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"There are a thousand ways to envisage participatory practices"
A few days ahead of the Orfeo & Majnun opera premiere, we met Claire Pasquier, director, set designer and, for the last few weeks, artist on a joint residency at La Monnaie de Bruxelles and the Festival d’Aix, to discuss her experience at the heart of the creative process for this ambitious participatory project.
> Where does your interest in projects with a participatory aspect come from?
I had my first experience of theatre with the Teatro delle Albe company. With them, I discovered the fascination of working with young people by participating in a programme of theater workshops called "non scuola” (non-school), which help teenagers to discover classic texts that they rewrite collectively and perform as a choir on stage. I also led theatre, fine art and photography workshops in Brazil, Morocco, Italy and France with primary schools, in higher education, in prisons, with cultural NGOs and institutions such as Pôle Image and the Institut Français.
The mixture of these artistic languages and activities gave shape to my dramatic vocabulary and allowed me to develop a language based on participants’ diversity and unique characteristics. The creations produced collectively with participants from diverse backgrounds have a richness that creates a connection between an art form that can sometimes be difficult to access and a new audience that reflects our society. Experimenting with new forms and new production methods makes it possible to offer participants a privileged perspective on the work and turns the process into an outreach experience. Creation then becomes activism.
> Last November, you took part in the reflective workshop about creating participatory projects at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, Building participatory opera and music theatre. In what way did it inspire your approach to working with amateur artists?
This week of reflection showed us that there are a thousand ways to envisage participatory practices. As our group is made up of young artists from various trades, we listened to each of them talk about their projects in order to enrich our conception of participatory creative processes, sometimes understood as participation in writing for stage or composition, sometimes as participation in the performative act through collaboration, co-creation, and spontaneous or even involuntary participation. The ethical issues were also discussed: what type of participants, involved in what way and for what purpose? In my conception of things, a shared educational project with all the stakeholders is a must if we are to try and address these issues. Sustainability often turned out to be the weak spot of the productions as the participatory project often takes place in an area as an occasional event, whereas provision must be made for it to be extended in time so as not to endanger the learning goals by an overly short-term vision. Lastly, the difficulty of defending participatory practices in theatres is a point that all participants emphasised. The human and material requirements, the demands for flexibility in the creative process and the commitment needed from the theatre teams to support the participatory practices reliably are often underestimated. The idea of creating a network of professionals committed to participatory projects emerged as a way to help with this difficult struggle.
> Your residency led you to follow the Orfeo et Majnun project at La Monnaie and then the Festival d’Aix for the performance of the opera on this coming 7 July. Can you sum up your experience for us?
I had a very different experience with each of the two companies. In fact, I wanted to do this residency specifically to observe how Orfeo & Majnun changed according to the territories in which it took place. In Brussels, I concentrated particularly on working with partners creating the urban parade. I was able to observe numerous projects from the thirty or so proposals created in Brussels, receive feedback from participants and project-holding artists, and develop a cross-cutting perspective on the difficulties they may have encountered and the experiences they had. I also took part in setting up the parade on Place de la Monnaie and created themed visitor paths echoing the dramaturgical aspects. I took part in team meetings as well, enabling me to see the difficulties encountered by the project-holding organisations and how the various departments tackled them. Lastly, I attended meetings about the implementation of the project assessment process…With Kristina Borg and Daniel Arbaczewski, the two other artists in residence in Brussels, we also began to think about a tool to promote the durability of the stakeholder networks set up for Orfeo et Majnun. A cross-cutting and exciting vision!
In Aix, I also followed the Passerelles service, attending various rehearsals to prepare the parade, and I discovered the work done by the Académie’s outreach artists. Then I focussed more specifically on the opera, which was also participatory, involving choirs and amateur puppeteers. The scale of the scheme and the teams’ commitment were impressive to witness. Moving to the pace of a festival, my residency was also an opportunity to discuss participatory practices with the Reseo and enoa networks. Enriched by countless meetings with artists, rehearsals for other productions, masterclasses and interviews with the festival teams, this particularly busy period of my residency is very rewarding and complements my experience in Brussels.
> This great participatory opera will bring together professionals and amateurs of all ages and all backgrounds for a huge show and a big party. Can Orfeo & Majnun build genuine momentum at a time when unity and cohesion are under threat?
Absolutely! Firstly, its theme invited Eastern culture to be at the heart of the Festival programme and participants’ creations. Working and living together during this project built bridges between the institutions’ teams and the participants, enabling everyone to open up to cultures that were sometimes unfamiliar. Due to its European nature, the project encourages very different institutions in seven countries to work together. It’s also an opportunity to develop partner networks on the scale of each town. Beyond the project itself, it’s the invention of new production and creation methods that is beneficial to the sector, enabling it to renew itself and, like all other art forms, remain a tool of cohesion and unity which makes room for the young generation, on stage and backstage, while staying connected to a broad and diverse audience. It’s also a good example of the artist’s ability to unite institutions around his or her project rather than just working to commission, and to develop the repertoire and curating methods. It’s clear that this type of project has many beneficial consequences at every level, so in my opinion it’s a virtuous dynamic that absolutely needs to be developed.
> Can you tell us a bit about the project you are developing with Jane Dickson based on Laurent Gaudé’s play, Onysos le furieux?
Le furieux is a participatory musical performance in 6 songs. The initiating journey that the audience and performers embark on draws inspiration from myths, in order to immerse us in our own individual and collective history, where irreverence confronts morality, and the stranger confronts the native: Onysos overthrows hierarchies, unites the weak, he is a punk, an iconoclast. This narrative was essential to fulfil the desire to collectively experience group fever on stage and deliver a complete work of art that would be sincere, primary and collective. With the same ease, Jane Dickson’s work, which we discovered at the Building participatory opera and music theatre workshop, turned out to be a natural soundscape in which to develop Le Furieux. With the set designer and performer Bastien Poncelet, who comes from Brussels, we will work with our six hands on creating a score that incorporates sonic indications, and spatial and visual dramaturgical ones. This canvas will inspire a multi-disciplinary, collective writing effort, since the staging of each song will be entrusted to an artist who wishes to be involved in the project with a participatory creative process. What a wonderful challenge it is to immerse ourselves in this unusual creative process with the institutions, artists and citizens, and to continue, following in the footsteps of Orfeo et Majnun, to tell our story together!