This theater brings nature into the drama

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BUSSANG, France – Hundreds of productions have been performed at the Théâtre du Peuple, a 126-year-old performance hall in this village 75 kilometers from the border with Germany. Yet no matter how good the actors are, they are often overshadowed by the theater’s unusual setting: a craggy forest, visible just behind the stage.

Framed like a painting by a wooden wall, the view brings nature into the discussion – and visitors can’t get enough of it. This summer, two hours after the debut of “And Their Children After Them”, a new production by Simon Delétang, the otherwise simple setting has been lifted to reveal the trees beyond. The scene elicited oohs and aahs from the audience, followed by spontaneous applause.

This indoor-outdoor installation in the Vosges mountains has supported the Théâtre du Peuple through many incarnations. Founded in 1895 by playwright and director Maurice Pottecher, inspired by visits to Richard Wagner’s Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany, it has become a pioneering example outside of Paris of “popular theater”, attracting audiences from all walks of life. social. Decades before the French government’s post-war push to decentralize a concentrated cultural scene in the capital, Pottecher convinced local workers to attend and perform there.

While amateurs are still casting a production each year, professional actors have long since taken over most of the roles, and the People’s Theater now sits on a curious artistic barrier. On the one hand, its founder, nicknamed Le Padre, lingers in the background – literally, since he is buried in the garden of the theater with his wife, the actress Camille de Saint-Maurice. Its motto, “Through art, for humanity”, still adorns the proscenium arch.

On the other hand, Pottecher’s own pieces – which formed the bulk of the repertoire from 1895 until his death in 1960, and had a strong moralistic streak – have long since fallen into disuse. “Every director comes in thinking that it would be good to play Pottecher again, but when you read it, it’s not possible: it’s dated,” Delétang said in an interview with Bussang.

Instead, artistic directors are appointed for four-year terms by the People’s Theater Association, a local governing body, and have carte blanche. Delétang, who co-directed a small theater in Lyon, Les Ateliers, from 2008 to 2012, had no professional experience at Bussang when he was appointed four years ago. His contract was recently renewed until 2025.

The current season, which runs through Saturday, suggests that Pottecher’s legacy now lies primarily in the experience of going to the People’s Theater, rather than the shows themselves. Before a recent performance of “And Their Children After Them”, locals would picnic in the garden of the theater, a long-standing tradition, with Delétang and the performers tending to the bar and making themselves available for a chat.

In this sense, Bussang is an ancestor of the generation of rural festivals, such as the Nouveau Théâtre Populaire, which have emerged in France over the past decade and emphasize accessibility.

However, the programming of these events could not be more different. While more recent events have fostered collective decision-making and diversity, the Théâtre du Peuple has just welcomed its first female director, Anne-Laure Liégeois, for a production of “Peer Gynt” by ‘Ibsen in July. On stage, Bussang’s productions are also smoother and more aligned with the standards of state-funded French theaters – aside from the verdant backdrop. “And their children after them” and “Our need for consolation is insatiable”, the two productions offered in August, could have fitted perfectly into the programming of a number of high-level Parisian theaters.

“Our need for consolation is insatiable” emerged last year in response to the pandemic. After the cancellation of the 2020 season of the Théâtre du Peuple, Delétang staged and performed this 40-minute show, based on an autobiographical essay by Swedish writer Stig Dagerman, as compensation. Billed as an “electro-rock oratorio”, it was premiered here last summer, outdoors, with live music from the band Fergessen.

However, he might not have been transferred to the main stage, where he landed awkwardly. Dagerman’s Meditation on Life and Depression, written in 1951, appears to be deeply involved in the interpretation of the People’s Theater. Dressed elegantly, feet shoulder-width apart, Delétang seems to embody a dandy’s desperation rather than a broader unease.

It doesn’t help that Dagerman comes back over and over again in his essay on the naive notion of total freedom from the shackles of society as the ultimate “liberation.” Last year, this could have been understood as channeling the desire to get out of the blockages. The public debate in France has evolved; this summer, he focused on the question of whether vaccine passport warrants infringe personal freedom, and in that context, Delétang’s ode to self-determination took on a whole new meaning – an unfortunate coincidence. , since the season was scheduled months ago.

“And Their Children After Them” adheres more closely to Pottecher’s humanist ideal. The play is based on a Goncourt Prize-winning novel by Nicolas Mathieu, who grew up in the Vosges. Like the book, Delétang’s production follows a group of friends in the 1990s, in a rural part of eastern France increasingly neglected by deindustrialization.

Although it opens with the 1992 Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and ends with France’s historic victory at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, the stage version of “And their children after them” Often leaves aside the historical context to focus on the excitement of adolescents. . Anthony, the main character, is desperate to attend parties and sleep with girls, who in turn are struggling with their own sexuality.

Delétang designed the production for the promotion of a renowned Lyon drama school, ENSATT, and allowed everyone to shine. Very few scenes are played in a conventional sense. Instead, the 13 actors take turns telling the story and freely playing the main characters. To indicate a kiss, for example, two actors describe it to the audience without touching each other, simply closing their eyes to signal pleasure.

This proves to be a smart staging choice to avoid extended nudity and any problematic genre dynamics, and the young cast embraces Mathieu’s text with a solid sense of rhythm. The downside is a lack of movement for three hours, because Delétang’s static posture in “Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable” is reproduced here by each performer.

Counter-intuitively, given the frequency with which the teenagers in Mathieu’s novel meet in the woods, Delétang also opts to only open the back wall of the Théâtre du Peuple at the very end, when the characters are reunited. of a fun fair. Is it fun, at this point, to see a motorcycle come out of the forest? Yes. Are there better ways to use the People’s Theater environment? Probably. All the more reason to return to Bussang.

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