Our Responsibility Lies in Our Decisions: Interview with Patrice Pavis

by Éva Patkó* and Savas Patsalidis**

. . . As soon as education is no longer free (of charge), it is no longer a humanistic institution

Patrice Pavis

Patrice Pavis, one of the foremost scholars and critics of theatre in the world, has been Professor at the Université de Paris 3 and Paris 8, as well as the University of Kent, at various German universities and the Korea National University of the Arts. He is an honorary fellow of the University of London and Honoris causa of the Universities of Bratislava and Sofia. He has written extensively about the problematics of adaptation, translation and performance, focusing his study and research mainly on semiology and interculturalism in theatre. His first full-length study was published in 1976 (Problèmes de sémiologie théâtrale, Presses de l’Université du Québec) while his latest works, the Routledge Dictionary of Performance and Contemporary Theatre and Performing Korea, were published in 2016 and in 2017 respectively.

Patrice Pavis in his Korean outfit when he was in Seoul, as visiting professor at the Korea National University of the Arts. Photo: Patrice Pavis

Other important book-length publications: Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture, in which he asks what is at stake politically and aesthetically when cultures meet at the crossroads of theatre. His Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis (translated in 20 languages) includes theoretical, technical and semiotic terms and concepts. In Contemporary mise en scène: Staging Theatre Today (translated into 4 languages) Pavis analyses the role staging has played in the creation and practice of theatre throughout history. Dictionnaire de la performance et du théâtre contemporain, with its 24 editions in several languages, provides a comprehensive roadmap through the labyrinthine trajectories of theatre and performance over the last 30 years.

Savas Patsalidis

NOTE: The interview has two parts. The first part was conducted by Éva Patkó and was originally published in Hungarian, Játéktér [Playing Area]) Theatre Review, 2020 spring issue (10 August 2020), vol. 9, no. 1. The second part was conducted by Savas Patsalidis and is published here for the first time

Patrice Pavis in front of his favourite painting in the Pinakotek der Moderne in München/Munich: “Feierabend” (“After a Day’s Work”) by Max Slevogt. Photo: Patrice Pavis
PART 1

The international workshop on new forms of performativity you held at the Theatre and Media Research Institute in Tirgu-Mures, Romania gathered together people from four continents. Globalization is an organic part of theatre: we have international workshops, festivals, collaborations, even productions. The international or global element is not related only to budget, it is rather a way to think about theatre today. Still, in the Central Eastern part of Europe, theatres (with exceptions, of course) are presenting productions with little interest in what is going on worldwide; they lack curiosity towards the new forms of performativity. Don’t you think this is a paradox?

It seems a paradox, but it can be explained by the conditions of production of a theatre work in a national or regional theatre. Even extremely poor and with little public support, the administrative structures have preserved many aspects of the theatre in a former socialist country such as Romania: a permanent or semi-permanent troupe/company of artists; an excellent knowledge of theatre craft; the State support for theatre forms already known and well-tried practices; a know-how which never welcomes criticism and experimentation, and only reproduces itself.

New performative forms are viewed with curiosity, if only to appear well-informed and open to strange or fashionable experiments. This is particularly true in the case of young artists, who are not yet integrated into the profession. Mainstream theatres are by nature open to these forms, as they are eager to propose new ways of theatre making and to influence society and its politics. The establishment tolerates these new forms in order to appear open towards modernity and supportive of the youth, who are usually not taken seriously and neglected.

So, this attention towards new forms, postdramatic or post-postdramatic, is usually superficial. It can be explained, or even excused, by reference to their “fluidity”: are they an installation, a live event, a site-specific performance, a piece of immersive theatre, et cetera.? Often, the performance changes from one evening to the next. It is collectively designed, devised, directed, and what is the difference between these working methods? Who can tell? Certainly not the cultural bureaucracy!

