Independent stage designer and music journalist Axel Simon explores the stage design of French Nightclub Le Sucre, based on the rooftop of a former sugar factory in Lyon. Should venues like this embrace their “club” identity in the cultural landscape? How can scenography reflect the persona of residents and invited collectives? In this interview, we explore these topics with stage designer Léa Chaix and programmer Pierre Zeimet.

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Interviewer: Axel Simon

Photo Credit: Gaétan Clément

What is a club to you?

Léa: A club is a way to meet people and discover new cultural horizons.

Pierre: The club is a cultural and social space, where the number one objective is to talk. I think that today the party must be put back at the center of our discourse as a club. For a long time, we were afraid to say that we were a festive space, especially in order to legitimise ourselves with the public authorities. Party is a positive word. I think it’s very important to show that the party is cultural, positive, political, committed, social and that it allows for exchange.

Who is behind Le Sucre? And what is the history of the club?

Pierre: The structure behind Le Sucre is Culture Next, a company managed by a team of about 30-35 employees, which is part of the Arty Farty ecosystem (editor’s note: Arty Farty is a non-profit association). Within the latter, we work both for the venues and for our events, including festivals like Nuits sonores.

It’s an interesting set-up in the world of culture, because we have a club which is managed by a company. It’s very hard to manage a club today on an associative system, in any case a club like Le Sucre, which required a lot of investment at the root. But in the end it belongs to an association, which also allows us to be in a different economic logic compared to a club managed by shareholders who would have an interest in profitability.

Le Sucre opened in 2013. It was designed as a laboratory for the Nuits sonores festival. The idea was to be able to express oneself artistically over a longer period than a festival, which is limited and ephemeral, and sometimes frustrating in artistic terms. In a festival, it is difficult to follow everything that happens all year round, especially what is happening in the area, whereas a club can play this role. The opening of Le Sucre has allowed the festival to evolve, to develop both the local scene and our relations with international artists and cultural actors and intermediaries.

Le Sucre is located at the top of an old sugar factory, which gave the club its name. It’s quite unusual because to get to Le Sucre, you have to walk up three flights of stairs or take a lift. The interior of the sugar factory is used for Nuits sonores. And during the festival, Le Sucre has the role of a laboratory, since we only do live music there, with a more specialized and experimental programme.

What musical aesthetics does Le Sucre fit into? 

Pierre: At the beginning of Le Sucre we tended not to want to talk about a club. We talked about a cultural place. It’s only very recently that we’ve taken on this positive definition of a club. At Sucre, you’ll find a real stage that allows you to play live music as well as a DJ booth. The way the club was created influences our way of programming today. Today, when we install a DJ, we install him or her on the stage, as if it wasn’t really meant to be.

The stage is prepared for live music, and as programmers we tend to want to use this tool in the club. That is to say that on nights like Saturday, 90% of the programming is live. It can be live electronic music, so live machine music surrounded by synthesizers, drum machines, etc., but also jazz or funk. We see a lot of groups from South Africa, Argentinians, Brazilians, people who make traditional music or who, on the contrary, modernize these aesthetics. 

It goes from, for example, Dengue Dengue Dengue, from South America, or MC Carol, who comes from Brazil, the new scene from Shanghai that we’ll be hosting this summer or the Nyege Nyege festival. So it would be difficult to put Le Sucre in an aesthetic box.

We are still an electronic music club. We try to tell the story of electronic music through a prism that is a little different from that of the United States, Berlin and London. Even if we also do it, but we also like to talk about other prisms of electronic music, other scenes.

On Fridays, our programming is more focused on experimental music, breakbeat, dub, drum and bass, etc… On Saturdays, we programme a lot of live music, a lot of world music.

And on Sundays, a more classic story of electronic music is told with a program that frequently invites stars of Berlin techno, Detroit, Chicago, etc… as well as local artists and labels.

What are the other uses of the Sucre, beyond the club and live parts?

Pierre: We support the artistic residency a lot. We have also had DJing classes for quite some time, reserved primarily for women and non-binary people. We sometimes make the space available to associations, like one evening a year when Secours populaire organizes the New Year’s Eve of isolated minors.

