How young writer captured cultural heart of Paris by staging English theatre

Novelist’s plan for a night of fringe plays in his flat grows into biannual week-long festival and competition, Montmartre Dionysia

Sitting in a bar one evening a couple of years ago in Montmartre, the Paris district that has been a magnet for artists and writers for centuries, the novelist Albert Alla lamented the lack of English-language theatre in Paris. Not the all-singing, all-dancing productions of the established Chatelet theatre, or the weighty offerings from Paris-based Peter Brook, now 90, whom the Guardian recently described as a “human earthquake of modern theatre”, but something more fun, more fringe.

As the drink flowed, Alla, 31, decided to do something about it. He declared that he would stage a one-night theatre competition in the living room of his nearby apartment and told his friends to spread the word.

Within days, it was clear that the idea had outgrown not just the living room, but Alla’s entire Paris home. Thus was the Montmarte Dionysia theatre festival created. On Monday, Alla and his writer friend, Chris Newens, will oversee the festival’s fourth biannual competition, featuring eight new plays and running until Friday.

“The original idea was to get together with a few writer and actor friends, put on a couple of plays in my flat, then have a big party afterwards,” Alla told the Observer over coffee in Montmartre.

“There are a lot of anglophone writers, aspiring writers and very good theatre schools in Paris, but there was a very large hole in small, but good, theatre productions, and we were excited about creating something new.

“The response was incredible. So many people wanted to sign up, and it was immediately clear that even though my flat is quite big, it was not big enough. So we used it for rehearsals, but had to find somewhere else. One year it was on a boat on the Seine, but this year we will start the competition at a small, 25-seat theatre, then have the final performances somewhere bigger.

“We still have the big party afterwards, though.”

Alla, a French-born, English-speaking, Oxford-educated writer, has a background as colourful as one of his theatre’s plays. He was born in the south of France and grew up around St Tropez and Nice until his family emigrated to Australia when he was 13. He studied engineering and played cricket before returning to Europe to study economics at Oxford. He now divides his time between the Pacific island of New Caledonia and Paris. His debut novel, Black Chalk, was published in 2013 by Reading-based Garnet Publishing and has been well reviewed in the US, but neither author nor publisher will say how many it has sold.

Bringing anglophone culture to Paris, a city that prides itself on being the heart of the French exception culturelle, was a bold move.

Alla insists there is surprisingly little theatrical entertainment for English speakers. “In fact, there’s a complete absence of the sort of theatre we are doing. The anglophone community in Paris is very cultured and very international. It’s not just English, Irish and Americans, but Italians, Hungarians, Armenians, all of whom speak English as a second language.

“There’s a lot of creative people just longing to express themselves but with nowhere to do it. They come here and find decent French culture but are starved of middle-ground, community-style theatre in English.

“People who want to submit a play for the festival can come from anywhere but must have a Paris connection.”

In total, 33 plays were entered into this year’s main festival, and four were selected to compete. A second “off” competition is open to those writers who have already featured in the festival. Two judges will award prizes for the best plays and actors, and the audience will also be asked to choose their best off-competition play.

One previous winner is writer and actress Lily Bevan, who is developing a new BBC Radio 4 series called Talking to Strangers, scheduled for October, and is writing a screenplay with Emma Thompson.

Newens, 29, from Kingston in Surrey, the festival coordinator, is less flamboyant than Alla but has an equally colourful background. An editor of erotic literature, he is writing a book on the history of English baking.

“We started with the intention of having a community theatre with like-minded volunteers. We certainly didn’t set out to organise two week-long festivals a year,” Newens said.

For a programme and tickets go to: www.


Kim Willsher in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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