Participants of the workshop led by Patrice Pavis at the Theatre and Media Research Institute in Tg-Mures. Photo: Cristina Ganj

So, it is understandable why young artists comply with this seeming interest and begin reproducing the methods and forms inherited. Yet, we talk more and more about the responsibility of the theatre maker. Young artists in Romania have this discourse. In the Hungarian theatre world responsibility relates strongly to freedom of self-expression, the current #metoo discourse, and the responsibility towards each other. How do you see responsibility in making theatre today? 

The #metoo movement is only one aspect of the responsibility of theatre. It should not push aside other issues, particularly political ones, even if, granted, all questions are interrelated and political. Our responsibility lies in our urge to make the world more equal and balanced. And to dare use theatre or literature as weapons and means to understand our political and personal world better.

This inherited structure of theatre institution (state or locally funded) could still be the safest laboratory, where a forged group of artists can research, explore and develop without too much constraint. Whereas in the independent sphere, deadlines, expectations to justify and validate the work presented are mandatory. One has all that is needed to freely create, the other has the freedom to create and less of the means. So, they fight each other, instead of supporting each other, or ignore each other which is also a hostile standpoint.

To take the current situation in French state or regional theatres. At the moment, there are severe conflicts in many of these theatres between the artistic team and the staff working in theatre with a permanent contract. There is often a conflict or strike between the two groups. For instance, at Théâtre de la Commune in Aubervilliers: the artistic director, Marie-José Malis, and the administrative director are no longer on speaking terms. We are faced with a bureaucracy which is growing (as is the budget for the staff), whereas the artistic team no longer has the final word. Many metteurs en scène (like Guiela Nguyen, Gosselin or Creuzevault) who were managing state institutions are now leaving the public system for alternative spaces, “fabrics,” “third-theatre” spaces.

Getting out of the comfort zone is a self-provocation many theatre-makers do, it makes one remain alert and stay fresh. Do you get out of your comfort zone?

Getting out of your comfort zone is necessary in the arts and humanities. It can mean changing the focus of your research using new insights, looking at how the question you are dealing with is being handled in another context, art form or field. Obviously, it is more difficult if you want to leave a comfortable, well-paid job to pursue experimental work. The challenge must be gradual, not too abrupt and dangerous. It is more about challenging yourself in your way of thinking, in your convictions and beliefs.

You teach on two continents and lead international workshops around the world. What do you sense the young theatre-makers (and students) are interested in? Changing the world is definitely a purpose today, but is the political context always there? Does an artist always need to take sides? 

A good question! It all depends where you ask the question, but basically there is a common, and maybe universal, way to make theatre in order to express oneself, take sides on all questions and participate in an artistic act. They are probably interested in inventing counter-worlds. Yes, changing, or even rescuing the world is a frequent motivation. This reflects a renewed interest in political change, and the ecological perspective makes the political approach more convincing and necessary than before (from the 1970s to 1990s).

You have shared your teaching experience in the Brazilian Journal of Presence Studies: the diminution of exploration-freedom in the different universities throughout your lifetime is sobering to read about. The wave of compliance with [imposed] standards is already at the doorstep [of higher education institutions] in the Eastern part of Europe as well.

This is the case in a neo-liberal system where students must pay enormous fees to study. The students are then treated as customers who have all rights, including deciding on their marks, the content and schedule of the teaching material. The faculty becomes simply a service provider and has lost all freedom. As soon as education is no longer free (of charge), it is no longer a humanistic institution.

International consortiums bring together universities and they seem to seek this humanistic side of art education as the only way they can truly function is through the human relationship between all involved in the academic life: students, teachers and staff. Learning from each other is an evolving tool in what we do.

But are we really working together in our field of theoretical research or in the creative process? This only happens within a company where the same people are used to working together in staging or devising a performance.

Bilingual road sign in Seoul. Photo: Patrice Pavis

Few people have the luck to make theatre in these conditions. There must be a positive answer for everyone else who wants to create and is not part of a company or group.

Of course, there are other ways of making theatre. However, working together in a company, a group or a collective of actors is easier, and one can build on the experience of creating and evolving together. This means working for the long term. Not just performing an event and disappearing. It just depends what sort of theatre you want to promote, also in political terms.

