Stories for Tomorrow – Lived Today, Everywhere

Theater Changes Lives

© Willy Vainqueur

Theater Changes Lives

In Aubervilliers in the Paris metropolitan region, eight amateur actors take to the stage to talk about fleeing their homes and their experiences in France. Up until the opening night of their play, they were undocumented aliens – which has since changed.

A soft, timid voice on an almost bare stage: Souleyman S. breaks the heavy silence that hangs over the auditorium by singing the children’s song Alouette in the theater of Aubervilliers. The scene is part of a play that tells about refugees and their trek to Europe. The eight actors are from Bangladesh, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. The audience follows Mamadou D. who crossed the Mediterranean on a lost, precarious boat. And Adama B., who decided, after much hesitation, to rip up his papers in the airport of Rome. 

The play Pièce d'actualité n°3 opened at the theater La Commune in Aubervilliers in May of 2015. Dramaturge and author Barbara Métais-Chastanier, filmmaker Camille Plagnet and producer Olivier Coulon-Jablonka created a play based on the eight actors’ stories. For Adama B., Moustapha C., Ibrahim D., Souleyman S., Mohammed Z., Inza K., Mamadou D. and Méité S. are no ordinary actors: They are residents of the ‘squat’, the occupied house at 81 avenue Victor-Hugo in Aubervilliers, and they are undocumented immigrants, „sans-papiers“ in French because they are without papers.

Everything began in the spring of 2014 when La Commune instituted new theatrical formats, closely connected with current events in Aubervilliers, titled pièces d’actualité. “Today, you often don’t know who the theater is actually talking to,” says assistant director Frédéric Sacard. With this series, inspired by the town and its residents, the team here at La Commune is trying to reconnect the citizens with the theater.

An occupied building right in the heart of Aubervilliers

The three artists spent weeks walking the streets of Aubervilliers – a suburb of 76,000 residents north of Paris and one of the poorest communities in France – in search of an emblematic venue that could inspire a play. “We had lots of leads where we could stage the play,” says Olivier, such as large Chinese warehouses or data centers. This was when the trio found out about the occupied house at 81 avenue Victor-Hugo. Its 80 residents were protesting for an official recognition of their occupation of the former employment agency, which had been abandoned for years. People from Africa and Bangladesh had been living in the building since August of 2014. They had previously been evicted from other locations and spent months on the street. The women in the collective, some accompanied by children, didn’t join the group until January of 2015.

  • © Barbara Métais-Chastanier

  • © Barbara Métais-Chastanier

  • © Barbara Métais-Chastanier

  • © Willy Vainqueur

  • © Willy Vainqueur

  • © Willy Vainqueur

The three artists approached the residents with the following proposal: “We’d like to do some theater with you. What do you think?” In the fall, after several encounters, twelve residents overcame their initial reservations and agreed to conduct interviews with the team. Each exchange lasted several hours. Over the course of several months, the dramaturges then used this treasure trove of raw material to create a play. Authors and residents discussed the text before the production began. For the first time, the future actors heard about the journeys of the others – the dangerous and difficult voyage that brought them to Europe was not a topic they brought up during their daily conversations.

The text also addresses the aftermath of their trek, the years spent in France in hiding. In the final version of the play, the song Alouette – „lark“ in English – symbolizes this new phase, this existence as undocumented aliens after their arrival in Europe.

Along the way, some abandoned the project due to work constraints, or sometimes because they were afraid of what the project might entail. Eight of them stuck with it through the end. They had never done theater before. Moreover, none of them had papers. Any moment, the ‘squat’ could have been taken down by the police, its residents once again kicked out and scattered across other clandestine networks.

Yet the directors and the artists soldiered on and saw the project through to the end, despite all uncertainties. The production of the show ran parallel with the progress of their residence applications, always in close cooperation with local associations and the collective of the ‘squat’.

Theater loosens the tongue

In May of 2015, they rehearsed at the theater every day for three weeks, which was a very different type of work from the sans-papiers’ usual activities. Some, like Adama and Mamadou, realized that doing theater, memorizing lines, is a difficult task. All shared intense, sometimes tenuous moments of great authenticity. Olivier says that the balance of power – ever-present in the daily life at the ‘squat’ –dissolved in certain moments during rehearsal. The theater would create “a reality where you could speak frankly,” Méité emphasizes. And there is more: “Theater has really liberated us. You go out, you go to work: you go to the theater. You just feel free!” Inza says. Before the project, the theater was a place all of them avoided because it was mainly frequented by white people. The risk of being profiled in a police check was just too high.

On opening night, the prefect of Seine-Saint-Denis was in attendance. He promised papers for all the residents of the ‘squat’. “I didn’t think that was possible”, says the director of the La Commune, Marie-José Malis. She adds: “Theater has literally changed their lives.” The eight actors and 28 other residents of the ‘squat’ received their papers in the summer. The others are still waiting for their permits, which are contingent on a job contract. Until the fall, the play was performed several times in Aubervilliers as well as in Avignon, in Marseille and in Riga. At the same time, the number of those who seek refuge and a better future in Europe has risen significantly. The local realities told in Pièce d’actualité n°3 reflect a global reality, now more than ever, as Frédéric Sacard emphasizes.

Life in France as a legal immigrant

What about the eight actors? Now that they have papers, some want to finally go home and visit their families. And once they are back in France? First off, do things that were impossible without a residence permit: open a bank account, find housing. Would they like to do more theater? “Now that we’ve caught the fever, we want to continue,” says Méité. “Especially because our message did not fall on deaf ears.”

At the end of the show, the audience heard a second song. It’s a piece by artist Tiken Jah Fakoly from Ivory Coast, which the actors chose to sing because it states a demand that is dear to their hearts: “Open the borders.”


    April 2016
    France, Aubervilliers

    La Commune


    Ines Grau
    is a social scientist and works for the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology as well as in international out-of-school education. Previously, she was responsible for the endeavors of Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste in France. 


    Kerstin Trimble



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