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Discover The Paris Theater and Cinema Scene

A Long and Rich Tradition

A Long and Rich Tradition

There are likely many reasons why you would decide on Paris as the city for your next vacation or city break: it's the 'City of Love' and The City of Light', it offers world-renowned cuisine and dining, and it has a long and interesting history that has resulted in the rich and vibrant Parisian culture of today - the list goes on.

But on that last point, Paris is what a lot of people consider to be the capital of culture in Europe owing to the fact that it's always had a strong artistic and creative scene. The city is home to the Philharmonie de Paris concert hall, two internationally famous opera houses, and world-class art galleries such as the Louvre and the National Museum of Modern Art. However, there is one thing that any culture-lover will surely notice when walking around in the city: the streets are pretty much lined with theaters and movie theaters.

Paris theater and the activity of theater-going are long-standing traditions. Along with those of London and New York, The Paris theater and film scenes are possibly the most famous in the world. Going to see a play, a movie or a cabaret show in a Paris theater is an unmissable experience for anyone visiting the city, not least because it gives visitors a perfect opportunity to do like the locals and rub elbows with Parisians. Theater and movie-going are, and have always been, popular activities for the residents of Paris and by doing the same, you are sure to get an authentic snap-shot of what living in the city is like.

If you speak fluent French, then the opportunities for getting involved with the Paris theater scene are endless. But what if you don't? These days, this is also not something to worry about. Paris theater is always diversifying, and there are less language-barrier issues than ever before for the English-speaking audiences in Paris, thanks to the now-common use of English subtitles (used for movies but also live shows!) and the increasing amount of international theater and plays performed in English.

More visual shows like cabaret performances or comic French 'farce' pieces (a classic French genre which focusses on exaggerated physical comedy - think a more sophisticated slapstick) are likely to be still graspable and enjoyable for a non-French-speaking spectator wanting to experience the Paris theater. When it comes to movies, it is no longer hard to find a selection of good movie theaters in Paris that shows films in English or with subtitles.

Not sure where to start looking for a Paris theater show? Finding out what's on in Paris theater venues and movie theaters is now easier to figure out thanks to the many excellent online resources and theater booking companies, as well in-print magazines dedicated to Paris theater listings (normally in French) that are easily and cheaply available throughout the city. 

A Brief History of Paris Theater and Cinema

The concept of theater as we know it - so, a dramatic performance with secular uses such as entertainment - came about in France in the 12th century. The plays were based on classic Greek tragedies and dramas, whereas the more comedic side of theater is thought to have come from Pagan and folk rituals. It was only really in the 17th Century that theater really took off, and this is generally considered as the time of birth for French and Paris theater. Under the reign of Louis XIV (the Sun King), a large canon of literary works was created which reflected the nations leaning towards accepting royal authority as well as France's strong political position. The literature and plays written during this time are still performed and also read as a part of a standard school education in France to this day.

One of the biggest names in French theater history is Jean Racine, a 17th-century playwright whose poetic, heart wrenching tragedies based on Greek mythology have captured the hearts of audiences since they were first published. Pierre Corneille also dealt in tragedy through his explorations of man's conflict between whether to follow his freedom or duty. On the lighter side, you have Molière, who came to be known as the 'king of comedy' owing to his fresh, funny plays which cleverly approached complex themes, such as religious hypocrisy or metaphysical questions, with relatable humor, farce, and slapstick. Similarly, a little later, Beaumarchais aimed to broach a politically dangerous subject with his comedy The Barber of Seville.

From here, theater moved through a period of Romanticism characterized by progressive, forward-thinking playwrights like Victor Hugo, the revolutionary pre- and post-war period with plays such as those by Jean Giraudoux and, by the 19th century, plays within the French genre of the 'theater of the absurd' such as those by Eugène Ionesco's. All of this, plus contemporary and international theater, is available to see in Paris today.

When it comes to the history of French cinema, it is probably worth mentioning that France is the mother of cinema - that's right: cinema is a French creation! The film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (lasting only 50 seconds) was created by the Lumière brothers and was first shown in 1895, and this is generally thought to be the birth of the medium of cinema. A little later in 1902, Georges Méliès's short film A Trip to the Moon was shown and is thought to be the first science fiction movie ever made. These points alone make film and cinema an important part of French culture, and like French theater, it has also often been politically radical or cleverly critical of society, making it particularly engaging.

