Uses for a public theatre

Now that four of their seven artists residencies are complete, the team at la Comédie de Béthune share the questions and issues that have arisen.

23 April 2019

When we began this project, we had a few questions in mind. How can an artist change the way an inhabitant looks at their environment? Can an artist’s work affect the quality of an inhabitant’s relationships? We pictured the visiting artists as explorers; observing the public’s way of life and their relationship to art. We expected them to conduct research and to feedback to the team at la Comédie de Béthune and the partners of the project. We wanted the artists to anchor their approach in the specific issues of our area: the lack of recourses among certain populations (financial but also cultural); the mobility of residents, or lack thereof; issues around isolation.

We have now completed four of seven residencies, which are taking place in priority neighborhoods across the Béthune-Bruay Artois Lys Romane agglomeration. It didn’t take long after the project started, for other questions and issues to arisen...

1. Defining the project

Very quickly, the question of developing the project in the long term arose. We identified a need to define a story for the project with the different groups of inhabitants we were engaging, to bring them into the project and to make them invested in it, particularly those of the Breynaert building, where four different residencies are taking place.

The artists undertaking the first two residencies in the Breynaert building – documentary theatre company la Bande Passante and author Alexandra Badea – both embarked on self-narrative approaches, collecting memories and stories from residents. We felt there was a need to offer practical artistic experience to the inhabitants. This will form a part of the residencies still to come, through visual art and photography.

In May 2019, Chicken and Jeanne Smith of object theatre company Théâtre de la Licorne will create a visual artwork with residents directly on the building’s walls. This will transform the building and modify it in a way that marks the present time and the project’s story in space. It will be a public space for a message to be expressed, and it will raise questions about individual and collective creation.

The last residency is still in the making, but the question of the inhabitants engagement in the artistic experience is at the front of our minds.

2. An experience common to all inhabitants?

The three sites where la Comédie de Béthune is hosting residencies (in Béthune, Lillers and Bruay-la-Buissière) are about 10km away from each other.

We are beginning to ask ourselves: How can we bring the residents of the different sites together? How should we approach the connection between the spaces, and especially between the inhabitants? How can we build bridges and links between the sites?

We are planning to invite at least one artist to work across the three areas, adopting a common approach with all participants. For example: a photography residency that raises the question of common urban space.

3. Encountering art: becoming a spectator?

The residencies have opened up a space and a mechanism for the inhabitants to discover the building of la Comédie de Béthune for the first time. Many of the residencies have culminated in events at the theatre, and some inhabitants have come to experience the programmed shows of the artists in residence.

Questions arise: What is the status of these inhabitants? Are they visitors to our space? Are they spectators? How does one propose to them to become spectators, in a progressive and constructive way?

In the exchanges within the Comédie’s team, the idea of creating a specific status for these inhabitants was mentioned: a status of neighbour. A status that states the project’s main issue: the inhabitants are neighbours of the theatre; the theatre neighbours the inhabitants of its district.

4. The use of the artistic and cultural place / the living space

Parallel to the development of the Meet the Neighbours project, la Comédie de Béthune is working to open its spaces during the day as a sort of ‘living space’ accessible to everyone – particularly young people.

This is a trend in cultural institutions across the world, often materializing as a reception hall arranged with welcoming spaces for various personal or collective activities – reading, writing, browsing the internet, having meetings...

We are asking ourselves, as a public space and outside of our shows, is la Comédie de Béthune accessibile? For what uses: meeting other neighbours? Other publics? To practice individual and collective creativity?

Access to the theatre is a topic that merges with that of mobility. To get here, when one lives 10km from Béthune, is not easy.

This question and the issues of public transport services is one to be worked on with the elected representatives of the agglomeration.

5. Entry and pricing: the issue of free entry

The question of the neighbour status poses another question: that of entry to the Comédie for shows or activities during the day. Free? Yes, but how best to indicate our commitment to this?

Free access is a delicate issue to work on, one year before the municipal elections. At present, some political parties have a protectionist rhetoric with a populist tendency, clearly displaying their intentions to withdraw public funding for art and culture.

The prospect that they are winning over certain municipalities worries elected representatives, relayers and technicians working in the decentralization where the Comédie is based, who wish to keep it free, to preserve local cultural policies.


Before Meet the Neighbours, the team at the Comédie was already thinking about how we might develop our theatre as a space for the mixing of different audiences; different publics. That the hall and theatres, as well as workshops, internships and participatory projects, have become and are becoming spaces of social mixing is a determining factor for the development of the global project. In this context, Meet the Neighbours has raised many questions, notably fed by the work of the artists themselves. The words of Jeanne van Heeswick, a Dutch artist in residence at Le 18 (Marrakech, Morocco), come to mind. She asked the question: How can we maintain a long-term relationship with the public?

The artist residencies, in this long-running Meet the Neighbours calendar, have come to support and nurture our strategy for developing audiences. But which audiences: spectators, users, or a mix of both? What is meant by ‘audiences’? For the team of the Comédie, this project is becoming a great tool for considering the potential development of uses for a public theatre such as La Comédie de Béthune, CDN of the Hauts-de-France.


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