Nov 27 - Nov 29, 2016
Once the London leg of the trip had been completed, the three company members flew to Paris and met up with two more members, Dennis Yueh-yeh Li and Leah Bachar.
The next day we assembled outside CentQuatre-Paris (http://www.104.fr/) in Paris (located in La Villette, the 19th Arrondissement). The building serves as a public cultural center which provides open space for residencies, productions and performances for artists and audiences from all corners of the world.
We entered this enormous, breathtaking space, that once functioned as a former funeral parlor and was later entirely renovated to create what is now one of Europe’s uniquest cultural spaces.
After walking into this vast building, one of the most striking images, besides the immediate architecture and the flood of light streaming in through the large windows, was the communal aspect of the space.
The building serves as a place for the public to experience art. Cent Quatre is open during the day for anyone to show up and create. In the evening they offer concerts, talks, activities, but during the day the space is open to the public. There are no rules except first come, first serve. The doors are open to dancers, performers, gymnasts, social groups, athletes, etc. to come and work on their craft and skills.
Coming from New York City, we were immediately impressed at how free and inviting this way of working felt. There were no fees or time limits or applications, instead it allowed the people to decide for themselves how they best would use the space with the time they had.
It was inspiring to watch everyone working side by side, creating a kaleidoscope of creativity and community that was supported by the city. It really hit home to see how much innovation and inspiration can be nurtured when people are given the space to work, when money and elitism aren’t the ultimate goals.
We set ourselves up and began to warm up our bodies and voices. We worked together on different Living Theatre exercises and had a discussion about issues that were important to the attendees. Topics arose that revolved around immigration, racism, rebellion, revolution, language, social justice and the nature of protest.
In the middle of the workshop a soundcheck began and we had to move to another part of the building in order to continue working. This happened a few more times and we realized that the anarchist nature of the building was seeping into our work. We had to figure out where the next best place would be for us to set up and get back to work and as more groups appeared, we had to reconfigurate in order to adjust to the new influx of people arriving to use the free space. Still the power of this open center was so inspiring that the more that the people appeared, the more we recognized the fluid nature that must be present when working and existing side by side with various communities.
As all the groups functioned together in harmony, we watched people come in from the streets with their children to simply just walk around and take in all the activity. Children, adults and elders walked around watching each group spending time on their own pieces and creations, and it felt as if this public space served as a human museum. A place where you could bring your friends and family to watch people work, devise, experiment, hone, play.
By the middle of the workshop the space was completely full and there was an electricity of creative energy in the air. Our group began to create a street piece together about immigration and the tug of war felt by people to help those arriving to a new country after facing crisis, coupled with the feeling of being overwhelmed by the situation, which then results in inaction.
The piece had one group standing in a line serving as the oppressors while the other group tried to cross through the imposed borders in order to arrive safely on the other side. The struggle to arrive from one location to another, and all the obstacles presented in between, was revealed in the movements of the migrant group.
We rehearsed the piece a few times until we felt ready to go out into the streets. We decided to perform the piece outside of a busy subway station named Stalingrad. As we performed and read from the exquisite corpse that we wrote together, we noticed an audience forming around us. When we were done we were approached by a tiny, powerful woman with jet black hair and eyes like black lagoons. She was singing into a microphone attached to a little amp, a song in an unfamiliar language. She sang right to us with the most loving light in her eyes. She sang for her family who was also watching us from nearby.
A young Sudanese man (we can call him X) approached us and began to talk about the piece and how it affected him. At first he spoke in his native language but then switched to English when he realized the majority of us were American. He thanked us for the performance and felt that seeing a piece directed at the issue of immigration was important for him. His charming smile and honest nature called us to continue the conversation with him and he was kind enough to grant us an interview but asked us not to reveal his name or image for fear that the police would find him.
He told us more about his journey from Sudan to France and how hard it was for him at first to get situated. He spoke of his time being homeless on the streets, searching for food and warmth, waiting for work papers and learning a new language.
He informed of us of the all the displaced people sleeping in subway stations, under bridges, in tent camps, etc. As he spoke we noticed a man approach and stand close to us, listening and watching him intently.
As X spoke to us in perfect English and told us how hard it was for people to find comfort in a new country after arriving from crisis, we could sense that he had a strong will and determination and that was what was fueled him to continue on.
He let us know that he had finally gotten his work papers, he also finally found a place to live after sleeping on the street for months, and that he been attending French and English classes regularly. Once he was done with the interview, the stranger on the periphery approached us and X revealed that this was his English teacher. The proud look in his teachers eye as X charmed and blessed the crowd with his wisdom was a sight to behold.
We asked how we could help with the situation and they both said that helping with distribution and donations would be the best.
X mentioned that the government takes too long to address the needs of refugees and people are left figuring out their everyday issues on their own. He stressed that even the little things, like passing out blankets, food, clothes, etc are actually small acts that make a big difference while everyone waits for a place to call home.
We agreed to meet them the next day to help with donations and distribution and we said goodbye to our friend, infused with the beauty that his smile left us. As we began to wrap up, the family with the singing grandmother approached us again and expressed their thanks for our performance. The simple act of acknowledging a social situation through theatre contains a power that has the ability to connect human beings, no matter the language or cultural barriers present.
The next day we woke up early and headed out into the street to purchase items to donate. We picked up diapers, baby formula, and winter hats for children. We walked earnestly towards the location provided to us by X and his teacher of where to meet to help with distribution. We arrived at the address provided, but for some reason we were unable to find the group of distributors. We walked around the hospital building that we were told to meet in front of but were still unable to locate anyone. We went into the hospital searching for more information but were told that donations for babies were not being received at the moment, but that adult items were needed instead.
We looked online for centers where we could drop off the items but since it was Monday everything was closed. We were directed to a children’s center who might receive the items, but when we arrived and tried to drop them off we were told that they could not accept the formula we bought since they use a different brand and could not change the brand because it would affect the children. They were also not in need of any diapers. So we continued on…
We then found a church who helped direct us to another location where we could possibly drop off the items, but they were open to taking the winter hats off our hands.
We kept walking determined to find a place that would receive the diapers and formula, but were still several times unsuccessful.
Finally we located a center that receives all kinds of donations but again because it was Monday it was closed.
We were confused as how to go about dropping off all the items (since we were running out of time and had to catch our train to Avignon) when we decided to approach a furniture shop that was located across the street from the drop off center. The woman who owned the shop was kind enough to receive the donations and promised us she would drop them off the next morning when the center opened.
After hours of walking around we sat down for lunch, realizing that helping the situation isn’t always as simple as dropping off items. We were wiser to the consequences of self-distribution (which had the capabilities to cause problems between refugees who were receiving rationed portions of food, clothes and necessary items), we learned that not all centers are open on certain days, that every center takes different donations, that certain products could be reject, and that the need for adult items at times outweighed the needs for baby items.
We left Paris for Avignon early that evening, adding the events of the last two days to the new knowledge we were on tour to attain. Home, comfort, basic needs and basic rights were on our mind as we boarded the train to our next destination…