We have a production academy in partnership with a local label called Nashton, with about thirty producers who come every month to have production classes. The idea is to invite the international artists who play at Le Sucre to come and give master classes at this academy. It also comes from an ecological reflection. We thought that we were a bit fed up with bringing in headliners who take three planes a weekend to stay on one date and who have no connection with what’s going on in our area, with the local scene, with our actors, etc… 

The idea was to be able to connect them to that, so that they could at least come over two days to do a master class and then do their set. We have a large number of guests who are happy to participate.

One of our strong points is to use Le Sucre in a club format on Sundays after 12 noon. We feel that people really come for the music. We also do a lot of visual shows, as the Sucre has been thought through in terms of scenography with four video projectors that allow us to do 360 degree live shows. One of the last things we did recently on our Fridays was to launch a format called Mini Club. It was a total rethinking of the audience experience by making a club within the club.

Inside the Mini Club @ Gaetan Clément

How would you say that Le Sucre fits into its territory on a political and militant level and in terms of supporting the emergence of new scenes? 

Pierre: We’re in the process of setting up a new version of Le Sucre. We wanted to completely revise our way of programming. We are three programmers, men, white, cisgender. The idea was also to trust other communities and to think about how to get as many people as possible into our programming team. We want Le Sucre to be a real tool for the local scene and for different communities to take hold of and to be able to program with us. 

We launched this new residency card with eight emerging residents, eight international residents, and eight resident collectives. When we say residents, we mean people who are really going to invest in Le Sucre. 

Getting involved means, for example, giving DJing lessons on our women and non-binary format. Or it could mean participating in the training of producers. It could mean thinking about the design of Le Sucre themselves, as in the case of Cornelius Doctor. It can be a total freedom to propose things in social terms, like Cornelius for example, who proposed to set up a policy of micro-donations on their residences when buying tickets. 

It could be Camion Bazar, who are also residents, who have had associations set up on the roof above to raise awareness. It could be on themes like vegetarianism, animal protection, etc… 

It was really important for us to have a panel of residents representative of all the aesthetics, both musical and in terms of community, of what can be done in Lyon at the moment. So it can be hip hop with Artjacking, things a bit more RnB with 69 degrees, with Furie on the Brazilian and Argentinean scenes, etc… It can be with our emerging resident Lisa who is a bit more experimental, hyperpop, etc… and so it allows us as programmers to be totally connected with what is going on in Lyon and in the world. 

And also to bring more gender balance to the programming. At Nuits sonores, we had 10% women in the programme eight or nine years ago. Today, we’ve gone up to 45%. I don’t have the exact figures for the Sucre, but today, having an evening where there is no representation of women on the line-up is becoming very rare. This has not been achieved through a policy of quotas, but through a deconstruction of oneself, digging into different registers, and also trusting this new grid of residents, collectives, etc…

This large panel of residents brings about a certain emulation among them. The aim is that these people, these collectives, these residents talk to each other, give each other a hand. They also break down borders. We know that people who play techno in Lyon don’t really meet those who play Brazilian music. 

What is the scenography of Le Sucre?

Léa: Le Sucre is designed so that artists can imagine what they want. It’s a bit of an “empty” box, where you can adapt to each person and each artist, it’s very flexible. There are two very different spaces at Le Sucre: the terrace and the club. When you spend a whole night at Le Sucre, two very different things happen from one space to the other, and they are worked on differently each time.

The entrance of Le Sucre © Gaétan Clément

Pierre: We are lucky to have this terrace with an unrestricted view of the Saône and the city of Lyon, which in itself is already a scenography. When people enter Le Sucre and come out of the lift onto a grid, which almost puts them in a void because you can see below, that in itself is already a scenography. The imposing architecture of the Sugar factory is already an important scenography for Le Sucre.

The club’s scenography has several stakes. First of all, it has to differentiate the parties, the identities of the parties. But also to be comfortable scenographies. Like the mini club. A comfort of programming in particular: the capacity of the club is 800 people, we created a mini club for 400 people to enjoy ourselves, to put on more experimental music, etc… We created a club within the club. Léa thought about the scenography to meet the objectives of audience comfort, sound and light, since building a club within a club can limit the quality of the sound and lights.

Léa: We also worked on the position of the DJ, who was put at the same height as the audience, which led to real exchanges between the DJ and the audience. Which was sometimes a bit stormy, by the way. But it was this experimentation that was interesting in the mini club, and we could obviously only do it with a mini gauge.

