its brutal colonial history. And it's not dealing with it very well.

But, you see, again and again, it's impossible to talk about French theatre without finding a way to speak about its social, cultural and political context. It's meaningless to describe Michel Andre's work without describing its context. His work is a product of and a response to the community (the city) in which he has chosen to live. There are no "abstracts" involved. The work is specific to the environment in which it is created, specific to the people involved, both on the stage and in front of it.

Which is where I come in: the total stranger who cannot speak any of the languages I have to confront in Marseille.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's step back a moment.

Michel creates theatre with people who are not actors. They are people who live in those bleak tower blocks he saw from the window of his dressing room, most of whom have never been to the theatre. They become a part of the theatre without really knowing what the possibilities of theatre are. Michel is the focus . . . of some event, an event that he is going to help them create, that will give them (at least) something to do, that he promises will be exciting and rewarding, that will give them strength, that will allow them to express themselves, that will be safe and dangerous at the same time, that will be demanding while at the same time be liberating, an event in which they can hide themselves while at the same time revealing what they feel, what they desire, what they fear, what they love. And there will be people who will witness this event, people from the same tower blocks, and others who are interested in such events, who want, who perhaps even need to participate in this kind of event.

What Michel is describing is an act of theatre.

Michel has been working with a group of about forty people for about five years. Most of them are unemployed or at best have part time, usually menial, jobs. He gathered them together by simply putting up posters. Basically, the posters said "Got nothing to do? Come and do something". People come and go as they wish. Some people have been with the group since the beginning. New people arrive from time to time. At present, they range in age from a ten year old girl to a man of seventy. Many of the people he works with are first or second generation immigrants; they come from places like Cameroon, Algeria, Sicily, Morocco and Guinea. Some of these people can barely speak French. It took him about a year, working three days a week, to get anyone to stand up alone in front of the others and speak. What did he ask them to speak about? About themselves. It was a long, slow process. Eventually everyone told their story. From these stories the group created their first performance, entitled What Is Happening To The World? The piece was performed at the National Theatre of Marseille (The Merlan) for three nights. It was also performed in the car park outside a large supermarket.

I met Michel at the Avignon Festival in 2000. He had read my plays and wanted to meet me, to tell me about his work and invite me to collaborate with him. I went to Marseille and stayed for a few weeks; I met the people he was working with, I listened to their stories, I watched them improvise. Michel wanted to create another play, but this time he wanted the people in his group to discover what it was like to speak words written by someone else, to find out what it was like to make someone else's words your own, to tell stories about "imaginary" characters and to find out how this could be a way of telling a different kind of truth; he wanted them to discover a new kind of freedom. He wanted them to be actors.

I came home with pages and pages of notes, suggestions, ideas, impressions. My job was to write a play that was actually a sequence of short plays; a collection of fragments that Michel and his actors could arrange as they saw fit: I would give them the raw material and they would invent the construction of the play. Not everyone in the group could be involved in the project; those who weren’t worked with Michel’s assistant, Marie Isabelle. They worked on a play of mine, Low, a two hander of 25 scenes. They played each scene with two different actors (that’s 25 couples) discovering some strange, comic, tragic combinations.

The play I wrote for the group was called The Possible Ways. Rehearsals lasted six months. Again it was performed in the National Theatre, which funded the project along with Michel's own company. It played for three nights to packed houses; most of the audience came from the commission flats where most of the actors also came from.

I wrote another play for Michel and his actors last year. It was called In These Uncertain Times. It was a more formally structured play. Again I drew on the lives of the people involved, but this time I moved little further away from their reality, making bolder imaginative leaps, taking the play further into a fictional world which nevertheless retained the echoes of the actors' day to day lives. What Michel and I were hoping to do was to discover a way for his actors to find a freedom of expression; to escape, if only briefly, the confines and the boredom of their poverty, the discrimination they encounter, the prison of the tower blocks they live in. At least that's what the actors told us the play did for them.

I'm now writing a new play for Michel. It's a two hander, for himself and a young boy in the group, Cedric, who's twelve. It's about a boy who leaves his parents and chooses another father, another life. This time, the other members of the group will be in the audience. They go to the theatre now.

Daniel Keene, November 24 2004.

Daniel Keene's Home Page


Anonymous said...

Bravo for Daniel Keene's contribution reproduced here. I wish I had have known about his presentation being made.

