Paris theatre: Memories, magic and red velvet seats

The Paris Theatre: A French tradition

The Paris theatre has always been a special time and a special place, even if you lived in la province. As I was growing up, there was a popular program on French TV, Au Théâtre Ce Soir. For more than two decades, starting in the 1960s, everyone who cared to watch from their corner of France got to enjoy more than 400 popular plays filmed at Paris’s le Théâtre Marigny or le Théâtre Edouard VII. I still remember the excitement I felt at the beginning of the show, when the traditional sounds, les trois coups (the three blows,) announced the red curtain was about to rise. At the end, after the curtain fell, a voice announced the ritual “Les décors sont de Roger Harth [pronounced ART] et les costumes de Donald Cardwell” (sets designed by Roger Harth, and costumes by Donald Cardwell.)  This was le mot de la fin, and we knew the show was over. The plays may not have been high-brow, but they were always entertaining, and Au Théâtre Ce soir brought the excitement and magic of live theatre (and performances by top stage actors) to French homes. Merci à eux.

Au Théatre ce Soir, opening credits

I did not go to the theatre in person often, unless the school took us on a field trip. These were always special occasions. Molière stands out as I look back at my school years. From l’Avare (the Miser,) to le Malade Imaginaire (the Imaginary Invalid,) my friends and I learned the classics in class first, then in situ, au théâtre. To this day, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (his real name,) remains my favorite playwright. As an adult, I have continued going to the theatre, wherever I am in the world, to see serious plays, comedies, and musicals. This summer, while touring around France with American travelers as a tour guide for Rick Steves Europe, I was reminded while watching a couple of off-off plays at the renowned Festival d’Avignon, that not all theatre thrills come from big ticket shows.

Paris theatre
Paris theatre: now available in English (Photo: Theatre in Paris)

Theatre in Paris: It’s a good thing!

Over the last couple of years, I have been invited to see plays by an enterprising local company, Theatre in Paris. I reviewed an excellent evening I spent at le Théatre Edouard VII, (my favorite Parisian theatre,) in the Opéra Garnier neighborhood, as Theatre in Paris‘s guest, in this article. I believe art should be accessible to all. Just like the old TV show, Au Théâtre Ce soir, did for the French several decades ago when bringing popular plays into their living room, Theatre in Paris enables foreign visitors (who may not be fluent in French,) to experience the excitement of the Paris theatre. How? They have partnered with many local venues to add English subtitles – or rather surtitles – on a long, rectangular screen strategically set up above the stage (see above photo.) Shows are affordable. Who would resist a chance to rub elbows with Parisians in their natural habitat in some of Paris’s most beautiful theatres?

Meeting a French icon at the theatre

Earlier this week, I headed to a small theatre in the 9th arrondissement, le Théâtre Fontaine, to see a play about Gustave Eiffel and his most famous invention. A night at the theatre and the story of my favorite Parisian icon: Count me in! Most people realize what a feat Gustave Eiffel accomplished when he financed and built the Eiffel Tower in two short years for the 1889 World Fair. Many have no idea Eiffel had a distinguished career as a daring, innovative engineer and inventor years before his most famous creation outshone him. I found out when I read a fascinating book, Eiffel’s Tower, several years ago. The book inspired a story on this blog, “the Eiffel Tower Had a Father.”

Paris theatre
Le Théâtre Fontaine, Paris, 9th arrondissement

I have a soft spot for Mademoiselle Eiffel and her father, yet there was another reason I chose to see this play, among all the productions Theatre in Paris is currently involved in: It ran under 1 hour and 30 minutes (like many of the shows I attended with my teachers and friends in France.) The topic also made me think this would likely be a great play for older children and teenagers. “Plus Haut que le Ciel,” (Higher than the Sky) starts in 1884, when two enthusiastic engineers working for Gustave Eiffel, come up with the idea of designing a monument so innovative and impressive, it would become one of France’s greatest achievements. We follow these engineers as they struggle to convince a tired, overworked Eiffel, to buy into their project, with his daughter Claire’s unfailing support. We then take a look behind the scenes of the Tower’s challenging beginnings, the financial struggles and compromises Eiffel had to deal with to complete it. We anticipate a happy ending, and we get it. Still, what a wild, educational ride this play turns out to be! The talented, energetic cast catches and holds our attention, makes us worry or laugh out loud, and does not let go until the curtain falls. So we all cheer and clap enthusiastically, rejoicing with the characters when Gustave Eiffel’s magnificent Tower finally stands tall and proud, against Parisian skies!

Just like magic!

Le Théâtre Fontaine, a former cemetery (!) turned plumbing factory, cabaret, and later theatre, is a small venue located on a quiet Parisian street. The neighborhood, around the corner from crowded Pigalle, may not be as elegant as other sections of the 9th arrondissement where glamorous theatres like the Edouard VII are located. Still, the traditional red velvet seats welcome the audience. My excitement and admiration for the actors and tech crew’s craft is intact. After I leave the theatre and walk back to the Métro in the chilly autumn night, I look around and realize the Paris theatre magic still operates, so many years later. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, dit Molière, would be happy.

A bientôt.

Additional reading

Plus Haut que le Ciel: Play preview is here (and it’s great!)

To check shows currently available through Theatre in Paris, click here.

To book tickets for Plus Haut que le Ciel, click here.


This story is dedicated to my favorite stage manager. Thank you for all the good times during your high school years. Don’t forget the theatre. It will always be there for you.

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