A Theater Visionary ‘Nourished by the World’

Into the Woods

The Théâtre du Soleil has spent most of its 53 years on the eastern edge of Paris, in a park called the Bois de Vincennes, where its sprawling theater is in the Cartoucherie, a former munitions factory. It is a striking corner of the city, with none of the regimented elegance of central Paris. Though the landscape is planned, the woods have been allowed to grow wild, and the grass is shaggy.

“In a way, it’s been difficult to keep it like this,” said Ms. Mnouchkine, one of the troupe’s founders, who got the theater — broken skylights and all — by squatting there the day the army moved out in 1970. “Some people with good will think it could be bettered. I say, ‘No no, as long as I live, this place is going to be vague. Nice, peaceful, comfortable, secure for the public — they must not fall into holes — but it doesn’t have to become like everywhere else.’”

And it isn’t. On the theater’s front lawn, parked neatly alongside the box office, is a row of five weathered caravans with white wooden sides, each with a little staircase up to its door. When Ms. Mnouchkine bought them 26 years ago, she was thinking of herself, planning to live at the theater a while.

It wasn’t long, though, before she offered to lodge refugees there — the first of many who have made their home there for “months or weeks or years, before flying with their own wings,” she said. “From Algeria, from Russia, from India, from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan a lot, Cambodia. You know, all the waves.”

A journalist from Sudan is among the current wave. “She is your colleague,” Ms. Mnouchkine noted pointedly, emphasizing what links me to a stranger from another continent.

Photo

Members of the Théâtre du Soleil in “Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées)” at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2005.

Credit
Stephanie Berger for The New York Times

The Turkish academic Emine Fisek, in her book “Aesthetic Citizenship: Immigration and Theater in Twenty-First-Century Paris” (2017), calls the Théâtre du Soleil “the most visible face of left-leaning French theater.” The troupe’s intense engagement with the world beyond the borders of France infuses its work, as in “Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées),” a six-hour piece about refugees seen at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2005, and “

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