Paris’ 30 minuscule theatres sprang from the city’s ‘cafe theatre’ tradition, but now their owners say they are being hit by a punitive tax scheme that takes from the tiny and bestows to the big, reports Brad Spurgeon
A street cop, hearing panicked shouting behind the door to a building, readies his pistol, bangs the door and demands to enter. A surprised actor in a room full of puzzled spectators opens the door and tells him they are in a theatre, and that the yelling is a performance of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit).
Nearby, a child spectator seeing an actor repeatedly go offstage to an imaginary toilet steps on stage and asks to use the toilet. In another theatre, a clanging above the stage makes the solo actor fear the ceiling is collapsing. It turns out to be a washing machine in the flat above the venue.
These are a few examples of the small, everyday crises that Paris’ 30 minuscule theatres confront due to their size: some as small as 16 sq metres, and seating only 25 to 50. But, as all of the city’s 150 theatres enter the new year, a much bigger crisis is pitting the mini-theatres against their larger colleagues. This is the strange story of David supporting Goliath through a ticket tax that helps the bigger theatres in financial difficulty, but never goes to the minnows.
These tiny theatres in converted former shops, garages and offices are blooming, and yet the big, private theatres refer to them disparagingly as “garages” and refuse to acknowledge their place in the theatrical landscape.
The bigger theatres also accuse the small ones of harming their business by flooding the market with inferior quality, cheaper shows. This has been especially true since the financial crisis of 2008, and then the terrorist attacks of November 2015, which caused an immediate drop in attendance of live shows – a fall of 30% by January 2016 – from which they have never fully recovered, and a drop in profits linked to the lowering of ticket prices.
The 3.5% tax on every ticket sold at private theatres is used to fund struggling venues within a selective association of 58 theatres that excludes the small theatres.
“They tax little theatres like ours, we who do nothing but stage small, contemporary authors’ texts out of passion,” says Mickael Sabbah, owner and director of the 50-seat Theatre du Temps. “They take our money, and we do not have the right to join their association. Even the mafia doesn’t do that; they take something from you, but they give you something in return. They protect you at least.”
While these theatres share many features with the UK’s fringe venues, they do not see themselves as coming from such a tradition, but rather from Paris’ own ‘cafe theatre’ tradition that began in the 1960s, and involved shows being performed in cafes or bars while clients ate or drank. The cafe theatre eventually transformed into today’s mini theatres – they almost all have stages, curtains, banked rows of seats, etc – that are stand-alone theatrical businesses that operate mostly like the large commercial operations, but in miniature.
‘They take money from our little theatres, but we don’t have the right to join their association’ – Mickael Sabbah, theatre owner
The small theatres also fulfil a function their directors say is more important to the big theatres than paying the tax. Perrine Blondel, 38, the owner of La Petite Loge – which bills itself “the smallest theatre in Paris” at just 16 sq metres, holding a maximum of 25 audience members – says that whereas the previous owner found its size a problem, “we came with the idea that it was an advantage it was so small, so new talents could be discovered and developed”.
The theatres also serve to train the directors of the future. “We are learning how not to make mistakes, how to manage our artists and programming, and how to work well together,” says Anne Auffret, one of three associates of the 45-seat Comedie des Trois Bornes, located in a former butcher’s shop.
It was with the advent of internet ticketing sites that the small theatres saw their opportunity, and the big theatres started to complain, as it removed their control in ticket sales and prices.
“Thanks to the arrival of the reservations on the internet, small theatres like ours had the same shop window as the big rooms like the Olympia or any of the others,” says Sophie Hoyer, who owns and directs the 50-seat Comedie Tour Eiffel. “We were equal on the internet. That’s what made us say, ‘We can succeed.’ And this is also what persuaded the bank manager.”
• Paris had around 60 theatres at the beginning of the 1970s and now has about 150. Of these, roughly 50 have fewer than 100 seats, of which around 30 have fewer than 50 seats.
• A tiny Paris theatre, such as the Pixel, needs to stage a minimum of eight or 10 shows per month to survive. Competition in Paris is high, so with each theatre staging an average of 15 shows per week, with 30 tiny theatres, that’s 1,800 shows per month.
In 2010, the Association pour le Soutien du Theatre Prive (ASTP), which administers the 3.5% tax, started a parallel association, called Theatres Parisiens Associes, as a brand of quality to promote its 58 private theatre members – including owning valuable signage space on the Paris metro – and take back control of ticket sales.
Several of the smaller theatres responded the following year by creating an association called P’tits Molieres, to defend and promote the small theatres and award them prizes, as they have little chance of winning the prestigious Moliere Awards of the big theatres in Paris. The association held its sixth prize-giving ceremony last month in a large theatre with hundreds of attendees and an elaborate burlesque show.
But they remain powerless against the 3.5% tax, which they are legally required to pay, and cannot hope to gain from.
“A room with 20 seats can never enter into the support fund because it cannot be depreciable,” argues Stephane Hillel, president of the ASTP, in Theatre(s), a French theatre arts magazine.
“With a capacity of fewer than 80 seats, it is not possible,” adds Hillel, who is also the director of three large private theatres. “It is the big theatres, like the Theatre de Paris, with its 1,200 seats, that are the principal contributors to the fiscal tax and pay the deficit of the small rooms. If you ‘cost’ a lot of money to the support fund but you are a very small contributor, the system will die.”
In 2017, the fund raised €5.85 million (£5.21 million) through the new tax, and received a further €3.6 million (£3.12 million) from the national government and €2.9 million (£2.55 million) from the city of Paris.
Directors of the ASTP refer to these theatres not only as garages but also to their directors as “salespeople of hours”, in reference to the minimum guarantee that most of the small theatres ask companies for use of the theatre.
“In the theatres with fewer than 100 seats, the minimum guarantee is very advantageous for the companies,” says Dragana Smiljanic, programme director of the 50-seat Tremplin Theatre, in defence of the accusation. “It’s not €600 (£535) per night. At theatres with 100-150 seats, it can be [that much]. But ours is €180 (£160). If the seat costs 18 euros there must be 10 people minimum.”
Directors of all the 10 theatres spoken to here say that their goal is creative, not financial, minimum guarantee or not.
“For me, what counts is a play that transmits the values that touch me,” says Smiljanic. “I really want plays we do not see elsewhere.”
Moreover, beginner acting companies see the minimum guarantee as a small price to launch their productions.
“Here it is €145 (£129),” says Tom Guillouard, the writer and director of WiFi Gratuit, a play at the Theatre Pixel, which also has fewer than 50 seats. “We have basically filled the room each time. And I even succeeded in reimbursing myself for the stage set. So for us it has been a real success.”
Eugenio Barba, 82, founder of Odin Teatret of Denmark, was in Paris in May to stage his production The Tree. He sees a bright side to Paris’ mini-theatre culture: “The more such venues you have, the more it indicates the vitality and the diversity of the theatre ecology in this place.”