In the Artful Participation project, researchers observed and intervened in the orchestra philharmonie zuidnederland. La Grande Bouffe was a project developed by philharmonie zuidnederland, Toneelgroep Maastricht and WOW Food – together with partner CHV Noordkade in Veghel - in which researchers closely participated as observers, to learn what it takes to do things differently in the orchestra, and to draw lessons for other experiments.
How do collaborations between different artistic organisations actually work in practice? How are artistic responsibilities shared in a cross-disciplinary collaborations? Where and how is the audience constructed and made relevant in participatory projects? 1In the experimental and participatory project La Grande Bouffe, philharmonie zuidnederland collaborated with theatre group Toneelgroep Maastricht and food designers WOW Food. A researcher was part of the program team and observed closely the development of the cross-disciplinary theatrical concert. During the process, the audience appeared as influential figure in the creative, organisational and logistical phases of the concert planning.
In April 2019, philharmonie zuidnederland together with Toneelgroep Maastricht and food designers WOW Food performed a concert in the i-Classics series: La Grande Bouffe. Loosely inspired by the controversial and decadent French film by Marco Ferreri (1973), the theatre group (directed by Servé Hermans) created an absurdist performance with music and dialogues about the pleasures of food, indulgence, gluttony, the complexities of our contemporary food chain, and over-consumption. The musicians were seated on stage. In front of them stood a large table, filled with freshly served food. To the right of the stage, stood a cook preparing food.
Sitting behind the table was a corpulent actor, who was continuously eating during the 1,5 hour performance. A waiter brought food to the eating actor, and started dialogues with him. The orchestra performed works such as ‘La Boutique Fantastique’ by Respighi, ‘March Past of the Kitchen Utensils’ by Vaughan Williams, ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ by Pärt, ‘Gymnopedie No. 1’ by Satie, ‘Pas de Soldats’ by Rossini, ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum’ (from Nutcracker Suite) by Tchaikovsky, and ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ by Johann Strauss. The repertoire also included a premiere by the Dutch composer Jean Lambrechts (‘Sinfonietta Gaillarde’’). The musical works and/or composers all had a link to the theme of food. The theatrical orchestra performance took place in a pop-venue in Maastricht, and in an old food factory in Veghel (the Netherlands). The latter, CHV Noordkade, is at the heart of the Dutch food industry. CHV Noordkade became a partner in the project on the initiative of provincial arranger Geert van Boxtel.
The process of developing of this theatrical concert was closely followed by a researcher of the Artful Participation-project, who acted as a critical participant-observer. The aim of this embedded research was to observe and learn from the ways the audience is constructed and imagined in the collaborative process, and to witness how a collaboration between different artistic partners works in practice. The researcher participated in meetings, observed at the concerts, and interviewed involved staff members and artistic partners. By asking (critical) questions, the researcher aimed to make explicit what often remains implicit: assumptions of audiences, routines of working, implied effects of decisions. During the process of the developing La Grande Bouffe, the researcher probed the involved artistic programmer, the director and dramaturgist of the theatre group and the involved actors, by asking critical and open questions. By asking such questions, the researcher aimed not only to make implicit assumptions visible, but also to contribute to the collaborative process.
During and after the development of La Grande Bouffe, some insights emerged among the researcher and programming team. These lessons learnt are about what role imagined audiences play in the development of such a participatory project, and the ways cross-disciplinary collaboration works in practice.
“I’m sitting in the meeting with the program team of La Grande Bouffe, consisting of the director and dramaturgist/actor of Toneelgroep Maastricht and the programmer from the orchestra. During previous meetings, they discussed how the audience could be part of the performance. The audience would be served with food during the performance, to underscore the theme of culinary extravagance. This decision was later cancelled for reasons of costs. As I observe the on-going discussion about the script of the theatrical concert, I notice that the audience no longer is explicitly discussed as being part of the performance. The audience does remain present in discussion, although now as budget burden or as citizens for whom the concern of over-consumption should be an issue. At the end of meeting, I ask the team what the role of the audience is in the performance. The director reacts a bit defensively, and makes a plea against ‘cheap’ ways of engaging the audience, which would distract from the theatre play and the music.”
(Field notes Ties van de Werff, January 16 2019)
The artistic vision in the program team was clear from the beginning: to create a participatory theatrical concert, in which the audience would be ‘seduced with fragrance, colour, taste, and sound’. From the outset, the director of the theatre group voiced his wish that audiences would be served several courses throughout the performance. He imagined audiences to be seated on long ‘beer tables’ (long benches), eating their way through the performance, increasingly feeling uncomfortable by the gluttony performed on stage.
Due to hight costs involved, this artistic vision was only partly realised. During the performance, audiences were seated in a traditional set-up, and they would not be served food during the performance. After the performance, while the orchestra kept performing Strauss’ ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ as encore, audiences were given black-coloured food (such as blood sausage and black cheese), prepared by the cook of food-designers WOW Food during the performance.
While the audience did not artistically contribute to the performance as envisioned in the beginning of the project, this gesture did prolong the experience of the theatrical concert for the audience, and as such contributed to the performance. However, this gesture was not explicitly discussed by the program team as a form of audience participation: what its artistic consequences were for the performance, or how it would relate to the artistic theme of overindulgence remained unclear. This had to do with the ways the audience was imagined throughout the process.
