The cast of “Cabaret Under the Balconies” rehearsed over Zoom for seven days and, after the relaxing of lockdown in France in May, met in Chalon-sur-Saône for one week of in-person rehearsals — with strict rules. Bréban booked cast members with no health conditions. Daily temperature checks and frequent use of sanitizing gel were mandated, and everyone was offered a coronavirus test.
By far the most onerous directive for the performers was to maintain a distance from one another of roughly one meter at all times. They worked playfully around the situation during “Cabaret Under the Balconies,” throwing in jokes about the virus and slapstick warnings when performers threatened to get too close.
“We were confident that we were within labor regulations, with an audience that was already confined and highly protected,” Royer said. But not everyone agreed. Some regional funding bodies were fearful of the risks when the Espace des Arts turned to them for financial help: Chalon-sur-Saône was in a “red” or high-risk zone, according to a government map, until this week when the advice was revised. While the regional bodies offered practical support from the start, the Espace des Arts ended up funding the initial production costs of 35,000 euros, about $39,000, out of its regular budget.
On the day, there was a generosity of spirit to the entire performance, which served its purpose better than anything I’ve seen in a theater during this curtailed season. The last time I went to the theater, two and a half months ago, Isabelle Huppert headlined Ivo van Hove’s staging of “The Glass Menagerie.” For all the star appeal of that night at the Théâtre de l’Odéon, “Cabaret Under the Balconies” was the more memorable event — a sincere attempt to go back to basics, in the right place, at the right time.
It was also a reminder that some potential audiences remain largely forgotten. After the show, Jeanne Poulachon, a 91-year-old resident, said she had never been the theater. “You don’t always have that kind of opportunity. At least I didn’t,” she said. She was struck by the performers’ artistic range, she added. “You have to know your craft to do that. I will remember this day — it was splendid.”