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CULTURE

Meet the British woman on a mission to shake up French theatre

As the first non French - and first female - artistic director of Paris' Châtelet Theatre, Ruth Mackenzie was already making history in France - but she has no intention of stopping there.

Meet the British woman on a mission to shake up French theatre
Ruth Mackenzie was awarded a CBE for her work on the cultural programme of the London 2012 Olympics. Photo: AFP

Among the first shows she put on at the 157-year-old Théâtre du Châtelet was a rap reworking of Camus, she wants to change the French theatrical training system, invite the people of Paris – and its poorer suburbs – take have ownership of the theatre and she's passionate about improving diversity within the sometimes staid world of French theatre.

The 62-year-old Londoner is starting as she means to go on with her first season at the newly-reopened theatre and she has big plans for the future.

She told The Local, at an event organised by the Anglo American Press Association: “We want the people who live in Paris – and the banlieues – to feel that this is their theatre. They help fund it (via Paris City Hall grants) but I think at the moment they don't feel it is theirs and I want it to represent better the great diversity of Paris.”

To that end she has been involving the people of Paris in a major consultation exercise which she will use to create targets – “because I'm English so I believe in real targets” – for the next 10 years.

READ ALSO Eight of the best things to do in Paris this December


Ruth Mackenzie and Thomas Lauriot dit Prévost. Photo: AFP

Although she was first appointed in 2017 – after going through four panel interviews in French with her French fellow director Thomas Lauriot dit Prévost – the theatre has been closed for major refurbishment ever since, and only reopened this summer.

Among her first productions was a reworking of Les Justes by French literary giant Albert Camus – but given a rap makeover.

She said: “It was directed by Abd al Malik and he went out into the suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois to do workshops with young people there in order to create the rap, and a group of those people from the workshops were part of the production on the stage.

“We believe that this is the first time a black director has worked at Châtelet – in 2019, something that would be unthinkable in New York or London but seems to be normal in Paris.

“And when the show was on a lot of the people from Aulnay-sous-Bois who had been in the workshops or were friends with those on the stage came to see it, using the €10 young people's tickets. And for a lot of those young black people from the banlieues it was the first time they had been to Châtelet theatre, but I hope they are starting to think of it as their theatre.”

Among other things lined up are a new piece created by an African singer and activist and a combined electro music and ballet, as well as more straightforward commercial fare like the revival of An American in Paris, which opens on Friday, November 28th.

Châtelet has a great tradition of musical theatre and dance, stretching right back to Serge de Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, something Ruth is keen to honour.

She said: “We will continue to commission and perform musicals, both in English and French, and I think they remain popular because they have beautiful text and beautiful music.”


The Théâtre du Châtelet, founded in 1862 has recently undergone a major renovation. Photo: AFP

But she also a plan to increase the number of French actors getting involved in musicals, with a specialist training course on offer.

She said: “French training is very linear so you either specialise in singing or acting or dance so what we were seeing was that when we auditioned for musicals there were not enough French performers who had all three skills to the level needed.”

Ruth has committed to publishing the comparative salaries at the theatre every year until the gender pay gap is eliminated. At present the gap between male and female wages is 3.7 percent – set against the French average of 24 percent.

She has also hosted a panel discussion with the New York Times about the #MeToo movement and has a warning for the French arts scene.

She said: “In France there has not been a big scandal in the performing arts world in the same way that the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in America. But that doesn't mean that there is no scandal, in any place where there is an imbalance of power there is the potential for abuse.

“In the Weinstein case what was so striking was that everybody knew hat was going on. It means that we all have a responsibility to do something – to be brave or to support others who are being brave.” 

And of course, being British, we had to ask her about Brexit.

“I'm sure Brexit will in the future be seen as an episode of self harm and self deception on a Shakespearean scale and all I can say is I'm so thankful I now live in Paris.”

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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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