I have raved happily about how good Keene's work is. He has given me some of the most interesting/entertaining/insightful nights of my life (as well as one night of sheer agony ... it's reassuring that even he is able to fail theatrically from time to time!).

In the context of theatre notes in Australia, and additionally from the point of view Keene's work in independent and community/government supported theatre companies and theatres, it is fascinating that his work in the French theatre has gone largely unreported in the mainstream media.

When Keene has had a success in New York, the papers have recorded it.

Is this situation reflecting Australian media and cultural discounting of non-English arts? Or just that the success and experience and profession Keene has been found in French?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ralph

Glad to see you posting a comment. You're right, the man has been known to display human fallibilities. I should know, I'm married to him - which it suddenly seems necessary to point out.

I agree that the lack of media coverage here of his place in French culture is puzzling. People seem to assume he's had a play or two on, or, worse, a workshop here or there. It's so much more than that; to my knowledge, no Australian playwright has had this kind of success in another country. He's currently the most produced contemporary playwright in France - seven different productions this European autumn alone - the cream of French theatre culture clamour to do his work, and his plays run for months, often in major theatres (a very beautiful puppetry adaptation of his monologue The Rain has been touring continuously since around 2000). Yet a single lacklustre West End opening (and rapid closure) by, say, Hannie Rayson, generates headlines. Maybe it's just the vestiges of our colonial forelock tugging.


Jen Jewel Brown said...

Hi Alison, and, possibly, Daniel,and readers,

This has been wonderful to come across. Daniel's speech seems to go to the heart of the slow poison released by economic rationalism in Australia, that slowly lets slip away theatre, film, poetry, fiction... All I can say is we must fight the narcosis of apathy and bottom line politics and keep reconnecting the people and the theatre, as this wonderful lecture demonstrates is possible, probable and, in fact, necessary.

Below I'm cutting and pasting my review of The Choirbook printed in Farrago. I think it connects to this very idea...

xxx Jen



Nothing gets under your skin like live theatre done this well. The Choirbook is a mind-shaker - a merged trio of plays from the outstanding Melbourne-based Keene/Taylor Theatre Project. In a spare, honed performance that flies to the utmost edges of where a nice night out might go, director Ariette Taylor and playwright Daniel Keene continue to confound.

For witnesses psychically fattened and soothed by the rich excesses of Hollywood, where the protagonist is a rough diamond who learns a lesson and the antagonist the evil patsy who justifies the ensuing, sanitised violence, The Choirbook gets back to basics. First there's the easy-uneasy The First Train, a cobbler's tale of a young boy hiding from his Krystall Nacht, ably handled by Jack Finsterer.

The second play, The Share, is a three hander shared by Finsterer, 22-y-o coming star Dan Spielman and the young Tasmanian Jonathan Auf Der Heide. It hypnotises like a snake. It's not just the ultraviolence, the child abuse, the murder of a man and his dog. That's too easy. It's not just the mantra of "cunt, cunt, cunt" that shocks. We've all heard that down some alley where young men taunt and boast and try desperately to look harder than they really are. It's this little painting of a few scenes so real, so believable…People like Sugar, Tex and the kid who could end up in jail, crashing someone else's car, not quite smart enough, pretty enough, undamaged enough, well enough in the head to play the game, to win, stay in control, to have a happy ending, get a job, stay out of jail, not be shot, stabbed, to be around.

In a move rehearsed over and over safely, Dan Spielman), possessed by payback demons, smashes his beer bottle against the wall. But this time he loses it. His hand won't stop bleeding. Set off by the white purity of Span Galleries, blood smears the walls, polka dots the floors. Most of the audience don't know it's Spielman's. He keeps acting. We "see" a street kid's lone remaining eye gouged in a frenzy of retribution for the rape of a poorly protected five-year-old. But the "protector" is just planning to roll the kid anyway… And the retribution is for help asked for, cried for, begged for and not forthcoming. Not even heard. I'm feeling physically sick.

The final play, The Fire Testament, can't be performed -Spielman has gone to hospital. (The following night's performance was cancelled.) Instead, director, Arriette Taylor, an ex Ballet Rambert dancer, humbly discusses the work.

Sugar, Tex and the kid - would they come to a Keene Taylor Theatre Project play? Are they listening? Tonight I feel they're waiting just outside. They're our shadows; the shadows of the audience as we file out. How could we forget them? They're waiting just outside. Jen Jewel Brown

Jen Jewel Brown said...