Turning 80 is a good reason for celebration…. and for a review of the history and exciting future of a Niçois cultural monument.
There is not a single person in Nice whose face doesn’t immediately light up with an enchanted smile upon the mention of the three magical letters “T.F.G”. They stand for Théâtre Francis Gag, and synonymously for the very best that Niçois culture has to offer. This past October, the resident company and the original Théâtre Niçois de Francis Gag, created by its venerable Founding Father in 1936, celebrated its 80th birthday. And what a biography this institution has racked up over that long time! But instead of resting on its laurels, things have been picking up steam at a dizzying pace and are going stronger than ever. One important event has been chasing another this season, proving just to what extent this theatre is an integral part of the community, and a key influencer on the city’s cultural life. A theatre by locals and for locals, but with a decidedly international flavour. Come join us on a trip down Memory Lane, and take a peek behind the curtain to discover what the future holds … you’ll like what you see.
A preamble first to clear up any source of confusion between TFG and TNFG. While these terms are often used synonymously to refer to the package folkloristically known as Le Gag, they are actually two separate entities: TNFG stands for Théâtre Niçois de Francis Gag, the eponymous company founded in 1936, and it is them who are blowing out the 80 birthday candles. TFG is what today is known as Théâtre Francis Gag, which along with its name has changed hands from a private to a municipal theatre under the auspices of the Ville de Nice. That said, the TNFG is very much alive and kicking, as the TFG’s heart and soul.
Fine print and details aside, “Le Gag” is where some of best plays are performed in front of an audience that is as diverse as the city itself, as down-to-earth as the Niçois population, and of course – tradition oblige! – located deep in the winding alleys of le Vieux Nice. This is not a theatre for the cultural elite, nor is it the place for the ones who step out wanting to be seen. This is an unpretentious, salt-of-the-earth kind of theatre that celebrates the performing arts for their own sake, in the spirit of Francis Gag. And yet, it is a leader, a pioneer, and a shaker and mover. Again, just like Francis Gag.
The credit for the theatre’s success goes, of course, to its original founder but in no lesser way to three men who are just as intricately woven into its fabric: Pierre-Louis Gag, Jean-Luc Gag, and Pierre Ballay. Three men with very different roles but each contributing in their own way to the skillful high wire act between honouring the charter on which the TNFG company was founded, and developing today’s TFG programme adapted to contemporary tastes has made Le Gag the most convivial of all cultural venues in town.
A Family Tree with Fruitful Branches
No introduction needed for Francis Gag (1900-1988), the venerable Niçois writer, actor, and humanitarian. He is everyone’s granddad in town, spiritually speaking. Born as François Gagliolo into a family that had descended from the Italian Piemont and Ligurian Alps down toward Nice in the latter half of the 19th century, this humble man is fiercely proud of his Nissart culture and eventually heeds the call to pay tribute to it. Unforgotten, some of his masterpieces that have become staples of the cultural landscape of this blessed stretch of earth, such as Lou vin dei Padre:
1936 is a monumental year for him: it is the year he founds the original Théâtre niçois de Francis Gag, intended to be the town’s purveyor of folklore, language, and traditions – consisting both of a company and a venue. And it is the year his son Pierre-Louis is born. As it turns out, Francis has passed on his talent, along with a love of all things Niçois, to his offspring who later becomes a renowned actor and director in his own right, dedicating much of his work to nurturing the seed his father has planted.
The third generation, represented by Jean-Luc Gag, and the fourth generation in the lovely shape of Marie Gag, also take a hearty swig from the chalice of Francis’ artistic gene cocktail, both equally active in their relevant missions to keep up their forebear’s work. They are, however, not involved in the direction of the theatre: that job is left to one who is not a born Gag, but an honorary one by long-term association: Pierre Ballay, who has capably steered its fate since the day it reopened after extensive renovation in October 1989. 1,800 shows and 300,000 visitors later, it is safe to declare the TFG a resounding success, and all the more so given the generally dwindling numbers of theatre goers in recent years.
If all those 80 years have been just that, a resounding success, 2016 may well shape up to be one of the most crucial years in the theatre’s history. It certainly has been one of the busiest ones. Everything that has decisively shaped the theatrical landscape in Nice this year seems to happen at Le Gag. And quite discreetly, it has positioned itself as the leader, the Number One cultural institution in town. There are bigger, more prominent venues close by, but the navel of the theatrical universe, as far as Nice and the Niçois are concerned, is the TFG.
