At Good Chance Paris

Helen Jeffrey

Lycée Jean Quarré is an abandoned cookery school in Paris’s 19th arrondissement, near the Place des Fêtes. In October 2015, a reported 1000 refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers squatting there were evicted by the police. The NGO Emmaüs Solidarité now manages the building as a Centre d'Hébergement d'Urgence, or CHU, for around 150 refugees and asylum-seekers. Most of the current residents are young men from Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea and Libya.

In theory people stay for only a short time, before moving on when their asylum applications have been processed, but the system is notoriously slow and its outcomes uncertain. Life is on hold for many. Meanwhile, Emmaüs Solidarité supports social inclusion projects and integration with the local community.

For nine weeks this summer, Good Chance Paris is running a pop-up theatre on one of the lycée's basketball courts. They have set up two white geodesic domes (a big one for the theatre and a smaller one for art activities). I volunteered there for a week last month.

In the spring, Good Chance set up at La Bulle refugee welcome centre in Porte de la Chapelle, in a railway yard in north-east Paris. At the start of the week, one of the volunteers set off for la Chapelle to collect people who wanted to come over to the new location. Everyone is welcome to take part in the theatre, not just the residents of the CHU. One man, who came to Good Chance every day I was there, is living rough while he waits for the outcome of his application. He told me he walks the streets at night. He spent eight months travelling to Paris.

The curator for the week was Sofia Norlin, a Swedish film director based in Paris. She'd invited the pianist David Ambramovitz and opera singers Åsa Junesjö and David Koh to help. Verdi’s ‘Va, pensiero’ was soon ringing out and we were learning new words for it, composed in an earlier writing workshop. They were translated into Arabic and English for posters in the small dome, where we also made puppets and decorations. The physical theatre workshops, run by Connie Treves, welcomed everyone, whether to take part or to watch. It was extremely hot. The days would end with music and dancing before everything was packed away and the domes closed for the night.

Through the course of the daily workshops, people gradually make connections with each other. A young man from Sudan sang about a bird flying freely across different lands; people hovered at the doorway, some of them joining in the song, only to melt away once it was over. The 'Hope Show' at the end of the week was joyous, uplifting, a little chaotic, and beautiful, with opera, mime, many languages, traditional songs, poetry, and puppets in the shape of birds. The audience was made up of friends, family, residents and the local community. Other residents watched from their windows. Perhaps the following week they would take part.

The original Good Chance Theatre was founded in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais in 2015 by the British playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson. When the southern end of the camp was cleared seven months later, they left and went on to create the award-winning play The Jungle, working with the National Theatre, the Young Vic and Sonia Friedman Productions. It has transferred to London's Playhouse Theatre and runs there until November, when it will move to St Ann’s Warehouse in New York. An album, Sounds of Refuge, is about to be released by three musicians from the ensemble. There is talk of more pop-up theatres in other places, including Greece.

Good Chance Paris is a French association created to continue the work started in Calais. Many of the people evicted from the Jungle have ended up there. Refugee numbers in Paris continue to climb and unofficial migrant camps have sprung up along the canals. There will be one more Hope Show at Jean Quarré CHU, on 18 August, before Good Chance leave. There are plans to reopen the theatre in October, in a different location.