The Dome

From a distance, one might have thought a circus had come to the disused Porte de La Chapelle rail yard in northern Paris. The largest building in the yard–a bulbous orange and white structure the size of a gymnasium–could have passed for a big top if not for its bleakly industrial surroundings. But La Bulle (the bubble) was not a circus tent.

La Bulle, which operated from November 2016 to April 2018, was France’s first “welcome center” for people seeking asylum in the country. It opened amidst increased raids on migrant and refugee encampments, welcoming its first occupants just a week after the government evicted a camp of 3,800 migrants in northeast Paris and a month after it shut down the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais.

Like most temporary shelters, La Bulle was a place of transitional survival. It provided meals, a bed, and limited support for up to 450 asylum-seekers at a time.

(March 3, 2018) La Bulle (left) and The Dome (right) are visible from the top floor of La Bulle’s accommodation center, which contained minimalist pre-fabricated rooms with beds. Most of the migrants and refugees living in the accommodation center had spent several nights sleeping on the streets in and around Port de la Chapelle before being allowed in due to space limitations.

During the latter half of its existence, La Bulle was home to a couple smaller bulles: two conjoined geodesic domes that were referred to singularly as “The Dome.” They belonged to Good Chance Theatre, a British organization that sets up temporary theaters in places such as this in the name of “promoting freedom of expression, creativity and dignity for everyone.”

The Dome was a community unto itself. It brought together refugees, artists, volunteers, and the public with art that crossed cultures and genres. To some it was an outlet, to others an escape, and for most, a place to feel less alone.

(February 15, 2018) Participants in a contact improvisation workshop in the Dome gather close together and reach upward, forming a single gesture with their bodies. Workshops at the Dome covered a variety of arts practices, from improvisation games to puppetry to breakdance to whatever people brought forth on a given day.

(February 17, 2018) Brassband Tyrassonores leads that afternoon's Hope Show attendees out of the Dome, starting a brief dance party to conclude the show. Zmary Zahyre (center left), an Afghani man residing at La Bulle, dances with Italian visiting curator Elisa Giovanetti (right) and a young boy.

Nearly every Saturday, The Dome hosted The Hope Show, a free-flowing performance where workshop participants could share with the public what they had worked on that week. The shows consisted of two semi-improvised hours of expression of all sorts. By design, it was unclear during shows who was a migrant or a volunteer or a visiting artist or even a member of the audience. People played spectators one moment and performers the next, fluidly shifting from one to the other.

Elisa's role as visiting curator involved bringing in artists to lead workshops, but—as with virtually everyone else involved in Good Chance—she also wore many other hats with less official titles. One evening after a long day at the theatre, I complimented Elisa on how naturally she makes everyone around her feel welcome. "My special skill is loving people," she replied, laughing.

(March 7, 2018) Men staying at La Bulle pose for a portrait in the Dome. They wear hand-painted paper machet masks made during a Dome workshop led by Italian theater artist Anna Cappellari.

(March 3, 2018) French choreographer and visiting artist Sofian Jouini (bottom) breakdances with another man during a Hope Show in the Dome. While Good Chance invited artists like Sofian to lead workshops, the theater operated with the understanding that refugees and migrants there could also be visiting artists in their own ways, with their own skills, knowledge, and modes of artistic expression.

(March 3, 2018) Visiting artist Sofian Jouini breakdances in The Dome during a Hope Show.

(March 7, 2018) Arifullah "Arif" Fana—a 27 year-old Afghani man who stayed at La Bulle—poses for a portrait wearing a mask he made in a workshop at the Dome. Arif, who speaks six languages, came to Good Chance's workshops nearly every day. “I was a Thai boxing teacher back in Afghanistan," he said. "In the dome, I have been able to give some Thai boxing lessons and it felt great."

(March 5, 2018) Drawings by workshop participants–children and adults alike–cover the walls and windows of Good Chance's cramped office for the Dome. The theater sometimes held workshops on drawing and other visual art, but even when they didn’t, paper and craft supplies were available in the smaller dome for anyone who preferred to draw.

