After a long day of connecting flights which were, at this stage of the tour, navigated in a semi-conscious autopilot function, I arrived in beautiful Ales, in the deep south of France, to perform as part of the international programme for “La Creteres” festival.
After checking in I met with Crish, festival producer and my main point of contact. 3 kisses, starting with the left cheek, was an appropriate greeting in these parts. Always hard to tell.
Having been in Germany, Holland, and now France in the preceding weeks, the atmosphere of the ongoing World Cup games was tangible, if not unavoidable. Having just won their most recent game, the celebrations in Ales were wild, with an endless procession of people car-surfing, tooting horns, and chanting. Above the madness, Creesh ensured everybody had arrived safely and was comfortably checked in at our digs.
Crish’s amicable demeanour stiffened as she proceeded to inform me of the present situation in Ales, and across the country, and how that would impact upon the festival.
The system of intermittents is, “…a special dole system, designed to protect artists in the downtime between jobs… Under the artists’ unemployment insurance system, paid for by employers and workers’ contributions, an actor or technician must work for 507 hours in 10-and-a-half months to gain benefits for the fallow periods between intermittent contracts.” (The Guardian, online)
On March 22, the government and the employers’ association MEDEF agreed on stricter rules governing the status of “intermittent du spectacle” (part-time workers in the entertainment industry), as part of a budgetary savings effort. Seen as a threat to the 250,000 artists and technicians accredited with this status in France, this decision has had a far-reaching effect: strikes and protests had been growing through the concert halls and festivals across France, and it remained to be decided whether La Creteres festival would be similarly affected.
Having filled us in, Crish asked if I would be ok to meet with Christian, the lead technical manager on the festival, which of course I was eager to do, in order to further gauge how the strikes would impact upon our performance.
We met Christian for a coffee at a nearby bar. Surprisingly it was Christian who was asking all the questions. He was very interested in knowing more about our show, where we had played, how our system of funding works… I couldn’t help but get the sense that I was being vetted or assessed throughout the conversation, but to what purpose I hadn’t yet figured out. He explained that there were varying opinions within the technical staff as to whether the festival should be passively striked, actively striked, or should proceed uninterrupted. He asked about the technical requirements of the show and, worryingly, whether we could play without light and / or sound. I explained the nature of the show and the necessity of, at the very least, sound capabilities.
Christian set off to another meeting, as did Crish, but not before extending the invitation to attend the strike meeting which was scheduled for 9am the following morning. At this stage it was made clear that, depending on the strike meeting and the action that was agreed, we may have neither light nor sound. Christian promised to do his best, for which I was grateful.
I met with the company and explained the situation we were in as plainly as I could. It was agreed we would wait for the outcome of the meeting to brief everyone further, but made clear that everyone should be on standby, ready to go as and when needed.
We arrived 15 mins early to the strike meeting. No need it seemed, as we were still involved in the preamble outside the theatre at 10am. Paul Bryce, our pyro-technician, accompanied me and Crish who was to translate for us.
Inside the theatre 30 chairs were arranged in a circle on stage. As everyone took their chairs, the director of the festival welcomed everyone. Somewhat controversially he stated from the offset that he agreed with the strike action and would support, as director of a national theatre, any action that was agreed here today: a position I found almost unbelievable coming from a background of arts in the UK.
The negotiations proceeded very systematically, where the desire to speak was signified by gaining the attention of the chair, who in turn took down names and notified each person when it was their turn to contribute.
I listened to Crish translate varying opinions on the strike and propositions and the discussions about the action that should be followed in response to the proposed intermittent policy changes. People were using used the waggle system that was developed by the occupy movement as a means of showing their approval, disagreement, or ambivalence towards opinions and proposed actions. Those opinions varied drastically from those who disagreed completely with the strike, to those who believed in a “soft” action where companies can still play, and this who held more revolutionary beliefs and were disgusted by the possibility that the festival could play uninterrupted. Christian was of the opinion that the international companies should play, as they have no option of returning to perform at a later date, as was suggested by one speaker. I tended to align myself with Christian’s ideologies.
After about an hour and a half and various mentions of the international companies (of whom I was the dole representative present) I caught the attention of the speaker and waited my turn to respond, going over what I would say in my head, which was roughly this;
Firstly, I would like to say that I am sorry to hear about the current situation that you are facing. Personally I feel an affinity with yourselves as artists and people working within the arts. I do, however, feel that I must represent the best interests of my company, and the members of the company to whom I have an obligation as director, to ensure the income and ongoing touring of our work.
