(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/8; via Pam Green.; Photo: Improvised choreography on Sunday in front of La Colline, one of the first theaters in Paris to be occupied by workers.Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times.)
Performing-arts protesters locked out by the pandemic have occupied playhouses across France, but drama is not allowed. Cue the “agoras.”
Dozens of French theater workers walk into a room and occupy it. What happens next? A month later, not nearly as many performances as you might expect.
Since early March, the performing arts sector has been in the grip of protests across France, where cultural institutions have been closed since October because of the coronavirus. After trade union representatives in Paris entered the shuttered Odéon Theater, a movement to occupy playhouses spread rapidly. Even as the country has entered a third lockdown, the occupations have shown no sign of diminishing: The number of venues taken over by artists, workers and students has remained around 100.
Yet public actions are needed to rally support. As a result, the occupiers have walked a fine, often awkward line amid art, safety and their political demands.
The main point of contact between the protesters and the public has been “agoras,” a form of outdoor assembly halfway between a political rally and an open-mic session. The Odéon has staged daily agoras since early March, and some have drawn hundreds of bystanders; elsewhere, they are weekly or biweekly. Anyone wearing a mask is welcome.
What happens at an agora depends on the luck of the draw. Prepared political statements read from smartphones are a recurring feature, with protesters from other economic sectors joining in to detail their own demands. The floor is generally open to anyone who wishes to put two cents in. Poems, songs and the odd flash mob or group improvisation bring a little motion to the proceedings.
Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times
On Sunday at La Colline, one of the first Paris theaters to be occupied, a three-hour agora started with an art-therapy session. Protesters and visitors were directed to draw on a large white canvas on the ground in front of the theater. Later, during the open-mic portion, three students recited a poem they had written, starting with the question “What do we live for?” Another participant read a text that employed swans as a metaphor for the current situation, asking the powers that be to “let us fly.”
After attending half a dozen agoras, I can say with some confidence that the rewards are slim from an audience perspective. The format is barely even agitprop, as occupiers are trying hard not to do anything overtly theatrical — a necessary compromise, perhaps, yet one that makes for arguably limited visibility.