(February 15, 2018) Visiting artist Pierre-Yves Massip (right)—one half of the French theater company Compagnie Mangano-Massip—co-leads a workshop on physical theater in the Dome.

(March 7, 2018) Elvira Hsissou, a 27 year-old French artist who spent a month volunteering with Good Chance, poses for a portrait with a mask made during a Dome workshop. Elvira said of her time at The Dome: “The whole experience is balancing between the human chaos that comes with immigration history–which is also our history–with what we are able to give and create together. Maybe what I am getting another meaning of being together through theater and creativity. We looked every day to learn from that space what's happened to us, and how to live with each other here and now, because it's necessary. " 

(March 7, 2018) Abdul Saboor poses for a portrait wearing an outfit made by Papa Bocar Ndao, a 31 year-old man from Senegal living at nearby refugee shelter Jean Quarré. Papa designed the coat for a fashion-themed Hope Show, which featured outfits made from clothing that had been donated to La Bulle but deemed unfit to give out.

Abdul is a 27 year-old photographer who was granted asylum in Paris, where he volunteered with Good Chance. In his home country Afghanistan, he worked as a mechanic and crane operator with the US Armed Forces. He said of the Dome, "It’s a place where we can forget, and where we can feel like we’re not alone. We can feel like we have a family and people who take care of us and who show us their love, and who don't think they’re different from us."

(February 15, 2018) Participants in a workshop in the Dome take turns doing group trust falls. One person at a time would teeter slightly and the group would catch them, then a little more, until at last they fell fully into people’s waiting hands, which would lift them up into the air and carry them around the Dome.

(March 8, 2018) Faiz Mohammad Bashardot, an Afghani man staying at La Bulle, poses next to washing machine inside La Bulle's accommodation center. His outfit was designed by fashion designer, veterinarian, and competitive kick-boxer Papa Bocar Ndao—a 31 year-old man from Senegal living at a nearby refugee shelter—for a fashion-themed Hope Show. The show featured outfits made from clothing that had been donated to La Bulle but deemed unfit to give to residents. The washing machines on which Rezai is sitting are used to wash clothes donated to La Bulle. 

(March 5, 2018) Hand-painted paper machet masks from a mask workshop led by Italian theater artist Anna Cappellari. 

(February 16, 2018) Visiting artists Silvia Ribero Rottensteiner (center) Angela “Angie” Rottensteiner (not pictured) of the Italy-based Biloura Intercultural Theatre Collective lead a workshop involving group dance and beat-making. After several weeks spent with Good Chance, the two artists recalled: “We have seen young men used to acting hard for survival playing with paper-puppets delicately as six year-old children. We have seen sad man laughing. We have seen big man crying at the goodbye moment. We have seen artists sweating until death to lead the group and never giving up, and all the Good Chance people working tirelessly to arrange and solve and organize and listen and answer and translate. It has been so precious... We believe the power of Theatre is huge, subtle, astonishing, that it left a mark in all of us.” 

(March 5, 2018) Bits of fabric, banners, balloons, and other decorations line the inside of both domes. Decorating was meant to make the space feel more welcoming, and to help give people the sense that they have some ownership over it. 

(March 7, 2018) Yosef Hakimi, a 19 year-old man from Afghanistan, poses for a portrait wearing a shirt he screen-printed with the words "IF NOTHING GO RIGHT YOU GO LEFT" and a paper machet mask, both made during separate Good Chance workshops.

(March 7, 2018) Abdi Haybe-Ali, a 28 year-old Somali man staying at La Bulle, models a coat made by Papa Bocar Ndao—a 31 year-old man from Senegal living at nearby refugee shelter Jean Quarré. Abdi runs a comedy Youtube channel with almost ten thousand subscribers.

(March 3, 2018) Audience members, including many who had already performed that afternoon, watch as people take the stage to perform at that Saturday’s Hope Show in the Dome. Hope Shows typically took place in the round, with the audience sitting around the outside of the dome and performances happening in the center, but no two shows were alike. 

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