For the last few weeks, I have been carefully raking through every single source I read throughout the last 3+ years of my graduate career to prepare for the George Washington University Museum Studies Program Comprehensive Exam, grudgingly known to most in my program simply as ‘comps (emphasis deliberate).’ At the same time, I have been grooming my strongest research paper for submission to GW’s Research Days 2017.
My research uncovered important ideas and considerations for the creation and maintenance of democratic performance spaces. Although not directly focused on museums, these considerations could certainly be applied to museum spaces that are used for various types of performances. Below is my abstract.
According to John McGrath, “one of the great services theatre can perform for the people…is to be the instrument of authentic democracy, or…to push the community as near to authentic democracy as has yet been achieved.” Democratic Theater, known in earlier incarnations as Theater of the People, is a form of cultural democratization that infuses theatrical performance with political concepts, critiques and ideologies. It seeks to transform the space in which it is being performed into a political forum, a place where real societal issues and concerns can be safely discussed and explored by the performers, and simultaneously be absorbed and reinterpreted by the audience. Although the motivation of democratic theater is undoubtedly clear in theory, it may be rendered inert when wrapped in the ornamental trappings of a high art, i.e. the traditional venues and the avant-garde ideology that simply cannot be defined as accessible to all.
Using performance and architectural research conducted in Paris as its base, this paper begins by asking: when it comes to the city of Paris, has the movement that began as Theatre of the People ever truly achieved egalitarian, democratic performance? Without the goal of legislative action, how might a performance’s democratic success best be measured, if success is even calculable?
In order to affect palpable societal change, it is argued; a performance that is truly politically alive must live in an accessible space. It must live in a space that strikes a careful balance of entrancement and truth. It must live in a space that empowers, welcomes, listens and equalizes. A performance can only be considered truly democratic when it exists within a democratic performance space. But does such a space exist?
In attempting to discover answers, two different works staged at the Theatre de la Ville are analyzed for their tendency toward democratic performance: the 2011 theatrical production On the Concept of the Face of Christ by Societas Raphaello Sanzio and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s La Nuit Transfiguree, a contemporary dance performance from 2016. The Theatre de la Ville itself is also examined as a structure designed to encourage democratic performance, and compared against the designs of and performances held in traditional Parisian theaters.
The full research paper is posted below, should you wish to learn the full arch of my thesis.
Pictured in the featured image is the auditorium of the Theatre de la Ville in Paris.
Empowering the Inconvenient: An Examination of Parisian Democratic Theater
Democratic Theater, known in earlier incarnations as Theater of the People, is defined as a form of cultural democratization that infuses theatrical performance with political concepts, critiques and ideologies. Its goal is to transform the space in which it is being performed into a political forum, a place where real societal issues and concerns can be safely discussed and explored by the performers, and simultaneously be absorbed and reinterpreted by the audience. But can a high art that is meant to be intellectually challenging, politically stimulating and societally motivating, in fact, have an impact on those it intends to reach if it is not performed within a space that supports democratic thought, equality and legislative action?
Though the motivation of democratic theater is undoubtedly clear in theory, it may be rendered inert when wrapped in the ornamental trappings of a high art, i.e. the traditional venues and the avant-garde ideology, that many fear cannot be defined as accessible to all. The intellectual excellence demanded of professional democratic performance determines its artistic power, but a performance’s relevance to its community and its audience defines its reach.
In order to affect palpable societal change, therefore, a performance that is truly politically alive must live in a space within reach of the intended audience. It must live in a space that strikes a careful balance of magic and accessibility, entrancement and truth. It must live in a space that empowers, inspires, welcomes, listens and equalizes. A performance can only be considered truly democratic when it exists within a democratic performance space – a space that walks the tightrope between physical accessibility and artistic fairness, that separates but equalizes.