French cinema, and its uniqueness, is known to some extent worldwide; however, these days, what people mostly think of are the comic-book-influenced works of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who created Delicatessen and Amélie. The city celebrates the medium of film every year with a handful of film festivals such as the Festival Paris Cinéma, the Paris Independent Film Festival and the Paris Short Film Festival.

Enjoying Paris Theater Today (and How to Book)

Enjoying a Paris theater while in town could be the highlight of your trip. So, what to see, and where? For something classic, head to La Comédie Française. This is the most well-known Paris theater, having been founded in 1680 during the Golden Era of literature and under the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV (it's maybe worth a look at just for this!) Here, you can catch the classics of Molière and Racine regularly (in French, check for showings with subtitles) as well as more contemporary and even sometimes international theater.

To try out something inventive, go to Théâtre de la Ville. This Paris theater, along with its second site Théâtre des Abbesses, is popular owing to its ever-changing and inventive program that is sure to engage tourists as much as it does the locals. It is always worth checking what is on at this venue while in town, but do always check if there are plays in English (or at least subtitles) for a non-French-speaking audience. If you're looking for something oh so Parisian, then it's Café de la Gare. This is the best place to immerse yourself in a truly Parisian atmosphere and enjoy a little classic French theatrical comedy. This Paris theater specializes in satirical, farce and slapstick pieces that are performed in a salon-style café venue.

How about something a bit more progressive? Then Bouffes du Nord is your theater.  Quirky, fun and delightful are just some words which could be used to describe the famous Peter Brooke's International Centre for Theatrical Creation. This Paris theater is best known for putting on progressive and experimental pieces of both French and international theater - there will likely something English-speaking going on here during your stay.

There are a few different ways to see what shows are on in Paris theater venues and how they have been generally received. The weekly Pariscope and Figaroscope bulletins are cheaply available from most newsstands, and although they are in French, the Paris theater listings, times, and locations should be clear enough to any reader. Paris Theater (paristheater.com, part of the Theatreland Collection) offer full and comprehensive listings and guides to what's on as well as impartial reviews of the shows and useful information about the venues.

For an all-inclusive and English-friendly theater-going service, look into Theater in Paris (theaterinparis.com); they help out-of-towners find Paris theater productions which are English speaking or offer English subtitling, and they provide a meet-and-greet service at the venue - they even provide English programs and seating that ensures a good view of the English translations. It is advisable to book seats at least four days in advance, and many theaters are closed on Mondays as well as for the summer months of July and August, so watch out for this when booking. Turning up early to a play and waiting for cancellations to free up seats is doable.

Movie Theaters in Paris

If you consider yourself a cinephile, you are sure to be happy with the selection of movie theaters in Paris - you will be finding one on every corner. There is such a large selection of different movie theaters and showings on offer (some are just as impressive for their venue as they are for the movies they're showing - in some cases, even more so!) so be sure to do a little research into what movie theaters there are when deciding where to spend a relaxed evening at the movies. 
For cult classics under the stars, head to the Open Air Film Festival in La Villette. One of the best movie-watching experiences can be found in the Parc de la Villette; an audience seeking cult-classic films (by the likes of Kubrik and Miyazaki) can relax in deck chairs complete with blankets in front of a huge inflated screen - for free! This wonderful experience is accessible during some weeks in July and August (original language and French subtitles).
For a breathtaking viewing experience, La Géode can't be missed. The cutting-edge technology of the dome's hemispherical screen and sound system allow this movie theater to (almost literally) bring you inside the movie! And there is a diverse range of movies showing, including science and nature documentaries, musicals and plays - it can be an educational trip.
Obscure but memorable is a fitting description of Cinéma Étoile Pagode. This small cinema was built as a present from a Frenchman to his wife back in 1896 as is a small, beautiful and quirky Japanese-style haven not far from the Eiffel Tower. Complete with tea tasting in the garden, this is sure to be a memorable experience, although be aware that there are usually less than a handful of movies showing (original language and French subtitles). Finally, offering something for everyone is the La Cinémathèque Française, Filmothèque du Quartier Latin. This cinema, based in the Latin Quarter, has a lot to offer a diverse audience with a great selection of movies to choose from that you can watch in a cozy, mixed, and multicultural atmosphere.

