In the theater world, new-play festivals tend to be bare-bones readings (think stools and music stands) of hit-or-miss works. The now-in-progress Des Voix Festival, however, is, for one evening, more similar to a nightclub.
The Bal Littéraire, in which playwright-actors and audiences dance onstage together, is the most unusual event in the nearly monthlong festival, co-produced by Playwrights Foundation, Cutting Ball Theater, and Tides Theatre. The Des Voix (“of the voices”) Festival is devoted to bringing American playwrights to Paris, and transporting French playwrights to San Francisco. It also includes a staged reading series of contemporary French plays, a film series, and a full production by Cutting Ball Theater of Samuel Gallet’s Communiqué n10.
In the Bal Littéraire, six playwrights, two French (Leonore Confino and Riad Gahmi), four American (Anthony Clarvoe, Prince Gomolvilas, Liz Duffy Adams, and Jon Bernson), have 48 hours to create a play. They start by making a playlist of songs that will make audiences want to get up and dance. From there, they collectively sculpt the broad arc of a story that will connect the songs. Then, individual playwrights shepherd individual episodes into being.
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The first and only other Des Voix Festival, in 2012, also featured a Bal Littéraire. The French playwright and actor Nathalie Fillion, leader of both this and the previous San Francisco iterations of the model, was part of the collective of French theater artists (another of whom, helpfully, moonlighted as a DJ) who came up with the idea eight or nine years ago, in response to a problem: lack of interest in France and its current crop of playwrights.
“France is a little bit like a museum,” Fillion says over Skype from Montreal. “When you write contemporary theater, it’s like a ghetto. People aren’t interested in contemporary things.”
Playwrights Foundation artistic director Amy Mueller, one of the main forces behind the festival along with Ivan Bertoux, former cultural attaché of the Consulate General of France in San Francisco, locates the source of that trend in the mid-20th century rise of European director-auteurs. In particular, she says, the experimental Polish director Jerzy Grotowski “had a huge impact on the way work is done in countries outside of the U.S. It’s very director-driven. Directors use playwrights to write the work they want done, so writing is not the primary vehicle of the dramaturgy. European theater is very visual.” But, she says, that’s starting to change: “In European theaters, in France, the playwright is starting to ascend.”
That might be thanks in part to the Bal Littéraire, which has become hugely popular throughout France and has also popped up throughout Europe. Fillion attributes its success, unsurprisingly, to the fact that every few minutes, audiences get to stand up and dance.
“You listen and then move — it’s a good rhythm,” she says. “The more you dance, the more open you are. You’re more receptive. You forget a little bit about here,” she says, gesturing to her head.
Duffy Adams (who’s also one of the American playwrights to have her work translated into French and produced in Paris, on May 25) participated in the 2012 Bal Littéraire as well, calling it “one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life.” She remembers that at one point in the evening, she danced with the theater critic who’d later be reviewing her. For her the Bal is “a communal event with the audience. It shatters any barrier between performer and creator and audience. That’s not something that we often get to do, other than at the very end of Hair. It’s a way to have a theatrical event that is genuinely a party, genuinely a bacchanal.”
There’s also a rawness to the Bal in that the playwrights work so far outside their usual processes: collectively, at a breakneck pace, structured only by a playlist, and unmediated by editors, dramaturgs, and directors. It’s a thrilling challenge, says Fillion: “The main difficulty is to share the imagination. You suddenly become aware that writing is first a way of seeing the world, and it’s very difficult to share that. To be able to share something that you can’t share, that’s impossible to share — it’s kind of a utopia.”
Mueller, who through other Playwrights Foundation projects often asks playwrights to read their own work aloud, values that the playwrights, not actors, perform. “I find that the most exciting moment of encountering a play,” she says, “because it’s not about the acting. It’s about the meaning. They’ve just written. They’re bleary. There’s a sparky excitement, and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Cross Cultural Collaboration- Bringing Communique n˚10 from Des VoixReading to Full Production! A blog by Rob Melrose
Cutting Ball Theater is proud to present the American Premiere of Communiqué n˚ 10 as a part of Des Voix… Biennial 2014 A Festival of Contemporary French Plays and Cinema. This is only the second production of this play (the first was in Avignon in the original French) and it is the first production of a Samuel Gallet play in the United States. Communiqué n˚10 was part of the Des Voix… Found in Translation 2012, and was directed and translated by Rob Melrose during the staged reading process.
We asked Rob Melrose, Cutting Ball Theater Artistic Director, to share his thoughts and relationship with Communiqué n˚10 throughout the past few years.
As part of the selection team for the inaugural festival of Des Voix – a week of readings of new French plays in translation – I fell in love with Communiqué n˚ 10’s craft and composition: a powerful combination of short, cut to the bone scenes and long, luxurious Faulknerian monologues that penetrate deeply into the minds and memories of Gallet’s characters. Only after reading did I learn that the play was inspired by the 2005 riots outside of Paris by disaffected North African youth. Gallet had managed to create specific characters but has also abstracted the landscape so that the story felt universal and essential as opposed to “ripped from the headlines.”
Enjoy the full blogpost here!
Care to practice your French in anticipation for Des Voix Festival this weekend? Watch in on an Interview with Léonore Confino below!
Inside the Des Voix Mind: Kimberly Jannarone & Erik Butler on Christophe Honoré and “Un Jeune se tue”
Kimberly Jannarone and Erik Butler, translators for Christophe Honoré’s “Un Jeune se tue”, have written a lovely memoir about how the play came into their lives. Be sure to check it out below!
In true exchange, Rajiv Joseph, Liz Duffy Adams, and Marcus Gardley will be in Paris on May 25 to present original pieces in French for the first time.
You can read more about our events in Paris here: Voices-2in Paris
Now’s your chance to hangout with French Playwrights and have a translated glimpse of their world. Buy tickets today!
Voices come from beyond the grave; voices lose their bodies and resonate through the pre-fabricated house.
Check out the Blog Post HERE!
“Now feels like a perfect time to present a play that examines, with such humanity and care, the insurmountable gulf between haves and have-nots.” –Rob Melrose, Where and When We Died Translator/Director
Communique n° 10
April 2014 SF ARTS MONTHLY
Written by Jean Shiffman
If “Communique No. 10” presents a bleak panorama of violence and chaos on the outskirts of the big city—where, in Europe, the have-nots live—neither is it exactly futuristic or apocalyptic in a science fiction kind of way. “If we’re imagining it taking place in America,” says Melrose, “it’s got to be a few years from now. What if Occupy Wall Street really became a threat and every young person joined it, and all of a sudden they were burning the streets?” Still, the play is slightly abstracted, and Melrose likes that aspect of it. “It makes me think about where our theater is located, in the middle of the Tenderloin,” he says. “It’s not hard to imagine the kind of urban blight [the characters are] experiencing being somewhere in the Tenderloin.”
“It’s rare to encounter a play that climbs so insidiously into your psyche, whose impact you don’t even reckon until your unconscious alerts you to its presence. Honoré had crafted such a piece…”
— Kimberly Jannarone, Translator – Death of a Young Man