Dozens of French theater workers walk into a room and occupy it. What happens next? A month later, not nearly as many performances as you might expect.
Since early March, the performing arts sector has been in the grip of protests across France, where cultural institutions have been closed since October because of the coronavirus. After trade union representatives in Paris entered the shuttered Odéon Theater, a movement to occupy playhouses spread rapidly. Even as the country has entered a third lockdown, the occupations have shown no sign of diminishing: The number of venues taken over by artists, workers and students has remained around 100.
Yet with the infection rate rising, the movement finds itself facing difficult options. Protesters can’t be seen to flout restrictions or draw large crowds, so there have been no impromptu plays or theatrical tableaux. The messaging has also been carefully adjusted: Instead of demanding the immediate reopening of cultural venues, the movement is calling for more government support and the withdrawal of changes to unemployment benefits.
Yet public actions are needed to rally support. As a result, the occupiers have walked a fine, often awkward line amid art, safety and their political demands.
The main point of contact between the protesters and the public has been “agoras,” a form of outdoor assembly halfway between a political rally and an open-mic session. The Odéon has staged daily agoras since early March, and some have drawn hundreds of bystanders; elsewhere, they are weekly or biweekly. Anyone wearing a mask is welcome.
What happens at an agora depends on the luck of the draw. Prepared political statements read from smartphones are a recurring feature, with protesters from other economic sectors joining in to detail their own demands. The floor is generally open to anyone who wishes to put two cents in. Poems, songs and the odd flash mob or group improvisation bring a little motion to the proceedings.
On Sunday at La Colline, one of the first Paris theaters to be occupied, a three-hour agora started with an art-therapy session. Protesters and visitors were directed to draw on a large white canvas on the ground in front of the theater. Later, during the open-mic portion, three students recited a poem they had written, starting with the question “What do we live for?” Another participant read a text that employed swans as a metaphor for the current situation, asking the powers that be to “let us fly.”
After attending half a dozen agoras, I can say with some confidence that the rewards are slim from an audience perspective. The format is barely even agitprop, as occupiers are trying hard not to do anything overtly theatrical — a necessary compromise, perhaps, yet one that makes for arguably limited visibility.
If agoras start to look like actual performances, they are at risk of falling foul of the rules, which preclude all cultural events. Only demonstrations are allowed, and organizers must apply for permission. Some local authorities have been more amenable than others. Last Saturday, the Odéon’s daily agora was forbidden by the Paris prefecture, which declared it a “concealed cultural event.” Agoras were able to resume the next day, but without live music. (In the end, musicians were granted permission to return beginning last Monday.)
Then there is the fear of public disapproval. On March 21, an unauthorized street carnival that drew thousands in Marseille prompted widespread condemnation, with some participants now facing legal action. Carla Audebaud, one of the drama students occupying the Théâtre National de Strasbourg, in eastern France, said in a phone interview that practicing their craft wasn’t the goal. “We’re trying not to make it look like a show,” she said.
While most theater directors initially welcomed the occupations, the cohabitation has also grown tense during the third lockdown. In a statement over Easter, a coalition of protesters denounced their “self-proclaimed supporters,” saying, “We’re not fooled by some of your maneuvers aiming to make occupiers leave.”
At La Colline, students pushed back against plans by the theater to reduce the number of authorized occupiers to six from 30 and limit access to showers and cooking facilities. The playhouse’s director, Wajdi Mouawad, discreetly attended their weekly agora Sunday and denied in an interview that the goal was to quash the occupation. “We’ve had positive tests among the theater’s team, and we decided to stop all rehearsals. We’re going to reduce the technical staff, and we’ve asked them to reduce their numbers, too,” he said, referring to the students.
Mouawad added that he was sympathetic to the protesters. “They don’t have to obey us,” he said.
Some protesters now wonder whether the focus on occupying physical venues was misguided. There have been attempts at guerrilla theater instead, with unannounced performances in symbolic public spaces. Last Saturday, dozens of topless students, with political slogans painted in black across their chests, popped up in front of the Ministry of Culture in Paris, chanting: “It’s not onstage that we’re going to die.”
As with many agoras, the action was streamed live over Instagram, one avenue for protest that is certain not to create viral clusters. Still, the sprawling nature of the occupations around the country has made them difficult to follow even online. On Instagram, there are nearly as many accounts as there are venues, with the biggest drawing only a few thousand subscribers.
In that sense, the occupations are both everywhere and nowhere. They have energized a profession even as they have drawn tepid responses from the public and the government. Talks are underway between the Ministry of Culture and theater students, but no demands have been met.
The effects are likely to be felt over the long term instead, as the movement has been an opportunity to learn and self-organize. At the Quai theater, in the western city of Angers, young actors have devised their own curriculum by inviting professionals to come and share their knowledge.
Others have focused on building relationships at the local level. In Gennevilliers, a suburb of Paris, the students occupying the T2G playhouse have taken to visiting the market weekly to meet inhabitants who have never been to the theater. Some of them now visit the agoras.
The group has also asked locals to share their thoughts on camera as a way to collect material that may be used in future creations. “A lot is happening that we’re not seeing right now because we’re right in the middle of it,” Léna Bokobza-Brunet, one of the students, said. “When we’re no longer in this situation, maybe we’ll realize what ties it all together.” In all likelihood, the best pandemic-era political theater is yet to come.