According to John McGrath, “one of the great services theatre can perform for the people…is to be the instrument of authentic democracy, or…to push the community as near to authentic democracy as has yet been achieved” (133). It is helpful here to define democratic theater, a concept that in some ways aligns with Boal’s Legislative Theatre (Howe 240). At the heart of the idea that performance can be a platform for political change is the interpretation of the word ‘act,’ which can be defined as “to take action” (Boal i). Additionally, “a theatre dedicated to a critical challenge to its society can play [an]…important role in the creation of a genuine theatre” (McGrath 136) True legislative theater would ideally inspire eventual legislative action.
Boal conducts legislative theater projects wherein he and his group lead workshops for groups of human rights advocates, union members, and blue collar workers. During these workshops participants learn acting techniques, build a theater piece around an issue personally affecting them that they wish to use to promote future legislation, and perform the piece in a street-theater setting (Boal 39). According to Boal, who has himself held political office in addition to directing theater, these performances are deeply meaningful to the participating communities because “the citizens…try to pinpoint their oppressions, to understand them by means of aesthetics” and because they promote “inter-community dialogues” (86). Building off of Boal’s principles of Legislative Theater and Theater of the Oppressed, another type of exploratory theater concept he created in an effort to give underserved populations a voice, other legislative theater troupes like the Canadian company Headlines auditions amateur members of the local community who are then paid for their participation in a performance they help develop which addresses the issues that they feel their society faces with the goal of inspiring community legislative reform (Howe 243).
But performance spaces and performers, no matter how democratic their intentions, are not often equipped to effectively invite these sorts of discussions or actions. And so, Boal’s beautifully effective models of empowering, community-changing theater opens the door to a new line of questioning: when it comes to the city of Paris, has the movement that began as Theatre of the People ever truly achieved egalitarian, democratic performance? Without the goal of eventual legislative action, how might a performance’s democratic success best be measured, if success is even calculable? The last question may very well be impossible to answer, given that democratic success may be defined by each individual audience member as something different. Some may consider a performance successfully democratic if they are inspired to think about their community differently. Others may feel that the same performance is unsuccessful because it is not informative enough to motivate measurable political action afterward.
Despite this daunting prospect of impossible definition, scholars have built an analytical framework for what a democratic performance might theoretically achieve. According to McGrath, three main features must be deeply resonant within a work in order for it to be considered democratic: its accuracy, its relevance, and its accessibility (138). Boal’s Legislative Theater also acknowledges the value of democratic participants. Performers and directors have “a duty not to undervalue the individual…even when alike, the same problem presents itself in different forms to each…[who may feel] devalued if…their own personal problem is subsequently revealed as the possession of all” (Boal 46).
Additionally, Boal highlights the importance of a democratic performance’s “aesthetic space”: “it comes to signify an inaccessible area which will later…be invaded: an invasion which symbolizes transgression” (74). In short, in order for a performance to be considered democratic, according to Boal and McGrath, it must mold its performers and storylines using democratic considerations. It must also put forward art that is relevant to society, and that is easily accessed by the community and can be shared with others. Finally, the work must be performed in a space that is inaccessible enough to create a separation between the performance and real life, and simultaneously accessible enough to promote discussion, free thought, and collaboration with the spectators if and when appropriate.
So let us return to Paris, lauded as the birthplace of the Theater of the People, democratic theater’s ancestor. By the end of the 19th century, France’s ‘People’ were a force to be reckoned with – a majority with a passionate interest in politics seeking outlets for their freedom of expression. Yet, hierarchical class society, although claiming more upward mobility, remained in France. And so it came about that French “cultural democratization,” defined as an “achievement in a long march towards democracy,” was not in fact led by the political majority, but “was essentially [led] by and for intellectuals [, which] allowed them to invest in public space” rather than including all citizens in the process of cultural development (Dubois 596).
Because theater was at the forefront of the political movement a-la-mode to “bring art to the people,” it “allowed artists to take political stances, questioning the monopoly over the representation of the people held by agents of the political field” (Dubois 595). But the unfortunate fact remained: “the level of commitment [to] the idea [of democratic theater] appears to be inversely proportional to the agents’ social standing” (Dubois 598). As a result, French theater was transformed from an affordable, entertaining and accessible low art into a cerebral, realist high art (Dubois 594). Productions focused on a close examination of everyday life rather than exotic tales or far-flung hijinks.
