Winter, you say ? Yes winter : with interior and exterior shows and installations, Atelier 231 is hosting a Frenglish event, an initiative of the ZEPA network. With nine British and English members, the Atelier 231 included, ZEPA promotes inter-European exchange and cooperation and reaches out to local community to provide accessible cultural programming through the street arts. Free of charge at a time of the year that is usually lacking in accessible cultural activities, “Fish and Chips” successfully stepped up to the challenge !
The Kids are all right
What a fitting way to start off this festival in the hall of this former steam engine factory : the show “The Station” by the Bash Street Theater Company ! The play takes us to a silent film era train station, where steam comes off the trains as they arrive on set, as an accompanist does a very convincing beat-box train imitation. Swinging to klezmer airs on the accordion, and the accompanist’s humorous mimics, this is a classic tale of heroes and thieves, and a luggage mix up where 3 actors play a total of 8 different characters. Three art thieves dressed in grey gangster trench coats and sunglasses, lose their loot when their bag is mixed up with the handsome hero’s bag by the blundering station master. A Godfatherish tune accompanies the children screams of excitement as they roam the audience looking for their loot. The children’s reactions remind us of a Punch and Judy show, “no, over there, over there,” they cry out. Their shrieks and giggles give the show its rhythm. The actors play their silent slapstick to the 70 school children in the front rows while the mothers, fathers and teachers sit in the back rows. The children’s laughter is contagious.
With the show’s happy ending, the children gather around the set, fascinated by this traveling theater. Two young redhead boys help to prepare the set for the next day, while their mother, who speaks French, answers the children’s questions about the show and about the boys. The two founding members travel the world with their home-schooled children. Next year will be the company’s twentieth anniversary of playing in streets, in theaters, in gymnasiums,…you name it.
Children of all ages from the regional after-school activity centers move onto “Choko-Punk” snack time in the main hall next door, where the children have the last word. “Frederick”, Mr. Fred Tousch, our MC has prepared what he calls a “disorganized” presentation on 1970’s punk culture for the children, in keeping with the event’s British theme. With his tongue and cheek humor and his enthusiastic, nerdy professor character, he invites the children to make mohawks with large jars of gel. Over a dozen boys run to the stage, even ones without enough hair, smearing the gel all over. He then has all the groups “materialize the things that bother them” in the form of painting large cardboard boxes and then destroying them, just like punks would. Slinging on his electric guitar, Frederick chooses a child to sing a punk anthem with him ; but as the children pile up the boxes for the grand finale and learn the pogo, little does Frederick know, the children have learned the defiant punk attitude better than he thought. Before the song even starts the children launch a cardboard box toss and stomp every last piece flat on the ground.
A pause in the pub next door before heading on. Yes, a true English pub has been transplanted to Atelier 231. The company The Strangelings found the dark wooden bar, with all of its brass accoutrements, the kitsch posters behind the bar, the brass clock that hangs in the room’s center displaying London time, and a game of darts…and brought them over. Just outside, authentic, newspaper-wrapped fish and chips complement the Murphy’s and Guinness being sold in the bar.
The French theatrical brass band Les Grooms, who regularly cross the Channel to perform in England’s streets, present an absurd version of Purcell and Dryden baroque opera “King Arthur.” The children are a little reticent at first. An opera about King Arthur and the Bretons played by this group of six dressed like 5-star hotel doormen ? They are a bit agitated at first but are pulled in when the soprano countertenor, King Arthur and his soprano Emeline come out dressed in baggy hip hop clothing and do rap gestures to their operetta. The quality of the musical performance is equally matched by the odd-ball humor of the costumes and gestures that don’t always seem to match the content of the English lyrics. They captivate and surprise the audience, especially with the kitsch, homemade costumes and the burlesque wrestling match at the end between King Arthur and Merlin. For the finale, the whole room stands up to dance to the song “Old England,” and the littlest ones take advantage of this moment to roll in the sparkling fairy-dust left on the ground by Merlin the Magician.
The absurdity continues as the Rouen group Acid Kostik transports us to Wednesday evening’s last stop, the Church of Steppology. Three men dressed in polyester white shorts and button-up shirts with purple silk accessories and ritualistic gestures, conjure images of the Catholic Church to adapt it to their own fitness church. The audience receives holy socks, listens to the preacher from behind his pulpit marked with a giant S, and joins in exercises (sidekicks and stepping) to praise the Church’s founder. With many local fans in the audience, the public follows, and many even venture on stage to receive a personal benediction, a spritz from the holy spray bottle.
