The Show Must Go On / Le spectacle doit continuer
Essay by Amelia Parenteau 05 January 2021 Original Publication
I’m going to come right out and say it: I hate Zoom plays. That doesn’t mean I won’t watch Zoom plays, or that I have any ill-will towards their creators—I’ve even benefitted from the experience of having Zoom readings of my own work over the course of the pandemic. But! I attend Zoom plays with a sense of obligation, of fulfilling my theatrical duty, never with that frisson of eager anticipation one whiff of a dark theatre can conjure for me. So it was something of a relief to hear Florent Masse, a senior lecturer at Princeton University and artistic director of the Seuls en Scène French Theater Festival, admit, “Virtual theatre is not my cup of tea, bien sûr [of course].” And yet, faced with the reality of the pandemic, Masse rose to the challenge of programming this year’s edition of the festival entirely online, and I have to say, I enjoyed it.
Masse founded the Seuls en Scène Festival in 2012, working closely with the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique in Paris—a partnership that has continued to this day—and the festival has grown exponentially ever since. In the spirit of artistic exchange, Seuls en Scène provides French and francophone artists an opportunity (for many, their first) to perform in the United States, and also provides unparalleled access for American audiences to witness their work, with free tickets to all performances. This year, in the throes of the pandemic, Masse, like innumerable other programmers, had to scramble to reinvent this September’s offering. Masse closely followed the Festival d’Avignon’s decision-making process, one of France’s most prestigious theatre festivals and a role model to programmers worldwide, watching as they announced their summer programming on 8 April 2020 and then entirely canceled their festival a mere five days later. Although Masse held out hope for as long as possible at the beginning of quarantine, by May he made the decision to go virtual with this year’s edition.
Masse wasn’t interested in simply asking artists for video recordings of the works he had intended to present this year and instead came up with a programmatic mix of video recordings of live performance, “staged” readings, one making-of documentary, and a series of docutheatre works. In addition, Masse conducted a state-of-the-field conversation with three professional arts administrators from influential French theatres (the Comédie Française, Festival d’Avignon, and Festival d’Automne) and offered audience talkbacks following most of the theatrical works presented. Masse drew inspiration for his varied program from the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, which helped audience members avoid Zoom fatigue and kept the festival from feeling formulaic by offering content that was both live and pre-recorded, and a blend of video, audio, and text pieces for festival attendees to engage with.
The virtual festival took place 10–20 September 2020, and many of this year’s artists were interested in how digital space changes an audience’s relationship to the work they’re watching. Pieces like Emilie Rousset and Louise Hémon’s Rituels series were created pre-pandemic precisely for this semi-cinematic, semi-theatrical space, combining the artists’ talents as theatre and documentary filmmakers, respectively; the Rituels series examines four different human rituals (birthdays, voting, sea baptisms, and presidential debates) through one actor recounting verbatim text from interviews with several professionals working in each respective industry, satirizing both the content of the interviews and the documentary style. Another piece that adroitly bridged the gap between the two media was Marion Siéfert and Mathieu Bareyre’s documentary recounting the making of the theatrical work Du sale ! Their film highlights the opportunity this digital shift offers for collaboration, giving viewers a dynamic peek into their process rather than a flat, filmed version of their product.
Masse wasn’t interested in simply asking artists for video recordings of the works he had intended to present this year.
Several artists expressed in our interviews how they’ve grappled with their resistance to making the transition to a virtual world, with many refusing other theatres’ requests for virtual work this year. Penda Diouf, who created a video reading of her script Pistes… for the festival—a story weaving Diouf’s personal history as a Black woman growing up in predominantly white towns in France with a historical account of the early-twentieth-century Namibian genocide—said this was the only time she made a similar video recording during the pandemic. Both Diouf and Jonathan Capdevielle, whose play Rémi—an adaptation of Hector Malot’s Sans famille, a classic fantastical French coming-of-age story—was presented in a video recording, made other audio projects during quarantine but avoided video recordings of their theatrical work. Mohamed El Khatib, whose work La dispute was presented in video recording as part of this year’s festival, said he frequently refuses to send video recordings of his work for presentation by other festivals, but made an exception for Seuls en Scène because Masse is truly a loyal programmer, accompanying artists over the course of their careers rather than chasing individual shows.
If you’ve ever watched a filmed version of a play, no matter how high quality, you know the notion of “live” theatre becomes less precious—you can pause, rewind, or watch the recording again later. To that end, Baptiste Manier from the Comédie Française shared in the festival’s “state of the field” conversation that when the Comédie Française was creating content for their livestreaming service during the pandemic, they decided not to give audience members the ability to rewind, saying that just as if you showed up late to the theatre, you would miss the beginning of the show, so it should be in their virtual offerings. This helped to make the transition between realms possible while insisting upon theatre’s ephemerality.
