A theatre company founded by performer Frédéric Ferrer, Vertical Détour creates conference-performances – a hybrid genre that overlays the theatre and the conference room. I had the decided pleasure of speaking to Frédéric Ferrer about how he puts his shows together, and how he perceives these borderlands where he plays as a theatre-maker and actor.

Until now, his subjects have usually been ecological or zoological. They are “cycles” of several conference-performances, like the cycle Chroniques du Réchauffement (Heating Chronicles) “an exploration of human landscapes through the prism of climate change”[1] and the cycle L’Atlas de l’Anthropocène (Atlas of the Anthropocene) “a collection of maps of the upheavals of the world”[2]. Now, in the run up to the 2024 Paris Olympics, he is branching out with a series of six performances about six different Olympic sports.

Some shows involve several performers, but I’ll focus here on Ferrer’s one-man shows, which resemble the most typical of conference presentations: A speaker, a computer, and not enough to time to say it all. In these performances, Ferrer plays an enthusiastic researcher, slightly overwhelmed by his subject, who, accompanied by his inevitable powerpoint presentation, entangles himself and us all in his whimsical logic – to the delight of the audience.

The resemblance to academic presentations is strong. Sometimes, the venue isn’t even a theatre, but a classroom or conference room. From time to time, student-spectators suppose, at first, that it is a genuine lecture, and start taking notes. Around twenty minutes in, they stop and look around them, perplexed. Despite having all the trappings, this is no ordinary conference. But why not? What are the signals that tell us it’s theatre? It’s not the fantastical content, because everything Ferrer says on stage is true, documented, exact, with recognised sources that he often cites during the performance. He devotes years to researching for his shows. He collaborates with laboratories, interviews experts, reads scientific publications. And it’s certainly possible to learn something by listening to him. So, is it, in fact, a lecture, despite its theatrical quality?

His answer: “Yes, it’s a lecture, it’s a rather peculiar lecture… The goal of this lecture isn’t to inform, isn’t to give an informative speech. The goal of this lecture is to answer a question. That’s where we differentiate from a scholarly lecture.”[3]

And there we have a key characteristic that identifies conference-performance. As this response suggests, each of Ferrer’s shows starts from a question, such as “How do human beings manage to jump so high?”[4]. The dramaturgy is then built around the story of the researcher’s quest to find the answer to this one, crucial question.

This goal, and this story, combined with the importance of research and verifiable facts, are at the heart of the mission that Frédéric Ferrer has set for himself:

“If you give a demonstration that is totally absurd and crazy, but every element it contains is the testimony of real, living people, or verifiable documents, well, that raises questions. That’s what I look for, in fact, that limit… the outlandish gaze we can bring to the real, in order to see it differently.”[5]

[1] Translated from the site https://www.verticaldetour.fr, on 06/04/2021

[2] ibid

[3] Frédéric Ferrer, translated from our interview on February 22nd 2021

[4] I highly recommend looking at extracts from the conference-performance about this question here

[5] Frédéric Ferrer, ibid.