Introduction: The Sky, the Night, and the Glorious Male Voices
The year 2016 marked the 70th edition of the Festival d’Avignon. In addition to its expected season of productions, the Festival recognized this anniversary with Le ciel, la nuit et la pierre glorieuse (The Sky, the Night, and the Glorious Stones), sixteen short performances created by La Piccola Familia, an acclaimed company based in Rouen. The show’s title will likely be familiar to some readers: “Le ciel, la nuit et la pierre glorieuse” was the poetic description offered by Jean Vilar of the Festival he founded in 1947.
This theatrical series grew out of an approach by Avignon’s artistic director Olivier Py to la Piccola’s leader Thomas Jolly, who made a splash at the Festival’s 2014 edition with an 18-hour-long production of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. As Le Monde’s Fabienne Darge recounts, Py wasn’t looking for “a heavy or boring commemoration” of this historical moment, and came to Jolly with the idea of a theatrical series on the festival’s history.
Jolly and his collaborators (La Piccola works as a collective) used Antoine de Baecque and Emmanuelle Loyer’s book Histoire du Festival d’Avignon as the primary source for their research (the book was re-issued by Gallimard this year). They based each episode around a different theme—the origins of the festival with Vilar and his collaborators; venues; notable shows; government relations and funding; the historic moment in 1966 when dance, cinema and music were introduced alongside theatre in the Festival’s programming; the cancellation of the Festival’s 2003 edition amidst industrial action around payments to part-time performing arts workers, and so forth.
The plays—each between 45 minutes and an hour long—were performed at noon each day of the Festival (6-24 July) in the outdoor Ceccano Garden. The performance was in rough-and-ready, street theatre style. While it was by and large performed by members of the Piccola collective, an episode about audiences featured members of the Avignon public, and the final episode, which imagined the Avignon Festival 2086, was created in tandem with and performed by local young people. Approximately 600 spectators per episode flocked to see the show (admission was free). According to Gilles Chabrier, one of the Piccola company members who helped organize the project, nearly 10,000 spectators overall viewed Le ciel, la nuit et la pierre glorieuse.
Along the way in its research the Piccola team discovered that no full length play by a woman has ever been presented in the Festival’s most prestigious venue, the Cour d’Honneur. While several works directed and/or choreographed by women including Ariane Mnouchkine and Pina Bausch had been presented in this outdoor arena, and the words of Hanna Krall and the poet Lydie Dattas have featured in several of its productions, no through-written, single-authored work by a female author has ever played there.
La Piccola put out a call to a number of female writers to respond to this startling fact. Four—Marine Bachelot, Nathalie Fillion, Pauline Peyrade, and Carole Thibaut— responded with written pieces of several thousand words each, excerpts from which were read as the central element of the series’ seventh episode: “Les Autrices” (“The Female Authors”). Photocopies of their full texts were distributed to the spectators of that day’s episode. Fillion’s full text is reprinted below, in a translation by myself and approved by the author.
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Nathalie Fillion is a Paris-based writer and director. She began her career as a performer, having trained at Théâtre Gô Paris. She began to write for the theatre, alongside performing, in the mid-1990s.
Her breakout play was Alex Legrand, funded by the French Ministry of Culture, which toured around France in a production directed by Fillion, playing over 100 performances to critical acclaim. Following on from this, the most prestigious of France’s National Theatres, La Comédie Française, commissioned a short play, Les descendants, which has been translated into Romanian and Italian and staged in Rome.
Her next, A l’Ouest, was co-produced by, amongst other organizations, the Théâtre des Célestins de Lyon and Théâtre du Rond Point, in Paris; it toured, in 2012-13, to these and other theatres around France. A l’Ouest is translated into several languages, premiered in Germany in 2014 (directed by Mathias Faltz) and was read in San Francisco’s Des Voix Festival, in 2012, in an English-language version titled Out There. In 2016, she adapted and directed a production of her earlier (2006) play, Must Go On, with the students of the École Supérieure Professionnelle de Théâtre du Limousin; it played Montréal’s Usine C, in Limoges, and in Paris, at l’Atelier Carolyn Carlson – Cartoucherie de Vincennes.