Where this year’s Seuls en Scène festival was able to offer ephemerality was in the live artist talkbacks (often stretching into the wee hours of the morning for artists located in France). As El Khatib said, moving the audience talkback to a Zoom format made it an incredibly more intimate experience. We’re all familiar with the conventional post-show talkback in a theatre, where someone in the audience raises their hand to ask a question and has to wait for the microphone to be passed to them in order to ask it, and then once the question has been answered the same ritual is performed until a perfunctory twenty minutes has passed. Instead, over Zoom, the talkback becomes more of a friendly conversation, with everyone able to look into each other’s eyes (and homes!) and express themselves in a way that feels more comfortable and less stilted. The artists especially seemed better able to enjoy the more fluid, dynamic conversations about their work, and anglophone audience members seemed more willing to brave asking their questions in French.
The easy intimacy of the Zoom talkback was unfortunately what most artists I interviewed reported as the biggest element lacking from their festival experience overall. None of the artists whose work was presented in the festival watched any of the other festival offerings, citing a variety of reasons for their lack of availability (time difference, a busy rehearsal schedule, not feeling excited about watching someone’s work on Zoom even if they’ve enjoyed it live). Astrid Bayiha, who read excerpts of unrequited love scenes by Jean Racine, a seminal seventeenth-century French playwright, along with Sandy Ouvrier for the festival this year, said, “Since we’re not all in the same place, it’s much more difficult to interact with the other artists. Everyone’s in their own little world, often working on other projects at the same time, so it’s much less natural.” Although it’s difficult to quantify those personal interactions as a metric of success, they are the glue that holds an in-person festival together, and their loss is felt that much more deeply in this time of global social isolation.
While artists missed the interpersonal interactions of an in-person festival, it’s intriguing that the increased access to this year’s edition of the festival (…) didn’t necessarily equate to more audience engagement.
While artists missed the interpersonal interactions of an in-person festival, it’s intriguing that the increased access to this year’s edition of the festival—thanks to its virtual format, especially for work coming from abroad—didn’t necessarily equate to more audience engagement. Online viewership numbers for this year’s festival reflect comparable audience sizes to years past, although this year’s viewership drop-off rate is significantly higher, as it’s much easier to stop watching a video than to walk out of a play. Masse observed in real time that the faithful festival followers showed up, as well as some students, but he didn’t see a marked change in audience attendance this year. Of course marketing resources don’t necessarily increase because everything is suddenly online, and audience attention spans are facing other challenges, even if accessibility to the material has increased. One can imagine Masse’s varied programmatic offering certainly helped to retain the festival’s “faithful followers” this year.
Perhaps no marked change in audience engagement reflects this same hesitancy to attend virtual programming, as audience members (like myself) don’t want to just see a play, they’re craving the whole physical experience of theatregoing. As Diouf said, “Now more than ever, the idea of live theatre with actors in front of us is something I’m missing. I really hope it doesn’t disappear.” El Khatib agreed, “Video recordings are neither the place nor the role of theatre. They don’t replace theatre’s fragility. I can’t watch a play online, I can’t make myself do it.” Siéfert expressed the same sentiment, saying for her, “Theatre is about the shared experience with others.”
Given that consensus, I’m interested in the insatiable artistic impulse for theatre professionals to do something theatrical, even if it’s not exactly what we want to be doing. The Comédie Française broached their pandemic programming by asking themselves how they could continue to fulfill their mission as an organization serving the public when they could no longer welcome the public into their theatre. Like Masse, like most theatremakers, they turned to digital programming. Less nobly, there are of course capitalistic pressures to produce, despite all odds, driving us forward. As Masse said, “We’re in a digital world now, we need to recognize that.” Adapting our work to the virtual world is a survival strategy, responding to the demands of both capitalistic pressures and our own internal creative instincts.
And even though artists did not participate in as much of the festival as they would have liked, they were universally grateful to Masse for creating this digital edition. Diouf thanked Masse and the entire team at Princeton for their “mental flexibility and agility in organizing a festival that could exist, despite everything.” As the character Vitalis, the ringleader of a theatrical troupe in Capdevielle’s Rémi, says, “In the battle of life, we don’t do what we want.” Although Rémi was created before the pandemic struck, those wise words reflect the reality of theatre artists around the globe chafing in a virtual world, but still making work because… what else are we supposed to do?
French theatre artists were in a particularly tender moment during the interviews for this article, as France reimposed a curfew (in Paris and other densely populated regions of the country) on 14 October 2020, complicating rehearsal and production schedules that had been back underway. While American theatre has languished in a state of semi-quarantine since last spring, thanks to the success of the French quarantine, actors in France were back on stage performing to live (masked, physically distanced) audiences. The reimposition of the curfew, with whispers of a possible second lockdown, hit French artists hard as they were just remembering the sensation of live theatre.
Bayiha explained that safety protocols required everyone in the building to wear a mask at all times, except for actors performing on stage. She said she has always felt the stage is a place of freedom, but the act of removing her mask to step on stage emphasized the liberation the stage can offer. As I conducted my interviews last fall, the pandemic was taking center stage once again in France, reminding artists that everything is in flux and will continue to be until we’ve rid ourselves of the virus once and for all. Until that time, at least we have the digital world to connect us, and to remind us we’re all in this together.
Essay by Amelia Parenteau 05 January 2021 Original Publication