Although efforts were made to institute a government-subsidized popular theater that might have better served more audiences, its construction was never realized (Dubois 596). Theater’s reclassification as a high art rendered it less useful, and therefore less democratic to the lower classes. “The boundaries within [were in this case] used for anti-democratic ends…to disempower the inconvenient” (McGrath 135). Additionally, an overwhelming desire for commercial gain guaranteed by light-hearted “comed[ies] of manners” and various other standard formulas of crowd-pleasers had led to artistic stagnation in theater spaces not producing avant-garde works, including those subsidized by the French government (Kurtz 7). In essence, theaters that were producing hollow, repetitive comedies and violent capers were only useful to those who profited from ticket sales, and the theaters that were producing so-called Theater of the People were not reaching the audience that they might most benefit.
In order for a society’s culture to remain truly free, “the borders of democracy, especially internal, have to be constantly contested” (Kurtz 13). Modern theater had begun to closely reflect a stagnating modern society: “an abandonment of the public sphere to…professional politicians, interrupted only by rare and brief periods of political explosions known as revolutions” (McGrath 134). Proponents of democratic theater such as revolutionary playwright and theater director Andre Antoine, seized this opportunity to “send [theater] back to nature, as one takes a sick person to the baths” (Kurtz 13). The goals of this “renovation of French dramatic art” became accessibility, quality, relevance and accuracy (Kurtz 15), qualities that essentially echo McGrath’s definition of democratic theater.
The combination of subsidization from the French government and increasingly monetary motivation therefore nullified traditional Parisian theater’s power, and opened the door for a new model of community-serving performances. As a result, a new era of community-serving aesthetic spaces began. Early democratic theaters like the Theatre du Vieux-Colombier, which opened in 1913, strove to model themselves as cultural gathering places that truly opened their doors to all people. Jacques Copeau, the theater’s director, recognized that a theater space that was truly reflective of this shift towards egalitarianism would also include a new audience – those who had previously been unable to afford the most innovative performances (Kurtz 15).
The ailing Parisian theater had erected barriers that must now be broken down. Democratic performance tools were used to break through. Production expenses were reduced to a minimum in order to lower ticket prices and distractions from the performances of freshly trained, passionate actors. The union of spectators of all social classes encouraged discussion and honest feedback. Obstacles to the aesthetic space, like ushers who expected tips, were removed. In 1887, Andre Antoine had invented Theatre Libre, or free theater, in order to start a dramatic revolution that would completely reinvent the nature of performance, abandoning its past in the process (Behar 42). But unlike Antoine, democratic theater directors, architects, performers and visionaries saw the ideal Parisian theater as a new interpretation of past works, an improvement upon itself rather than its total destruction. The democratic theater in Paris would be a blend of past, present and future for the benefit of the entire city (Kurtz 14).
In 1864, a law permitting the building of private theaters saw another boom in theater construction throughout Paris. It brought the people of the city one step closer to true autonomy over the art. The law, however, did not extend to full freedom of expression within those theatres, and so theater remained, ultimately, under the control of the state (Naugrette-Christophe 36). The central location of the theaters built during the second empire had one clear purpose – to keep theater as regulated and uniform as possible. Geographically very close to one another, at one point over forty theaters would have been competing for the same audience members by offering only performances sanctioned by their political leaders. Looking at a map of fin-de-siècle Paris might give the impression of accessible theater spaces, even to the point of excess. In reality, however, these regulated neighbor theaters’ close proximity acted as a series of tightly closed doors to those who wished to use the spaces to inspire change (Naugrette-Christophe 33).
The previously mentioned Theatre Vieux-Colombier was not only an innovative aesthetic space in terms of its internal reforms, but in geographical location as well. It was the first post-Second Empire theater to purposely establish itself on the left bank of the Seine, beginning a notable departure of theater development on the right bank that had dominated the second half of the 19th century. Being a pioneer of this spread of theater westward across the city makes the Theatre Vieux-Colombier accessible by definition – it put itself in a part of Paris where theater was not available at the time. It democratically delivered performance to its people (Magrou 38).