Her latest full-length play, Spirit: comédie occulte du 21ème siècle, has three sisters moving into a Paris apartment in which Vladimir Lenin lived in 1909 – and which, it transpires, he never quite left. The spectres of Lenin and several women in his life eventually end up interacting with the contemporary characters. Fillion will direct the world premiere production of Spirit in March 2018. Her shorter play Plus grand que moi will premiere in March 2017.
Fillion’s writing is an attempt, she says to “put into play a multiplicity of points of view around the same question. I try to let the complexity of the world and its inhabitants emerge. . . . I lie in wait for the epic in a time without heroes and struggle with the way women are represented. Dialogue, polyphony, entanglement impose themselves, and any number of theatricalities inhabit each play, as any number of realities inhabit this world.”
In July 2016 Nathalie Fillion was named a Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Ministère de la Culture of France.
Chabrier, Gilles. Telephone conversation with the author. 15 September 2016.
Darge, Fabienne. “Soixante-dix bougies en série.” Le Monde, 8 July 2016.
Festival d’Avignon. Press dossier, Le ciel, la nuit et la pierre glorieuse. August 2016.
Fillion, Nathalie. “Nathalie Fillion – self-presentation.” Unpublished document. 6 September 2016.
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So Many Worlds to Write
On a hot July day I walk the streets of Paris, totally “out” and totally fine about it, responding to the tenth text in three days—“Are you in Avignon?”
No, I’m not in Avignon. But I’d received an email from the Cité des Papes, where God or his representatives on Earth created the Festival d’Avignon—an international theatre festival representing the whole wide world. A friendly and collegial email which asked me to respond to this statement:
“Since 1947, there has never been a work by a female playwright performed in the Cour d’Honneur.”
I, writing in the twenty-first century, after all the women who didn’t write, react from the depth of centuries today, without history, without memory, without a repertoire, at this moment, in my name only, and for others who never had a voice.
I feel quite hot all of a sudden.
Good girl that I am, I know that God who created the Festival is neither “In” nor “Off.”
God is love. God created heaven, earth, the Pope, his Palace, its murals, its Court of Honour, its Festival, its In, its Off, its rich and its beggars, its Tartuffes, its genuine artists, its leaflets and flyers, its hordes of spectators searching for meaning, its air-con and its strong emotions. God loves the theatre. God watches over Avignon and all its creatures, but His ways are inscrutable. The only thing we know for certain: God is a man, because if God were a woman, we’d know. He created the repertoire in his image, with many a great role for men, kings, princes, heroes, cowards, fools, traitors, wise men, rebels, blood, tears, and battles-a-go-go. He created a few roles for women of course, all the same, just a few, but not too many, OK? Because God is harsh, but just.
Above all, God is unique and coherent: he created the world of theatre and its programming in his image, convinced that there has only ever been one world. And the good old Prince of Hombourg, back again, offers benediction for the stability of this world and its distribution of roles.
And you have to admit that its hoarde of officers has always been pretty sexy—war and its profound depths never seems to go out of style for men, in any era. War’s less stylish for women, but who cares about that?
To come to the point: if you believe in the power of symbols—and as a woman of the theatre, I believe in them (stronger than iron)—it makes complete sense that no piece written by a woman has penetrated the walls of the Cour d’Honneur du Palais des Papes, not even as a thought.
In any era, representing the whole wide world in a tiny courtyard slathered with vertiginous murals is a rare honour not in everyone’s gift.
Fine. This reality is not very “In” – “In” in the progressive sense, I mean. It’s a strange and sad reality, a reflection of the theatre’s inability to represent the world as it really is—diverse, multiple, with many female artists who carry worlds and thoughts with them, and whose lot has changed over the course of the past century. Women who no longer have to hide themselves away to write. Women who didn’t all commit suicide, who aren’t all weighed down by insanity and old-style melancholy because there was no possibility for them to create. And yes, since 1947 many have become painters, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers, philosophers, biologists, doctors, researchers, poets, novelists, architects, directors, etc.—and indeed playwrights.
