In the theater world, new-play festivals tend to be bare-bones readings (think stools and music stands) of hit-or-miss works. The now-in-progress Des Voix Festival, however, is, for one evening, more similar to a nightclub.
The Bal Littéraire, in which playwright-actors and audiences dance onstage together, is the most unusual event in the nearly monthlong festival, co-produced by Playwrights Foundation, Cutting Ball Theater, and Tides Theatre. The Des Voix ("of the voices") Festival is devoted to bringing American playwrights to Paris, and transporting French playwrights to San Francisco. It also includes a staged reading series of contemporary French plays, a film series, and a full production by Cutting Ball Theater of Samuel Gallet's Communiqué n10.
In the Bal Littéraire, six playwrights, two French (Leonore Confino and Riad Gahmi), four American (Anthony Clarvoe, Prince Gomolvilas, Liz Duffy Adams, and Jon Bernson), have 48 hours to create a play. They start by making a playlist of songs that will make audiences want to get up and dance. From there, they collectively sculpt the broad arc of a story that will connect the songs. Then, individual playwrights shepherd individual episodes into being.
The first and only other Des Voix Festival, in 2012, also featured a Bal Littéraire. The French playwright and actor Nathalie Fillion, leader of both this and the previous San Francisco iterations of the model, was part of the collective of French theater artists (another of whom, helpfully, moonlighted as a DJ) who came up with the idea eight or nine years ago, in response to a problem: France's lack of interest in its current crop of playwrights.
"France is a little bit like a museum," Fillion says over Skype from Montreal. "When you write contemporary theater, it's like a ghetto. People aren't interested in contemporary things."
Playwrights Foundation artistic director Amy Mueller, one of the main forces behind the festival along with Ivan Bertoux, former cultural attaché of the Consulate General of France in San Francisco, locates the source of that trend in the mid-20th century rise of European director-auteurs. In particular, she says, the experimental Polish director Jerzy Grotowski "had a huge impact on the way work is done in countries outside of the U.S. It's very director-driven. Directors use playwrights to write the work they want done, so writing is not the primary vehicle of the dramaturgy. European theater is very visual." But, she says, that's starting to change: "In European theaters, in France, the playwright is starting to ascend."
That might be thanks in part to the Bal Littéraire, which has become hugely popular throughout France and has also popped up throughout Europe. Fillion attributes its success, unsurprisingly, to the fact that every few minutes, audiences get to stand up and dance.
"You listen and then move — it's a good rhythm," she says. "The more you dance, the more open you are. You're more receptive. You forget a little bit about here," she says, gesturing to her head.
Duffy Adams (who's also one of the American playwrights to have her work translated into French and produced in Paris, on May 25) participated in the 2012 Bal Littéraire as well, calling it "one of the most fun things I've ever done in my life." She remembers that at one point in the evening, she danced with the theater critic who'd later be reviewing her. For her the Bal is "a communal event with the audience. It shatters any barrier between performer and creator and audience. That's not something that we often get to do, other than at the very end of Hair. It's a way to have a theatrical event that is genuinely a party, genuinely a bacchanal."
There's also a rawness to the Bal in that the playwrights work so far outside their usual processes: collectively, at a breakneck pace, structured only by a playlist, and unmediated by editors, dramaturgs, and directors. It's a thrilling challenge, says Fillion: "The main difficulty is to share the imagination. You suddenly become aware that writing is first a way of seeing the world, and it's very difficult to share that. To be able to share something that you can't share, that's impossible to share — it's kind of a utopia."
Mueller, who through other Playwrights Foundation projects often asks playwrights to read their own work aloud, values that the playwrights, not actors, perform. "I find that the most exciting moment of encountering a play," she says, "because it's not about the acting. It's about the meaning. They've just written. They're bleary. There's a sparky excitement, and you don't know what's going to happen."