Delphine Maurel, Artistic Director of theatre company, La Bulle Bleue in Montpellier gives an overview of France’s arts and disability scene, which is dominated by employment support organisations known as ESATs but is nevertheless known for innovative work.
Social and Political context
In France, public policy for disabled people is based on two fundamental laws — 2002.2 and 2005. These laws are the foundation for the entire medico-social sector. Over the past twenty years, in a dynamic supported by these structuring laws, French society has gradually moved towards greater consideration and acknowledgement of the demands of disabled people, and for better recognition of their desire for emancipation, training, professionalisation and inclusion. Developments are noticeable, perceptible and encouraging, although they remain slow and cautious. The expectations of disabled people are recognised and defended, but the support systems have not followed at the same pace of evolution. The system is still very institutional, albeit with some promising experimental schemes. The support structures are subject to criticism, despite a real desire to constantly adapt and innovate. It is also the ‘non-protected’ sector that still encounters difficulties in functioning differently, opening up, changing views and integrating the challenges of an inclusive society.
The cultural and creative sector is faced with the same dichotomy. Although disabled artists and the companies that work with them, are better recognised with their requirements fully taken into account, wholly positive experiences remain limited with few finding a supporting, structuring business model. The first difficulty is limited access to artistic training organisations, such as conservatoires of dramatic arts, fine art, etc. In the performing arts, a small number of theatres and festivals are in the vanguard and these do create a genuine space for such artists in their programming. But these initiatives are still too limited to allow for the development of companies and, overall, there are too few companies working regularly with professional disabled artists. Moreover, the French system of intermittent work patterns that characterises this sector does not facilitate the professional careers of vulnerable groups.
In France, a network of work support entities spanning multiple industries called ESATs (Établissement et Service d’Accompagnement par le Travail) enable disabled workers to carry out professional activity in an adapted environment. The main structures that currently allow for the training, professionalisation and inclusion of disabled artists are based on companies either structured as artistic ESATs, or leaning on these structures for support, all operating (in various forms) on a model of permanent troupes associated with directors.
Maud Verdier is a linguist and associate researcher at La Bulle Bleue. In her article for the publication Langage et société, she says:
“The creative activity of an artistic ESAT isn’t of an occupational nature; it is part of the field of professional live arts. However, this fact is often misunderstood by non-specialised stakeholders, as the theatrical activity produced in this type of structure is often assimilated to a therapeutic practice that contributes to the wellbeing of people living with disabilities, with the objective of professionalisation remaining ignored.”
Olivier Couderc, artistic director of the Théâtre de Cristal, which produces work by and with disabled people, strikes a more positive note. In his book The Presence of Disability in Live Arts (Présence du handicap dans le spectacle vivant, éditions érès), he says:
“How the general public views the situation has completely changed.”
Sources of funding are similar to those of other companies and artistic projects, albeit on a smaller scale, and production models are relatively standard. The State, via regional bodies known as DRACs (Regional Directorates of Art and Culture) and the Ministry of Culture, remains a main funder and above all an ‘expert’ with regards to artistic scope and professionalism, through adherence to national agreements with regards to pay (known as “conventionnement”). However, very few companies working with disabled artists operate using such nationally agreed pay scales.
The regional (Régions), metropolitan (Métropoles) and local authority (Mairies) bodies are important partners, particularly in areas that have an artistic ESAT. The State and local authorities play a fundamental role in the professionalisation of artists, as well as their training through the funding of mediation workshop projects, particularly in health or medico-social establishments. This sector is characterised by the large share of funding coming from the health and medico-social sectors. Thus, these artist projects often exist thanks to initiatives from activist not-for-profit organisations. However, the contribution and support from sponsorship is developing and becoming permanent in parallel with public funding for certain projects.
As hybrid structures, artistic ESATs play a dual role: on the one hand, a social and educational mission, and on the other, support for genuine business propositions, with these theatre companies founded on a model of mixed financing. Most of them manage and run a theatre and thus balance their books thanks to parallel activities (workshops, artists’ residencies, restaurants, hall rental, communications, etc). Distribution and programming in accredited venues are also an essential dimension of funding, albeit in an insufficient proportion.
