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The Parisian Theater Scene

The Parisian Theater SceneiStockphoto

The French theater scene is something no expat should miss. However, operas and theaters in Paris only recently became more accessible to expats. InterNations member Alexandra tells us about the most important venues and which plays you should not miss while living in Paris.

For expats, a set deal of opera, ballet or cabaret would normally be expected on a French menu of evening entertainment. It is true that the French do these better than many.

For the opera and ballet, there are three main houses not to be missed. The Opéra Garnier is the most historic, which contrasts with the ultra-modern Opéra Bastille. For a smaller affair, the Opéra Comique is similar in size to a theatre. All three are world-renowned for their high-quality and diverse repertoires — a winning combination of traditional scripts and modern interpretations, and vice versa.

Welcome to the Cabaret

Cabaret wise, the Moulin Rouge is obvious, yes, but obvious for a reason. It is without a doubt the most popular cabaret house in the world, and the price of a ticket makes it a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for most anyway.

Located in Pigalle, the heart of the red-light district, the cabaret experience is concluded by its surroundings. And to really complete the cliché, a heart-felt rendition of the Elephant Love Medley on the streets outside is obligatory.

If a trip out to the 18th is too far, the Lido on the Champs Elysées is also a celebrated venue. There has been a lot of hype this year around its new show by the director of Cirque du Soleil.

Local Theater for Expats

Yet, for those expats who’ve done all of the above and got the t-shirts, the Parisian theatre scene might also unexpectedly have something to offer — now that English surtitling is taking off in the city. The phenomenon is winning over more and more directors, covering a variety of genres, in a bid to open the doors of French theatre to tourists and expats.

The translation is projected onto a screen above the stage, subtle enough not to annoy the usual Parisian patrons, but perfectly large and clear for the Anglophone attendees to read with ease. Having only before been done in Berlin, word of this revolution for expat entertainment is quickly spreading.

La Comédie Française and other Highlights

It’s about time that expats had access to the Parisian theatre scene. Granted, a foreigner may have heard of the infamous Comédie Française, but the city actually has 300 other theatres thriving in its midst. The ‘grand boulevard’, which runs all the way from République to Madeleine, has a venue on every corner and represents the vibrant French equivalent to Broadway or the West End.

Genre-wise, most quintessentially French is the ‘comédie de boulevard’, named after this very stretch of road. These plays typically involve husbands, wives and lovers, and raise the important questions of life in a comical manner. Sacha Guitry and Georges Feydeau are names often associated with this genre, but today its contributors are diverse.

Currently, contemporary playwright Florian Zeller is highly associated with the genre, having penned successes such as ‘The Lie’ (or ‘The Mensonge’) in Paris, as well as ‘The Father’, which has now transferred to London. The theatre most associated with such domestic storytelling is the Théâtre Edouard VII — a listed historical monument named after the ‘most French’ of the English kings.

French Classics in the City of Lights

Alongside these more modern productions, rich French classics are always on the table. Think Molière, think Beaumarchais — the Francophone equivalents to Shakespeare. Parisian playhouses also show operettas, which are lighter, shorter and more accessible than traditional opera. And whilst not a renowned speciality on this side of the Channel, jazz-hands fanatics can be enthused by a mixture of both French-born and internationally inspired musicals.

Just the nickname, ‘The City of Lights’ suggests that Paris has always had a buzzing evening scene for expats. But until recently, this hasn’t necessarily been true when it came to theater. Now that French playhouses have been opened up for non-French speakers, or even those who speak French but aren’t confident enough to follow an entire play, it’s probably time to enjoy an evening ‘the way locals do’.

Further Information

The following websites offer more information on local plays and operas:


Alexandra Heal is a Politics and French student at the University of Bristol. Currently on her year abroad in Paris, she enjoys riding Velibs with her hair down, eating brunch at Canal Saint Martin, and the unlimited supply of good, cheap wine.

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