As international artists we are not subject to French social policy, and as such I believe we should be allowed to play uninterrupted. While I understand the desire of French companies and technicians to strike, I also ask that you understand the position we are coming from.
We in the UK do not have the system of support that you are struggling to preserve here. We are reliant on the income from this tour to pay our costs and also to continue to have the work seen in order to create potential future bookings for the show.
While I empathise with the situation you face personally, I have an obligation to the company and the work we create. It seems as if the decision to change the system of intermittents has been taken away from you. I don’t believe that revoking our right to play at the festival solves that situation.
On a personal level I would add that I believe any strike response should be a positive artistic expression as opposed to preventing artists from performing. The imminence of the situation here is an opportunity to provoke thought and reaction through the means that these changes will limit, thereby proving the arts have value and relevance.
My statement was followed by a good deal of silence. No waggles though, so hard to judge the reaction. I don’t mind saying I was pretty filled with adrenaline at this stage also.
The conversation returned to people discussing who should be striked and who shouldn’t, and a good few supporters of the international companies playing emerged from those. That is until discussions were interrupted by the dramatic entrance of a furious local choreographer, who proceeded to tear down the wings, kick chairs over and punch the walls. From my limited grasp of schoolyard French I distinguished the words “merde” and “alores”, among others. It was evident he was very pissed off, as the director of the theatre experienced as he screamed relentlessly in his face. Crish later informed me that the choreographer had created his first outdoor piece for the festival, and could not access the studios because of the strike action. He wanted the director to either cancel everything or play everything, as he could not deal with not knowing whether the show would go ahead.
A break was called and I took this as an opportunity to duck out. I had said my piece and wasn’t sure how much longer the negotiations would continue. As it turned out they continued until 4pm that day.
Thankfully though Christian came through. At about 2pm we got basic LX and PA loaded into the van and set off to our site in a neighbouring town. Already well behind schedule, progress was slow, and cables for some of the equipment were missing. We all chipped in though and eventually, about 6pm we had set up. A run through of the show and we went for dinner for a 730pm call, 830pm show.
I negotiated with the strikers who had arrived on site that they could use our space directly following the show, and that they would stand behind the set as a means of protest. I warned them of the fire element in the show and my concerns were a strike intervention to happen. I was assured we would be allowed to play.
Of all the things that day that would have stopped our show, I never would have imagined it would be rain. We had fought all day to get the show up and running, and the heavens opened 20 minutes before our show. Exasperated beyond belief, we burned the verticals on our set as the striker’s band played in our space.
We arrived on site on the Sunday in another remote village outside Ales, a beautiful site overlooking an Olive Garden and mountains. Set up was relatively painless as the van was already loaded from our rained off performance the previous night. We rehearsed in the 26 degree sun all day (working up quite a bit of sunburn in the process). The forecast was clear and we were good to go.
The show went really well, with a healthy audience and great feedback. Again, the strikers played to our audience immediately following the show. In a poignant moment of solidarity members of the audience got up and stood behind the strikers. Myself and the rest of the company joined them. Though at this stage my patience was ran thin, it remains as a beautiful moment.
As it transpired we were the only international company to play uninterrupted. The strikers appreciated that we had entered into the dialogue and contributed the viewpoint of international artists. That is not to say they didn’t disrupt other performances. The nature of intervention ranged from lying in the performance space mid show to passively refusing to provide equipment for lighting and sound.
I have to admit, it was at once an exciting and frustrating experience. The revolutionary in me wanted to get fully behind them; it conjured memories of my philosophy lecturer at Newcastle relaying his experiences of May 1968. It was active, vital, and felt open to endless possibilities. The other side of me was frustrated at being dragged into this agenda, powerless at the hands of people who could dictate the fate of our show, and worried about the ongoing tour. It was a constant struggle and an ongoing negotiation at every point.
My impression is that there were some who took it more seriously than others. I had no time for the guys who drank beers, joked, and waited to disrupt an artists’ performance instead of working to help present the work. As with anything there will always be people who jump on the bandwagon. Those who were committed to it were another story.
In the end it was going to the meeting that saved our performance. If there was one thing I learned from the experience is that entering into a frank and open dialogue where you clearly identify your position, motivations, and difficulties will create an affinity and understanding between all parties. Whatever happens beyond that, at least you tried.
It was a spectacular set of circumstances that haven’t been seen since 2003, and may not reoccur for another 10 years, but I for one am glad of the experience, which at the very least makes for (hopefully) a good story.
Choreographer / Director
Southpaw Dance Company