The revival of the text in theatre, on stage is a strong tendency again. In France, at least, authors and theatre-makers are making a stand for the text. Would you recommend some authors?

There are many young authors, but, so far, a fair judgement is difficult. I would recommend: Joël Pommerat, maybe Alexandra Badea from Romania, Jean-Charles Massera, Catherine Anne.

And how did you arrive at playwriting?

Only towards the end of my university career did I feel authorized (no pun intended) to become an author, that is to write a few texts. Before, I felt one cannot be a scholar and an artist at the same time, for lack of time, and also because these are different worlds which, I thought, should be kept apart. Besides, at the university, theatre is taught as a historical and theoretical subject, not as an artistic profession; that is the task of a conservatory or a theatre school (or academy). This separation might no longer be justified, but it is still problematic to do theatre research and be an author at the same time: it is a matter of time and attitude towards life. However, if you can do it and feel the two activities are not contradictory, then that’s fine, and it will be fruitful for both fields.


Café du depart: Patrice’s favourite café and meeting point in Paris. Place Saint-Michel Notre-Dame before the fire. Photo: Patrice Pavis
PART TWO

. . . Big festivals and international productions imply many negative aspects of the theatre business: seduce at all cost, manage in a corporate way, stage with an efficient immediacy that leaves no lasting scars in the memory

Patrice Pavis

While reading your interview with Eva I felt the need to ask few more questions that I think also relate to what you have been discussing: namely, the state of contemporary theatre.

We live in an age that loves to sell whatever is “new.” The new iphone model, the new car, the new computer. This applies to theatre as well, especially theatre by and for young people. Most of them try to come forward with something new; which is not bad at all. Οn the contrary, it is a vital part of the creative process. Many times, however, I wonder if this mania for “newness,” this impressive avalanche of boundary crossings is a need that springs from within the work of art itself or a need mostly determined by the workings of the market and the pressure to constantly renew itself, that is, mostly a fashionable thing that sells? Or maybe a combination of both [artistic and commercial impulses]?

“Newness,” “novelty” in a (dramatic) text or in a performance means many different things. In Western modernity, a new work of art tries not to copy another work of art. It strives to bring some originality, in the themes, styles, story told, dramaturgy, et cetera. However, this does not mean it must make progress comparable with a technical or scientific breakthrough. Sometimes, the evolution of theatre shows an epistemological break (rupture épistémologique), when a new direction is found, be it in the way of telling and showing, the use of actors, or the place of theatre in the ensemble of media.

A new story, a new way of telling, a new acting style, a new frame for the reception is what one would expect from an aesthetic production today. A “mostly fashionable thing that sells,” as you put it, is only a gimmick and a trick that will seem new to an average spectator, making the audience experience what it always knew and is only happy to recognize and consume, with no critical distance, as the fashionable art of the moment. This leads to a deadly conformism and academism. People like to get the same old contents and forms (ideas, thesis, interpretation), as long as they are “wrapped” in a “new,” fashionable, modernized package. [This is true] in the theatre, too. 

The cover of the Routledge paperback edition of one of Patrice Pavis’s major publications

As a follow-up to the previous question. In the old days, say the days of the historical avant-garde, there were still some margins left for those artists who wanted to launch their counter critique. Taking into consideration the all-embracing tendencies of globalization and neo-liberal economy, do you think that there is still room left for artists to survive without begging corporations and sponsors for money? I refer to money, because money determines the degree of the artists’ autonomy and the degree of their compromise. Before you answer, let me also ask this: you have followed the trajectory of contemporary theatre for close to four decades. Do you think that its social function today has weakened? And what about political correctness (PC), its impact?