Those who want names because they don’t know them—you can only know what you recognize—are those who never open their eyes, who don’t see, who don’t notice what’s going on in the world around them—that is to say, right under their nose. Oh, and by the way, a black woman, Toni Morrison, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. She speaks of her world, writes novels about black women, and they gave her the Nobel Prize anyway (crazy, right?).
And so if the world is a stage, as William tells us, what exactly has been the problem since 1947 at Avignon? Is it really the absence of women? Or is it rather the omnipresence of something else: reproduction, repetition, keeping things the same, in perpetuity. Grim impotence, this incapacity to renew and multiply representations of the world in the heart of the Cité des Papes. An absence of difference and alternatives, just as in politics.
Women nonetheless exist. They write, they create, outside the secular walls, far from the courts and the honours. Neither In, Off, nor Out, the girls are elsewhere, always close by. Some look for other spaces to inhabit, without lofty murals. Others look for murals that are a little less lofty. Still others still desperately and endlessly claw at the same ramparts, Game of Thrones-style. Some create new pathways, dig underground, discover terras incognitas, address new topics, new territories, offer new visions, little shifts in perspective that remake the way we see. In other spaces, less vertical ones.
Yes, everyone sees what they want to see, and there is none so deaf as he who does not want to hear.
In 1947, in Avignon, women had only gained the right to vote three years before. They were taking their first steps as citizens. . . . I walk, I walk in 2016, elsewhere, free in my movements or just about. I lift my head to read on the pediment of a freshly-cleaned Pantheon: “To the great men, the grateful homeland.”
The heat hits me suddenly, the weight of centuries with it. I sit down on a bench, in the cold and indifferent shadow of the Great Men. A Room of One’s Own in my hand, in the guise of fan and talisman. (And, for that matter, when will A Room of One’s Own be included in the baccalaureate curriculum at all the increasingly specialized institutions of higher learning for arts and cultural management in this country? But I digress…) I look at my toenails which I’ve painted blue, because it’s joyful and we have to celebrate summer and the life we have. Next to me on the bench, a young black man listens to James Brown on an iPod and drinks a beer. He’s waiting for the beginning of the France-Portugal match. “It’s a man’s world,” sings James Brown.
Well, there you are. God’s sending this to me.
Trying to fraternize, I sing to him—John Lennon’s “Woman is the nigger of the world” (still super-In, for me). But the young man’s ears are covered by his headphones; he doesn’t hear me. Pity.
I am alone in the shadow of the Great Men; the French flag flaps in the warm air.
I stretch my legs out in front of me, my blue tiptoes pointing towards the skies. On the cover of a book, the melancholic profile of Virginia Woolf looks at me tenderly. We talk across the years. She has opened so many paths for me since I first read A Room of One’s Own.
I say to her:
— When I started out in theatre, at first I hadn’t read you, and because I naively thought that the theatre was a poetic space, an artistic space, a place of representation writ large, open to everyone. I was an actor, I came from the stage, I wanted to write for the stage, write the theatre that I was missing. That’s it. I didn’t think about my gender, I only thought about theatre. But I hadn’t realized the extent to which theatre is an eminently political space, for better or for worse. A space where many power games are in play. I hadn’t realized that to write for the theatre, whatever the style or subject, is to speak in a loud voice, to speak a viewpoint, to project your point of view and your thoughts to an assembly, in front of society—in the Agora. I hadn’t realized everything this would lead to.
—And power can’t be shared, or only with great difficulty, that’s true. Yes, the Agora is a perilous place for women. Many spaces weren’t made for them. Look at the Cour d’Honneur. Remember, I said this (though I can’t remember on what page): since the 19th century the novel could be undertaken more easily by women because—and this still holds—it’s a younger form and less weighed down by the centuries than the dramatic form which has its long history, its centuries-old rules, its secular habits, its spaces, its fortresses. Why don’t you write novels? You don’t really think that theatre can change the world, I hope?, smiles Virginia.
—Of course not. But change its representations, yes. That is possible. It should do that; it’s made for it. And I can’t help myself—I profoundly love the dramatic form, and it’s mutual. It chose me. I love the music of actors and their bodies.
