There are times when it’s good to go into a cultural happening with a strong sense of what one’s letting oneself in for and there are times when a lack of knowledge provides the best possible ammo.
I had no idea what to expect when I showed up on Friday evening at Z Space Theatre in San Francisco’s Mission district for an event that the French consulate, which hosted the soiree, was calling “Un Bal Litteraire.” I didn’t bother to read much about it. The short description that Ivan Bertoux, the Deputy Cultural Attaché for the French consulate here in San Francisco, gave me a few weeks ago was enough to pique my interest: “It’s a new play nightclub,” Ivan simply said.
I had a ball at The Bal. It was one of the most unusual and gratifying arts experience I’ve had in a while, in fact. Why? Because the entire auditorium — audience and performers alike — danced. A lot.
Never has a night at the theatre been so communal…and so incredibly sweaty.
Here’s how The Bal bounced:
Three French playwrights — Marion Aubert, Nathalie Fillion and Samuel Gallet — arrived in San Francisco earlier this week to take part in a Franco-American drama festival entitled Des Voix: Found in Translation. Productions of their plays are being produced in town this weekend.
The Bal was the kickoff event for the festival. To prepare for the happening, which has been produced several times in Europe in recent years but has never before now been experienced by US audiences, the playwrights participated in what might best be described as a “theatrical hackathon.”
Six dramatists — the three French visitors plus American playwrights Marcus Gardley, Octavio Solis and Liz Duffy Adams — gathered on Wednesday afternoon with a bunch of their favorite songs at their disposal. They came up with a storyline involving San Francisco and a set-list of ten songs that they felt best described the story, and would encourage people to get up off their seats and boogie.
Then, over the next 24 hours, each playwright developed a section of the narrative. They reconvened to read the pieces out loud together. After that meeting, the French writers’ pieces were sent off to a team of (caffeinated!) translators to be turned into English overnight. The translators included Dan Harder, Aubrey Gabel and Ivan Bertoux.
On Friday evening, a crowd of at least a hundred people showed up at Z Space for the Bal. A line of microphones had been set up on an otherwise empty stage. Some audience members sat in the regular seats out front. Others of us sat in chairs to the side of the stage, flanking the mics.
After introductions, the playwrights assembled on stage (as pictured above) and started doing a reading of the new play they’d just created. As soon as the first scene ended, the music started. A few people rushed the stage. With about 30 seconds, most of the audience was up on its feet, shaking around to the pop song that was booming through the theatre’s the sound system.
When we sat down again and the dramatists returned to the microphones to continue with their reading, most of us didn’t bother returning to our seats. We sat on stage.
The dance party occurred throughout the evening because each of the ten scenes in the play was interspersed with a song. The styles ranged from rock to pop to hip-hop and were all equally compelling to move to.* After the closing scene (which saw the protagonist, a young French woman, and her lesbian lover from San Francisco, going happily off together into the sunset) there was yet more dancing. And then we all repaired, breathless and happy, to a very sweaty reception in the Z Space lobby.
Not only was the incorporation of the dancing a wonderfully absurd addition to an evening of play-going and fitted well with the quirky, feelgood comedy being narrated on stage, but it also helped to break up the action and melt traditional barriers that usually separate the performers and audience members. Plus it was simply great to let off some steam.
One doesn’t usually go to the theatre to lose weight. But burning calories is clearly a natural consequence of attending A Bal Litteraire.
*For some reason I’m having trouble recalling the song titles from the evening today. The Cyndi Lauper hit, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was one of the tracks. The rest will hopefully come back to me soon. Or I’ll ask Ivan for the set-list and post that at some point…