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How Refugees Are Using Theatre to Welcome Parisians into Their Lives

It’s supposed to run for just over forty minutes, but it’s been going for an hour. Jack Ellis, a volunteer artist at Good Chance Theatre in Paris, peeps hastily through the curtains and motions cut. Alexandre Moisescot, curator at Good Chance and director of and actor in this Hope Show—a weekly presentation of work made during the week by refugees in theatre workshops—immediately falls into an improvised gag with Bashir, an Afghani refugee playing a security guard in a take on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It ends with the audience clapping enthusiastically. Most are on their feet; some, like me, hide a tear.

When does theatre ever match this sense of closeness and sharing? Not too often—and probably rarely in geodesic domes, which were used by Good Chance when the theatre first formed in the Calais Jungle as a place where refugees could express themselves away from the problems they were facing. Now, as the company’s production arm prepares to transfer its show The Jungle from London to New York City, the moveable domes sit like beating hearts outside Paris’s Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration (Museum of Immigration), where Good Chance has been in residence for the museum’s season, aptly titled “Welcome.”

“Who is allowed to welcome? Normally the people who have been in a place for the longest time,” write co-founders and co–artistic directors of Good Chance, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, in an email. “Who is not allowed to welcome? The people who don’t know the place very well.” They have decided to invert the notion, with recently arrived refugees welcoming born-and-raised Parisians. The point of this is to demonstrate that the people who are arriving and building new lives in the city have just as much to offer, with their unique perspectives and experiences, as those who know their environment well. “It is not a case of ‘refugees welcome,’” Murphy and Robertson say, “it’s a case of ‘refugees welcoming.’”

Good Chance’s residency is about refugee empowerment. It is the first time they have worked so openly in the public eye. Since the destruction of the Calais Jungle, the company has built its domes outside French refugee centers far from society’s gaze. Now, refugees have to travel from centers in Paris via public transport to Good Chance, intermingle with the public at the museum, and “welcome” them to their dome. As audience members arrive, they get patted down at the doors by actors dressed as security guards; while it’s done as a joke, it’s probably the refugees who are more used to this kind of intrusion than everyday Parisians. Deliberately flouting the conventional theatre etiquette, actors then “welcome” the audience members, show them to their seats, and talk to them like friends.

performers hyping up an audience

Marzin (white T-shirt) and Malang (black T-shirt) in the Hope Show. Photo by Good Chance Theatre.

Of course, this is nothing new. Belarus Free Theatre has sometimes operated in the same way, and actors interacting with audience members is commonly used, especially in children’s theatre. Here, though, it seems to give the refugees a sense of ownership and to promote an egalitarian atmosphere. “In the theatre everyone is equal,” says Bashir, who is a member of La Troupe, a group of regular Good Chance workshop attendees borne out of the Paris domes.

Indeed, gone are the usual stiff silences before lights down or motionless ushers standing to attention; instead, it feels like everyone has come along for a gig, where anything can happen. Modern-day theatre protocol and all its trappings—brightly lit box offices and swanky bars—has been stripped away. “This is Shakespeare,” says Claire Béjanin, Good Chance’s international executive producer of The Jungle. “Theatre is too bourgeois today; it is for the educated, it is not vital anymore, it has lost an essence,” she says.

But perhaps the refugees along with Good Chance are helping to put this vitality back into theatre. When the clapping finishes at the end of this Hope Show, the audience mingles with the actors, keen to talk to them—something that is less common in conventional theatre. According to Bashir, this is what theatre is for: to have conversations where different groups of people can begin to talk to each other.

Naomi Webb, executive director of Good Chance, explains that the company “came to Paris because there are thousands of refugees on the streets and there is no dialogue between them and the Parisians.” For her, the work seems more urgent in the wake of President Macron’s hostile new immigration bill. “In central Paris, refugees are ignored or not known about,” concurs Dina Mousawi, Good Chance’s creative producer.

The people who are arriving and building new lives in the city have just as much to offer, with their unique perspectives and experiences, as those who know their environment well.

When I visited Jardins d’Éole as an embedded critic—with volunteers and Malang, who is from Afghanistan, and another member of La Troupe—to encourage newly arrived refugees to come back to the theatre for a day of workshops, I got to see just how isolated this population is. This isolation partly comes through indifference. The park, rather than welcome centers, is home to a host of men from Eritrea, Chad, and Sudan—these individuals live out in the open, exposed to the elements and within full view of nearby apartments. Two Parisians are even exercising amongst them without batting an eyelid. But the isolation also partly comes from the opposite: from not blending in. As we walk back to Stalingrad Metro with the men who’ve decided to join us, I notice people looking, wondering who we are.

At the theatre, though, things change. We all eat together—a chance for people to hang out socially, even if, due to the many languages spoken (around twenty sometimes), people can’t always understand each other very well. Later, a vigorous workshop, where the men are encouraged to play fight, allows them to let off steam and high five and fist bump people like Bashir, Malang, and Alpha, another Good Chance regular. It’s Thursday and we don’t know if anyone will return the next day or for Saturday, the day of the Hope Show, but they seem to be enjoying themselves.

large tent in front of building

Good Chance Theatre November 2018. Photo by Justin Sutcliffe.

