France’s theatre scene heads underground

From next month and to late June, France will be hosting a festival that is literally "underground": a series of stage shows where private cellars become confidential theatres.

France's theatre scene heads underground
The theatre will literally be performed underground. Photo: Festival de Caves
The Festival des Caves, as it is called ("cave" is French for cellar), will pop up — or is that down? — in 75 towns and villages across the country in a decade-old tradition sponsored by a growing number of municipalities.
Nearly 300 shows will be put on during the May 1-June 26 festival, with each evening being particularly intimate. Because of safety rules, a maximum of only 19 audience members at a time can watch.
"The public is really into it. There isn't a single mobile phone that rings," the festival's founder, Guillaume Dujardin, told a news conference on Wednesday.
"Mayors from the smallest villages are inviting us in, and some of them never go to the theatre," he added.
Last year attracted 4,465 people to some 240 shows. Each person, who signed up beforehand, was called on the eve of the play and told where to go. Ticket prices are 10 or 12 euros ($11 or $13).
Many private hosts have returned to lend their underground spaces to the initiative. Others are recruited through a curious-sounding local newspaper ad saying "festival seeks cellar for theatre play".
Georges, who owns a concrete cellar/garage in the north of Paris, said he was "impressed by the professionalism and inventiveness of the shows I
hosted". He even offers drinks after the show in his small garden.
The line-up of plays is eclectic, though organisers said many dug deep into the subject of identity.
Some, naturally, are about figures imprisoned in small, windowless spaces — including one about the famous Marquis de Sade to be put on under the Cheateau de Vincennes in the east of Paris, where the sex-obsessed aristocrat was locked up between 1777 and 1784.

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Top Paris theatre reopens as Covid occupy movement ends

French actors, stage technicians and other members of the performing arts ended a more-than-two-month occupation of the famous Odéon theatre in Paris on Sunday, allowing the show to go on after this week's easing of Covid-19 curbs.

Top Paris theatre reopens as Covid occupy movement ends
A picture taken on January 26, 2011 in Paris shows the facade of the Odéon theatre. LOIC VENANCE / AFP

The protesters took down the banners they had slung across the facade of the venue in the Left Bank as they left at dawn, leaving just one inscribed “See you soon”.

“We’re reopening!,” theatre director Stéphane Braunschweig exclaimed on the venue’s website, adding that it was “a relief and a great joy to be able to finally celebrate the reunion of the artists with the public.”

The Odéon, one of France’s six national theatres, was one of around 100 venues that were occupied in recent weeks by people working in arts and entertainment.

The protesters are demanding that the government extend a special Covid relief programme for “intermittents” — performers, musicians, technicians and other people who live from contract to contract in arts and entertainment.

READ ALSO: Protesters occupy French theatres to demand an end to closure of cultural spaces

With theatres shut since October due to the pandemic, the occupations had gone largely unnoticed by the general public until this week when cultural venues were finally cleared to reopen.

The Odéon, which was inaugurated by Marie-Antoinette in 1782, had planned to mark the reopening in style, by staging Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece “The Glass Menagerie”, with cinema star Isabelle Huppert as a former southern belle mourning the comforts of her youth.

But the protests scuppered the first five performances, with management saying the venue was blocked — a claim the protesters denied.

“What we wanted was for it (the performance) to go ahead, along with an occupation allowing us to speak out and hang our banners. We don’t want to stop the show,” Denis Gravouil, head of the performing arts chapter of the militant CGT union, said on Sunday.

Two other major theatres — the Colline theatre in eastern Paris and the National Theatre of Strasbourg — have also been affected by the protests.
France has one of the world’s most generous support systems for self-employed people in the arts and media, providing unemployment benefit to those who can prove they have worked at least 507 hours over the past 12 months.

But with venues closed for nearly seven months, and strict capacity limits imposed on those that reopened this week, the “intermittents” complained they could not make up their hours.

The government had already extended a year-long deadline for them to return to work by four months.

The “intermittents” are pushing for a year-long extension instead.