What is a theater?

23 November 2015

Now that the teams of the Opéra Comique have left their house to the demolition workers and renovators, the eternal question arises: what is a theater?
Especially when the curtain is no longer raised, when the artists, the technicians, the ushers don't wait for attendees, when the doors don't close at night to reopen the next day, even more so for an opera house.
It's been so for three centuries for the Opéra Comique and a few thousand years for the performing arts at large. Take a look at the two photos on the left: one is the entrance to the electricians' room; the other is a wall of what was the stagehands' room. In both cases we are on the third floor underground, which is the deepest point in Favart and the farthest from the stage as everything is articulated and calculated relative to the stage. The electricians and the stagehands have stood apart for a long time. Formerly, gasmen (the Opéra Comique theater was the first in Europe to embrace electricity) and sailors (seamen were often hired by theaters owing to their ability to handle scenery and props) preferred to have each their own relaxing place. "Le 18 trous" (the 18-hole golf course) dating back to Jérôme Savary's era was a room for resting, partying or playing mini-golf during lost time. As for the wall with the red graffiti, it's the last remnant of the last night spent together just before closing early July. One should try to decipher the scribbling as parting words and try to understand what stepping into "Le 18 trous" meant.  The tradition of each one in his own home was maintained in the kingdom of the depths. Here people loved, slept (little), drank (much lemonade and sparkling water) or got bored. They started the world over anew and dreamed of the singers' and musicians' ideal life. In effect, a theater mainly consists of various trades combined to art to create beauty. "This is our home" can be read on the wall without fully realizing the notion of fraternity implied by such a claim. Both rooms will disappear after the renovation is completed and the third floor underground will become a place strictly dedicated to work, while the two rooms will be replaced by a single one on the mezzanine floor. Then a page will be turned. The old, albeit softened, opposition between the electricians and the stagehands will dissipate altogether. But is anything for sure in the realm of ephemeras?

On the next three pictures we are at the top of the auditorium, on the ceiling, right under the roof. Whoever has attended a production at Favart has been struck by the scale of the ceiling cupola that balances the sound. The first two photos show the inside of what is also the electricians' place (70 bulbs set in the plaster delimit the circumference on top of the cupola). To unscrew the bulbs, it is necessary to enter a minute room from which the conductor's bow to the audience is lighted. What is a theater? A place where the least nook is used to serve the performance.


On the next three photos, we are slightly lower, on the upper circle inside a recess opposite the stage. At the entrance to the recess a notice reads "electricians only under penalty of prosecution." One of them left a note with numbers referring to the various colors of lenses for the spotlights that follow the actors onstage and light them. The followspot operator belongs to a special unit among electricians. He is more involved in the production than his colleagues, holding his instrument with his hand and following the music like an instrumentalist, and though he moves within a range of 2 or 3 millimeters above the stage, he knows that below him an inaccurate move could result in a discrepancy in centimeters, and then everything would be lost: the artist in his circle and the magic of the moment – concentration of space and mind. This too is a theater: a chain of details, the combination of work and grace. In that small recess that can hold only two people, there's some hierarchy that the picture of a tiger can't cause to forget: each one in its proper place, the noble predator and the domesticated beast, yet each in its rank and its role.
And there's the angel's foot of the proscenium beside the metal rods of the scaffoldings, plastic on the marble of the stairways and what's left of the glory of some (such as the slightly yellowed picture of Gabriel Bacquier) and the usage of others (the empty room above the costume workshop housed all the stuffed animals employed in successive productions in an indescribable mess and a terrible stench). And a theater suddenly highlighted by renovation work is also a connection between places and people, memories and functions, light and dark, the incongruous and the sacred. The theater is something that's missing.

Read more about the works at the Opéra Comique here >

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