A baker and his wife scramble to feed their family. He bakes bread for the city, and she mends clothes. Together, they have six children and, for extra money, the baker’s wife has to sell her body. This is a picture of poverty in Paris, 1871.
On Thursday night, ArtsEmerson kicked off its third season with investigative theater troupe The Civilians’ world premiere of Paris Commune in the Paramount Center Mainstage. This is a musical play depicting the 1871 uprising of working class Parisians and their attempt to reform French society. Investigative theater tackles complicated subjects, like Paris in 1871, and makes them relevant to the present.
According to David Dower, director of artistic programs for ArtsEmerson, Paris Commune’s depiction of a revolution perfectly parallels the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“We want to engage in a conversation with the students,” said Dower. “We want our work to be regularly relevant, part of the conversation on a civic level.”
According to senior performing arts major and ArtsEmerson employee Daniel Jones, investigative theater is a difficult work to translate for a mainstream audience because there is a lack of historical data about the Paris Commune. The Paris Commune, also known as the Fourth French Revolution, was a government that briefly ruled Paris from March 18 to May 28, 1871.
“Integration of historical context was difficult for this piece because there wasn’t a lot to base things on,” said Jones.
Jones also reaches out to the Emerson campus by involving students and teachers in the work of ArtsEmerson and setting up meetings with the cast.
“Classes are going to the shows, artists are coming to the classrooms. It’s about interaction with the community,” said Jones.
Since joining ArtsEmerson in April, Dower is making it his mission to expand the organization’s outreach to the community, starting with Paris Commune.
“The habits of the audience are changing,” said Dower. “People don’t buy tickets a whole year in advance. We need to keep announcing new projects to maintain everyone’s attention.”
The strategy of diffusing the announcements of additions to the schedule keeps ArtsEmerson in the news at the school, according to Dower.
Dower also stressed the importance of connecting ArtsEmerson’s shows to the college to create a lively dialogue amongst students about investigative theater. By introducing innovative troupes to Emerson, Dower said he hopes to create a stimulating and thought-provoking environment.
In Paris Commune, the troupe takes a creative approach to the material. It starts and ends with the troupe in contemporary clothes, bookending the piece and explaining the historical context of Paris in 1871. For the rest of the show, the cast wears costumes of the late 19th century.
“We want the shows to be connected to your life,” said Dower, in reference to getting the classrooms involved and familiar with the subject matter before the shows debut. “[I] don’t want it to look like just another flyer.”
Still, ArtsEmerson is only three years old with plenty of room for growth. At Friday’s performance, a vast majority of the balcony was unseated for Paris Commune.
“I’d love to see every seat full every time,” said Dower. “But we are exceeding our growth in projections.”
He credits Emerson’s resources for attracting talent to the town, and hopefully gathering more theatergoers. In less than two weeks, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, will be bringing Hamlet to the Paramount Theater.
“It’s an exciting time to be here,” said Dower. “We are building something that wants to be built.”