How Could We Forget Cabaret? How to Book and Indulge

It's difficult to talk about the visual spectacles and live entertainment that Paris theater has to offer without talking about Cabaret, which is such a significant part of the city's famously glitzy, frivolous, bohemian, raunchy, and playfully wicked character. It is undoubtedly a significant part of the classic Parisian culture which (to an extent) can still be indulged in today.
The tradition of Cabaret started all the way back in 1881 with the Cabaret Artistique, which was opened by Rodolphe Salis in the bohemian Montmarte district as a creative hub where singers, dancers, musicians, artists and poets could drink together and perform to one another, testing out their new ideas. This soon became a trendy place for Parisians to hang out and attracted many notable artists, including the likes of Claude Debussy. It later grew to become the still-iconic Le Chat Noir, and its popularity encouraged the opening of many similar venues in Paris and beyond. 
Out of this trend grew the art of cabaret: a form of glamorous yet somewhat shady entertainment which focused on music (popularly jazz), singing, dancing, comedy, satire, political mockery and, of course, erotica. These cabaret venues offered an environment where people could relax and let their hair down without judgement - even more noble figures such as from English royalty! The world-famous Moulin Rouge was a game-changer in the world of Cabaret as it dazzled guests with its talented performers, Avant Guard shows, and it's unbelievably glitzy, luxury interior.
Catching a cabaret show in Paris these days is still a great thing to do while visiting, and there are a selection of venues and shows to choose from which range from the softer, kitschy mainstream (although still highly entertaining) to the more serious, artsy and sexy. Please note that cabaret shows are usually strictly for adults only (although some of the glitzier, Vegas-style mainstream shows may be okay for older teenagers).
If you're looking for something truly iconic, it has to be the Moulin Rouge. The word-famous Moulin Rouge is still putting on exciting cabaret shows today. Although it is, naturally, very touristy (meaning long queues and high entrance fees) and the shows are thought to less Avant Guard than they were 100 years ago (not surprising) critics cannot deny the quality of the shows, the talent of the performers and the authenticity of the venue (evoking turn-of-the-century Paris) and the cabaret itself.
For something trendy, check out Crazy Horse. Thought to be more artsy than the shows of the Moulin Rouge, the setting and shows of the Crazy Horse have a strictly burlesque and more contemporary style. This is also one of the most famous and longstanding cabaret venue in Paris, and it has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years thanks to the performances of burlesque star Dita Von Teese. This show is classified as strictly for adults. 
Something quirky would certainly be Le Zebre de Belleville. For a more off-beat program, this venue caters to those who are after something a little more artsy or contemporary. Le Zebre de Belleville combines traditional cabaret with new, forward-thinking concepts which integrate ideas from contemporary dance and circus performance, and you are likely to pay only half the price for a ticket here than at the more mainstream cabaret spots.
Morr authentic and off-the-beaten-track is Au Lapin Agile. Found in a quaint-looking pink cottage in a quiet corner of the still oh-so-bohemian Montmartre artists district, this small and cozy one-room cabaret venue cropped up in the mid-19th century and was known as a haven for struggling Parisian artists wanting to let loose. This charismatic venue still does attract a more alternative crowd and is place where fun-seeking locals as well as tourist cabaret enthusiasts can raise a glass and chant along to French classics together.
Booking an evening of cabaret at a Paris theater or cabaret venue is very straightforward and can be done easily online or at any tourist information counter in the city. For the more well-known or mainstream venues, dinner and show packages are also available. Try to always book as far in advance as possible to avoid disappointment.
In closing, as a cornerstone of the city's rich culture, making some time to enjoy some Paris theater - be it a play, a movie or a raunchy cabaret show - will be an important and memorable part of a well-rounded trip to the City of Light. So book a ticket, take your seat, and let a Parisian show take your breath away.

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