Foreign Theatre: plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change

The experiential contradiction of the ‘same difference’ when watching theatre abroad

Theatre Jean-Alary

‘The more they are the same, the more things change’.

The transposition of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s famous epigram is entirely intentional, and prompted by a recent visit to the Théâtre Jean-Alary in France.

On the face of it, there is nothing remarkable about the experience of watching a play there.*  Posters advertising the current season adorn the outer walls: an adaptation of The Graduate, a comedian, some Schubert, a Goldoni, and the opera.  The box office in the foyer sells you tickets.  An usher scans you in.  The seats are red.  The stage is proscenium.  You turn off your phone, adjust your eyes, ignore the latecomers, and clap at the end.

You could, in fairness, be anywhere.

And yet, not quite.

“Pardon – je ne parle pas français…”

Such inter-linguistic incompetence plays a fundamental role in destabilizing the automatic process of everyday experience – the sense of ‘autopilot’, or what psychologists term automaticity, governed by a set of brain structures called the Default Mode Network.  Such a major code switch – that of language – necessarily heightens our environmental awareness, helping us to negotiate a disrupted terrain.

Wittgenstein wrote that ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’, but this is not quite good enough when the world remains empirically before you.  Perhaps more helpful is to think of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, or Shklovsky’s abstracting of meaning from context:

‘The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.  The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged’.

So, the commonplace codes of the theatre-going experience were defamiliarised – despite being utterly familiar – and the sensation of attending the play was fairly, if somewhat ridiculously, heightened.

Familiarity can flatten experience.  This may be particularly apposite to the permanence of building-based organisations, in which environmental diversity is necessarily complex.  For all that theatre buildings, new or old, can be flashy, romantic, or many things in between, from the flat-out point-of-view of the casual attendee, I wonder how often they are surprising.

One response might be to make everything French – but not a particularly good response.

Lyn Gardner has recently asked how can theatres start behaving ‘more like town squares’, suggesting that they

‘need to get out of the arts silos: democratizing the way they work, the way their spaces are used, and the way they welcome people in and go out to meet them’.

There is something destabilizing but exciting and surprising about reimagining the role and value of spaces.  What is significant about this approach is that it disrupts traditional power-structures: it is not about those in power autonomously animating the space – which includes the arguably faux-democratizing of ‘immersive’ theatre practices – but, by democratizing it, making the most of the chaos and babel of the town square.

Oddly, it is perhaps by making spaces more familiar in terms of civic engagement that they can become far less familiar in the long run.

* It should be said that Théâtre Jean-Alary is a lovely place to watch theatre, has a great programme, and projects itself with really attractive marketing.  So it is, in many ways that matter, a remarkable place.

Jostling and being Jostled: the Dramaturgy of the Public Realm

How The Atkinson provoked an interrogation of the values of public spaces in the arts

I had coffee this week with Joseph Rynhart, one of the founders of Untold Theatre, to talk about an upcoming collaboration. A conversation about the company’s past experience of rural touring led to an interesting discussion on the relationship between space, community and intentionality.

It is an assertion no less true for being commonplace that the use of non-theatrical space for performance taps into a romantic conception of authenticity – that is, authenticity in the sense of ‘naturalness’, a derogation of mechanical excess, and a communion with the sweat, sawdust and stylistic atavism of willingly undisguised artifice.

It is a well-rehearsed, if valid, conceit, and one instantly recognisable to undergrad admirers of Grotowski’s Poor Theatre.

Less well interrogated, perhaps, is a decentring of the conversation from the practitioner to the public: what is the effect of space, and its intentionality, on audiences and their intentionality?

It is a fair contention that playing in non-theatrical spaces diversifies reach; and that by reversing the trajectory of power – artists operating in a community’s space rather than communities operating in a more rarefied artists’ space – barriers to access, be they real or perceived, may be demystified. 

It is arguably, for example, less intimidating, or to be less piquant, simply more ordinary, to check out a play at the same village hall in which you go to a U3A class or buy your vegetables at a farmers’ market, than it would be to go to the Theatre Royal this or the insert-modish-abstract-name-here Theatre that.

The conversation seemed particularly relevant as we were meeting at The Atkinson, Southport’s multi-purpose cultural venue, comprising theatres, a museum, a gallery, a library, a shop and a café – as well as being a host for a number of community-engaged programmes.

In a sense, it’s a venue that enables the potential for cross-genre bumpings-into: go in to borrow a book, leave having discovered a play; visit the museum, chance upon some contemporary artwork.  What may be thought of as more commonly perceived open-access public realm spaces (such as a library) encounter, and maybe demystify, the rarefied spaces of the theatre or gallery.  It is a concept that recalls the maxim that ‘No man lives without jostling and being jostled; in all ways he has to elbow himself through the world’.

