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April 21, 2021

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In France, ‘doctors’ are prescribing poetry

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 said.

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,” said Jeanbrau.

The reading is punctuated by little expressions of joy from the patient. “She’s understood what I love,” cooed Francoise.

They are in L’Espace Phare, a day center 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.”

“It’s like she’s reading ME,” she said, adding, 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 said.

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

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.

Many of the most vulnerable do not speak good French, and the team added actors from different backgrounds. Now it operates 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 died. The son told them how much the readings had meant to his father, and movingly asked them to read the poem all the same.

“These are moments of humanity that allow us to remain hopeful,” Demarcy-Mota said.

From November, the company started visiting hospitals, day centers, shelters and schools, and now has more than 100 actors, dancers and musicians — even scientists.

“Their work is always paid — I don’t believe in voluntarism,” said Demarcy-Mota. “It’s poetry, literature, theater that allow us to think about our existence, to realize that we are not alone.”

The idea is taking off. 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 theater group in New York and nine more in Africa.

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 asked. “That would remind me of my youth.”
Although 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 said with a smile. “It does me good.”


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