Would you say that there has been an evolution over the last few years towards a desire for the DJ to no longer necessarily be on stage, and to have a more direct relationship with the public?

Léa: Yes, that’s exactly what Cornelius Doctor asked me to do for his last residency. He wanted to be in the middle of the audience. And he went even further because he wanted the audience to see themselves. So there were mirrors in front of his DJ Booth, and also high up, so that everyone, no matter where they were, could see the DJ, see the other people. So that there was a kind of story to be told between each other. That everyone lives at the same height and that there is no one above the others.

Pierre: Today we clearly feel the weight of history on this issue. There are two opposing generations, but also two different histories. There’s the history of Underground Resistance who masked their DJs, so that they wouldn’t be considered as stars. And the history we’ve lived for the last 20 years where DJs are on huge stages, in the spotlight, with lights on them, etc…

This is a frequent debate among Le Sucre’s teams. Personally, I’m fed up with the DJ star system. I prefer it when the DJ is on the floor, close to the audience, when people dance with each other, when people look at each other and not at the DJ. It’s difficult to change for two reasons. When you invite DJs who are a bit more recognised, where there are going to be fans in the audience, you can have security problems. 

When these DJs are in the room, people are constantly taking pictures. I remember spending nights putting my hand in front of cameras that were an inch away from the DJ because people were desperate to get his picture.

We have to return to these values where we are not necessarily there to look at the DJ, we are there to dance with each other, we are there to communicate, we are there to exchange… And we create this thanks to the scenography. We create this by taking the DJ out of this high stage with the lights on him or her, which is what a lot of DJs ask for. I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon, but that we’re becoming aware of this in certain clubs.

Camion Bazar at Le Sucre © Gaétan Clément

Do you have other examples than Cornelius Doctor in terms of the scenographic appropriation of the place by artists?

Pierre: It can be very simple things, like ArtJacking who will really take over the stage. That means that unlike some parties, where there’s just the artist on stage, there will be ten or fifteen of them on stage with sofas behind the stage. Making people feel that the backstage is on stage, it changes the atmosphere. We had a moment with the Sheitan Brothers who put up flags they made themselves, with lots of phrases about the aperitif because they were in an aperitif format, lots of puns, etc…

Léa: Camion Bazar, for example, always bring back very different scenographies that are linked to their set. They also take over the whole stage and it’s crazy. They recreate a kind of cocooning living room. You feel like you’re in a new house. It’s fun.

Pierre: We get a lot of requests for visuals, like with Umwelt. Le Sucre is a very suitable venue for audiovisual work.

Would you say that the scenographies of Le Sucre take into account current sustainability issues?

Léa: We are trying more and more. It’s always complicated to talk about ecology when making scenographies. In any case, we’re thinking more and more about them so that we can reuse them afterwards, in our different spaces. For example, we are going to reuse a recently created greenhouse to make a safe house on the terrace. Afterwards, there are brands that we work with, who reuse the furniture for themselves, in other places, in other clubs or in other restaurants, etc… We reuse a lot of led tubes, which are the luminous crosses of Nuits sonores initially.

Pierre: What’s interesting is having this ecosystem. To be able to share in terms of scenography and knowledge, to be able to use things from Nuits sonores on the Sucre and vice versa.

Lights © Gaétan Clément

Are there any more permanent scenic elements?

Léa: No, we have the box at Le Sucre and then we change the scenography inside this box. The led tubes are there from the beginning of December to the end of February and then we use them differently on Le Sucre every year for a new experience.

Pierre: Le Sucre is quite bare, visually. When you enter the club, the only scenic element is the bar, which is separated from the rest of the club by light bulbs coming down from the ceiling. The idea was to be able to have a fairly marked and visible marker in the room. 

What also makes Le Sucre’s room special is that it is open to the outside on one side. You can see the daylight coming into the club, you can see the sunset over the Saône, as well as the sunrise around 5.30am. The weather outside is an integral part of the scenography inside Le Sucre. 

You’re going to have a totally different atmosphere whether it’s Sunday afternoon or Friday night. In a lot of clubs you’re in a black box at any given time, whereas here you feel like you’re living with what’s outside. 