—OK go on, murmurs Virginia. Good luck. It’ll be fine, you can travel, see the world. You have a room of your own, and you live by your work.
And then she disappears.
I pursue my thoughts alone. . . . I think of the stage space. I think of the Cour d’Honneur, of its age-old rules, its laws, its codes, its scenography, its hierarchy, its memory, its repertoire, its directors, its programmers, its technicians, its audiences, its critics, etc.
I think that before touching the heart and consciences of each spectator, dramatic writing must cross many territories, zones governed by tacit rules, habitudes where the group, pack behavior, the weight of history play their conservative roles.
I think of the novel which reaches, with virtually no mediation, the intimate heart of the solitary reader, and I know that it’s for this reason that the voice of a Toni Morrison can be heard.
There’s a clamour. The match begins. The men play. The women acclaim them.
I hear Rimbaud’s voice:
—When the infinite servitude of the woman is broken, when she lives for herself and by her own work, man, hitherto abominable—when he dismisses her, she will be a poet, she too! The woman will discover the unknown! Is her world of ideas different from ours? She will discover strange things, unfathomable, repulsive, delicious: we will take them, we will understand them.
But while Rimbaud was a creative visionary, he wasn’t a fortune-teller, and he didn’t say when.
I scream in silence: When? How much more time is this going to take? How many centuries, goddammit?
But Rimbaud is dead, and God’s keeping quiet. I must have offended him.
Screaming in silence is exhausting.
I wake in front of an enormous wall. The Palais des Papes casts giant shadows on the black sky. I lift my head. Written on the secular stone: “To the great Authors, the grateful Popes.”
The place is deserted. The huge doors open onto a black abyss. I enter. No one. A vague odor of incense and mold. Behind an empty window, a billboard in gothic letters reads: “The Prince of Hombourg, sold out forever.” A shadow passes. It looks a little bit like Jean Vilar and holds Maurice Jarre’s trumpet. It whispers: “One day you’ll have the right to vote, you know.”
On the big empty stage, I make out a crowd, silhouettes, living ghosts. I feel their warmth, the warmth of bodies, many bodies, much life in the night. A tiny little black woman, child or crone, breaks out from the crowd and approaches me. She looks like Virginia Woolf, but black. She suddenly dances like Pina Bausch, addressing the empty auditorium, and starts speaking passionately, her hands close to her face, like Mnouchkine. I don’t know her language but I still understand. Then she gnashes her teeth at the sky and bawls, opens her big black mouth, sucks up the moon, eats the sky, spits it out, bright with stars. I scream, panicked:
“What era? What century! I want to know! What century am I in?”
She is suddenly right next to me, so close to me I can’t see her, but I hear:
 The Avignon Festival is made up of two entities, Le Festival In and Le Festival Off, a similar structure to the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. The In is curated, highly competitive and prestigious. Companies pay to participate in the Off and the volume of activity is massive: there were over 1,400 productions in the 2016 Off, while the In presented 63 productions. La Piccola Familia’s Le Ciel, La Nuit.. was part of the 2016 Festival In.
 Heinrich Von Kleist’s 1808 play is an Avignon Festival staple. Founder Jean Vilar directed what became one of the Festival’s touchstone productions in 1951; it has 13 principal roles for men and two for women. In its 2014 edition, the Festival a new production by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, with a cast including ten men and two women.
 Jarre (1924-2009), best known as the composer of film scores for Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India, and many more, composed iconic trumpet fanfare which calls spectators to Avignon Festival performances.
*Karen Fricker is an assistant professor of Dramatic Arts at Brock University, Ontario, Canada, and theatre critic of the Toronto Star.
**Nathalie Fillion was trained as an actor, and is a writer and director. She directs her own plays, exploring diverse forms and working regularly with musicians and dancers. Her productions have played in numerous Centres Dramatiques Nationaux (national theatres) in France, and in prestigious theatres devoted to new writing/creation. Her plays have been translated and produced in Germany, Russia, Italy, Armenia, Québec, and the US.