Meet Joe and Joe. Two British playwrights who founded the Good Chance theatre, a temporary theatre, built for situations where spaces for expression are needed, and a place of welcome where everyone is on equal terms.
We built the first Good Chance Theatre in the ‘Jungle’, refugee and migrant camp in Calais, in September 2015. It was the height of the refugee crisis. Unprecedented numbers of people were fleeing the Middle East and North Africa, embarking on perilous journeys across deserts and seas. We were overwhelmed by the terrifying images in TV reports, newspapers and Twitter feeds. Who were these people? Why were they moving? Where were they trying to go? Questions to which we could find no answers amidst the fear and hysteria which the crisis provoked. So we decided to find out for ourselves.
We drove to France intending to stop off in Calais for a few hours. We ended up staying the week. The camp by this point was nothing short of a city, a bustling metropolis of perhaps 15,000 people from over 25 countries. A landscape of tents, wooden shacks, churches, mosques, corner shops, greengrocers, barbershops, kebab shops, markets, all constructed and run by the camp’s residents. Yes, it was filthy and uninhabitable, but there was also music, dance, incredible food, story-telling, laughter and hope. Everyone wanted to talk. To tell their story. During that week we heard a thousand different answers to those initial questions. Who were they? Human beings.
Outraged by the camp’s existence and yet inspired by the people we met, we decided to return with a huge tent and call it a theatre. It was a decision born out of utter naivety, and the best one we ever made. We passed the hat around amongst our theatre friends, bought a second hand geodesic dome, and built it with over a hundred of the camp’s residents. For six winter months, the theatre was a safe, warm, welcoming space, open to everyone.
Inside, people came together every day to make art of all forms. Theatre, painting, writing, clay-modelling, Afghan kite-making, puppetry, circus, movement, mime and more. There was a daily artistic programme led by residents and artists together and nightly performances of theatre, acoustic music, rap battles, poetry slams, concerts, dance recitals and film screenings. We also hosted debates, public meetings and community discussions. It became a sort of town hall but we insisted on calling it a theatre because of the look of incredulity on people’s faces: a theatre in a refugee camp? Absolutely.
Yes, people in desperate situations like Calais need food, clothes, medicine and shelter to survive. But human life is more than survival, and art is the greatest tool we’ve created for restoring hope and understanding the world and our place within it. It draws on our language, our home, our history, our family - the narrative of our lives that the refugee experience deprives people of. Médecins Sans Frontières who ran a hospital in the camp referred the many residents suffering psychologically from their ordeal to us. Tensions in the camp reduced because people had a space to play out conflicts in safety. And through the art that was made we were able to communicate the humanity at the heart of the refugee crisis to a wider global audience.
By the time the theatre was dismantled in Calais during the evictions last year, Good Chance had grown into a registered charity with a core team behind it. After running a major festival of art by refugees and migrants at the Southbank Centre in London last summer, we turned our sights to Paris, where many of the Jungle’s residents had arrived after the Calais evictions, and where new refugees and migrants were still arriving every day. Working with local communities and refugees in different locations around the city, we conceived a migratory project between the north and the centre of Paris, creating links and dialogue and leaving behind strong relationships that didn’t exist before.
We built a new Good Chance Theatre at La Station, Gare des Mines in Porte d’Aubervilliers, a stone’s throw from Paris’s welcome centre where several thousand refugees continue to live on the streets. Over a month, two thousand people worked alongside artists, theatre-makers and volunteers in a varied and surprising artistic programme. We met incredibly talented writers, singers, dancers and gymnasts and forged links with brilliant French organisations working locally to support refugees.
Supported by the British Council, we worked with the Théâtre de la Ville on the Champs-Élysées, within their Chantiers d’Europe festival. We exhibited artwork, sculpture, video and music which had been made in the north, and talked one-to-one with audience members about the work we do, linking two very different parts of the city. We staged performances of refugee theatre groups we had met and we welcomed large groups of school pupils in workshop sessions to visit the theatre, absorb the artwork and stories of the refugees we work with, and create their own artistic responses. The results – ranging from brilliant shadow puppet plays to mock theatrical debates – were startling and inspiring. This was new ground for us, and the experience of working with partners like the British Council and Théâtre de la Ville has significantly shaped our development as a company and opened our eyes to what we can do.
Now we look forward. There are many challenges in our huge cities at the moment. Those challenges have different names, but they all have a shared solution:
Finding a way for people to come together. This is what Good Chance stands for.
The creation of theatre and art that places people together in a safe space, perhaps people you would never expect to meet. We have achieved some amazing things in this short time, and are excited to see what this could lead to in the future!
If you would like to learn more about Good Chance Theatre, you can visit their website by clicking here.