But is this to soften the edges, especially if we attempt to extrapolate the idea?  A building – any building – with a name over the door, solid walls, exit signs, fire extinguishers, reception desks, staff or volunteers, is still a demarcated, codified space, despite all of the jostlings and bumpings-into.  It opens and closes.  The lights go on and off.  There are structures of authority that can say yes or no.  It is a place of patterned binaries.

Perhaps it is only outdoor spaces that have the ability to respond to these limitations.  These are spaces that seem less predicated on power structures, even if that isn’t true.  They seem more democratic because they appear more communal, less strictured, less owned.  The ground beneath our feet, the sky above our heads – we are used to these spaces feeling like autonomous, disinterested parts of the natural world, whether a council or estate management company tends to them or not.  We don’t have to ask to walk down a high street any time of day or night, and we don’t think of it being controlled by anybody.  It is the public in the public realm that makes such spaces conceptually inclusive.

What does this mean for performance?  How do we utilise these spaces more, or devise ways to bring their strengths indoors?  Simply trumpeting ‘site specific’ or ‘immersive’ like they’re blaring truisms maybe doesn’t go all the way.  Sticking Macbeth in an abandoned building or A Doll’s House in someone’s kitchen is lovely, inventive, entertaining.  But it’s not quite the same thing.  They’re still taking place in a space demarcated by a normative set of rules that regulate imaginative mimesis.

Examples that adhere more closely to purer notions of popular, communal, democratic engagement tend to be at a vast scale: from Reinhardt’s Everyman (Jedermann) at the 1920 Salzburg Festival – incorporating everything from the cathedral to the town square’s unwitting pigeons – to Liverpool’s Giants in the modern era.  Can the same principles be scaled down so as to be obtainable to organisations of all capacities?

A starter for ten may come from the Russian director Nikolai Evreinov, who, in his 1927 work The Theatre in Life, suggested adopting a theatrical view of life itself: ‘sit on a park or square and look at passing crowds and automobiles’, so that, as producers of our own performative experience, we may reach ‘self-transformation, new feelings, new sensations, new conceptions of the world we live in’. 

(Evreinov, quoted in Marvin Carlson, ‘Whose Space Is It, Anyway’, Theatre Symposium, 24 (January 2016), 9-20 (p.19).

A Tale of Two Chatsworths

Christmas at Chatsworth: how Chatsworth House upends the role of storyteller and story told

Christmas at Chatsworth
Credit: Jenny Lyon (

Often, the narrative history of heritage assets may seem to cast the object itself as subaltern to the agency of the subject.  Such arrangements of power between the storyteller and the story-told are part of a common discourse.  It is thus that we see English Heritage promising to ‘tell the story of our changing understanding’ of Stonehenge; whilst the National Trust’s Calke Abbey ‘tells the story of the dramatic decline of a country house’.

Such decentring of narrative authority has rightly been abrogated when it comes to people’s histories, whereby strategies of empowerment help to reclaim the autonomous stories of individuals and communities.  Yet the process is more complex when applied to inanimate assets.  What agency can an object, building or site obtain?

The annual Christmas trail at Chatsworth House offers a compelling answer, as it authors a story extrinsic to itself.  For 2018, favourite childhood stories, from Beatrix Potter to Bagpuss, inhabit the space.  Previously, Dickens, the Nutcracker, Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, and more, have done the same.  As a new narrative yearly weaves its way through bedchambers, chapels and drawing rooms, the historic seat of the Duke of Devonshire transposes the usual relationship between subject and object.  The house itself becomes storyteller, stage and set.

At the intersection of arts and heritage, we regularly talk of a space being animated.  This tends to be predicated by context: jousting at a castle, re-enactments at a battlefield.  Yet less often do we conceptualise the space as the animator.  Even if we accept, for practical purposes, that there is often a perceived fault line at heritage sites between what is history and what is not, it remains true that history never stops, and the asset’s afterlives include its present life.  So to avoid being trapped in an endlessly self-reflexive ontology – its present always a mere re-presentation of its past – it is important for historic sites to rediscover the sense of agency that they originally possessed.

This is not to say that narrative history should be derogated.  Nor is it to obscure an important frame of reference that says that place can be representative of people – of community and individual narratives with absolute agency.  Indeed, there is an intrinsic underpinning to Chatsworth House’s extrinsic 2018 narrative, as the stories were all suggested and inspired by the site’s staff.  The experience, then, is at once a tale of tales, and a tale of its present history too.

This tale of two Chatsworths suggests that the virtue of a dual approach is an ability to celebrate the past without mothballing the present.  As an event producer for Royal Albert Dock Liverpool, I experience a similar approach at that particular site.  At the annual Heritage on the Dock festival, I certainly look to tell the stories – often little-known – of the Dock and the wider waterfront.  Yet it is very much an asset and resource for events happening in the here and now: a stage, set and storyteller of multiple narratives, whereby past, present and future are bound by a deeper discourse.