Today, in the few remaining democratic countries, it is still possible for artists to be very critical of the State, even when this State is financing and subsidizing the theatre groups. However, it seems, at least in many European countries, that the reactions of the artists are less and less political, except for a few groups, authors or directors like Milo Rau, Rimini Protokoll or Stefano Massini. Artists can say anything as long as they remain PC (not “Parti Communiste,” but Politically Correct, or should we say: TPC (“Theatrically and Performatively Correct”?). Their effect on society is minimal. Almost nobody—not even the stage directors—care anymore about challenging the political status quo and the middle-class audience. It would seem that theatre can no longer change, or even influence, political life.

Neo-liberalism, globalization, spreading populism in many countries have become so powerful and over-controlling that they do not even feel slightly threatened and challenged by a theatre performance. A Non-Governmental Organization can be much more critical, active and powerful than contemporary theatre, particularly if it uses spectacular elements (borrowed from us, theatre people!).

Obsession with PC does not help theatre (and the arts in general) very much. But PC can deal theatre a death blow. Under the pretext that a theatre performance does not obey the self-declared laws of PC, any verbal or visual element can be declared against PC, and thus the production can be boycotted and stopped, but also remain un-born, for fear of lethal attack and destruction.

Theatre festivals (at least in Europe) are multiplying or, to be more precise, were multiplying before the frightening advent of COVID-19. For theatre fans and practitioners, festivals were (and still are) the best guides to find out what is going on theatre-wise around the world.

At the same time, however, I feel that despite their indisputable richness, in terms of quantity, they do not betray the same richness in terms of aesthetics. What I mean is that instead of encouraging the enrichment of the heterogeneity of theatre cultures, festivals promote, unintentionally, a kind of homogeneous discourse, an “aesthetic sameness,” which inevitably affects national theatre practices as well. This may sound like a sweeping generalization; however, if we look at what is (was) going on in various countries (at least in Europe), we will see that those artists who are interested in entering the festival circuit know that they somehow have to follow what is considered “trendy” or “hot” or “internationally marketable.” In more ways than one, they somehow sacrifice or “shrink” the national (the local) for the sake of the international (and cosmopolitan).

That said, what are your thoughts about the way the Festival circuit has been operating in the last few years? I do not bring into our discussion the current situation because I think it is too early to tell what will happen next, in the post COVID-19 era.

We are, indeed, witnessing a festivalization of theatre. This is not always a positive phenomenon. It might be nice to show an expert audience how theatre is played elsewhere and to indicate where theatre is going to (in different styles or countries). For critics, theatre students and theatre professors, such a festival can be a real treat.  But—and here I agree with you, Savas—there is a danger of standardization, globalization, simplification of theatre in order to produce a “transportable” performance.

Festivalization also entails a concentration of spectators on a few “hits” over a few days, while the rest of the year “at home” will often be poor in terms of theatre and art. Thus, the possibility of building and training an audience year by year diminishes.

What do you suggest?

Rather than an orgy of performances of all kinds during two or three days, I recommend a regular visit to your local theatre every week (or at least every month). Thus, theatre will have time to mature in all spectators.

Personally, having covered (modestly, albeit in an orgiastic manner sometimes) the Avignon Festival until 2012, I now prefer to visit smaller festivals in different European countries, in cities like Nitra, Bratislava, Gdansk, Belgrade or Ljubljana. The local or even national theatre productions often have an inferiority complex towards the international co-productions, festivals and fashions. They are often ashamed to be “stuck” in local or localized practices, to look not global enough and not festival-proof. But, in fact, working at home, starting from scratch, experimenting for a local, genuine audience, testing new ways of rehearsing and staging, working in close collaboration with different artists, might prove a fundamental creative experience.

By contrast, big festivals and international productions imply many negative aspects of the theatre business: seduce at all cost, manage in a corporate way, stage with an efficient immediacy that leaves no lasting scars in the memory. 


*Éva Patkó (PhD) is a theatre director. She teaches at the University of Arts in Tg-Mures Târgu Mureș, Romania. She is a Fulbright Alumnae of the University of California, Berkeley. Her main working and research focus is on contemporary drama and the identity issue. 

**Savas Patsalidis is a theatre professor at Aristotle University (Thessaloniki, Greece) and the Drama School of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is also the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages.

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