There is a line by the English writer Geoff Dyer that suggests no foreigner ever really lives in Paris, they just pass through: “You may spend ten years passing through, but essentially you are still a sightseer, a tourist. You come and go, the waiters remain.”
I have been passing through Paris for almost six years now, and can attest to that statement. The French capital may still be mecca for aspiring foreign writers and artists, but they are characterised by their transience; establishing a lasting theatre community among them seemed a slippery task.
Perhaps that’s why the Montmartre Dionysia started from such small ambitions. Albert Alla, a Paris based novelist, had the idea of staging a few plays in his Montmartre apartment, written by people he knew. I don’t think any of us expected much more than an evening of writers playing the role of actors, acting as characters in plays about writers. Yet the moment the idea reached the wider community it sparked more interest than we had ever anticipated. A night dedicated to English language theatre in Paris it turned out, was something many had been waiting for, even if they did not know it.
Yes, there were already the big mime schools – Lecoq and Gaulier – which yearly attract many excellent foreign actors, and several English language universities with large drama departments. And several am-dram groups, the most established being Stephanie Campion’s Moving Parts, which has been producing staged readings in Paris for twenty years. But there was no real nexus that allowed all this talent to combine.
Our plans changed at once to meet the demand. Certainly, a bigger venue was needed than Albert’s apartment. So we switched up to a leaky barge, which had to be motored in from the banlieue. The night would be named for the big community theatre festivals of ancient Athens, and like its namesake would be a competition. Four short plays were chosen and the event sold out. And on a chilly November evening in 2013, on board an eighty year-old boat packed (literally) to the gunnels, the Montmartre Dionysia had its inauguration.
After that first event, things expanded exponentially. Again, much of what made the festival was a reaction to the enthusiasm we encountered. By popular demand, it was decided the Dionysia should be run twice yearly, meaning even the most transient of expats would have a chance to be involved. The festival came to span the length of a whole week (i.e. it became a festival), an “off-competition” element was introduced, and each play was given multiple nights. Over the past two years, the Dionysia has already produced thirty original pieces, including eight for the upcoming festival: Fire for Yourself to Burn.
There is a sense that the Dionysia offers something that many come to Paris in search of. The city has long stood as a kind of school where artists come to absorb another culture and to become comfortable in themselves as creatives in an environment removed from the professional and economic judgements of home. The question: “What do you do?” in the Anglophone circles of Paris refers not so much to practicalities as it does to dreams.
There is a strong sense that the Dionysia is still marching towards its full potential. Near every element of the festival has improved since its first outing. We’ve graduated from the boat to a modern, 200 seat capacity theatre, we are now inundated by scripts wanting to be considered, and a large hardworking production team of volunteers has been brought on board. There are also plans in motion for acting workshops, playwriting workshops, and a theatre company linked to the festival.
Already the Dionysia represents an excellent forum for fostering and showcasing new talent. With the trajectory it’s on, we hope that one day soon it will draw that talent to Paris by itself. We are looking to make greater inroads into the indigenous French theatre community; to forge a bridge between acting cultures and secure a permanent place not only on the expat scene but also on the Paris scene, and give all those involved with the festival a chance to do much more than just pass through.
Montmartre Dionysia: Fire for Yourself to Burn runs in Paris from 25-30 May. Script submissions for the December 2015 festival will open in the autumn. For more information click here.