The establishment of the Centre National de Création Adapté (National Centre for Adapted Creative Work, aka CNCA), in Morlaix, in 2021, represents an important step. This project, led by the Compagnie Catalyse and the work of director Madeleine Louarn, contributes to better support and visibility for projects by disabled artists. With the CNCA, a troupe of disabled artists participate in the work of a major cultural facility, consolidating their lasting position on the French artistic landscape. In this way, the CNCA makes it possible to envisage new perspectives for structuring dedicated venues.
“These actors’ own rhythms reexamine aesthetics, build new creative processes and establish new dialogues between disciplines. Their place on stage also questions the cultural institution in its necessary adaptation to those who have less power in society.” [Compagnie Catalyse/CNCA]
Selected artists, companies and organisations
There are some fifteen artistic ESATs in France, representing about a hundred actors and a number of musicians and stage managers. Projects are highly diverse, both in their organisation and aesthetics.
The companies L’oiseau Mouche, located in Roubaix, and Catalyse/CNCA are the precursors and most successful. They perform in many theatres in France and abroad. They have also been programmed at the Avignon IN festival in 2021, as well as several editions of the Autumn Festival and seasons of the Maison des Métallos, La Villette, etc. Catalyse has been working for 26 years with director Madeleine Louarn. L’oiseau Mouche was created 47 years ago and works with a number of associated artists, including Bérangère Vantusso, Michel Schweizer, Christian Rizzo, and Boris Charmatz.
Created more recently, in 2012, is my company, La Bulle Bleue which brings together disabled actors and stage managers, as well as gardeners and cooks. The company carries out projects with associated artists for four-year cycles (with directors such as Marion Coutarel, Bruno Geslin, Maguelone Vidal and Marie Lamachère). The next production will take place during the festival Le Printemps des comédiens in 2023.
Three companies develop their projects in the greater Paris region: Turbulences, Eurydice and Théâtre de Cristal. Created thirty years ago under the direction of Olivier Couderc, the Théâtre de Cristal is a company that works in partnership with an ESAT. The other two are themselves artistic ESATs. Eurydice and the Théâtre de Cristal have set up the IMAGO festival, one of the rare events dedicated to the creative work of disabled artists.
The existence of such companies is not distributed evenly across France. The companies Tout va bien and Envol are based in Alsace and Lorraine. Created more recently, the Cercle Karré in Nantes and Insolite Fabriq in Lyon are proof of the emergence of newer projects.
Some shows have a large audience, for instance the recent performance of De Françoise à Alice, choreographed by Michael de Phelippeau. Creating a unique experience, further to his artistic association with La Bulle Bleue, director of La Grande Mêlée, Bruno Geslin integrated an actor from the company into his new work, Le Feu, la fumée, le soufre (Fire, Smoke, Sulphur). This show has been programmed in many National Drama Centres (centres dramatiques nationaux, aka CDNs) and will be performed over several seasons.
There are few emerging disabled artists with backgrounds outside such structures. The recognition of the author Babouillec is a rare example.
There are still few accredited venues that promote these artists in their programming. CDNs and the national stage in areas with artistic ESATs or dedicated festivals are more proactive, such as the Théâtre National de Bretagne in Rennes, the CDN des 13 Vents in Montpellier, the CDN de Rouen and the Maison de Métallos in Paris. Some venues are developing strong partnerships to support these companies over the long-term.
Whilst festivals provide important visibility for projects, there are still very few that commit themselves to companies working with disabled artists. The ones that do, include the Avignon Festival, the Autumn Festival in Paris, La Villette, and soon the Printemps des Comédiens. What’s more, there are very few festivals dedicated to this field of theatrical creative work. Apart from the IMAGO festival, the Itinéraires Singulier festival – a biennial event combining theatre and Art Brut in Dijon – is the main one today. The festival Art et déchirures, which had been committed for thirty years to spearheading all forms of artistic expression from the world of mental health, the margins, and singular expression, has just come to an end.
There are still important changes to be made: the training of artists, the distribution of shows, the accreditation of venues, the financing of companies, adapting the status of disabled artists, facilitating the emergence of individual career paths, and access to various jobs in the artistic sector (such as stage managers, directors, authors etc). Some fundamental questions arise with the emergence of artists and these practices in the French context: How to qualify disability? What should it be called? Should it be referred to at all? And can we emancipate ourselves from the barriers it entails?
Actors at La Bulle Bleue say:
“We make theatre, we produce plays in a space that knows how to take into account the fragility and difficulties of each person and the need for time. We have time to search and find, time to be apprentices for maybe one, five or ten years. Perhaps being an actor means observing a lot and learning every day.”