Beyond the Jungle: Good Chance refugee theatre pops up in Paris
An unassuming, white, dome-shaped tent is pitched next to a former railway warehouse on the outskirts of Paris. Step inside and the walls are covered with colourful felt-tip drawings, with homemade furniture scattered around. From morning to midday, the dome gradually fills with people speaking many different languages. Some are regulars, others are tentatively visiting for the first time. This is Good Chance Theatre, set up for refugees and migrants on the periphery of the French capital, near the ‘welcome centre’ where men go to begin the asylum process.
Founded by British playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, the pop-up theatre has been at La Station – Gare des Mines for a month. The Joes, as everyone calls them, originally set up Good Chance in the middle of the busy Calais Jungle, after they visited the migrant camp and decided they needed to help in some way. Supported by leading figures in British theatre, including Sonia Friedman, Stephen Daldry, and Young Vic artistic director David Lan, Good Chance created work with migrants in the camp for seven months.
The theatre became a ‘safe space’ for people when there were clashes between the police and the camp’s residents, which sometimes happened so close that tear gas blew inside. While the dome was safe from evictions, residents of the camp were not, and eventually the Joes decided to dismantle the tent when refugees were no longer able to reach it through police lines.
Still determined to make a difference, the pair decided to relocate to Paris to help the many refugees living on the streets of the French capital to be able to “see things differently” and allow those in a desperate situation to leave the theatre feeling even “a little bit better and different”. Forty refugee volunteers helped to set up the new dome over the course of two days. Now they are no longer in the middle of a camp, Good Chance volunteers walk to the nearby welcome centre and smaller roadside camps every morning to tell people about the theatre.
“I was not sleeping very well before we started here,” says Murphy. “I thought this might not work, it’s not on everybody’s doorstep and we would have to go out and find people and say, ‘We’ve built a theatre and you are welcome.’ ”
“And you’ll enjoy it, I promise!” Robertson adds.
Despite their apprehension, 50 people turned up on the first day and Good Chance worked with about 2,000 refugees during its four weeks at La Station. The Joes ran an artistic programme of workshops led by refugee, French and international artists each week, finishing with a ‘Hope Show’ every Saturday to allow participants to share their creations.
From the moment I arrive at Good Chance, I feel as if I am absorbed by the place. Within an hour, I am serving hot drinks to new arrivals alongside the volunteers, before being encouraged to join an improvisational theatre game led by Murphy. By the end of the day, I’ve danced in a hip-hop workshop and been dragged on stage to sing a solo of Happy Birthday.
“Theatre is usually a silent medium for the audience,” Robertson remarks. “It requires an almost cerebral engagement. But here it takes so many forms: singing a solo or engaging in an intense conversation. The play begins with the building of the theatre and doesn’t stop until the theatre comes down.” Murphy adds: “There’s no dictation whatsoever, you find yourself making your own path through the day, and that’s immersion.”
The Joes tell me about a migrant called Karim, whose first words to them were ‘I am a very small man and I can do nothing.’ But by the following week Karim was leading exercise classes and, by the time I met him, he was welcoming new visitors and performing as a king in Murphy’s workshop.
“It’s to feel like you are being listened to – like you are being acknowledged and that someone is there with you saying ‘that’s great’,” Robertson says. “You can’t measure the impact on your confidence. Often as a refugee that’s been taken away from you.”
Outside, people sit on benches talking, smoking, building puzzles and drawing pictures. A company called Data Glitch runs a workshop on repurposing old toys, while, in the theatre, jazz vocalist Helen McDonald exchanges song with refugees.
5 things you need to know about Good Chance
1.The theatre’s name comes from a popular phrase used by people in the Calais Jungle camp – ‘good chance’ or ‘no chance’ – which referred to the likelihood of crossing the border that night.
2. In 2016 Good Chance ran the second most successful crowdfunding campaign in arts history in the UK (after Ai Weiwei), raising more than £45,000.
3. Some of the varied activities to have taken place at Good Chance during its time at La Station and in Calais include fashion shows, a carpentry workshop, kung fu classes, yoga, poetry slams and circus activities.
4. The two Joes have known each other for seven years, and they first met when they performed in a production of The Taming of the Shrew at Oxford University where they both studied English.
5. Good Chance has received support from a number of French and British organisations, including Collectif MU, which runs La Station, as well as London’s Royal Court and Young Vic theatres
A Syrian refugee, Youssef, tells me: “A refugee person needs someone beside him to let him think he is not alone. We cannot find something like that outside this place.”
Youssef explains that he wants the French people and government to give him a chance, adding: “I have my work as a teacher in Syria. I lost two brothers, my house and my homeland. What am I doing? Where can I go?”
Later in the day, Youssef takes me aside to show me a poem he has written about Good Chance. It reads:
When this place closes, we will never forget you;
Because your love will continue inside us;
Because you gave hope to every refugee;
Every refugee knows someone who cares about him.
We will tell all the world about this place;
About the nice people we met here;
And we will tell our children in the future about your love;
I speak to another refugee, a choreographer from Sudan called Hassan Jozolee, who ran the hip-hop workshop. He likens being able to dance to “being alive again.” “Teaching people dancing does so many psychological things, you forget all your problems, you are capable of doing anything,” he tells me.
French theatremaker Linda Fahssis, who is visiting Good Chance for the day, tells me that while theatre companies increasingly work with migrants, she has never experienced anything like this before. “It’s more than a workshop for two hours,” she explains. “It’s the life you create; it’s much more than a theatre company. It’s a bit of utopia.”
When activities finish at 5pm, I sit down with the Joes. Murphy tells me that he believes there are “three big reasons” to be there: the growing population of refugees in desperate conditions, Brexit and the then-imminent French election.
He explains: “This country is making a decision that includes the people we work with every day. We are apolitical in that we would never say ‘this is what should happen’. It’s a more subtle message that says the reality is loads of people are here so let’s find a way of living together, and art is going to help us do this.”
Good Chance has now migrated to Theatre de la Ville in the centre of Paris for the duration of the Chantiers d’Europe festival until May 24, where it will continue to work with refugees who have successfully claimed asylum. After this, the Joes hope the dome will move around Paris to continue to help refugees who are living on the streets. They are hoping to return to La Station in October, but then the future is unclear.
Murphy explains: “One of the reasons we don’t only want to exist at La Station, and we also feel it is important to exist in Theatre de la Ville, is because it would be very easy for us to be classified as ‘we’re left’ and we’re maybe slightly anarchic, and we love refugees and migrants, and this is who we are.”
He continues: “But actually we’re not just that. We want to make in-roads and start conversations with people who are very much not of that opinion and to respect those people. Because there’s a liberal problem at the moment where we are very happy to talk to people of the same opinion, but we struggle with stating that opinion to people who don’t share it.”
Robertson adds: “It’s a difficult moment in Paris. People are anxious and scared. We understand that – it’s so easy to let that fear divide us.” He says that he had never met a refugee before coming to Paris and quotes the late AA Gill, a supporter of Good Chance: “Just talk to someone who is a refugee and your world view will shift, everything will change.”
“We call Good Chance a safe space,” Robertson tells me. “But it’s a safe space that has to be dangerous. You can’t go in there and expect everything to be nice and you’re not going to be offended. It’s only a safe space if anything is on the cards.”
Profile: Good Chance Theatre
Founding artistic directors: Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson
Audience figures: The venue worked with more than 2,000 refugees across four weeks; 40 refugee volunteers helped build the dome; capacity inside the tent is 145 people
Employees: Three full-time staff; six freelancers; about 35 volunteers across the four weeks
Funding: Approximately £400,000 raised to date