The examination of the concept of renovation and reinvention is essential to the exploration of Paris’ democratic theater spaces. Just as the purpose of theater to French culture was being reformed, throughout the 20th century theaters were being moved and constructed according to political conditions. Modernization made an indelible mark on 20th century theater constructions like the Theatre du Champs Elysees. Simultaneously, older theaters were being given new life through physical renovations. The former Theatre Lyrique, originally constructed soon after city planner Baron Haussmann’s overhaul of the city in 1860, was completely gutted and redesigned in 1968 and became the Theatre de la Ville (“Une Page D’Histoire…” Theatre de la Ville, Theatre des Abbesses – Paris).
Nearly all Parisian theaters, past and present, can be placed in one of two categories. They are either grand spaces that demand audience attention, or innovative venues that aim to highlight their performances rather than themselves. The venues in this first category take on a monarchical role as the most dominant, most elaborate, most impressive presence against which the performances onstage must compete. The Comedie Francaise, for example, bathed in red velvet and crowned atop each seat and ledge with gold, drips with regal omnipotence (De Andia 13). It does not pretend to allow all spectators to enjoy the same show, levitating the occupants of its boxes several stories above the stage and the orchestra seats in order to guarantee that they will most definitely see and be seen, framed effortlessly by luxurious fabric, warm golden scrolls and angels. A democratic performance in a space such as this would prove difficult to achieve.
Beginning in the 20th century, just as renovations on older theater constructions were beginning, an increasing number of new Parisian theaters were designed in conversation with the grandeur of the city’s Second Empire venues. In line with avant-garde trends quickly taking hold in the performing arts, these new spaces were designed to be performance-enhancers, rather than ornate reminders of which spectators were most important. The avant-garde visionaries crafting performances at this time strove to “sweep [it] clean of overacting, overdressing, and flashy house trappings” (Kurtz xi). Theater directors like Jacques Copeau sought to create “a fixed, architectural…space where dramatic…technique could live in harmony and thrive in freedom of thought and movement” (Kurtz xi). As noted previously, however, simply developing forward-focused, innovative art does not qualify a performance as for or by the people. Still further steps would need to be taken.
The pioneers behind the early 20th century movement toward meaningful, free artistic expression were crusaders of the arts, willing to give up all luxuries in favor of the most essential performances possible. As one critic pointed out, when you were in a modern theater, it was made very clear that you were not meant to be there to enjoy being there. Unnecessary traditions were gradually eliminated, ensuring that not only did the theater look different, it felt different (Kurtz 3). And so, in an effort to make the spectator experience more efficient and elemental, the avant-gardists began to bring performance back to a physical and figurative place where it could connect with all of its spectators more equally, and therefore more deeply.
The viewing experience in the Theatre des Champs Elysees, for example, must have felt largely the same for each spectator, once the lights dimmed. The boxes, though still present, form to the footprint of the other seats, rather than interrupting them or blocking their line of sight. The building is decorated in a way that recognizes and respects performance as an essential piece of modern society, but does not pretend to be a temple to its own existence.
The building is a demonstration of a revolutionary departure from the architecture of previous theater designs. It was a modern collaboration of artists and designers. The space contains the essence of a traditional, hierarchical theater, complete with the representative luxurious gold and warm velvet tones seen often throughout 17th and 18th century performance spaces. The shapes of the structure, however, are cleaner and simpler than theaters built in decades past. The ceiling mural is a painting by modern artist Maurice Denis. The window is simple, a skyward stained glass window adorned with clean lines and a symmetrical pattern. The orchestra level seating is raked, rather than the floor of the stage, a more modern trend in theater design (Nectoux 6). The decorative details are clean and streamlined, avoiding a direct backward reach into classical architecture and rather enhancing the modern shapes of the building with the classicist essence. The theater interior demands attention, but the attention of a modern audience (Barruel 72).
