And now, the present…
Le Monde just ran an interesting interview with director Luc Bondy. One of the things he talks about is the difference between public and private institutions in France. Here in New York, the scene is very roughly divided in three: Broadway, Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway houses. In Paris, you have institutions that get public subsidies and those that rely more on box-office revenues; the former is meant to present fare that's more demanding (with lower ticket prices), while the latter is meant to be more commercial (and is more expensive).
The difference can get muddy, though, as a public institution like Chaillot has often presented accessible, popular shows by directors Jérôme Deschamps and Macha Makeïeff, for instance, while private theaters can show fare that's much edgier than we get on the Off scene here.
The Swiss-born Bondy, who's worked a lot in German-speaking countries (he ran the Schaubühne in Berlin, and has been artistic director of the Vienna Festival for 20 years), says of French subsidized theater: "There's people with great potential, but the output is mediocre. First, because the French are very germanophile, they think everything that comes from Germany is great and they get very derivative. They need their own pride. It's true that it's more difficult to do theater in France than in Germany because the French are more extroverted than the German. In introverted countries, theater is the place where you're free. In extroverted countries such as France or Italy, it requires more effort to find a language." [I think he means a theatrical language here, obviously.]
Bondy on actors: "In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, actors work are hired in companies. They may be less afraid to act than French actors, because they have that safety net. But that sense of safety also sometimes makes them sure of themselves and less curious than French actors, who can get deeply involved in a project. The greatest issue in France is the ostracism between public and private theater. There are great actors working in the private sector that you'd dream of seeing in the public one. And vice versa. But the two areas are like two dogs barking at each other. It's true that when you see the price of tickets in private theaters, and those who can afford them, you don't necessarily want to work there. But without sounding populist, I find unbearable the idea that people can't go to a good boulevard play because it's too expensive. You can learn a lot from boulevard. There's a technique and actors that are marvelous. In England, they can take a tragedy by Eschylus and turn it into a play. They don't have that separation between pure and impure, which is false: a play is good or it isn't. One of the greatest conductors in the world for me was Bernstein, who led Beethoven's symphonies like no one else and wrote West Side Story. That culture is missing today."
Bondy is perceived as high-brow in France, but he's also doing quite well at the box office. Last time I was in Paris, for instance, I couldn't see his staging of Marivaux's La Seconde Surprise de l'Amour at the supposedly elite Bouffes du Nord (Peter Brook's former home, and the inspiration for BAM's Harvey Theater): it was such a big fat hit that there were no tickets to be found. When Marivaux sells out without the help of marquee-name stars, you know the director is doing something right.