The Programme – a Tasting Menu of Thespian Art
Pierre Ballay has a nose for the right three-way mix: plays that appeal to locals who cherish their Nissart folklore, that are smart without being overly intellectual, and that are funny and entertaining but not knee slappers. This makes the TFG pretty unique in an increasingly divergent theatrical landscape vacillating between political concernment and low-risk crowd pleasers. At Le Gag you know you are served a finely composed menu, somewhere between gourmand and gourmet, that satisfies your hunger for theatre, and always leaves you wanting to come back for seconds.
Just a few highlights from this more-than-packed season through the end of the calendar year: Just recently Paul Mancini performed his incredibly delightful one-man show Charlie Chaplin, Sa Vie, Son Œuvre, in which the saxophonist rendered a moving musical homage to the immortal comedian’s life and work, complete with film extracts. On November 8 and 9, Christophe Turgie’s Shakespeare à Mort becomes the scene of an assassination plot directed at the famed English Bard… if indeed he actually really ever existed. This comedy is followed by Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karénine on November 12, an adaptation at the crossroads of the French and Russian schools of theatre. On December 3, the TFG reverts back to Shakespeare once again in Sleeping Point, which peeks over the shoulder of an Elizabethan theatre props master who dreams of being on stage himself. This play was a great success over at the TNN last season, but is actually a TFG creation.
And what would a holiday season at the Gag be without a bilingual French-Nissart play, written by Jean-Luc Gag himself, in the tradition of his illustrious grandfather, and based on unpublished materials that Francis bequeathed? Victourine et Titoun – mai aquì: two emblematic Niçois heroes, give us hilarious insight into their trials and tribulations as a married couple and show us that some things never change… A rendezvous with the resident company including the lovely and talented Marie Gag on December 16th and 18th, which is circled in red in every Gag fan’s calendar.
La Quinzaine des Théâtres – Nice’s Fantastic Theatre Festival
Two years ago, in an effort to elevate Nice to national and even international renown for the diversity and quality of its performing arts, then-mayor Christian Estrosi tasked a city councilor to organize an annual theatre festival. And that person happened to be no one else but Jean-Luc Gag.
Jean-Luc is not a man of the political establishment. He is an educator at heart, a civically minded man, and a prolific writer. He is also a man of action, he rolls up his sleeves and gets things done. And therefore, 2015 saw the arrival of the inaugural Lever de Rideaux … a one week, experimental event at the time, but one so well-received that in its second year, it was extended to two weeks, called La Quinzaine des Théâtres and featuring 104 plays. This festival is a gift to local companies, actors, and venues alike, giving all of them a unique opportunity to show off their qualities and to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with on not just a local but a national level.
It may, or may not, have been a coincidence that two of the very best shows of the 2016 edition were performed at the TFG: Lili Kabarett served the tasty amuse-gueule just prior to the official kickoff of the festival … a small theatrical jewel in which Mari Laurila-Lili, Nicolas Houssin, and Aude Giuliano take you back to the Roaring Twenties, and its inimitable Munich humorist Karl Valentin, whose sketches were set to the music of immortal Berlin composer Friedrich Holländer. A thoroughly lovely and delightful musical cabaret, straying slightly off the beaten track, and yet making it so very easy to succumb to its charm.
And shortly thereafter, the most talked-about play of the entire Quinzaine, Collectif 8’s majestic La Religieuse, an adaptation of Diderot’s classic, virtuously performed by Gaële Boghossian and Noémie Bianco under Paulo Correia’s able direction. This is where theatre meets cinematography, where classic literature gets a 21st century makeover, and where artistic intelligence and skills come together. If there is one company out of Nice worthy of a great international stage – Paris, London, New York – it’s Collectif 8, and as fantastic as they already are, their only way is up.
These two highlights from the TFG’s Quinzaine programme, so opposite in character, are symbolic for the variety and quality presented on dear old Francis’ stage, and it is Pierre Ballay and Jean-Luc Gag’s sign-post for the public where this theatre is going next.
But just featuring excellent shows is not enough … the formidable Francis had always had a passion to do good and help those less fortunate than him, and the succeeding generations of Gags remain faithful to his bid and are engaged in the community in a way that touches the lives of most everyone.
