The theater hiding underneath Nanterre’s Tours Aillaud
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-September, in the city of Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris, a group of 11 teenagers gather on a stage to kick off one of their first theater workshops of the year. The sound of their cheerful voices and heavy stomping carries through the pedestrian paths that snake in between the worn out apartment blocks of their neighborhood, courtesy of a theater window left open.
Inside, the students are playing a game to get to know each other, walking around the stage and adopting the name of the first person they cross, to then pass it on to the next person, and so forth. The game is meant to end once everyone has “recovered” their own name, but somehow there always ends up being 2 or 3 Nassim’s or Kenzo’s or Ines’s and so the group erupts in chaos, much to the chagrin of their teacher Laura, who defeatedly pronounces that they are all “nul” (useless).
The stage they are now all laughing on belongs to the Théâtre par le bas, a small theater nestled right at the center of one of the most notorious social housing complexes in France: the Quartier Pablo Picasso. It is home to 1,600 apartments that house some of Nanterre’s poorest inhabitants, all stacked in 18 mosaic-covered towers, the Tours Aillaud, that look like futuristic clouds.
The Théatre par le bas is located on the lowermost floor of tower number 17, buried underneath 13 stories of apartments. It is Nanterre’s only theater of its kind, built at the heart of a residential neighborhood, with nothing but the very neighborhood at heart. It was founded as a non-profit association by current director Jean Luc Borg back in 1980, just four years after the construction of the Tours Aillaud, with the intention of making theater accessible to the Quartier Pablo Picasso’s residents.
In the 42 years since its opening, it has welcomed several generations of Nanterriens to step onto its stage or watch a play from one of its red velvet seats, becoming an integral part of the Quartier’s community. Staff members talk of grandparents who used to frequent the theater in their early twenties, whose grandkids now attend their workshops. For most, old and young alike, walking through the Théatre’s doors would have constituted their very first encounter with theater.
That’s how things started, 14 years ago, for assistant director Mohamed Naote, the second-longest serving staff member after Mr Borg. He’d dropped out of school aged 16 and started selling mint tea around Nanterre to make a living. His tea became popular in the Quartier Pablo Picasso, so much so that the residents started calling him Thé Man. One afternoon, as he was making the rounds, Thé Man climbed the seven brick steps that lead to the Theater’s door and walked in, asking if there was any way he could get involved. Next thing he knew, he was working in the theater as an assistant, handling small organizational matters and distributing his famous mint tea after performances. A year later, spurred by the curiosity he’d nurtured watching others rehearse and perform, he signed himself up to attend classes at the Cours Florent, one of the most celebrated acting schools in Paris.
Back on the Théatre’s stage, the tallest, and oldest of the students attending Laura’s workshop stands to the side with his arms crossed and smiles as she humoredly tells them off for their failed attempts at completing her game. His name is Youssef and he wears a plain white t-shirt and jeans that hang somewhat loosely on his lanky frame. He knows the names of a lot of the other kids already, as for many it’s the second or third year that they attend the theater workshops. For Youssef, it’s the fourth.
He’s not quite sure how old he is but he thinks he was around 15 or 16 when he started coming to the theater, not long after he emigrated to France from Tunisia. When he first arrived, he couldn’t speak a word of French. “The theater is what allowed me to come in contact with people,” he says. “Before, when someone tried to speak to me, I would just stumble on all my words.” Now, on the contrary, Youssef is expressive and confident. He just started university in Paris, but he still comes back to Nanterre every Saturday so he can attend the theater workshops.
Meyma, one of the smallest girls, isn’t unlike him. At first glance, she appears shy, quiet, less keen to draw attention to herself than some of the others. She listens to Laura carefully, always stroking her long ponytail of braids, and intently follows all the instructions she is given. When prompted to improvise a scene involving an argument, however, Meyma lights up, taking on her role with poise and assuredness, projecting her voice so everyone can hear it, all traces of shyness gone. “I used to be unable to speak in front of people,” she says afterwards, “but since I’ve started doing theater I have less and less fear. At school, I had no friends. I was always alone, because I wouldn’t dare go up to people. I was afraid they would reject me. But now… I’m full of friends.”
The teenagers, aged between 13 and 19, are all keen to share stories of their time in the theater, laughing together as they recount anecdotes from previous years. Most cite their very first performance as their fondest memory, remembering the nervous build-up to the show, followed by the excitement of finally performing in front of an audience. “There were these small posters advertising the show and they had our names on them,” recalls Kenzo, a 15 year old with jet black hair and a cheeky smile. “When I saw my name,” he continues, “I was almost embarrassed.”
Kenzo is the jokester of the group, he has witty come-backs to spare, clearly loves being the center of attention, and seems to be constantly buzzing with an electrifying and contagious sort of energy. Looking at him, you’d never think anything could dampen his confidence or embarass him, and yet the first theater performance seems to have been nerve wracking even for him. “There were all these lights, and so many people in the seats, my parents, all these other people I knew. At first I was scared,” he admits. “But then I told myself: just go.”
Just go. That’s what they’ve all learned to do through the theater workshops, launching themselves into all manner of antics, unashamed and unafraid. Youssef says he had to slap himself, metaphorically speaking, to find the confidence to go through with his very first performance. But he stepped onto the stage and said all his lines, exactly as he’d practiced, not stumbling on a single one of his words.
In many ways, Meyma, Youssef, Kenzo and all the other students in this workshop represent exactly what the Théatre par le bas aims to achieve within Nanterre. Monia Zayet, one of the administrators, says that if she had to summarize their goal in one word it would be emancipation. They want to help children and teenagers find their voice and grow into confident and curious adults. They also want other members of the community to become acquainted with the theater, something many have never had access to.
Mohamed is adamant about this. He believes theater and art are a universal right, and that sometimes people need to be shown that they’re just as entitled to them as anyone else. “They need us to give them drive, motivation, energy, confidence… to pass on the understanding that “yes, this is for you too”… the goal is for them to have their own cultural autonomy.” And so for as little as 5 euros, residents of Nanterre can purchase a yearly membership that functions as a pass to every production the Théâtre par le bas puts on. And for 40 euros per trimester, children and teenagers can attend their workshops.
Jean Luc Borg, the director, also organizes excursions for the community to other theaters and cultural events, to encourage people to look beyond Nanterre at everything that is within reach just a few metro stops away. Mohamed always goes along. He’s attending stand up comedy school in Paris now, but he’s back at the theater all the time, executing his duties as assistant director.
After a busy afternoon of planning for the new year, he steps out of the theater’s office and locks its blue metal door, on which someone has ruggedly engraved, with what appears to be a key, the words j’aime la vie (I love life). As Mohamed steps out, a person zooming past in a bike hollers at him.“Thé Man!,” the man shouts, and Mohamed waves at him, smiling. “Did you hear what he called me?,” he asks. It’s clearly a point of pride for him, that people still remember him as a mint tea seller, no matter everything else he’s achieved since. “Everything starts from the bottom,” he says, “that’s why it’s called the Théâtre par le bas.”