The design, however, was not so revolutionary as to render the space unrecognizable. Societal hierarchies still define who sits in what section. Boxes are clearly delineated, if less obviously than in previous theater designs. The seats, though cleaner and simpler than the gilded velvet seats of earlier theater constructions, were still upholstered in warm velvet and edged with a thin band of gold trim. The balconies boasted higher ceilings and better views, but nevertheless were enclosed by gilded railings and looked down on the orchestra seats. Unlike earlier constructions, the structure seems to step aside somewhat gracefully and give the performance onstage the majority of the credit. This graciousness, however, does not equalize the space by any means.
Modern art may have heavily influenced this building’s detailing and to some extent its design, but it did not influence its organization of spectatorship. It was, however, relevant, in that it explored the concepts of modernism being exploited through painting and writing throughout the Parisian art scene. But cloaked in the gilded red velvet environs of the Theatre des Champs Elysees, the spectators could not be criticized for their inability to contextualize.
The Theatre Lyrique’s original Second Empire layout was somewhat similar to the current layout of the Theatre des Champs Elysees, which was lauded in its day for being Paris’ first ‘modern’ high-art performance space (Nectoux 4). Four semi-circular balconies framed with gilded wood and equidistant from the stage bore down on the slightly raked orchestra seats. Each balcony framed its audience members with gilded Italianate columns and railings. The orchestra dwellers must have met with an imposing view, were they to look behind them at the spectators with superior views. Although the balconies in the Theatre des Champs Elysees are on a less severe curve around the orchestra, the visual effect is similar (Georgeon-Liskenne 118) (Théâtre Des Champs-Elysées – Google Arts & Culture).
By the mid-20th century, it had become clear that the Theatre Lyrique’s current layout created a less-than-egalitarian spectator experience, “too deeply rooted in the nineteenth century with boxes for choirs and dancers…[and] addresse[d] a ‘bourgeois clientelle’…” As a result, only “900 of 1200 [seats] ha[d] an unobstructed view of the stage” (Georgeon-Liskenne 212). Seeing the need for a complete overhaul of the performance space, the Parisian government stepped in and took action. The venue’s reincarnation was thus born of democratic legislation addressing a needed reform- a reinvention through renovation.
The Theatre de la Cite, nee Theatre Lyrique and subsequently renamed the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt among other names, was to be gutted completely, rebuilt, and reopened to the public in the 1960s as the Theatre de la Ville. Its redesign was intentionally minimalist and efficient. The City Council, in fact, had decreed that this particular theater should be a space where contemporary artists were given a place to share their new works with the city of Paris (Georgeon-Liskenne 212).
In response, the Association of City Theatre in 1967 created a plan to democratize the theater through a complete transformation of its interior (Georgeon-Liskenne 212). The renovated theater would be a space for the entire city of Paris to congregate to consume the performing arts, “where Parisians from all walks of life find themselves mixed together” (Georgeon-Liskenne 212). The council ordered that the theater as a tool for democracy and free expression “must be visible and accessible to the public…in that the theater will be open to the city, its architecture will foster transparency [and] encourage the public to enter” (Georgeon-Liskenne 212).
The resulting design is space-maximizing, equalizing, devoid of obvious stylistic enhancements or embellishments, and extremely transparent – the inner workings of the theater’s technology is easily spotted, and often used as part of the stage decoration (Georgeon-Liskenne 212). The seats are on a steep grade that maximizes occupancy and minimizes wiggle room, in effect putting the audience on display for the performers. There are no balconies, no boxes, and no indications that any one seat is superior to another (Charlet 214). The audience is equal in their viewing abilities, and from a different perspective in their roles as spectators. No one person is in a more comfortable or privileged position than another – the audience is truly equal.
In describing the audience experience, it cannot be forgotten that a complicated element of democratic theater is the idea that the audience and the performers are interacting during the performance: “…the theatrical communication between spectators and actors can be studied as a socially organized process” much like political involvement, citizenship, voting, or serving on a jury (Hermans et al 16). This concept of spectator-actor interaction should be examined from both perspectives in order to be fully unpacked.
