Serge PROUST, the lost actor. Autonomy in arts and political interventions in Public theater, Economica, 2006

This work is an analysis of the conflict that divided the casual worker in the theater industry. (especially in 2003). It describes how institutions mutated in the theater field in order to explain the strong divide that existed during the conflict. Serge Proust recounts the genesis of public theater in France. He underlines that this label refers to a state system organization that is strongly internalized by its members. « Public theater » refers to all theater organizations who receive subsidies, which enable artists to be independent from the law of demand. Financial backing from the state led the stakes to change. The opposition that existed between « bourgeois » theaters and popular theaters was replaced by a divide between public theater and private theater. At the same time, aesthetic stakes prevailed upon the political ones. This change was reflected by the use of certain words. The expression « creation » is a good example -most of other languages use it to refer to a religious phenomenon.

 

Even though the theater field acquired -as any other artistic fields »- its independence by rejecting state influence, it nowadays asks for help from the State. Creating a wide public sector for theater that would mix aesthetic innovations and permanent research of financing contributed to a deep mutation of theater organizations. Thanks to the State's money, the plays became more and more complex and artistic work had to be divided : new jobs appeared, intellectualism and professionalization increased. In the meanwhile, the growing State intervention and competition between artists strengthened the organization into a hierarchy of Theater -from national theaters to local companies. Serge Proust underlines that this phenomenon strengthened the producers' powers.

 

The institutional disruptions also had consequences on aesthetics. From 1945, the State support was justified by the importance of popularizing Theater, in order cultural activities. The first National drama centers, as well as Jean Villar's Théatre National Populaire therefore aimed to diversify their audience and spread classical plays. However, they suffered from the Parisian authors' critics -Camus, Sartre, Ionesco, Becket- who supported a new kind of theatrical literature.

The crisis that Public theater encountered as a popular theater spread around the 1960's when a new generation of producers came up. The latter were inspired by foreign aesthetics. Formal innovations therefore prevailed to the detriment of the substance.

 

Serge Proust analyzes the processes which enabled the producers to change the public theater norms. Private theater had to multiply the shows in order to be profitable -as an example, « Boeing Boeing was played 10 000 times. On the contrary, the production and diffusion organizations that belonged to Public theater aimed to constantly create new plays for the professionals to see them. The example of Patric Chereau is relevant. Serge Proust introduces him as a typical figure of a sovereign producer. Constant innovation was the reason why to the artists, the most important parts were the sentences that were formulated before the introduction to the public.

 

 

Besides, formal innovations were expensive. The growing complexity of the plays increased the divide within artistic work. It created new positions, which were occupied by people who also declared a « creator » status. The production costs dramatically increased and the the transfer of rights ' prices became too expensive for many distributors. All these points were the cause of a decrease of the number of tour dates, whereas it used to be a core element of specifications after WWII.

In the beginning of decentralization, companies had to accept long and exhausting tours in order to get a broader audience. They played in movie theaters, village halls, and so on.

 

 

Therefore, public theater has evolved since the 1950's by getting rid of the limits imposed by the audience, just like other artistic fields have. Nonetheless, this progress is not accepted by everyone. It is criticized, among others, by Bernard Dort, one of the pioneer of public theater. The latter underlines that theatrical work can only be created via with the interaction of the audience. Serge Proust does not participate to those aesthetic quarrels. He introduces a sociological point of view that enables to understand why theater cannot have plastic arts and poetry as models of innovation. One of the characteristics of theater is the fact that performance is essentially ephemeral. Other artistic fields acquired their independence when new elements appeared in between arts and business- art merchants, avant-garde editors. The latter capitalize on the future by stocking up on the pieces of art they defend. In the theater field, this mercantile logic is impossible. That is the reason why the State's support is vital. The lack of public help can explain why theatrical avant-gardes quickly disappeared in the end of the 19th century and in the 1950's. However, State representatives cannot give their support without any inspection, because they act as citizen representatives. Therefore, the audience -in the broad sense- always have their say in Theater, but professionals accept it with difficulty. They try to discredit it by denouncing bureaucracy and political pressure.

 

Legitimacy conflicts broke out because of this dependence from the State. Artists' necessity to make an art work often opposes to the representatives' will to keep their electoral basis. In order to find compromises, professionals from the theater field had to acquire new skills, which have nothing to do with creation. They had to negotiate with politicians, go through maze administration and to fill in tons of records. In order to appeal to financiers, they had to learn a specific kind of speech, including “magic words” like “spreading democracy”, “the city's influence”, “living together”, “social ties” “integration” and so on.