Pôle Nice Théâtre-Arts Vivants – A Welcome Hand for Local Artists
This being France, nothing and no one escapes political and administrative intervention. Sometimes though, and in the right hands, that can be a good thing, like when it provides tools for fledgling artists to help them soar. It was in that spirit that the City of Nice recently created a centralized office doing just that, and it was only natural for the Théâtre Francis Gag to house it on its premises. Its goal: to build capacity, competence, and synergy among cultural players, consult with performing arts practitioners, and help with logistic questions from costumes to promotion. In a town which has over 40 theatres with little interaction between them, this is a welcome and much-needed service to coordinate and streamline cultural activities for increased visibility. The TFG therefore lives what others preach, active community involvement and federation, and with the guiding hand of Jean-Luc Gag, Pierre Ballay, and the team they have assembled to execute this gargantuan task, there is much hope that things are finally moving forward in the right direction.
Offsite: la Maison Francine Gag and Solidarité Francis Gag
Purveying the immensely rich Niçois culture and traditions and helping to stitch the city’s fabric together does not stop at the TFG stage but reaches deeply into the community. One particularly beautiful example of the tireless work: La Maison Francine Gag. Dedicated to the daughter-in-law of the great Francis and mother of Jean-Luc, the villa was recently restored and now houses Nice la Belle, the group that was originally created in 1956 by Francis Gag to preserve and perform local folkloristic music and dance.
And yet another family member of the Gag clan generously gives of her time for the good of this town: Claire Gagliolo, Jean-Luc’s charming wife, co-chairs another charity that the family proudly supports: the Solidarité Francis Gag, a non-profit-organization which – among other charitable interventions – has teamed up with the Cancer League, helping underprivileged persons and families afflicted by the disease to deal with it.
The Next 80 Years – What’s Ahead?
They say that past behavior is the best indicator for future actions. If that is true, the future of this theatre and its company goes far beyond the tiny alleys of Le Vieux Nice. Le Gag knows that it’s a big world out there, and it makes smart use of this knowledge, all while staying true to its essence. It therefore is not afraid to export Nissart culture to far-flung places: In 2009, the company traveled to Syktyvkar, the capital city of the Russian republic of Komi, to participate in a festival in honour of Anton Tchekhov’s 150th birthday. And they did so in style … boldly playing the great Russian author’s “Marriage Proposal”, adapted in the language of Francis Gag, and simultaneously translated into that of Tchekhov … a feat which earned them the jury’s Special Prize for the Love of Classic Russian Literature. Reason for sure to proudly fly l’Aiglon in the host city’s stately theatre …
The TFG also regularly welcomes companies from yonder the Countea … no, we are not talking about the Var, but about China, for example. This is more than just a subtle hint that modern times have taken their orchestra seats here, and it wouldn’t be surprising if more and more foreign language productions made it into the programme over the next season or three.
Nice is unique in the world in its beauty, its diversity, and its native culture. But there are also few places, if any, that are blessed with a local family who generation after generation dedicates its life’s work to promoting culture. Among all the treasures Nice possesses, the immensely successful interplay between the Gag family, the TNFG, and the municipal theatre that carries the proud name, is one of the greatest ones. These first 80 years of the Théâtre Niçois de Francis Gag have only been the beginning … gramaci Francis, gramaci the entire Gag family, gramaci the talented and highly engaged company, and gramaci Pierre Ballay for so faithfully preserving our cultural jewel and making it shine in Nice – and in the world.
« Ce qui frappe le plus les personnes qui viennent pour la première fois passer quelque temps à Nice, c’est d’ouïr tout le monde parler patois (…) Partout ailleurs le patois est laissé aux gens sans éducation (…) Que pouvons-nous penser d’une dame vêtue de velours et parlant le baragouin des poissardes ? »
Ahì, Moussù Negrin, je ne suis certes pas vêtu de velours, mais je parle le jargon barbare du bas peuple, le baragouin des poissardes. E pèjou, l’escrivi !
”What strikes first-time visitors to Nice most is that they hear everyone talking patois here. (…) Anywhere else, patois is the language of uneducated folks. (…) What are we supposed to think of a lady dressed in velvet and silk, talking like a fisherman’s wife?”
Oh well, Moussù Negrin, I am certainly not wearing silk and velvet, but I, too, speak the jargon of the humble people, the fishwife’s patois. And worse, I even write in it!
– Jean-Luc Gagliolo, 2011 speech in defense of the Nissart language
For the current programme and all relevant information, please visit the theatre’s official website.
Théâtre Francis Gag
4 Rue de la Croix
Tel: +33 4 92 00 78 50
All images courtesy Théâtre Francis Gag