In Europe's theaters, outsiders tread a tricky path

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In Europe's theaters, outsiders tread a tricky path
Performers with the Théâtre du Châtelet rehearse before the opening of “Parade,” in Paris on Sept. 10, 2019. The firing of the British artistic director of one of Paris’s most famous venues exposes fault lines between globalization and local tradition. Elliott Verdier/The New York Times.

by Laura Cappelle

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Since Ruth Mackenzie, the British artistic director of the storied Théâtre du Châtelet, was abruptly fired last Thursday, two very different perspectives have emerged.

Media coverage in France has focused on allegations that theater employees were unhappy with Mackenzie’s leadership style, and felt bullied. Her command of French hadn’t improved enough since she took over during the Châtelet’s recent renovation in 2017, according to the newspaper Le Figaro, and she was accused of outsourcing work and driving staff members away.

On the whole, English-language outlets have been more sympathetic. In an interview with The Guardian, Mackenzie, who was the first non-French artistic director at the Châtelet, speculated that sexism and xenophobia had played a part in her firing. French theater is elitist and reticent to change, she said.

Both points of view may well be true, but there is something else to consider in this dispute: the cultural differences between Mackenzie, a product of British theater, and the arts establishment in France.

An open letter signed by 60 high-profile artists and administrators in Europe and the United States was published on Tuesday by the French magazine La Lettre du Musicien, and is set to appear in English in The Guardian: It states that Mackenzie “broke boundaries” at the Châtelet and that the signers stand “in solidarity” with her.

One name among them caught the eye: Chris Dercon. In 2018, his tenure as director of the Volksbühne theater in Berlin also ended bitterly, after only six months. Dercon, a former director of museums including Tate Modern in London, resigned after protests over his decision to refocus the former East German playhouse on visiting international productions. There, as in Paris, globalization was criticized as a threat to local artistic traditions.

Dercon is now based here in Paris, where he oversees a range of prominent exhibition spaces as the president of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux–Grand Palais. But theater isn’t the art world, which has adjusted to a global market.

Language is a factor: Most theater productions don’t travel as easily as visual artworks. The vast majority of top French directors are unknown abroad. Like German companies, they operate mainly within a local ecosystem, with its own history and conventions. Coming in as an outsider isn’t impossible — Swiss director Milo Rau has been successful so far at NTGent, in Belgium, for instance — but it requires serious diplomacy.

Like Dercon, Mackenzie also made some costly mistakes early on. One was to introduce herself with “DAU,” an immersive work staged while the Châtelet was still under renovation in 2019. Riddled with technical and ethical issues, it was an exclusive rather than inclusive choice. The Châtelet then reopened last September with “Parade,” a production consistent with Mackenzie’s outlook that featured mainly international companies alongside local amateurs.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that choice, except that, in displacing paid French workers, it doesn’t gel with the country’s values. Mackenzie herself knows this: “In the U.K. it’s completely accepted and normal that you can involve unpaid community members in the arts,” she told The Guardian. “In France, you have to protect the paid professionals. It’s the sort of argument you’d hear in the U.K. 30 years ago.”

There are reasons her stance was resisted: The relative protection enjoyed by professional artists in the country is hard-won. Mackenzie frames this as a backward cultural quirk that she was going to fix. It’s no wonder many felt a sense of disconnect.

Whoever was advising Mackenzie on the subtleties of French workplace culture also did a dismal job. Le Figaro’s report said Mackenzie spoke “incomprehensible Franglais,” hired “Anglo-Saxon freelancers” instead of relying on her in-house team and didn’t spend enough time in Paris. In a country where proper etiquette and hierarchy remain key in most working environments, an incoming foreign director should have been better supported.

Still, her instant firing is extraordinary by French standards. An underperforming artistic director in the United States might not be surprised if they were asked to vacate their office immediately, but job security is almost a sacred right in France. Even in cases of harassment or discrimination within publicly funded institutions, national and local authorities have been very reluctant to suspend or remove artists and administrators. Just think of the case of Yorgos Loukos, the former director of the Lyon Opera Ballet: It took six years and two court trials for pregnancy discrimination before he was fired earlier this year.

Did Mackenzie’s status as a foreigner play a part in the decision by the Châtelet’s board to sack her, with the support of city officials? It’s worth asking whether an established French director, with political clout and roots in the local theater scene, would have suffered the same fate. Major arts appointments are heavily influenced by elected officials in France: The new director of the Paris Opera, Alexander Neef, had to interview with President Emmanuel Macron for that job. Having spent her career abroad, perhaps Mackenzie didn’t have the connections that might have protected her; her co-director, Thomas Lauriot dit Prévost, a long-serving French employee of the Châtelet, remains in his position.

As with Benjamin Millepied, who directed the Paris Opera Ballet from 2014 to 2016 and was also criticized for being too “Anglo-Saxon” in his approach, Mackenzie’s outspoken stance on diversity proved a lightning rod. She increased the number of Black artists in the Châtelet’s programming and invested in outreach initiatives including a “Robin Hood” scheme, asking theatergoers to buy extra tickets that were then offered to underprivileged groups.

Yet open conversations about racism are difficult to initiate in France, and along the way, Mackenzie’s vision didn’t always seem rooted in a nuanced understanding of local reality. According to a spokesman for the Châtelet, before the 2019-20 season was halted by the coronavirus pandemic only 13 patrons had gifted a total of 29 tickets through the “Robin Hood” scheme, for example.

Mackenzie’s frustration with French apathy is shared by many, but she could have leaned on existing initiatives instead. Beyond Paris, France has its own tradition of popular theater and a large network of small venues, many situated in poor, outer suburbs and other economically deprived parts of the country. Some of them have been working hard to connect with local communities for years. When Mackenzie positioned herself as a revolutionary taking on entrenched racism and elitism, as she often did in interviews, she rubbed many in France the wrong way.

There was a touch of schadenfreude to the reaction to Mackenzie’s firing here — a sense that an outsider wasn’t going to teach Parisians how to run a theater. Yet the city didn’t give her the time to realize her vision. Who knows what a disruptive British director would have achieved at the Châtelet in five or 10 years? After Mackenzie’s swift dismissal, it’s unlikely another will come along.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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