The theatre director regretted that his initial idea (of eating audiences, as a mirror to what happens on stage) could not happen due to the high costs involved. According to him, any other idea of audience participation (apart from serving food after the performance) would only be a weak distraction. The result was that after this decision of letting go this strong form of audience participation, the role of the audience (and its possible contribution to the theatrical concert) was no longer explicitly discussed in the program team.
Seemingly disappeared, but the audience was not gone. Though no longer being considered as an artistically relevant part of the performance, the idea of an audience kept implicitly structuring decisions in the program team. Throughout the meetings, the audience was imagined in different ways: as budget burden; as regular concert-goer (and a risk for experimenting too wild); as an experience-wanting consumer (who needs to buy a ticket and have a comfortable seat); and as an engaged citizen (who should worry about over-consumption and our complex food-chain).
What the researcher and the program team learnt here, was that audiences remain present in a participatory project, in an imagined form – even though their artistically contributing role is seen as limited. Making these expectations and ideals of an audience explicit, made the researchers and the program team aware that audiences can come to matter artistically as a result of small gestures, and not only artistically matter in extreme or strongly articulated forms.
The concert was marketed as ‘a new chapter in a series of successful collaborations between Toneelgroep Maastricht and the South Netherlands Philharmonic’ (website South Netherlands Philharmonic). The collaboration between the programmer of the orchestra and the director and dramaturgist of the theatre group indeed was smooth and seemingly without friction. This, however, did not mean there were no differences between artistic roles, traditions and approaches.
The collaborative team was very reflexive about the collaborative process, and how the orchestra and the theatre group should artistically relate to each other. There were clear roles: the orchestra would be supporting the dramaturgy of the theatrical performance. The orchestral programmer chose repertoire that was frivolous and light, as counter-weight to the continuous and repulsive eating by the actor on stage. When proposing the repertoire of the evening in the program team, there was hardly any discussion about it, nor substantial suggestions from the theatre group (apart from the order). Likewise, the contribution of the orchestral programmer to the dramaturgy or the texts included in the script was limited. Both partners stayed close to their own professional field and expertise.
The theatre director and dramaturgist treated the repertoire as source material for the script. The director of the theatre group proposed to integrate the orchestra in the dramaturgy, by including texts about composers whose works would be performed by the orchestra. For example, some composers became characters in the dialogues spoken by the actors on stage, such as Rossini (who loved foie gras and truffles and gave his name to Tournedos Rossini), and Erik Satie (who only ate food that had a white colour). The eclectic selection of texts (based on works of literature) and short dialogues and many silences, gave room for the performance of the orchestra. The the premiere piece by Jeanne Lambrechts formed a bridge between the different scenes.
Both artistic disciplines complemented each other in the collaboration. Only at a productional level, did some negotiation take place. Actors and musicians have different rehearsal and preparation routines: whereas the orchestra needs to be logistically and productionally planned in advance (with only limited rehearsal time), actors and the director take more time for rehearsal. Similarly, actors pay attention to every image on stage, whereas musicians only focus on their musical performance. The lighting proved to be an issue, as it was important for the director to create the right atmosphere, whereas musicians didn’t want to be distracted while performing.
In contrast to musicians, actors improvise a lot during dress rehearsals – that is the moment the whole piece comes together. Important artistic choices are often made during dress rehearsals, also in this collaborative project. For example, during the dress rehearsal, it appeared there were too many silences in the dialogue. The director proposed to the conductor to shorten Rossini’s ‘William Tell’, as there was not enough ‘theatrical image’ during that piece.
When evaluating the project and the collaboration, the programmer of the orchestra and the theatre director appreciated the respect for each other’s discipline. What the researchers observed however, was that this respectful treatment also had a downside: it hampered the learning potential of the experiment. There was hardly an artistic issue really at stake, where one partner had to gave in or where artistic choices had to be made through overcoming friction. As a result, the question remained for the partners involved whether real cross-fertilization took place in this artistic collaboration. What the researcher and partners learned, is that too much respect for each other’s expertise – a result of a long term collaboration, in which partners know what to expect from each other - resulting in a hierarchy of art disciplines, can become an obstacle for learning.
La Grand Bouffe did gave the musical works a new relevance. Both the combination of musical works and (critical) texts about over-consumption and gluttony, as well as the location – a hall of a former food factory where fodder was made – gave this performance a topical societal relevance and urgency.
Many experimental and participatory projects of orchestras take the form of a collaboration with another art organisation. The theatrical concert La Grande Bouffe is an example of such artistic collaboration. Observing the dynamics of this collaboration in practice, showed that audiences play a formative role in the development of the concept, and in the organisation, performance and evaluation of the concert. It also highlighted that ideas of audience participation are more easily discussed explicitly in extreme form, whereas smaller gestures can also have an artistic value as it can change the relationship between the orchestra and its audience. For a collaborative concert to become an experiment, a too close collaborative relationship (resulting in a conventional hierarchy of art disciplines) can hamper its learning potential.
Program 2018: La Grande Bouffe. Websiste South Netherlands Philharmonic, https://www.philharmoniezuidnederland.nl/pQoeLFw/concerts.