Promenade des Anglais, a bridging of cultures
It’s a cold winter walk to get to the Atelier in the early evening. Thursday and Friday night, festival visitors are literally given a warm welcome ; the temperature has actually just moved up a notch. Thirteen garden pots filled with flames are vertically stacked around the front entryway, while other dancing flames greet us over the Atelier’s exterior wall. One step inside and the Atelier has become a giant bonfire warmed by rows and rows of flaming pots climbing the outside walls and hanging fire-globes, reflecting in the main building’s windows. Kinetic figures made from recycled metal tubes and old clock faces line the pathway as the public walks along the Promenade des Anglais. A giant rotating set of flaming intertwining circles crowns the trailhead. Carabosse’s installations are markers for the public who will follow the wandering artists but also give a cozy feel encouraging everyone to gather around in the winter cold to tell tales.
Just to the right of the giant flame sculpture, a beautiful painted wooden caravan is lit up by its warm light and by a row of multi-colored carnival lights. “Peepshow Mechanical Menagerie” says a sign hanging over the intricately painted scene of a circus leader whipping giant wasps. An English woman with a plaid turban regulates traffic at the entrance of the “Insect Circus Museum” and practices her French with the children waiting to get in. The children practice their English with her as well, “When can we enter ?” The jewel box interior contains memorabilia of this “legendary insect circus” but above all, the true gems are circus acts : small wooden boxes with magnifying glasses let us glimpse the world of these miniature insect tamers. The mechanized “Liberty Beatles” bow to the miniature tamer in a cowboy hat. In “Piper’s Circus,” the size of a TV set, tiny acrobats ride atop an escargot while others are pulled by thimble-sized wasps. “Mommy, are they real ?” says the four-year-old boy in the fur lined hunting cap glued to the glass of this grand circus scene.
The promenade is alive both evenings : Cie Altitude a twenties style tomboy with umbrella cane with her aerial silk act in the middle of the Promenade, and tightrope walker Didier Pasquette, the surrealist performance group Stuff and Things the puppeteers Hodman and Sally, and “The Dinner,” a lesson in dining by the theater troupe Wet Picnic. English is being spoken everywhere. Rather than being frustrated, the French spectators seem curious, try their English out, and join in. Hodman and Sally, two charming, old hobbits with giant backpacks ask spectators for lodging for the evening and complain to them about their bunions. Stuff and Things, dressed as undertakers, have a young boy dig a hole for the burial of the rattling coffin behind them and invite the audience join them in a jig. Wet Picnic picks a French date for their female heroine from the crowd of onlookers, and drag him off with her on their portable dining table.
As master of ceremonies, Fred Tousch tries to reconcile the two cultures, first by trying to fit in, outfitted with bagpipes and a traditional kilt. He then later goes for a more direct approach by having the crowd join in cheering on the English team in a game of rugby between France and England on the big screen in the bar. For the grand finale, he leads a purposefully off-key humming of “Pomp and Circumstance” (it’s not so easy to give up long, historic grudges between cultures).
A Happy ending
Bash Street presents “Cliffhanger !” on Friday night, strongly inspired by Buster Keaton’s “Convict 13,” even by its colors (everything in the play is black and white, from the scenery to the makeup). This time a piano player accompanies the actors’ silent gestures and holds up signs in French to narrate the story. Outside, with their dimly lit crate stands of surprising, poetic objects from a forgotten past- old keys, a painted snail shell- the local company Le Cercle de la Lilote lines the promenade creating a mysterious, fairground feel amongst the backdrop of the wood caravan.
A large crowd is gathering in the main hangar, huddled under the polar fleece blankets distributed at the entry to watch Rush by Delice Dada. Sitting on the ground on cushions or behind in chairs, the audience is in front of a panoramic scene, a sidewalk with makeshift hospital tents on both sides. This meeting place becomes a troubling nightmare of surrealist apparitions. Varying in tone with each character that comes out of the tents, the soundtrack is at times Hitchcockian, from Psycho to the Birds, mixed with calls of alarms. The only texts are the loudspeaker announcements of the injuries or deaths of the characters as they are carried off stage in the frenzy.
The next show “Tandem” by the Strangelings is comic relief ; and they know just what funny bone to play with the English and the French. Mixing quirky English humor with French burlesque, they had the audience howling. With long clown shoes, these acrobats straddle their Tandem bike and work themselves into a series of somewhat compromising contortions, and cheesy expressions set to “Send in the Clowns,” while feeding each other bananas. Between each act they do a little strip tease…how far will they go ?
Energized by a good half-hour of laughs, the public moves on to the bar area for dancing to the Gipsy Jazz Swing band- stand up bass, fiddle, and guitar, “The Magic Number” As the audience joined in for “Hit the Road Jack,” it became clear that everyone was having too much fun to “hit the road.” After a few tables were emptied, the French and English guests danced on until the wee morning hours. At around 2:30 am, enormous snowflakes began to fall, immediately covering the ground and bringing a sense of enchantment over the crowd. Champagne in hand, the 40 or so that had kept on went outside to live this magical ending to a pioneering event.
By mixing languages, aesthetics, traditions, this Fish and Chips was no ordinary dish. The marked curiosity expressed by the locals in attendance and the performers’ adaptability proved this first edition to be an authentic meeting and exchange of cultures.