It’s a club that is also very lean in terms of lighting. We have a ceiling made up of about fifteen rows of fixed lights. We don’t have lasers, we don’t have lots of lights. We try to limit our investment in lighting as much as possible. On some events we’re trying to use as little as possible and instead use smoke. I tend to believe that seeing each other a little less in the club also allows us to let go a little more. To feel more comfortable dancing. And I think that’s why a lot of DJs ask for it. 

And vice versa in terms of security, especially today with the problems we know very well, of injections, GHB, chemical submission, etc. Being in complete darkness, it is always harder for our security team, for our mediation team, to see the risky behaviours in terms of sexual assaults, etc., to finally have a vision of security.

Le Sucre’s Terrasse © Gaétan Clément

How can scenography lead to more inclusive and safe spaces? What will the safe house on the terrace be like?

Léa: The idea is to have a cocoon on the terrace, out of sight. And if someone feels uncomfortable or has a question, we have mediators at Le Sucre who will be able to welcome them. Or security, of course, but we did wonder about the fact that people are much less likely to see security than someone who is dedicated to mediation. The idea is that the person can settle down, recover if they need to, and above all, out of sight and accompanied by someone. 

Pierre: For the moment, the mediators are marauding, they are available, they are identifiable by their special clothing and that is their job 100%. They are not there to provide security, nor to judge the public. They are there to listen and to alert if there is a problem, they are trained for that.

Today, the idea of the safe house is to have this element of scenography which allows you to mark out this. At the moment, if you’re looking for the mediator, as he or she is on the prowl, you don’t really know where to go. We know that it is very difficult, especially when you are a woman, a person from a minority, or a racialized person, to go and see a security guard because we also know that it is difficult to express yourself with people who are representatives of security, representatives of a certain order, etc.

That’s why it was very important to have this little house. You know that you can go there directly, you know that you will be welcomed by someone who wants to listen to you. It also takes the pressure off the bartenders. They are working, they will take the time to listen if there is a problem, but sometimes they are in a rush, they don’t necessarily have the time and that’s why it became undeniable that a solution had to be found.

Léa: To create this house, I worked on the mirror. It’s a small house that reflects Le Sucre on all its sides. So it can be seen as well as disappeared. The work on the mirror also creates an object that is a bit curious, but at the same time it can blend in with Le Sucre, and you can’t see it. Obviously, there are signs on it that will make it easy to spot.

Inside, we will work on the wood to create a rather warm atmosphere. Obviously, we’ll need light and something warm. Maybe we’ll need some cushions to welcome people who are a bit uncomfortable. So that it’s safe for everyone.

There are mirrors around the safe house, Cornelius Doctor’s set design was made of mirrors… It’s something that comes up a lot in Le Sucre, this mirror?

Léa: Maybe it’s because I used to be a bartender. I know how people behave in a club and I wish they could see each other and understand each other’s behaviour. I think it’s quite interesting that people can meet and respect each other and that it’s a bit safer for everyone. I think the mirror is good for that.

To what extent would you say that the scenography meets the aspirations of the new Le Sucre project? 

Léa: I think you have to keep the Sucre as it is, and adapt to each personality who wants to come and create something. It’s really important to create a new experience for the audience every time.

Pierre: We give Le Sucre as a tool, the DJ is in the room and not on stage, we create certain formats with a little less lights, more smoke so that people feel a little more comfortable, but I wouldn’t say that we have a real concept of scenography that comes with this new project. 

Except for this reflection on the Friday mini club, which we will relaunch this summer. It’s one of the most important principles we’ve adopted over the last few years and that we’re continuing to do. To come back to real values in terms of art, in terms of exchanges, in terms of atmosphere, in terms of freedom of expression, etc… It’s totally different to have a club atmosphere with 400 people than with 800 people. I think that’s what marks this new ambition, to find a club on a human scale, from Friday to Sunday.

Are there other elements that mark the mini club?

Léa: We worked on the cube again. We took Le Sucre and reduced it with pendrums. And so we had the impression of entering a closed place, a mini club where the DJ was almost in the middle of the audience. A sort of black box in which there wasn’t much light. The dancefloor was in the middle and then afterwards there were lots of other things that could happen.

Pierre: It’s actually the opposite of the dark room. Our dark room was our mini-club. We created a dark room in the center of the club, a cube within the cube. In terms of communication, and symbolically, all the communication was focused on the cube. Clément in communication had made a kind of Rubikub which was projected in the mini-club. 

