Urban arts company Friches Théâtre Urbain are deeply committed to the social function of art, and create extended neighbourhood projects (projets de grand voisinage) prioritising quality participation. These are relational, place-making projects which involve theatre or performance, but also performative domestic actions of gardening, cooking, tea-drinking, creating places for social exchange (lieux de rencontres), practical installations of street-corner salons (lounges), snack-vans, caravans or pop-up photo-studios or wasteland vegetable gardens, on suburban estates where public spaces that invite encounter or conviviality are few and far between. This provides source material and guides the direction of the art, or place-making that follows, in which curated fragments of conversations contribute to artworks reflecting on the neighbourhood itself. Our neighbourly exchanges invite active participation in performance, gardening, making or collective walking, interventions to redefine democratic use of public space through unusual or unexpected ways of co-habiting in the urban fabric. Performance is subsumed into durational performative events within gentle, slowly evolving, non-confrontational projects. Our response to commissions to poeticise or reclaim disaffected spaces and contexts fractured by building sites, community conflict or overlaid with memories of past violent events, is a language of domesticity. Within these apparently casually structured projects, complex social issues within neighbourhoods are addressed.
Our projects usually take place in public space. Even for performance projects destined for a community theatre venue, we start by immersing ourselves into a neighbourhood. Walking, watching and chatting to people we meet in the street is central to our process. France’s long tradition of theoretical and political discourse ideologically positioning public space as a key forum for societal debate through occupation, action, dérive, demonstration, riot or festival has led to our commitment to public space as a fertile zone for expressions of citizenship. In our participatory art projects we collaborate with artists, architects, landscape gardeners, scientists, community activists and gardeners, and frequently work on, situated in the marginal non-lieux, and tiers paysages of the city.
A Little History
Created by Pascal Laurent in 1989, Friches Théâtre Urbain toured festivals in Europe, the UK and worldwide with large-scale promenade théâtre de rue spectacles, and it was only in 2007 that our work changed radically into loose, long-term projets de grand voisinage in suburban neighbourhoods with participation as our central focus. Our personal, aesthetic move towards relational art on public urban sites, was nudged and perpetuated by the general cultural shift towards participation, celebration of the local, an implicit promise of public space as shared and institutional confidence placed on the potential of art as a lever for social change and economic growth.
For Friches TU, our criteria have always been free art for all, ‘élargissement des publics’ (new publics) by virtue of where and when we play, experimentation with form, an emotional response to space, with movement and visual imagery as primary languages of communication, and challenging, direct contact with the public, whose presence is key to our dramaturgy. Our earlier promenade productions were visually flamboyant, highly theatrical, and site-adapted (rather than site-specific) for each town, integrating choreographed scenes into city streets, atmospheric alleyways or river-edges. Classic myths and tragedies were performed by actors on stilts and acrobats, with flags, banners, large-scale puppets, pyrotechnics, and music diffused from motorised chariots. We developed a sophisticated stilts-practice taking quality of movement to the limit, with Pascal Laurent becoming a reference in teaching and stilt- fabrication to the profession. The stilts were a platform: as a full-body ‘mask’ they enlarged and expanded the actors’ emotions and intentions, heightened the drama and physicality and enabled large audiences to see and follow a theatre that moved through them and led them through a town.
Our evolution was interwoven with the politics of the street. Initially we rehearsed in parks, parking lots or the occasional borrowed gymnasium, storing our voluminous stocks in damp cellars or garages. In 1994, we joined a squat with Droit au Logement (DAL, right to housing movement), in their highly mediatised, overnight occupation, rehousing 126 people in an empty, private, Catholic school, in Rue du Dragon in chic St-Germain-des-Près. We held weekly activist-performances in front of l’Eglise St-Germain-des Près, pressurising the government to ‘legalise or rehouse,’ and ran theatre workshops for the families. Lasting a year, the occupation was supported by l’Abbé Pierre, Monseigneur Gaillot, Professors Léon Schwartzenberg and Albert Jacquard who, with other intellectuals, trade-unionists and artists, created the ‘université des exclus’ (university of the excluded), running working-parties and public seminars in the derelict classrooms for the homeless and unemployed. As the DAL squat closed, our international touring intensified and professional recognition and revenue funding supported our rental of a 19th-century tile factory, in Rue de Tocqueville near the périphérique. We ran L’Avant Rue (before the street) as an artists’ residency centre for fifteen years, alongside touring, until in 2014 we gave it up due to lack of adequate funding.