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What a Theater Means to a Refugee Camp

Lessons from the founders of the Good Chance Theatre, a temporary performing arts venue at the Calais “Jungle.”

Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson speak with The Atlantic's Ron Brownstein at the CityLab 2016 summit in Miami. (C2 Photography)

MIAMI—For nearly half a year, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson operated the best-known performing-arts venue in Calais, France. The theater drew A-list stars such as Jude Law and Benedict Cumberbatch to the notorious site known as “the Jungle.”

It might come as a surprise that a refugee camp had any sort of theater, much less one that garnered marquee performances. But the ad-hoc camp at Calais is a much more vital place than outsiders know, according to Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, who opened the Good Chance Theatre in Calais from October 2015 to March of this year.

“The Jungle is not strictly a refugee camp, although it looks like one,” Murphy told The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein Monday during a live conversation at the CityLab 2016 summit in Miami. “The people have in that space built what is actually sort of city,” Robertson added.

Calais, which is located near the French terminal of the Channel Tunnel, is technically a “tolerated zone,” not a refugee camp per se. But not for long. Murphy said that he has known for about a week what the rest of the world learned this morning: that the Calais refugee camp would be dismantled. Authorities in France are currently clearing thousands of migrants from Calais, most of them refugees from Syria, Sudan, Iran, Eritrea, and at least 18 other countries in Africa and the Middle East looking to reach family and opportunity in the U.K. For many of them, Calais is the last stop on a desperate journey, and passing through means trying to jump onto a lorry or train headed north.

“We as playwrights wanted to bear witness and see what was going on,” said Robertson, who like Murphy is from the U.K. “We found in that place this city and the most interesting, fascinating people going through a very intense moment in their lives.”

The theater’s founders noted that, while the Jungle offered cafes, barbershops, restaurants, churches, and mosques, there was no place that was not segregated by religion, nationality, or ethnic status. Murphy and Robertson established the Good Chance Theatre as a temporary space for everyone to assemble, a venue where attendees could take in performances or stage their own, from Sudanese singing to Egyptian storytelling. (Kuwaiti stand-up comedy was especially popular.)

While demolitions inside the camp forced the venue to close in March, Murphy and Robertson said that the Good Chance Theatre served as a successful model for future temporary theaters and that it offers lessons for both sides of the Chunnel.

“The narrative at the moment is one of fear,” Murphy said. “In Britain, certainly, even post Brexit, the question is, ‘How are we going to integrate people?’ I think the key is listening.”

Robertson added, “We think art is a secret weapon in a toolkit to bring people together. We’ve saw this in Calais and in London,” where Good Chance staged “Encampment” at Southbank Centre this summer. Art brings all people together, Robertson said. “Its center is listening. Its center is empathy.”

Over its brief run in Calais the Good Chance received support from Shakespeare’s Globe, the Young Vic, and other influential theater programs. Robertson and Murphy don’t know what they aim to do with Good Chance next. They said that they hope to build it up as a platform that others could adopt in crisis situations.

“We’re the only theater that hopes our theaters don’t exist for very long,” Murphy said, “because they won’t have to.”

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.