The audience member brings with him or her previous experiences, perspectives, opinions, political views, and rights as ticket-holding citizens of the state established by the theater. Therefore, no two interactions between audience member and performer can be duplicated. Every performance could therefore be considered a collection of meta-performances, each audience member experiencing a different show from the next. In this sense, democratic performance is always attainable, as long as the audience member is given access to the performance space.
The democracy of the stage, however, is more difficult to determine. Most performances, after all, discourage the active involvement of the audience. Both through the teaching of generally accepted audience behaviors and through the erection of physical barriers from the audience to the stage space, these social norms are sociologically and physically enforced. In ultra-accessible shows such as instances of street theater, audience participation is vital to the success of the show, demonstrating equality between performer and audience member, but in a theater, the audience space and the stage space are not one in the same. They are classified as different designated environments that dictate what roles are given to which people. In this way, theaters are excellent examples of the power of partisan architecture. In Paris, particularly in the venues built during the Second Empire, inter-audience interaction seems much more encouraged than tangible interaction with the performers onstage, given their close proximity and their ability to observe one another more easily than they could observe the stage. This relationship, of course, is further complicated by modern theater architecture.
Additionally, the avant-garde techniques of theater performance and acting emphasized the idea of Antoine’s “fourth wall” separating the audience from the action onstage (Behar 43). The idea that the stage is an altogether separate environment from that of the house, and that the performers onstage are actively ignoring the fact that they are being watched, a technique employed particularly often by Free Theatre, simplifies the spectator-actor relationship immensely by abruptly ending it. Access is granted to the audience as viewers, but not as agents of change, influence or interaction for those performing.
Free Theater and the avant-garde movement emphasize truth in set design and costuming, which serves to create a more realistic and therefore more accurate performance. The democracy of a work completely closed to audience influence, however, raises questions (Hermans et al 43).
Is the performer truly free if he or she is unable to acknowledge action occurring offstage? Is the audience member truly able to access and digest a performance that he or she is not able to influence during the action of the performance, but only through its later reception via a verbal or written review? Might democratic performances of avant-garde theater, dance or music only be appreciated through access to advance education on the work being performed? Perhaps the best way to examine the idea of a democratic performance successfully utilizing a democratic aesthetic space is to examine particular performances from all possible democratic angles.
In the midst of the interaction between spectator and drama there is an unavoidable interaction with the surrounding environment of both parties, as pointed out by van Maanen (15). As he notes:
“In the theatre…[performances] can only be performed in specific ways, in specific buildings or situations and spectators have to make their own way to these places…those locations…do therefore influence the theatre-making as well as the theatre-watching.” (16)
Each aesthetic space and theater in Paris has influenced its performances in a different way. Depending upon the era of each theater’s conception and construction, and the beliefs of its contractors and designers, each one has cultivated a different level of democratic spectatorship and performance. A performance in the post-renovation Theatre de la Ville, for example, would not be staged, interpreted or received in the same manner as that same work performed in the Opera Garnier, an elaborate Second Empire conglomeration of imposing and ornate architectural styles designed for use only by members of upper-class Parisian society that utilized many of the traditional decorative elements of hierarchical, inaccessible performance spaces (Sutcliffe 100).
Artists who are invited to exhibit their work in the Theatre de la Ville, therefore, are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that their work is truly speaking to the democratically organized audience: it should be accurate, truthful, and accessible. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s La Nuit Transfiguree, performed in the Theatre de la Ville on June 9th, 2016, highlights the effect of the democratic performance space on avant-garde performance. The theater itself, what Boal calls the “aesthetic space,” is perhaps the most real, least subjective text in the performance of genuine democratic theater (74). The literal text of the performance script or score, or even the program of the performance itself, can all be interpreted differently by each individual. The location in which the performance is given is unambiguous. It is there. It exists. If a performance is taking place in a space, that space is the theater. (Van Maanen 13).
