Photographer Annabelle Marcovici takes us inside the theater that popped up next door to France’s first temporary shelter for asylum seekers. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Public perception of refugees tends to fall into one of two camps: downtrodden aid recipients or social parasites, victims or villains. The label “refugee” is so loaded that it obscures the actual people to whom it applies, painting them more as characters in geopolitical morality plays than as living humans. Among the mountains of media produced about refugees, precious little of it deviates far from either side of this refugee-as-victim/refugee-as-villain dichotomy. Less still takes the refusal of this dichotomy as a foundational pillar.
My project looks at Good Chance Theatre, an arts group that works with refugees, in order to explore how the arts can be a tool for complicating those myths and building cross-cultural bridges. Specifically, the project explores The Dome, a temporary theater run by Good Chance that sat alongside La Bulle, France’s first temporary shelter for asylum seekers.
Though it’s referred to as a theater, the Dome looks more like a community center devoted to collaborative art. It brings together artists, migrants, refugees and volunteers through workshops that explore a variety of art practices. In these workshops, participants are able to escape from the stresses of daily life in the shelter, try on new ways of relating, process what they’re going through, and connect with people across linguistic and cultural divides. In the words of Abdul Saboor, an Afghan photographer and refugee who volunteers with Good Chance, “[The Dome] is a place where we can forget, and where we can feel like we’re not alone. We can feel like we have a family and people who take care of us and who show us their love, and who don’t think they’re different from us.”
In the Dome, everyone is treated as fellow artists and humans, first and foremost. That foundation of mutual respect creates an environment where people can experiment and take creative risks without judgment, and where collaborative artistic exploration is possible.
This project aligns with my primary area of fascination: namely, how alternative communities organized around principles of justice can serve as models for the rest of society. I hope it stands as testament both to the socially and psychologically transformative power of the arts, and to the infinitely complex humanity beyond the label “refugee.”
Men staying at La Bulle model hand-painted papier-mache masks made during a workshop led by Italian theater artist Anna Cappellari. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Visiting artists Silvia Ribero Rottensteiner (center) and Angela “Angie” Rottensteiner (not pictured) of the Italy-based Biloura Intercultural Theatre Collective lead a February 16 workshop involving group dance and beat-making. After several weeks spent with Good Chance, the two artists recalled: “We have seen young men used to acting hard for survival playing with paper-puppets delicately as 6-year-old children. We have seen sad man laughing. We have seen big man crying at the goodbye moment. We have seen artists sweating until death to lead the group and never giving up, and all the Good Chance people working tirelessly to arrange and solve and organize and listen and answer and translate. It has been so precious… We believe the power of Theatre is huge, subtle, astonishing, that it left a mark in all of us.” (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
During a February 15 workshop in The Dome, people take turns doing group trust falls. One person teeters slightly and the group catches them, then falls slightly more, and then at last falls fully into the waiting hands of the others who lift them up and carry them around the space. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
French breakdancer and choreographer Sofian Jouini (bottom) performs with another man during the March 3 Hope Show. Moments beforehand, Sofian had collapsed on the ground dramatically in the middle of a group performance. The crowd reacted by falling silent and clearing away from him while others, including the man pictured here, appeared to rush to his aid. For a time it was unclear whether this was part of the show, but slowly the man massaged, pulled, and prodded Sofian back to life. People watched rapt as the playfulness returned and Sofian’s performed self was revived. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Visiting artist Sofian Jouini breakdances in The Dome during the March 3 Hope Show. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
The Dome theatre is visible to the right of La Bulle, the shelter for migrants run by Emmas Solidarat at Porte de La Chapelle in Paris’s 18th arrondissement. Both structures are located in an old rail yard in the north of the city. Most of the migrants and refugees who are granted shelter here spent several nights sleeping on the streets in and around Port de la Chapelle before being allowed in, due to the limited space available in La Bulle’s accommodation center. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Bits of fabric, banners, balloons and other decorations line the inside of both domes. Decorating is meant to make the space feel more welcoming, and to help give people the sense that they have some ownership over it. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Brass band Tyrassonores led Hope Show attendees out of the Dome, starting a brief dance party to conclude the show. Zmary Zahyre (center left), an Afghan man residing at La Bulle, dances with Italian visiting curator Elisa Giovanetti (right) and a young boy. Elisa’s role as visiting curator involved bringing in artists to lead workshops, but as with virtually everyone else involved in Good Chance, she also wore many other hats with less official titles. “My special skill is loving people,” she replied, laughing. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Abdul Saboor models an outfit made by Papa Bocar Ndao, a 31-year-old man from Senegal living at nearby refugee shelter Jean Quarr. Ndao designed the coat for a fashion-themed Hope Show, which featured outfits made from clothing that had been donated to La Bulle. Abdul is a 26 year-old photographer who was granted asylum in Paris. In his home country Afghanistan, he worked as a mechanic and crane operator with the U.S. Armed Forces. He said of the Dome, “It’s a place where we can forget, and where we can feel like we’re not alone. We can feel like we have a family and people who take care of us and who show us their love, and who don’t think they’re different from us.” (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Arifullah “Arif” Fana — a 27-year-old Afghan man living at La Bulle — wears a mask he made in a Good Chance workshop. Arif, who speaks six languages, came to Good Chance’s workshops nearly every day. “I was a Thaï boxing teacher back in Afghanistan,” he said. “In the dome, I have been able to give some Thaï boxing lessons and it felt great.” (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Faiz Mohammad Bashardot, an Afghan man staying at La Bulle, poses next to a washing machine inside La Bulle’s accommodation center. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Hand-painted papier-mache masks from a mask workshop led by Italian theater artist Anna Cappellari. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Elvira Hsissou, a 27-year-old French artist who spent a month working with Good Chance, said of her time at The Dome: “The whole experience is balancing between the human chaos that comes with immigration history, which is also our history, with what we are able to give and create together. Maybe what I am getting at … is another meaning of being together through theater and creativity. We looked every day to learn from that space what’s happened to us, and how to live with each other here and now.” (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Drawings by workshop participants, children and adults alike, cover the wall and window space of Good Chance’s cramped office space in La Bulle. The theater sometimes holds workshops on drawing and other 2D art, but paper and art supplies are nearly always available in the small dome for anyone who wants to draw. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Participants in a contact improvisation workshop in Good Chance’s larger Dome gather close together and reach skyward, forming a single, collective gesture with their bodies. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Visiting artist Pierre-Yves Massip (right) — one half of the French theater company Compagnie Mangano-Massip — co-leads a February 15 workshop on physical theater. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)
Hope Show audience members, including many who had already performed that afternoon, watch as people take the stage for a special open mic Hope Show on March 3. Anyone who wanted to was encouraged to perform. Usually Hope Shows take place in the round, with the audience sitting around the outside of the dome and performances happening in the center, but no two shows are alike. (Photo by Annabelle Marcovici/GroundTruth)