There may be larger or more prominent theatres in and around Nice but none is as beloved as the popular theatre that bears the name of one of the city’s all-time greats.
Old Town Nice and “Francis Gag” are dissociable. And Francis Gag itself is dually synonymous with the multi-talented Niçois actor, author, poet, writer and humanist (1900 – 1988), and the theatre that upon inauguration on October 6, 1989, was named in his honour. This month, the venerable playhouse is celebrating its milestone birthday in style with numerous events on the anniversary weekend and an interesting month-long exhibit: “Le Théâtre Francis-Gag, une scène autour du Vieux-Nice” (running until November 4) is both an homage to the narrow, history-laden alleys of Old Town Nice, and a retrospective of three decades of a theatre dedicated to keeping local tradition and language alive.
Lovingly referred to as “le Gag” or “our theatre”, the cultural institution has arrived at an important marker. “30 years. The age of experience and confirmed learning but also passion,” said Mayor Christian Estrosi. “Passion! It is the key word of this place which bears the name of the greatest of our playwrights from Nice. Francis Gag never ceased to set the artistic bar ever higher, but his most striking achievement was undoubtedly to transmit his flame to the new generations and thus ensure the durability of an authentically popular art form.” And it is true. Not just the older Niçois – those who you can still overhear speaking the local language Nissart in the street – flock here but the TFG is also immensely appreciated by the young ones for whom it has become a place jam-packed with support, opportunities, creation, and excitement.
Three people are largely responsible for this latter development, the sine qua non being director Pierre Ballay who in his 30 year tenure… yup, he has been there pretty much from Day 1 – has never lost sight of the task confided to him – to preserve tradition while remaining open to the world at large. This humble, self-effacing man doesn’t make a big deal about himself but if the TFG is a highly respected name far beyond the limits of the countéa, it is largely thanks to him and his dedication to find and programme the very best talent the region has to offer.
Along with him, much credit also goes to Pierre-Louis Gagliolo, Francis Gag’s son and flag-bearer of the family tradition of theatre-making. Pierre-Louis today is the eminence grise who rarely steps in the limelight himself but despite his advanced age of 80-something is still a fixture at the theatre day-in and day-out.
And raça ‘stirassa (“the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”) – last but definitely not least is Jean-Luc, the third generation of this particular Gagliolo family branch. Apart from his daytime job as an educator, he is also a municipal councilor with more balls up in the air than anyone (else) could reasonably juggle, and a highly successful writer who contributes at least one original play per year to the theatre’s playbill. Despite his densely packed agenda, he has never tired to continue his illustrious grandfather’s work as an artist but also humanitarian. Jean-Luc, his wife Claire – a scientist by daytime but also a great benefactress in her own right to her native town – and now their daughter Marie carry on the dual family legacy of contributing to the arts and doing good for the community.
The jubilee month is packed with exciting programming – given that October also happens to be the annual municipal theatre festival, formerly known as Lever des Rideaux and Quinzaine des Théâtres and now newly relabeled “Fête des Théâtres”. As every year, the TFG is the focus point of this two week Thespian extravaganza, created by… of course, Jean-Luc Gag, and itself celebrating its fifth edition. Thirty years of hosting theatre, dance and music groups in the Niçois language, from amateur troupes that now share its beautiful stage with renowned artists and artists, professional performing arts companies in the region… but also from far-flung corners of the globe like China and Russia, an extraordinary accomplishment. Here is to many more exciting, colourful, and Niçois-folklore-meets-the-world events at one of Nice’s brightest shining cultural jewels.
Lead image courtesy JL Gag