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This past weekend, the inaugural Des Voix Festival hit San Francisco. Playwrights Foundation and the French Consulate sponsored this event, which featured staged readings of three plays by contemporary French playwrights, a colloquium on translation, and, as the Friday night kickoff, the “Bal Littéraire.”
A Bal Littéraire is difficult to describe and even to translate (the English-language promotional materials went for “new play nightclub” – better than “literary ball,” I suppose), but easy to enjoy, no matter what language you speak. French playwrights invented this format, and Friday’s Bal was the first to be held on another continent. To create a Bal Littéraire, a group of playwrights meet up and put together a playlist of fun, danceable songs. Then, they use that playlist to structure a work of theater: scenes and songs alternate, and the last line of each scene must be the title of the following song. The playwrights then divide up the work, write the scenes, and figure out how to perform it as a staged reading. At the Bal, the audience is instructed to listen attentively to each scene, then get up and dance like crazy when a song comes on.
As soon as I heard about the Bal Littéraire, I knew I had to attend. Theater, French, and dancing? Sign me up!
The Des Voix Festival’s three French playwrights collaborated with three Americans to create Friday’s Bal, putting together an appealing story about a French tourist in San Francisco. There were ten scenes and ten intervals for dancing – oh yes, we danced. It was a smashing success, and several American audience members expressed interest in hosting more of these. In case you want to experience the Bal Litteraire for yourself – and watch me dancing like a maniac to “Raspberry Beret” – it’s been filmed and archived on New Play TV (newplaytv.info).
At the party (the play?) I overheard someone say, “It’s like a wedding, when everyone gets up to dance.” I understood what she meant. Weddings are one of the few events in our society where everyone, all ages, dances together, as they did at the Bal.
This got me to think: if we want to encourage more fun participatory theater, maybe weddings can teach us something about how to accomplish this. As it happens, I ran into Jessica Holt at the Bal, and last year, Jessica was one of six directors of Taylor Mac’s four-hour extravaganza The Lily’s Revenge, at the Magic Theatre. The Lily’s Revenge is an allegory about marriage (a lily goes on a quest to become human so he can get married) and the play itself borrows structural elements from a wedding. At various points in the play, you eat and drink with your fellow audience members, you dance, you chat. The Lily’s Revenge is one of my all-time favorite theater experiences, partly for its smarts and partly for its immersiveness. And this isn’t the only play that taps into wedding-style aesthetics – on the opposite side of the cultural spectrum, isn’t Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding a long-running hit?
Weddings, like theater, bring people together for a common, celebratory purpose. They arose out of religious ritual, but, in a secular age, now seem more linked to fun and entertainment than to worship. Yet the best weddings and the best plays also evoke transcendent emotions within you.
Additionally, weddings and theater are great means of cross-cultural connection, letting us see past our differences and understand what is universal. If you attend a wedding from another cultural tradition, you may find some of the rituals strange, but you will recognize what lies behind the ritual: love, family, celebration.
Theater, too, is universal, because human behavior is universal. In the lobby after one of the Des Voix festival readings, the French playwrights appraised the American crowd and said that they might not understand everything that we were saying, but they understood our behavior. With their keen playwrights’ eyes, they could see the roles that each of us played in society, the flattery and the jockeying for position that is common to theater people the world over. It’s the same game, they said, “le même enjeu.”
My own moment of feeling a universal connection occurred when I learned that each of the playwrights in the festival comes from a different French city. Nathalie Fillion lives in Paris, while Marion Aubert is from Montpellier and Samuel Gallet is based in Lyon. And yet I had assumed that all of the playwrights were Parisian. There’s a stereotype that all French writers live in Paris – to a great extent, Paris dominates French cultural life, and Parisians tend to consider every other part of France “provincial.” So I had presumed that any aspiring French playwright would need to move to Paris in order to be successful. But here were two French writers from other cities.
Furthermore, I realized, just as there’s a stereotype that all French theater comes from Paris, there’s a stereotype that all American theater comes from New York. As a San Francisco artist, of course I find this New York-centric mentality irritating. I would be quite annoyed if I went to a foreign country and everyone assumed that because I do theater, I “must” be from New York. And Aubert and Gallet probably feel the same way when Americans assume that they “must” live in Paris.
I was ashamed of my ignorance, ashamed to have fallen prey to the oh-so-typical American assumption that France equals Paris. Yet I also felt even more honored to meet Aubert and Gallet when I realized that, like me, they were theater artists who do not live in their country’s largest city.
In my best French, I attempted to explain this to the playwrights, suggesting that maybe the way they feel about Paris is the way I feel about New York. I said that I love making art in San Francisco, and don’t want to leave, but some people would suggest that I should move to New York if I was really serious about my career.
“So, you are a playwright, here, in San Francisco?” Aubert asked me.
“Yes,” I said, suddenly shy. “Very young, still, but…”
“Nous aussi,” said Marion Aubert and Samuel Gallet—“us, too.”
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, dramaturg, and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com and on Twitter @MarissaSkud.