Guest Blog: Choose the props for a Parisian theatre festival

Can it really be only seven months?

I’m pretty familiar with how living in a foreign city can do strange things with time – how the density of experience speeds things up and slows them down all at once. But reading back over what I wrote last May about the Montmartre Dionysia, even I can’t believe how much things have changed. I guess we were at the edge of a tipping point and just didn’t know.

The MD was an English-language theatre festival based in Paris. It was established by French-Australian novelist Albert Alla, myself, and others back in 2013, and ran every half-year, growing exponentially with each outing. By last May the festival had grown to include eight plays, encompass almost 100 individual participants (playwrights, directors, cast members, volunteers etc.) and sold out a week’s worth of sizable performances. After the dust had settled, though, questions started to arise about the festival’s future.

On the one hand, the MD’s further growth was exactly what we’d always set out to achieve: creating an extensive Anglophone theatre scene in Paris, uniting troupes from across the city, even attracting international talent to the capital. On the other, there was a feeling among some that the continued expansion of the community could lead to its dilution; that the spirit cultivated over the previous two years might be weakened.

The question that the split posed was, why set up a theatre festival at all? For me, I realised, it had always been about creating a space that fostered creativity, a place for experimental work; it was not necessarily about people producing full-length pieces with which they could then break into the mainstream – that was something they could do in their own time. I wanted a festival that was about fun, about sharing and inspiring: a theatrical gymnasium. I didn’t want to skimp on quality, but I did want to create something content with what it was. Rather than aiming to constantly expand, I decided a theatre festival might be better served by a refinement of its rules and the form it took.

Hence Fourplay, established along with my girlfriend Alice Selwyn Brace, intended to be light on its feet and to posses a strongly curated feel. Like a theatrical version of SofarSounds, in December 2015 we commandeered a Belleville loft apartment and converted it into an ad-hoc theatre for three shows. The rules are straightforward: four original plays, no more than 20 minutes in length, written to a theme, and each has to include the exact same four props, no more, no less. (In our December festival the theme was ‘Now’ and the props a clock, a crate, a stool, and a set of keys.) Costumes are kept black and simple. The aim is both to encourage creativity in the face of restriction and to keep the whole festival tied to a single aesthetic.

Acknowledging that theatre is a coming together of artistic forms, we also want the festival to be a nexus for artists in different fields. This means collaborating on all promotional material – the image for our first poster was born from a photo shoot by designer George Sydney of dancer Tillie Ridge – and providing additional entertainment alongside the theatre shows in the form of live music and food. Any area of the festival that can benefit from artistic input, does so.

We are now at work on Fourplay’s second outing, ‘Them’, scheduled for May, for which we are pushing artist collaboration still further. The four props that aspiring playwrights must react to will be original abstract objects created by artists and artisans for the sake of the festival – we’ve sent out an open call for these props, and are taking submissions until the end of February. For future editions, meanwhile, we’re already considering similar collaborations that would see productions reacting to four original pieces of music. Doubtless other artistic disciplines will follow.

In the meantime, others in Paris have remained committed to the MD’s expansionist aims. Since the departure of Alla in July, the original festival has transformed into a talent incubator for Paris-based writers and artists, while two of its senior organisers – Dom Douglas and Reka Polonyi – have taken it upon themselves to set up a full blown Paris Fringe, which will produce a run of full length plays – some home grown, others from abroad – over the space of a week, in various locations around the city this coming May.

The point, ultimately, is that there’s more than one way to put on a festival. Meanwhile, the space for English-language theatre in Paris has continued to expand, and the community is easily large enough to sustain this diversification. These are exciting times for theatre in the City of Lights; and who knows what the next seven months might bring!

Send prop suggestions to play@fourplay.fr by 29 February. Play submissions will be open early March. For more information see the website.

Chris Newens

Chris Newens

Chris Newens is co-organiser and one of the founding members of Paris-based, English language theatre festival, the Montmartre Dionysia. He is also a playwright. When not working on the festival he works as an editor of erotic fiction and is writing a book about the history of British baking.