Author and director Eli Commins has just been named director of le Lieu unique, the Scène nationale de Nantes. His theatre explores non-linear textual forms and uses digital media.
Updated on 26/07/2021
Can you tell us about your career? What led you to develop cross-disciplinary artistic projects?
I started out as a theatre writer. But I found it hard to be satisfied with the text being approached in a static way, being more or less settled before the work on-stage. I gradually became interested in text forms that were organised differently and that could be an integral part of the representation. I was attracted by unexpected things, by the little accidents that happen at this stage. As an author, you’re positioned somewhat outside of this process, which is entrusted to a director. Social media was becoming popular at the time and I committed to this new field. I set about creating tree-like structures, texts that worked a bit like video games. Digital technologies allowed me to experiment with these new forms.
Did this change your relationship to writing?
When you start playing with ways of writing, it shakes up the entire chain of performing arts professions: directors, scenographers, actors, sound and light engineers, spectators, everyone is faced with new questions. There are a lot of presuppositions with a “conventional” theatre piece: silence, being seated, how we listen. I found it interesting to present the audience with different physical situations: have them lying down, moving from one point to another, giving them a virtual reality headset, performing for a single spectator, or offering a show that lasts three weeks.
How did you then come to devote yourself to cultural mediation?
I created rather peculiar situations through directing, very different from a traditional show that starts at 8.30pm. This led me to make more contacts among the management of the institutions with which I was working. So I gradually started to develop an interest in how these places worked. That came to fruition when I became deputy director of la Panacée in Montpellier in 2011. Once again, my career was on the line: I categorised my practice as “theatre” but it was easier for me to show it in a visual arts environment, where mixing media hasn’t been an issue for a long time.
You’ve previously worked at the Ministry of Culture, where you coordinated digital and multi-disciplinary projects in connection with the visual arts, theatre, dance, and music. What have you taken from this experience?
My position was very interdisciplinary so I had the privilege of being able to work with quite a wide range of forms. Specifically, I was in charge of the digital aspect, with three main missions: assisting with the creation, assisting with the digital transition of cultural spaces, and assisting my colleagues with these matters. What I noticed was that a lot of artists had a hard time fitting into pre-existing categories: I welcomed those who were outside the usual formats and the usual distribution channels. I contributed to the creation of the Chimères programme, which offers increased support in the search for new kinds of theatre.
You’ve just been named director of le Lieu unique, the Scène nationale de Nantes. What are the main areas on which you want this institution to focus?
This is what I love: you see a poster with ‘theatre’ written on it, you go to the show, and when you come out you say to yourself, ‘ah, I didn’t know that that’s what theatre could be.’ I’m interested in any forms that can surprise or astonish me, whether it be through the artistic proposals or the place itself. What’s wonderful about le Lieu unique is the accumulation of very different functions: a performance space, a large exhibition space, a restaurant, a bar, a reading salon, a steam room, a crèche, and soon la Tour Lu, the remains of the former biscuit factory. The ideal thing for me would be to preserve this dimension: a place you come to experience and meet friends. On the artistic side, I’m particularly interested in forms that turn their gaze on the real world. Le Lieu unique has always been open to the world and to Europe and I want to continue showcasing young and up-and-coming scenes worldwide. Even though it’s a national theatre, so an institutional place, it’s also a space that’s a bit underground, a bit wild. You go there to shake things up, see things that are a little rough, polarising things. I also want to preserve this aspect.
The upcoming opening of the Libre Usine, which will hinge on le Lieu unique, should enable you to invest in producing and creating live shows in particular. How will this process be organised with the programme for le Lieu unique?
Until now, le Lieu unique was first and foremost a venue for shows. Its centre of gravity is now going to shift towards creation with a new space dedicated to residencies and artistic research. My aim is also to listen to what is happening in contemporary cultures, whether we find that on networks or in the street. Beyond distribution, I’d like us to adopt a listening and welcoming approach.
How has le Lieu unique come to work during the pandemic and what do you think of the gradual reopening of cultural spaces?
Le Lieu unique worked at full steam during the pandemic thanks to streaming, which allowed us to continue paying companies and professionals working on set-ups. Le Lieu unique has been open again since 19 May, at limited capacity for the moment, and we’ve felt the enthusiasm and emotion of meeting the audience again. It was a very powerful moment; we felt its historical significance. But I’m aware that we’re entering a reconstruction phase after the exceptional crisis that hit professions in culture.
Do you think that the pandemic is going to change how cultural spaces work in the long term, and how works are produced and presented more broadly?
It has often been said that the pandemic provides an opportunity for deeper integration of digital media and cultural activities. In fact, certain artists and places have invented and broadcast innovative forms, going beyond the model of traditional video recording and using multiple different forms of communication. But I also notice that contemporary cultures are multifaceted and sometimes diverge with regard to digital technologies. So there’s still a lot to do and to invent.
Le Lieu unique is a headquarter of the Africa2020 Season and proposes the UFA – University of African Futures exhibition.
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