French theatre group offers medicinal poetry

·3-min read
French psychiatric hospital turns to poetry to relieve distress.

Cooped up every day by the pandemic, 79-year-old Francoise is tired of looking at the tower blocks outside her window.

"There's not much greenery," she says.

Luckily, her "doctor" for the day has the right medicine.

Isabelle Jeanbrau, a member of the Paris-based Theatre de la Ville, leafs through a folder of poems and picks one by Anna de Noailles, "The Offerings of Nature".

"To take you on a little trip," says Jeanbrau.

The reading is punctuated by little expressions of joy from the patient. "She's understood what I love," coos Francoise, who asked not to give her full name.

They are sat in L'Espace Phare, a day centre run by a mental health association, and Jeanbrau is part of a pioneering project using arts as a salve for vulnerable members of society.

The poem unleashes Francoise's memories and soon she is recalling everything from her childhood in Vichy to her years as a seamstress at Chanel.

Jeanbrau looks through the folder for something to remind Francoise of her working days.

She settles on Baudelaire's "With Her Pearly, Undulating Dresses" and Francoise is captivated once more.

"It's like she's reading ME," she tells AFP, and adds, laughing: "If you could read these things to everyone, there wouldn't be any more crazies out there."

She is surprised that she has opened up so much to a stranger, but Jeanbrau is not.

"Very often, poems are a key that opens a door," Jeanbrau says.

And the therapy works both ways: "At a time when artists feel totally muzzled, suddenly we have the feeling of being essential."

- 'Moments of humanity' -

The project began modestly with poetry readings over the phone for anyone needing a little uplift.

Planned before the pandemic, it began just at the right moment in March 2020 and proved wildly successful, delivering some 15,000 "phone consultations" over the past year.

The team quickly realised many of the most vulnerable did not speak good French, and so began adding actors from different backgrounds, eventually operating in 23 different languages.

Many listeners were left in tears and emotional relationships were forged.

Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, director of Theatre de la Ville, recalls one man whom the team was phoning for his 15th reading only to find that he had passed away. The son told them how much the readings had meant to his father, and asked them to read the poem all the same -- a moment that was very moving.

"These are moments of humanity that allow us to remain hopeful," Demarcy-Mota tells AFP.

From November, the company started visiting hospitals, day centres, shelters and schools, and now has more than 100 actors, dancers and musicians working on the project -- even scientists giving talks.

"Their work is always paid -- I don't believe in voluntarism," says Demarcy-Mota.

"It's poetry, literature, theatre that allows us to think about our existence, to realise that we are not alone."

The idea is taking off, and not just in France.

Next month, the company will start poetry readings in Paris parks and gardens.

It has inspired similar projects overseas. The company has built partnerships with counterparts in Italy, Germany, Portugal and Slovenia, and discussions are underway with a theatre group in New York and nine more in Africa.

- Laughter -

In the next room of the day clinic, another member of the company, Mahmoud El-Haddad, a former dancer and model from Egypt, now a refugee in France, is preparing to perform for another "patient", Isabelle.

"Will you dance the salsa?" she asks. "That would remind me of my youth."

Though the language barrier is tricky, they find themselves in fits of giggles, and eventually Haddad settles on an improvised dance to "Summertime" by Janis Joplin.

"It's a chance to relax while also making this young man laugh," Isabelle tells AFP with a smile.

"It does me good."