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  • Writer's pictureDavid Furlong

Interview Le Mauricien: “Performing arts do not die from being put online”

Published in ‘Le Mauricien’ - 16th December 2020 / In Eng: May21 Interview by Dominique Bellier

Last June, we presented the play Great Experiment, presented by the British but above all multicultural troupes, Border Crossings and Exchange Theatre, of which our compatriot David Furlong who is the artistic director, and in which he also played a role. At the end of the year 2020, Exchange Theatre presented a children’s show, The cat in reboots, an adaptation of Puss in Boots that brings Perrault’s tale into the 21st century. The man of the theatre shares here how his company successfully weathered the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis in England.

How did you organize yourself with the lockdown and the COVID crisis to move from live performance to uploading? Was there a charge for viewing?

The announcement of the first lockdown was scary news in many ways: first we lost some freelance jobs (I was working on a show at Young Vic, which was suspended) and most importantly, we lost the use of our rehearsal studio, which we hier and where we also give our classes, our two main sources of income. So we immediately took a very diy approach to put our online theatre classes on Zoom. Our students followed us with confidence. They were very generous in their support of the company, so we offered to maintain their end-of-year performances anyway, but in the form of a web series broadcast on YouTube and Facebook. This approach offered us the perfect opportunity to try out these new formats for us, with amateur volunteers, without major financial risk except for a small multimedia production.

On the professional side, however, it quickly became clear that we could not produce an annual show in summer 2020. Fortunately, we had just shot Great Experiment on Mauritius and the Coolies, the creation produced by Border Crossings. We also had in store the live-recording of Sous La Varangue by Christophe Botti. As co-producers with both, it seemed obvious to us to perpetuate these collaborations and actively participate in their dissemination. It was a Mauritian diptych. Entirely free but limited in time, these screenings mobilized all our communication in the spring.

How many actors and technicians have you managed to support during this period?

We were able to get three artist actors and a technician to work. We also had a volunteer intern who did a lot for us.

Did you benefit from public or other assistance to cope?

At the time, we applied for an emergency grant to the Arts Council of England and got it, which allowed us to cover the rent and monthly salaries for the two directors, Fanny Dulin and myself. We were able to keep the studio and continue working without having to look for other jobs. This is also what allowed us to maintain real digital programming throughout the summer thereafter.

What were the health constraints of the resumption of indoor shows?

At the beginning of September, we were commissioned by the Institut français in the United Kingdom to participate in their annual Kids festival, indoors in mid-November, but in mid-October, while the show was being written, the second lockdown was announced. We therefore discovered the joys of theatrical rehearsals with masks, respecting physical distancing, as in other professions. Trying to overlook sanitary rules in the name of creation would have been meaningless when our work on the contrary wants to reflect on the present… Above all, we have completely rewritten the show for the online format. The scale of the acting, and therefore of the writing, has changed significantly.

How does online broadcasting change the game for theatrical creation? Isn’t this contradictory with the very vocation of theatrical action and performing arts?

The shows filmed in public for broadcast online are simply “filmed theatre” with often very good recordings, though sometimes, it does not work: the level of performance, the staging or the vocal projection of the actors is unsuitable for the screen. But many companies and theatres have also been organizing the filming of plays specifically for replay for a long time.

What we did is closer to this exercise, with the added benefit that our show was conceived from the start for the camera, which involved a real collaboration with the director of the Institut français, Loic Lefrileux. For actors, this change of scale is no more complicated than going from stage to camera, which we already do in our profession. However, our shooting does not become cinema: we do not cut, we film in theatrical conditions, in one take, with several cameras.

In truth, the digital transition has only been accelerated by the circumstances. We knew that ultimately growing our audience and our impact would come online. And the Mauritian diptych made us realize how much! Sous La Varangue was seen by 1,400 spectators in one week (four times the number of spectators reached in six dates in 2015) and The Great Experiment, by 500 spectators in a weekend (as many as the 500 spectators received in a month English tour). It’s a great way to reach more audiences. On the other hand, people who already go to the theatre will return once the venues open, and those who do not go yet, probably will not go either. Among the latter, there is a new audience that can become an “online theatre audience”, just like Netflix viewers or “streaming on demand” customers.

Live performance does not die of being put online. The absence of an audience is a strange experience for actors, but it must be forgotten for the spectator. There are directors, and I believe I am, who work to recreate for the image this immediacy and this truth. Conversely, there are also frozen shows which feel already 'dead’ in front of full houses. It is the process that keeps the shows alive, if it also keeps up with the times. And it’s up to directors to keep the theatrical act intact. We think that’s what we did with The cat in reboots.

How did you react to the tragedies which beset Mauritius this winter (the sinking of the Wakashio, oil spill, accident around the barge L’Ami Constant, etc.)? Did your colleagues also react?

I have been struck and suspended to the Mauritian news since these events, and personally I speak to my friends, my family very regularly, I read the press and I stay as close as possible. In the most recent headlines, I was interested to see how the public mobilization of Mauritians is in tune with global movements, which demand change, an end to injustices and systemic blockages.

As far as the company is concerned, we have made it our duty to relay information on our networks to alert our French and English audiences. The work we do has been political since the company’s inception in 2006. We have taken clear positions on other subjects such as the refugee crisis (in 2015, one of our shows donated its profits to UNHCR) or on Black Lives Matter this year. In fact, The cat in reboots is a family show that addresses these themes very head-on and succeeds in talking about racism and systemic change to children.

How to follow you and help you from a distance?

Our Facebook, Exchange Theatre’s page, and all of our social networks (Instagram, Twitter) and also by subscribing to our newsletter.

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