De Keersmaeker creates hauntingly accessible characters through her essential interpretation of relationships through dancers who essentially become blank slates. Upon these characters each member of the audience may build their own story of a relationship that is beginning, struggling, or ending. The audience is given very little direction via sets or costumes, allowing for more freedom of interpretation. Works with deliberate storylines, scenes, sets, and traditionally developed characters do not allow for this freedom. The potential impact of de Keersmaeker’s work, therefore, is very high during any given performance, regardless of who might be in the audience. Even if the performers were changed, the elemental nature of the work and its access points would continue to allow it to mean something different to each spectator.
De Keersmaeker’s La Nuit Transfiguree is an exploration of love and relationships through contemporary dance. The costumes for the work are pedestrian and unadorned. Each dancer is a person – this much is clearly communicated through their movement and their costumes. The set is barren but high contrast – a strong spotlight paints a streak of white light across the stage from downstage left to upstage right, leaving much of the stage unlit. The only focus, therefore, is the motion of bodies moving into and out of the light on the stage’s surface (La Nuit Transfiguree).
Three dancers perform the entire action onstage. Each takes their turn dancing between light pathway and dark shadows, as well as dancing with one another. The phrase work of the piece is very simple, flexible enough to allow for manipulation and repetition, but not not fluid enough to encourage spontaneous improvisation. The dancers are allowing their audience access to their movement through performance, repeating themselves enough that certain shapes become expected, almost predictable, and others become familiar. The repetition of similar movements could be interpreted, therefore, as an effort at increasing audience access to the work.
Inaccessible to the audience, however, are the dark portions of the stage where the dancers venture throughout the piece in order to perform shadowed, blurred movements almost indistinguishable to the spectators. Was that a hand movement? Did an arm or a leg shoot out? Each member of the audience may interpret each of these shaded movements in unique ways. What they are not permitted to do is see the exact definition of those movements. The performers move without clarification. Perhaps the audience will see that part of the phrase performed again, and perhaps not.
Another access point in the piece is the characters. Their relationships, their backstory, and their emotions are largely assumed knowledge. Without further context beyond costume and instances of partnering moments which symbolize that relationships exist between characters, such as one of the men and the woman lying on the stage as though sleeping together, the audience is tasked with building the details of the characters’ relationships independently. Free choice allows for the development of meta-performances.
The architectural redesign of the Theatre de la Ville had every intention of enabling the space to be truly egalitarian and democratic. It invites innovative artists to showcase their work, it places all audience members on a level playing field, and its goal is to be accessible to the public of Paris, above all else. So, when faced with a demonstration of true legislative democratic spectatorship, how does a performance space maintain its democracy while also maintaining its role as successful aesthetic space that must wordlessly separate spectators from actors so that both might perform their roles?
In 2011, the Theatre de la Ville had on its regular performance schedule On the Concept of the Face of Christ by Societas Raphaello Sanzio, a well-known Italian theater company. Christian protesters had been staging demonstrations outside the theater throughout its run, but on October 23rd, they became audience members with the express purpose of halting the performance. Leaving the audience as spectators and entering the stage as uninvited actors, they carried a banner, struggled with the performers and then with security personnel, and performed a group prayer onstage before being removed by the police to audience cheers (D’Urso 35).
The fact that a performance in this aesthetic space evoked such an intense democratic reaction from the audience is encouraging and supportive of its self-designation as a bastion of artistic democracy. The involvement of the police, however, highlights the importance of maintaining the magical balance Boal mentions in his description of the ideal aesthetic space. Although police intervention technically “restricts the [theater’s] definition of what may be considered an aesthetic event or object, making the field conform to increasingly strict interpretations that are qualified and arbitrated by the state” (D’Urso 36), without such intervention and on a larger scale the regulated maintenance of spectator and actor roles, such performances in the Theatre de la Ville might never be completed without interruption.
