The Ice Hole : a show on a shoestring budget that ticks all the boxes
Theatrical adventure The Ice Hole / Les Gros Patinent Bien is just as madcap as it sounds, and this crazy cardboard cabaret is ticking all the right boxes (pun intended) on stages throughout France. Pierre Guillois and Olivier Martin-Salvan wrote and star in this hilarious epic, which blends the spirit of Monty Python with clownish burlesque. They could never have imagined that forty minutes of improvisation on an outdoor stage behind Paris’s Théâtre du Rond-Point in September 2020 would lead to an all-ages cartoonish production in demand from audiences throughout France.
Awarded the 2022 Molière for Best Show in a National Theatre, The Ice Hole / Les Gros Patinent Bien has already played more than 140 dates in national theatres, and an additional 180 at Théâtre Tristan Bernard, a private Parisian venue. This summer, the show will be on stage at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, and 175 dates are already booked for the 2023-2024 season, including three weeks at Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon. Behind this impressive schedule (which required three new actors to be hired for simultaneous shows in and outside Paris) is an extraordinary story, a long friendship and an unshakeable faith in a theatre for all.
According to Pierre Guillois and Olivier Martin-Salvan, “this show was a child of Covid.” The story began in 2020 in a rehearsal room at Bouffes du Nord in Paris. “We had to create a show, we didn’t really have any ideas, and the theatre was completely broke”, they recall. Faced with this lack of material, they began writing words on cardboard boxes: quail, rock, tree…
It was around this time that Théâtre du Rond-Point owner Jean-Michel Ribes contacted the pair, who he knew well, and invited them to take part in an open-air festival in September 2020. Festival Le Rond-Point Dans Le Jardin was created to motivate audiences to return to the theatre after a difficult season under Covid regulations. The two performers accepted the invitation, thrilled at the idea of an outdoor show which would reach the largest possible audience. They drew their title, The Ice Hole / Les Gros Patinent Bien, from the history of the venue, which was a skating rink before becoming a theatre. “All that was left to do was to get the fat guy skating”, jokes Pierre Guillois, who is as slight as his co-star is substantial.
Pierre Guillois: “We want to stimulate a creativity that is accessible to all”
The creative process became a cardboard production workshop. “We spent our rehearsals cutting up boxes and writing on them with markers as the ideas came. We were unsure of ourselves, thinking we might be edging towards the ridiculous.” But the first improvisation in the garden of the Rond-Point, staging epic situations with a hefty seated character speaking an unintelligible language and a beanpole rushing around, cardboard in hand, trying to illustrate a road movie, proved promising. The adventure had begun, and the show was created in December 2021 at Théâtre du Rond-Point.
While cutting up their boxes (the final version of The Ice Hole / Les Gros Patinent Bien uses 500 pieces of cardboard), the pair were constantly “thinking about the audience and of ways to make theatre less intimidating”. They had given up speech in their previous creation, Fish Bowl (a wordless burlesque melodrama about the trials and tribulations of three garret-dwelling anti-heroes that met with great success and was awarded the 2017 Molière for Best Comedy). In The Ice Hole / Les Gros Patinent Bien, they gave up sets, revealing the inner workings of theatre props. “We want to stimulate a creativity that is accessible to all”, emphasised Pierre Guillois. “It’s a bit like Arte Povera”, added Olivier Martin-Salvan.
Rire de résistance
This obsession with bringing people together began with a “fundamental” experience at Théâtre du Peuple in Bussang (Vosges), where the two actors met in 2006. Pierre Guillois, director of the theatre at the time, was looking for an actor for Noël Sur Le Départ, and that actor turned out to be Olivier Martin-Salvan. The meeting marked the beginning of a long collaboration and a perfect compatibility. The two performers were in the right place at the right time.
