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First-ever Paris Fringe seeks to challenge ‘traditionalist’ French theatre

Leeds Studio, courtesy of Paris Fringe | A scene from the one-man play Nine Lives, which will make its international debut at the Paris Fringe theatre festival on May 24, 2016
4 min

The Paris Fringe theatre festival – an offshoot of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland – makes its debut in the French capital on Monday, where event organisers and participants hope to shake things up with a medley of English-language shows.


Though little known outside of France, the Paris theatre scene is arguably as big as those in other major cities such as London and New York. But it is largely inaccessible to non-French-speaking audiences, and has also been criticised by some as too traditionalist.

Seeking to shake things up, Franco-Hungarian-American theatre director Reka Polonyi and British playwright Dom Douglas decided to bring the Fringe – which is known for its anything-goes spirit – to Paris, where they both live.

“We identified this need for an international platform for contemporary theatre in Paris,” Polonyi told FRANCE 24.

Paris Fringe will be hosted at a number of locations in the city’s central 9th arrondissement (district), including theFeux de la Rampe theatre, which is a partner in the festival.

But unlike the original Fringe in Edinburgh, which allows pretty much anyone who wants to sign up, Polonyi and Douglas chose which acts would be featured on the programme from a pool of nearly 100 applicants.

“We wanted to welcome as many artists as we could, but we still had to convince theatres to work with us, and part of that was to select shows that were viable for the public,” Polonyi said.

Overall, the festival will showcase more than 20 contemporary street and stage performances, the vast majority of which will be in English.

“We were hoping through our selection process to find pieces that would inspire an intercultural dialogue between the French and English theatre approaches,” Polonyi said.

“The cultural roots of theatre are, of course, very different in French and in Anglophone history… I'd say the French approach tends to lean on a more studied, character-driven creation and rehearsal process. A typical Anglophone approach to creating theatre focuses more on plot and playful acting development,” she explained. “Without over-simplifying, it's French cuisine versus fusion-cooking.”

‘French theatre lagging behind’

Paris Fringe’s willingness to challenge the precepts of French theatre has been welcomed by companies performing in the festival.

“We think that it’s interesting for us to be involved in an English theatre initiative because it’s true that French theatre seems to be lagging behind,” Joseph Olivennes, who spoke on behalf of the Paris-based company Collectif la Mutinerie, told FRANCE 24.

Although the Collectif la Mutinerie has performed mostly in French in the past, they reinvented their show “SUPERDISCOUNT”, a dystopian satire, to include more English especially for the Paris Fringe festival – an experience the company said it relished.

“There’s a traditionalist problem in France, and new creations need to belong to a certain trend, a certain aesthetic,” Olivennes said. “[Paris Fringe] brings a new perspective”.

The young actor’s comments were echoed by playwright Zodwa Nyoni of the Britain-based company Leeds Studio, whose one-man play “Nine Lives” will be making its international debut at Paris Fringe on Tuesday.

“I think you can get stuck within your own environment, and as a writer you need to explore and challenge that… It’s particularly about having this platform where artists come to meet,” she said of the festival.

While Polonyi said it’s too soon to tell how Paris Fringe will be received, she hoped artists and audiences would leave the festival with “curiosity towards theatre without borders, an interest in different theatrical approaches, inspiration”.

She’s also already looking forward to next year’s edition, which she wants to see expand beyond the 9th arrondissement into other neighbourhoods to “create more of a carnival atmosphere so that audience members feel really immersed in the experience”.

“We’ve [started] a partnership with a theatre subtitling company, and that’s because we’re hoping to be able to invite artists from around the world next year. We’re also hoping to create more interaction between audience members and performers. We’re always looking for ways to break down that fourth wall,” Polonyi said.

Paris Fringe runs from May 23 until May 29. For more information, visit the festival’s website, or download the programme here.

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