The Theatre de la Ville was essentially reborn through the work of the state, in this case the state being the city of Paris. D’Urso argues that this protest is an example of “a civic struggle for public visibility and political presence in spaces presumed to be public but policed in a way that betrays their status as closed to actions of protest.” But democratic performance spaces should, above all, dedicate themselves to the allowance of equal artistic expression for all. Spectators who disrupt performances for the sake of protest have in fact violated the agreement they originally made with the actors upon purchasing a ticket and taking a seat in the audience. By interrupting a performance in order to perform themselves, they are silencing their opposition during their designated moment of free expression. Contrary to D’Urso’s argument, such a demonstration, therefore, would seem to in fact counteract the concept of universal democratic theater.
Nevertheless, D’Urso asks the question performance venues looking to redefine themselves as true democratic spaces should be attempting to answer: “Might the goal of the institution of the theatre as a form of public sphere be arranged to reflect a more successful democratic space, ultimately resistant to neo-liberal forms of government bodily control?” (39). If the Theatre de la Ville wishes to continue to subscribe to the democratic philosophy of the aesthetic space, she postulates, it might consider having a protocol in place for allowing for oppositional performances, so long as spectators maintain the ability to choose freely which performance they see. So long as performers are all given an equal platform for truth, accuracy and accessibility, the Theatre de la Ville will continue to fulfill its mission as a space of free expression and a democratic performance resource.
In order for performances to be truly democratic, they must live in true democratic performance spaces. These spaces must be at once accessible and inaccessible to spectators, and must delete all socioeconomic barriers that divide spectators from one another outside the space’s walls. They must focus the audience on the performance being given without forcing spectators into interpreting one particular line of thought or storyline. They must allow performances to be accurate and truthful by being accurate and truthful themselves.
Are the Theatre de la Ville or the Theatre des Champs Elysees successful democratic aesthetic spaces for performance? The answer is ultimately both yes and no. Their modern designs put them in the running. The Theatre des Champs Elysees, though it became open to avant-garde performances earlier than most other theaters in Paris, does not encourage a democratic viewing experience. And in fact, it should be noted that “…avant-garde movements…arise out of fascist ideology and democratic impulses alike” (D’Urso 38).
The Theatre de la Ville was certainly designed democratically – through the use of a state-run council whose goal was to increase the space’s visibility, accessibility, relevance and egalitarianism. Ultimately, the design of the theater may in fact not provide sufficient inaccessibility to the aesthetic space to prevent spontaneous demonstrations of free expression. The spontaneity of these demonstrations are a reflection of what democracy should not be – exclusive to those who speak loudest and have the lowest capacity for the other party’s argument. The Theatre de la Ville is a phenomenon, and it wields enormous transformative power. It is not yet able, however, to seamlessly adjust for the immediate legislative action its architecture promotes.
Parisian theater since the beginning of the 20th century has taken huge steps in the effort to create truly democratic performance. Theaters abound throughout the city, many the result of the Second Empire theater boom and subsequent modernizing renovations. Avant-garde performance has a clear home in Paris, having now become a mainstream form of artistic expression and innovation. Avant-garde performance, however, should not be mistaken with democratic performance.
McGrath’s principles of successful democratic theater – accessibility, relevance and accuracy, and Boal’s emphasis on the aesthetic space are evident in several of Paris’ most important modern theaters; the theaters discussed have all demonstrated instances of accessibility (and inaccessibility, when appropriate), accuracy and relevance. Few, however, have demonstrated accord with each of these principles simultaneously. Spectatorship could be used to define whether performances in the aesthetic spaces discussed above are truly democratic or not. Was the performance accurate? The spectators of On the Concept of the Face of Christ didn’t think so. Was the performance accessible? The spectators of La Nuit Transfiguree (likely) didn’t feel that it was.
Ultimately, however, what defines a successful democratic performance space is whether it continues to offer opportunities for free expression to those who wish to make a difference in society. In leading the way with innovative design and a new philosophy of the roles they would play as citizens of the Parisian architectural state, these theaters have succeeded in blazing a trail for the future of performing democracy, fighting the brutality of socioeconomic class division with beauty and art for all.
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