It was a concept that was strong enough for people to have that cube logo stuck in their heads. The goal for this summer and the fall is to have a second season of this mini club. To start again with the cube theme, but to do something new. Maybe with other light effects, maybe with transparent pendants on which you can put visuals.

Léa: There’s also the logo for the Sunday evenings, the sunsets. We made a lighted sign, installed behind the scenes, which represents waves with a sun in the middle. It has become the flagship element of the Sunday.

Pierre: We had made t-shirts with these waves. Now, when people think of Le Sucre, they think of these waves from the Sunday sunset which represent a sunset and which has become an emblematic element of Le Sucre. These elements of scenography, the cube, the waves, are marks that bring us a lot in artistic terms. They are sometimes even stronger than the art. We know that some of the public will come because they know it’s the Sunset after seeing the logo.

When we reopened Le Sucre after the covid, we didn’t reopen the Mini Club on Fridays. We said to ourselves we’re reopening, we’re not going to limit the capacity, people want to come back. So we reopened in a big way. It lasted two or three months, and after a while on Fridays, there was no concept. No more scenography. It ran out of steam very quickly, even by programming headliners, which is expensive for us, it didn’t work. So that’s why we’re going back to a strong identity on Fridays with a scenography that will identify the evening. 

Sunset night © Gaétan Clément

Are there any other things you would like to test in terms of scenography?

Léa: I’d like to go back into the open air, not be in clubs anymore.

Pierre: My dream is to have Friday nights where there is not a single light. Personally, I feel free in a club, free to take off my shirt and really dance, when my neighbour can hardly see me. When I’m in a lit club, with everyone looking at each other, I don’t feel comfortable. I can imagine the mini club in the smoke and the only lights there would mark the cage of the cube.

I’m more and more against this debauchery of light, scenography, etc., which also has a significant ecological impact. I really don’t think that it serves the evening. There is a race in the clubs today, in terms of investments in bigger and bigger sound systems, more and more lasers, more and more lights, etc… It’s entertainment but I’m not sure that the parties are better for it. 

Léa: I wish people could be much freer and much cooler with each other. Maybe being in the dark would work better. Maybe if we looked at each other a little less, the relationship would be easier. Maybe we’ll try to make it completely dark. When there’s smoke, when you’re in complete darkness, you let go more. You are a bit more yourself. You’re less inward-looking, and you have the terrace for discussion.

Would you say that the design of a club has a role to play in the recognition of clubs as a cultural place?

Pierre: I think not. In my opinion, if you have a DJ booth in club format, with a scenography that doesn’t allow for a place that is too flexible, a scenography that doesn’t allow for live music, etc., for me, it’s culture. As soon as you have a club with an artistic proposal, a real programme that goes beyond entertainment, it’s culture. Today, if we are a club that does training, live music, if we have these relationships with the residents, if we set up associations, etc., it is culture. Just as much as a club that only does DJing. 

There is no ‘better’ culture than others. It all depends on how you think about your club. Today, there are many clubs that are not at ease with the term “club” precisely in order to be legitimized by the public authorities, when in fact it’s up to the public authorities to understand that a club is like a concert hall, with just DJs instead of a guitarist. But clubs don’t need to “do more” to be defined as a cultural place. 

As soon as you have an artistic programme, as soon as you do everything to make your audience feel free, as soon as you do everything so that there is no discrimination in the club, so that people feel comfortable, so that they can talk, it is a cultural place. I think that the recognition of clubs will also come from embracing this festive side of culture.

The difficulty is to make the public authorities understand that today a DJ is an artist, who is seen as if he were at a concert. But it’s complicated legally speaking, I understand that the public authorities are sometimes apprehensive. When you see how certain concert venues or clubs are managed in terms of administration, where for example DJs are not hired, this can lead to the public authorities not seeing them as performance venues. 

So it’s also a give and take. We want to be recognized as a cultural establishment, but in order to be recognized as a cultural establishment, we also have to be able to respect the intermittent employment scheme, hire our artists, etc…

The venue through mixes

Here are 3 broadcasts that crystalize the sonic identity of the nightclub, made by their residents.

About the Interviewer

French independent stage designer based in Paris, Axel Simon worked on a club projet at Bureau Betak. He now works with Paf Atelier. He writes for the webzine Listen Up, and previously worked for whypeopledance and United We Stream Asia.

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