“At age 20, I performed in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, directed by Benjamin Lazar. Three years later, I found myself in the Cour d’Honneur in Avignon for Valère Novarina’s L’Acte Inconnu. I was very lucky”, said Olivier Martin-Salvan. “But it was all going too fast: I felt a loss of meaning in this profession, and a sort of cliquishness that I found frightening. Arriving in Bussang and working with Pierre made everything meaningful again.”
As for Pierre Guillois, he saw his “aesthetic notions implode” during his time as associate artist at the National Theatre Centre in Colmar, where he worked with amateurs and in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. “I sensed that there was a problem with the way theatre is perceived. I understood the challenge of the audience, and the need to shed the techniques we knew in order to achieve real togetherness.” In Bussang, the issues were the same, but this didn’t stop Guillois from challenging audiences. He continued to produce daring popular theatre, such as his 2011 creation, Le Gros, La Vache et Le Mainate.
Managed by Pierre Guillois’ company, Le Fils Du Grand Réseau, Les Gros Patinent Bien is unique in that it is co-produced not only by six national theatres, but also by the production company Ki M’Aime Me Suive, one of whose founders, Pascal Guillaume, is director of Théâtre Tristan Bernard in Paris. Following in the footsteps of the Joël Pommerat productions performed at Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin in Paris, the cardboard cabaret is one of the rare publicly-funded projects that have gone on to be performed in private theatres.
According to Pierre Guillois, the show being staged in both public and private venues is “a small, positive miracle that serves everyone’s interests. Théâtre Tristan-Bernard, which had already staged Fish Bowl, draws a different audience — particularly people in their thirties — to that of national theatres. It’s thanks to Jean-Michel Ribes that we were able to develop both of these shows. Where other than at the Rond-Point could we have created and performed in Paris? Nowhere.” Guillois went on to assert, “We are the heirs of the rire de résistance championed by the director of this theatre”. In the name of “public service activism”, Guillois and Martin-Salvan perform in the national theatre and national theatre centre shows, and have hired actors for the dates in private Parisian theatres.
Defenders of public services
When it was awarded the Molière for Best Show in a National Theatre on 30th May 2022, the stars of Les Gros Patinent Bien got their bits of cardboard back out. On this occasion, however, it was to make a suggestion to Rima Abdul Malak, the Minister of Culture: “In these sad times, why not consider laughter a major national cause? Laughter can/must be a poetic act. Please create, with all possible haste, a National Theatre for Comedy.” For Guillois and Martin-Salvan, this was a way of saying “laughter is a serious matter that must be taken seriously.” Indeed, these defenders of public services in the arts have noticed that “the higher up you move in the theatre world, the more laughter and farce become something doubtful and open to contempt. National theatre has built itself on an opposition to laughter and comedy, and we’re still paying the price.” The point of their intervention at the Molières was, as they say, “to encourage the Minister to put laughter on an equal footing with other artistic ambitions”.
Rima Abdul Malak took their message seriously, and even invited them to “liven things up” when she held her New Year’s ceremony on 16th January at Grande Halle De La Villette in Paris. This was not a simple task, at an occasion with quite a specific audience. However, a seed was sown. “My first work experience was with Clowns Sans Frontières, so I am convinced that the power of laughter, particularly in difficult times, can help us live and stay united. Laughter is casual, but it can also be a form of resistance”, remarked the Minister.
Meanwhile, The Ice Hole Les Gros Patinent Bien continues to tour in France. On 9th February, the duo performed at Manège Maubeuge National Theatre (Nord) to an enthusiastic, multi-generational packed house. On their way out of the theatre, a group of smiling middle-school students compared trophies: they’d enjoyed the show so much that they’d kept some souvenirs. One had a small cardboard heart, while another had some sticky-tape hailstones pinched from the edge of the stage. The show’s technical team will have to make a few more, but they’re used to it. They manage 2 tonnes of cardboard props which take five hours to set up and, after every show, have to repair or replace props that have been damaged or gone missing. Such is the price of success!