 

 

Serge Proust shows that public authorities massive intervention is the cause of a growing intellectualism on the theater field. This idea is illustrated by a « logic of inflation » in the comments and new interpretations. (p.79) Nowadays, the meaning of art works is commented by many groups -artists, journalists, financiers, academics- who resort to concurrent principles in order to define legitimately representation . This is one of the contradictions of public theater. One the one hand, artists' definition of innovation in aesthetics favors the forms at the expense of the meaning. On the other hand, artists have constantly to justify by explaining the meaning of forms. Serge Proust shows that this contradiction is particularly obvious in the theater field, even if it is not the only one. Performance is essentially ephemeral. It means that the value that is ascribed to an art work, according to someone who has not seen it, does not depend on the art work itself but on the trace it has left, i.e. on people's comments The intellectualism process in the theater field created the position of playwright in Germany. In France, the producers have managed to discredit this position – Antoine Vitez condemned it as an influence of the German bureaucratic system. The strength of literature model is the reason why the playwright was replaced by an « artistic colleague » or a « literature conciliator.

 

 

The Ministry of Culture also contributed to a the aesthetic principles' nationalization. Nevertheless, the state actions have to face strong contradictions. On the one and, it refuses to support one particular aesthetics. On the other hand, it provides money for the artists it regards as the most innovative -which implies the existence of criteria that define innovation. It actually increases inequalities, since nowadays, 5% of the recipients receive 70% of the aids from the state.

 

From the 1980's, State aids started to decrease because of the economic crisis. Tensions that existed within the theater field became more obvious, whereas they used to remain latent. This was increased by the fact that Private theater renewed itself, while offering a more adapted answer to the demands of the audience. Indeed, the latter had grown tired with the aesthetic and intellectual excesses of Public theater. Therefore, the latter is strongly encouraged to ask some support to private sponsorship -who dedicates 8% of its funds to Theater and 33% to music. However, this evolution also changed the situation, as the Private sector into the Public sector created new criteria for choices. Whereas the State enabled cultural institutions to free themselves from the audience, private sponsorships mostly supported aesthetics that were supposed to be acceptable for the target audience



During the casual workers conflict, internal inequalities in the theater field created a divide with the movement. In Public theater, there is no selection to get in, no « professional pass », no specific diploma. It is one the reasons why the staff numbers have increased since the 1980's. Nonetheless, « by giving the producers the exclusivity of the symbolic and material awards » (P.233), the State strengthened inequalities. Indeed, these producers monopolized subsidies and the direction of production venues.



From the one hand, there were those who belonged to national Institutions (TN and CDN) who ensured the mise-en-scene of major classic plays and connected with international productions. On the other hand, there were independent companies who hardly survived and rarely deal with famous plays. They were strongly committed in cultural action. Nowadays, these artists constitute the major part of professionals. Despite the fact that they chose this occupation out of passion or vocation, they are often deprived of aesthetic recognition. As for the new comers, the first years are determining. Indeed the chances to disappear are 30% for dancers, 28% for actors and 23% for musicians. Performers must wait about 10 years before their occupation becomes stable.

Nevertheless, from the 1990's, even the latter's situation deteriorate. Indeed, the duration of contracts and their increasing numbers are obvious signals. In 2002, 80% of 78298 casual workers earned 1,1 times the minimum wage per year. Only 63 theater artists earned more than 4 times the minimum wage (P;129). Another cause of these inequalities owed to the link between social background and the occupied position. Indeed, nearly one half of actors are senior executives' children.

The increase of casual workers is a threat for them, despite the fact that they are fully integrated within the field. The new comers had to produce cheaper performances in order to survive and being programmed. Those who are well established tend to discredit them by questioning their artistic skills and by asking a position closure – they argue that there are too many performances, which makes the conquest of the audience more difficult.



The fact Public theater became bipolar can explain the divide that existed during the conflicts of casual workers. The bill that tended to reform their status and decrease their number triggered strong oppositions. However, it is obvious that those who used to be committed activists in their youth currently occupy key positions and are not often disposed to support the movement. In 1992, Georges Lavaudant and Jean-Pierre Vincent criticized the occupation of the Odéon. The latter defined himself as « non-committed in the recent conflicts ». On the contrary, most of the coordination and general meetings members represent the core members and work in organizations that are not recognized by the DRAC. The struggle quickly became political, which can be regarded as a strategy to escape from internal contradictions, by accusing the government. This strategy is relevant because in the theater field, there is no seizable opponent. The limits between employer and employee are extremely thin, which disables to struggle against the employers as in the industrial sector.

As a conclusion, Serge Proust underlines the fact that Public theater professionals are currently stuck in the middle, between vocation and the profession itself. They oscillate between expressing nostalgia of the theatrical community, i.e. theatrical troops and deploring reality where artists are employees among others.