Saturday, December 25, 2010

REPORT: Criticism Conference in Caen

Members of the AICT-IATC gathered December 14 and 15 in Caen, France, to interrogate the shifting role of dramatic criticism in the cultural discourse of various countries. Representatives traveled from China, Finland, Korea, Quebec and the United States to discuss how criticism may influence theatrical production in their respective countries—and how theatrical production may affect theatre criticism.

Primoz Jesenko (Slovenia), Jean-Pierre Han (France),
Yun-Cheol Kim (Korea) and Qing-Yan Zhang (China)

In addition to presentations by outstanding international critics such as Jean-Pierre Han (France), Primoz Jesenko (Slovenia), Yun-Cheol Kim (Korea), Matti Linnavuori (Finland), Brigitte Purkhardt (Québec), Michel Vaïs (Québec), Julie York Coppens (USA), and Qing-Yan Zhang (China), those who attended the conference were given opportunities to see thought-provoking productions from the Avignon Festival.

Dream state: The beast and the blind (from La Mort d'Adam).
Photo: Tristan Jeanne-Valès

Jean Lambert-wild, artistic director of Comédie de Caen and co-host of the conference, presented his multimedia piece La Mort d'Adam, which employs live action—overlapped by projected film—and a female narrator who sits to one side of the action as she provides context for Lambert-wild's layered images. Anyone familiar with Western philosophy and religion might easily see parallels between La Mort d'Adam and tales from the bible, from Arabian Nights, from Greek myth, from Shakespeare. In a conversation with the assembled critics the next day, Lambert-wild shared the very specific influences from his own life that led to the piece. Some critics felt that the French text (and its English surtitles) confused Lambert-wild's tale, while others thought the spoken French provided a sonic score that enhanced the director's other elements of spectacle. Facing the critics, eager for a conversation on what may or may not have worked, Lambert-wild bravely demonstrated the possibilities for which Peter Brook argued in The Empty Space (1968):
I see nothing but good in a critic plunging into our lives, meeting actors, talking, discussing, watching, intervening. I would welcome his putting his hands on the medium and attempting to work it himself. Certainly, there is a tiny social problem—how does a critic talk to someone whom he has just damned in print? . . . The criticism that theater people make of one another is usually of devastating severity—but absolutely precise. (32-33)
Art Macht Frei? Silke Mansholt in Wolfstunde.
Photo: Tristan Jeanne-Valès

When all of the papers had been presented and the critical roundtable of Lambert-wild's piece had concluded, the participants were invited to see Silke Mansholt's Wolfstunde (Wolf Lesson). Mansholt's performance piece employs minimal technical elements and ritualized manipulations of the actor's physical body—Mansholt performs with collaborator Clara Garcia Fraile—in an exploration of the internal battles of darkness and light that comprise human experience. Where Mansholt differs from many other examinations of this type is in her use of imagery that speaks specifically to her heritage as a German—and to the echoes of guilt that resonate for many of those in the post-World War II, post-Holocaust generations. Her use of the famous Auschwitz sign, "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Will Make You Free), strikes chords of memory in the minds of her audience and asks an open question regarding the relationship between art and power. Ultimately, the piece seems to ask if the "power of art" is any power at all.

Throughout the four days, participants enjoyed marvelous French cuisine and wine as they engaged in ongoing discussions on theatre, criticism, culture, and politics. There were tours to sites commemorating the 1944 invasion of Normandy by Allied military forces and to a remarkable archive, in an abbey outside of Caen, that contains the works of many well known writers.

In remarks made during a discussion period following one set of papers, Lambert-wild argued strongly for an international federation of theatre-related groups dedicated to keeping the art form in the forefront of global cultural discourse. In the work generated (and seen) in Caen recently, it is safe to say that a good start has been made on getting that discourse underway.

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