We talk to the directors of Théâtre Paul Éluard in Choisy-le-Roi, a venue with three hundred seats located four miles from Paris. Cécile Le Vaguerèse-Marie and Vanessa Mestre have been at the helm of the theatre for ten years now, working in tandem as director and assistant director. They always have one eye on the international scene, and this season, they have booked two Catalan companies: Lali Ayguadé with Underneath and Agnès Mateus with Rebota rebota y en tu cara explota [I'm rubber you're glue]. We ask them about the current situation and their perspective on the Catalan scene.
How are you approaching this season, which is so heavily affected by Covid?
Cécile: It’s going to be difficult. Île-de-France is a ‘red zone’, because it’s a densely populated region. People are going out less in general; they are scared. And because of this fear, they are out of the habit of going to the theatre. Audiences stopped coming in March. Turnouts are lower and, on top of that, even though we’ve divided the theatre, we have to leave a seat between every person – or group of people – to respect physical distancing rules.
Vanessa: Due to protocol, we’ve had to reduce our capacity to 70%. To prepare for this difficult return in September, we scheduled Thursday performances with a maximum audience of 50. We guarantee all health measures (mask, distance, etc.), so, bit by bit, audiences experience the theatre, see it’s safe, and come back.
C: It’s a fragile situation, and we’re also punished by cancellations of foreign shows. Two have been cancelled now, from Palestine and Cambodia. It’s a new, complex time for everyone, but we have to adapt, because this will carry on for another few months or years. We have to work differently, and stay one step ahead by predicting the situation three months in the future.
V: This entails an additional problem, as our artistic project is closely tied to linguistic diversity and, therefore, international exchange. During the lockdown, we had to cancel three quarters of the performances we had booked. We have been able to keep the ones from nearby countries, but well, the situation can swing one way or the other from one day to the next.
C: We’re a bit nervous!
Why did you decide to book Lali Ayguadé with the dance show Underneath?
V: She is really interesting because she creates ‘all-terrain’ productions for everyone, and her performances are exceptional. I met her through La Veronal (dance company) and fell in love with her presence and technical ability. I have been following her career ever since. Underneath lasts 17 minutes and it is a joy, with dance that is as pure as it is simple.
C: She performs from the heart. She’s magnificent.
V: She performs as a duo with Lisard Tranis, who is also incredible.
What about Rebota rebota y en tu cara explota by Agnès Mateus? What caught your attention?
C: I like how she deals with the role of women and her way of being on the stage. She’s got a lot of personality! What’s more, she speaks very good French. One of our specialities is working on translating productions and, especially, adapting the translation for French audiences. Sometimes, little connotations, little winks and nods get lost in translation. In this case, the text was already translated, but we went over it with her and Quim Tarrida to make sure the adaptation was perfect. The audience laughs more if there are local references (like calling the character ‘Brigitte’ instead of the original name, because that’s the name of President Macron’s wife), with occasional spontaneous swear words in Catalan or Spanish.
V: Apart from that, quite a lot of programmers were interested in booking the show in French and with subtitles. So, behind the adaptation, there is a desire to help with touring and internationalising the production.
C: We also like the fact that the show talks about serious issues: for example, in France, a woman is killed through gender-based violence every ten minutes. But despite the seriousness of the themes, she knows how to laugh about everything while still getting the message across.
How did you find out about these productions?
V: Around two or three years ago, we went on a ‘choreographic tour’ of Barcelona, focusing on dance and body movement, where we met most of the dance companies there, the alternative venues, the Sismògraf Festival in Olot... and much more. We ended up with a rich, positive overview of the scene and we detected the vitality and quality of the dancers and choreographers in Catalonia. You don’t see this creativity everywhere.
C: The tour was organised by a body affiliated with the French Ministry of Culture, called ONDA (Office National de Diffusion Artistique). It’s a group located in Paris that organises trips with theatre directors. We talk about everything being put on in France, as well as in Europe and internationally. The trips can be in Europe or much further afield, like Asia. It’s wonderful for us, because about 10–15 of us go away for four days and meet as many of the place’s cultural actors as possible.
V: All of this is organised in collaboration with the Institut Ramon Llull, too.
Which Catalan artists have you booked in previous seasons?
C/V: Over the past ten years, the theatre has hosted Roger Bernat with Pendiente de Voto [Pending Vote], Tian Gombau-Teatre de l’Home Dibuixat with Pedra a pedra [Stone by Stone], Didier Ruiz/La Compagnie des Hommes with Trans (més enllà) [Trans (beyond)] – co-produced with us – and Collectif Terrón with Le roi des sables [King of the Sands], among others.
What interests you about Catalan creation?
C: We don’t pay much attention to the country; it’s the artistic proposal that interests us. We keep an eye on everything going on in Europe: Brussels, Lisbon, Barcelona, Madrid, London... We don’t have a specific view on Catalonia, but we are lucky enough to work with the Institut Français in every capital, and in Barcelona, they detect artists in parallel to the productions we see all over. This is interesting to us because, commercially speaking, it is linked to imports and exports. Our theatre covers the Parisian region, where there are people from all over the world. This means we have a different audience, compared to other cities in France. We are at the heart of diversity and when, for example, we put on a show with a choreographer from the Congo, we get a lot of people with links to Africa coming to see it. It’s a mix of respect for the local population and a way of attracting new audiences.
V: Even though we’re not obliged to book Catalan productions every season – it’s more like one company every two years – we follow the Catalan scene as much as possible. We work in partnership with the Institut Ramon Llull to find out more and more about it, like with the ‘Theatre in 3 minutes: 2 metres apart’ capsules on the website, or when they invited me to FiraTàrrega, which is mainly about street performance and we don’t deal with that, but I saw various productions that could be adapted to the theatre.
How would you assess the health of the Catalan scene?
V: From what I’ve seen on trips to Catalonia, there is a rich variety of proposals, but the resources are lacking. The status of the artist is not recognised and artists can’t survive on their art alone. This requires them to take on other jobs and inevitably has a harmful effect on their training, the time they can dedicate to creating, funding... I sense that the artistic act has no support. The act, the talent, the inspiration are there, but there are no resources.
C: It’s a political issue. A decision to support the arts. They need to take a leaf out of France’s book, so that artists have time for reflection and creation. Today, in Europe, the artist’s place in the world is a real issue. Is their role to entertain us or to set us free? Or both, which is what we think. Agnès’s show is a good example of this. Currently, contemporary creation is misused to please the general public. It’s populist, and it’s harder to defend a performance than the work coming out of a big production machine.