Refugees do come back, though. “With this residency refugees can come into the museum and be seen,” says Mousawi. “There is a pride in that.” If it seems crazy that refugees living out in the open or with other huge worries on their shoulders would decide to partake in theatre workshops, even if they’ve never had an interest before, it’s put into perspective by Bashir. He tells me that upon his arrival to Porte de la Chapelle, a welcome center for refugees, Good Chance volunteers—Mousawi in particular—were the only people who spoke to him and wanted to include him in something. It’s “theatre of necessity,” says Moisescot. Later, Webb tells me Good Chance believes that being able to express oneself is as important as the human right to food, warmth, and shelter.

But there’s no room for any self-pity in the Hope Shows, although the Parisian audience must surely see the Waiting for Godot skit—where Bashir sits around waiting for the arrival of Godot, who never comes—as a metaphor for the situation many refugees face. That same night, Yousef, who has political refugee status and is a Syrian poet and history teacher, recites a tender but angry poem about the state of the world—but not about himself; private traumas remain private, although refugees can contribute story ideas at the workshops. “The war has broken all things, has broken human beings on the inside,” Yousef says. But Yousef’s sadness and attention is not directed at himself, it’s directed at the “sick ideology, at Assad, Putin, Hezbollah.” As he recites his poem, the silence is so great you can hear someone shouting down the street, far from the theatre.

Time away from their problems gives the refugees mental space, but in Yousef’s words it also encourages him to think about what more he can do to help: “When I’m eating I think, how can I eat, how can I sleep? Maybe my writing can do something. Everyone can do something.”

Back onstage in the Hope Show, the refugees enjoy each other’s company. Marzin, a Sudanese refugee who has been in France a few months, says for the first time he feels he is in a group he likes and that he is a lot happier. But there is something more raw and visceral at work too. Malang, who is interested in how he can use his body onstage, says, “I want people to come and see [the Hope Show] because I have something to say, not necessarily in words.” Malang, who wants to “go further in acting and dancing,” says that Good Chance Theatre gives people what they need to exist: “It’s about being seen, being heard, being recognized.”

What does this do to an audience? Charlotte, a volunteer from Paris, believes that French theatre is “missing the human connection” and that Good Chance, working with refugees, is helping add that back in. But this means there is a need to “get rid of the condescension,” says Moisescot, referring to audiences who would enthusiastically applaud the early Hope Shows, even if they weren’t very good. By continuing to work with people like Malang and Bashir through La Troupe, to build up their skills, the Hope Shows can now “have some irreverence, cruelty, violence, and fun,” says Moisescot, and “people who see the show have the feeling to be part of it, not just a spectator.”

Good Chance and its refugee performers are filling the gap that exists between audience and performer in traditional theatre in order to increase understanding and break down boundaries.

The audience’s relationship to the performers has changed—it is less conciliatory and more respectful and equal. And, in a way, because the refugees have actively invited the audience into their space, without money changing hands (the Hope Show is free), it is a gift. It might not be totally perfect, but it is participatory.

“If we had to summarize what we expect of the audience, it’s to get them to leave the Hope Show with more questions than certainties,” writes a representative from the Museum. And it can happen—one female audience member tells me it has changed what she thinks art is for.

performers in front of a large audience

The Hope Show in the Good Chance Theatre in Paris. Photo by Raphaël Hilarion.

Some people might query if there is a chance that audiences will see a Hope Show and then forget it, or if the people who need to see it just won’t go, but these might be the wrong questions to ask. “We can’t force people to change their opinions [of refugees], we can only do it slowly,” says Webb. However, she reveals that one Parisian was so moved after seeing a Hope Show they donated a large amount of money to help with future projects. But the co-founders make me realize that I have not quite understood theatre’s latent powers. “Good Chance believes in the power of theatre to stay with people, to continually affect and challenge,” Murphy and Robertson write. “Live, unrepeatable experiences have a particular energy that allows them to change in an individual’s memory, allowing them to feel consistently relevant and difficult to simplify.” This fits. We can’t actually measure the impact art has; its effects are more hidden.

From my brief stay in Paris, it is apparent that everyone is affected by Good Chance’s presence: from the bored security guards at the museum who shout “Good Chance!” as a salutation to refugees as they enter the domes, to the café-bar across the road, where we decamp every night, whose attitude towards its very international guests has become warm and welcoming.

The refugees are suddenly walking tall. “When he arrived, Malang was so down,” says Chris, a volunteer who met him when he first came to a refugee center in Paris. But now, “he is like this: head up, shoulders back.” The empowerment is apparent in how Malang, Bashir, Marzin, and the others treat the domes: as if they are their second homes.

“When I come here every Saturday I make shower; I make elegant because I am coming to meet my family,” says Yousef. Good Chance has become a way for people to live, to meet, to socialize. It’s more than a job for its staff, and there seems to be no cutoff point for the refugees who regularly attend the workshops. The work they do and the art they create seeps into their private lives; both Bashir and Malang are often the first to arrive early and amongst the last to leave at night. Good Chance is not just theatre but a living, breathing way of life.

Refugees need Good Chance, this is obvious. But, the co-founders are clear to point out, “their stories are needed by us” too.

This is something that even liberal audiences need to learn: “Even if people are open-minded, there’s still work to do in levels of understanding,” says Webb. Good Chance and its refugee performers are filling the gap that exists between audience and performer in traditional theatre in order to increase understanding and break down boundaries. They are also inverting need, taking away its propensity to encourage power imbalances and making it more equal.

As Marzin says, Good Chance is “a beautiful idea,” and the fact that he travels five hours every day from his center outside Paris, just to come to the theatre, says it all.

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