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.