In the 1970s, the Vieux Colombier was narrowly saved from demolition. In the 1980s, the theatre became the second venue of the Comédie Française. They commissioned Bernhard Kohn with a rebuilding in 1993. Today, the Comédie Française presents a modern repertoire in the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier.
The theatre facing demolition
In 1970, the closure of the Vieux Colombier was announced. According to Guibert (in Christout et al, 1993, 156) the building was to be replaced by a cinema but was allocated to Marthe Mercadier after a lawsuit; however a short notice in the Algemeen Dagblad of December 2, 1970, mentions a lawsuit of Claude Baks versus an oil company that wanted to demolish the theatre to build a new gas station. In any case, the dates are the same and eventually the verdict was in favour of the theatre.
Mercadier was the appointed manager and she tried to keep the theatre alive by programming an astonishing amount of activities: children’s theatre in the morning, in the afternoon classical performances, and in the evenings yet other performances and a theatre café. She invited companies and individual directors to stage plays at the Vieux Colombier (such as La Mamma from New York) and she even organised a festival. However, she had to leave the project in 1971. Jean Rougerie continued the management and together with the puppet artist Caprile, he tried to save the theatre.
All the effort would prove useless when in 1973 the lease was ended and the theatre closed down. This stopped the newly founded Société Nouvelle du Vieux Colombier from obtaining the building. In 1975, French actors marched against the demolition of the theatre, especially because it was not the first small theatre to be demolished in Paris. Not that it mattered; the Vieux Colombier remained closed and empty. The demolition works started but then suddenly it was decided not to build a cinema. This meant the theatre was saved temporarily. However, it was falling apart and the situation was getting desperate. Eventually, in 1978, government officials added the Vieux Colombier to the Supplementary Inventory of Historical Monuments. This gave the theatre some protection but it remained closed and was still disintegrating. For a period, it was even used as a garage.
In 1986, the government purchased the building. This was an improvement, at last. The appointed manager had plans for the theatre and even wanted to found an acting school. The plan was abandoned soon, though. An Anonymous Society was founded to actively promote the restoration of the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier. In 1989, the Comédie Française was allocated the theatre by government decree. The theatre was their second venue in town. Later a third theatre, the Studio at the Place de la Pyramide Inversée (Galerie du Carroussel du Louvre), would be added. The Comédie Française planned a big renovation of the Vieux Colombier and announced its reopening in 1993.
Kohnís 1993 rebuilding
Kohn, Perset and Kokkis designed an enlarged stage area (nine meters by ten meters) with a small front stage. It was executed in concrete. So far, it still resembled Guillaumot’s design. They didn’t include wings or side machinery. Instead, they did extend the possibilities of the ceiling vault by inserting an elaborate grid and modern equipment. This was not exactly what Copeau had in mind when he founded the theatre; however, it suited the requirements of the modern theatre.
The artist entrance is removed. The actors have to enter by the same entrance as the public but they can go directly to the dressing rooms. The corridor leading to the auditorium is still the same as the one from the days of the Athenée-Saint-Germain. The old offices next to, and behind, the theatre have been retained. In the front, a foyer with a bar that is also used as an art gallery was installed.
To the left side of the stage was added a small room to compensate for the lack of wings and storage space on stage. The space beneath the stage floor was deepened in order to facilitate its use as a passageway and rehearsal room. It had been used before, by Copeau and Jouvet, but always had been very cramped and uncomfortable. The raked stage floor was flattened again. In the floor were inserted wooden platforms that gave way to the area beneath the stage floor and made possible the flexible use of stage rostrums, and. The system of platforms and rostrums increased the scenic possibilities and thus was a solid basis for any scenographic arrangement. In the end, this is similar to what Copeau and Jouvet wanted to achieve with their fixed scenery. It’s just the structural arrangement that is different.
Kohn installed modern lighting equipment and made the theatre soundproof. This was necessary because it was part of a residential building.
Because the theatre is inserted in a residential block, it is very difficult to get newly fabricated scenery and equipment to the stage. The only possible way to do this was to bring it in from the street and the auditorium. That is why Kohn has put the auditorium seats on rails. The seats can be moved to the sides to make way for large pieces of scenery and heavy equipment. The auditorium floor still is raked but Kohn converted the concave slope into steps (a comparison of the drawn sections of the theatre before and after 1993 makes clear the difference). There are three hundred and thirty seats in the auditorium. The wooden wall panels, the red curtain and the red coating of the chairs make it a warm, intimate place.
Todayís Vieux Colombier
The Comedie Française programs a very up-to-date repertoire in the Vieux Colombier. Mostly, plays dating from the second half of the twentieth century are performed. On its website, the Comédie presents the program of the Vieux Colombier. Every production runs some six weeks. When a performance is running, the next one is rehearsed. The Vieux Colombier presents five productions every year. On Saturdays, actors read less known plays in front of an audience.
The Company of the Vieux Colombier works on an independent basis but this does not exclude cooperation with the Company of the Salle Richelieu, the main theatre of the Comédie. An investigation pointed out that the theatre has a faithful audience, of which the main part never visits the Salle Richelieu. This is an interesting point because it makes one think of the original audience of the Vieux Colombier. In a certain sense, the spirit of this theatre remains untouched. On the website, the Comédie Française writes:
‘Le Théâtre du Vieux Colombier bénéficie aujourd’hui d‘une image forte et bien identifiée, drainant un public qu’il a su fidéliser.’.