Sometimes labeled as the Wild Child among Nice’s theaters, the Athéna is best known for the longevity of its plays and a parsimonious use of costumes.
Actress Karine Battaglia was born, bred, and buttered in Monaco, is proud of her Italian roots, and has a great love for all things English. So it would only logical for her to set up shop, or rather theater, in the Principality. As a small country though, space is tight and some of its assets are exported to neighbouring France. This is why Théâtre Athéna opened its doors in Nice five years ago.
Athéna didn’t actually start out as a theater but as a French-Monegasque company. Founded in Monaco by Karine together with her brother Eric Battaglia and actor/director Alain Brunel in 2001, it meandered up and down PACA for several years. In 2005, it enlisted its first great success, Boeing Boeing – a stage classic also known as “the most-often translated and performed French play in the world”. (Although some would argue that this statement must base on a ranking different from the one that considers Cyrano de Bergerac.) In 2006, Boeing Boeing was followed by another smash hit, “Mon Colocataire est une Garce”, which Athéna has played well over 450 times so far.
Two notable names in Niçois theater who had been along for the ride all along – Patrick Speck and Alain Brunel – eventually encouraged Karine to run her own theater. So in October 2009 she finally took the plunge, opening the Athéna, a 90 seater a stone’s throw away from the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice. Karine’s principal investor was her grandmother, Yvonne Battaglia (pictured above). Not doubting her granddaughter’s considerable artistic talent for even for a moment, but knowing that Karine favoured roles in which costumes are more or less redundant, her only worry was, “Dis voir, but you will put your panties on, child, right?”
Karine promised, with fingers crossed behind her back, and the venture took off. Sadly, Yvonne would not be able to follow the theater’s progress for long as she passed away the next year. The night of her funeral, Karine – all professional – was on stage in a comedy… and so convincing she even made her father laugh who also had had been at his mother’s graveside just hours before. That iron discipline goes back to her very beginnings. She started out very young, dipping her toes into various artistic fields. First trained as a classical and modern dancer, she then took up guitar, followed by a brief career as a singer at only 17 years old, at which time she even published a record. But she found her true calling when she embarked on theater classes to overcome her shyness which still stemmed from being taunted as a child for not being pretty enough.
A self-confessed “bulimic of life”, Karine has worked tirelessly throughout her career while also raising her son Lowell as a single mom. And once the Athéna opened its door, it quickly made a name for itself. The playbill is varied but still contains the staples the company had successfully played in the past. Along with Boeing Boeing and Colocataire, “Ma Femme Me Prend Pour Un Sex Toy” (My Wife Thinks I’m A Sex Toy) also proved one of the public’s alltime favourite comedies that is still going strong, hundreds of runs after its premiere.
Karine plays, directs, creates, adapts, and manages the theater with hardly a moment of downtime. Frequently there are two different performances scheduled on a single night, back to back, and the company gives it their all. As energetic and physical as the performances are, no one shows signs of fatigue even after hours on stage. And Karine’s professionalism goes as far as when slipping on stage in her vertiginously high heels and hurting herself badly on a recent night, she continued to play on even in great pain – and not that anyone in the audience had even noticed what had just happened.
“Karine is our engine,” says fellow thespian and Athéna troupe member Sébastien El Fassi admiringly, and he would be a good authority, having known and worked with her since 2011. One of the most talented young actors in this city, Séb took up theater as a nine-year old to impress a girl he fancied. The girl vanished, his love for theater remained. And just like Karine, he, too, considered himself “the ugly little duckling others threw pebbles at”, but he discovered that through his play he could make people laugh, which eventually helped him grow his self-confidence.
Actually, he aspired to doing drama and even took two years of acting classes with renowned Théâtre National de Nice coach Cyril Cotineau, but in vain: He only “embarrassed himself real good”, as he laughingly admits…. his talent for burlesque-absurd comedy proved too strong to overcome, and he eventually remained and excelled in this genre. The ease and credibility with which he transforms from dorky geek to fake Italian Romeo within a matter of an hour is amazing. And his type is a perfect match…: Since his arrival at the Athéna, he has been the male lead at the theater… and in Karine’s personal life. Brainy, focused, and with an air of reassuring calm, he complements her dynamism and exuberance to a tee.
They both share a complaint about today’s theater. “TV shows like Laurent Ruquier’s “On ne demande qu’à en rire” have killed actors. In this time of insta-stardom, everyone wants to shine individually. Today’s actors come, do their job, and then go home. There is no sense of being part of a company anymore. Theater, which is a beautiful human adventure even off stage, has become a veritable calvary,” Karine and Sébastien jointly opine.
“Today’s theater productions are done hurriedly, whereas we aim to do quality work,” is Karine’s philosophy. For that they rely on their own well-coordinated company. The 2014/15 programming they are currently working on will offer a menu as diverse as you can imagine, from comedies to author’s theater, and will also host guest companies and favorite local actors like Céline Capacci and Christophe Turgie. Among others, the October playbill has “Tout nu, pas bronzé”, on tap, a Patrick Speck production in which everyone performs in their birthday suits (if you’re under 18, sorry – you’re out of luck, this one is not for you!) December features Thierry Rageneau’s “Bon Anniversaire, Mon Amour”, a sentimental comedy played by Karine and Seb, and in January, Nice’s creative cannonball Patrick Zeff-Samet will direct a bilingual French/English Harold Pinter play… to name but a few plays of the varied programme.
The programme will also increasingly reflect Karen and Seb’s shared love for all things British. This outgoing season already provided an aperçu: “Murder Party” is a funnily-dark whodunnit which could come straight from a London stage. Both Anglophile, they frequently take off to London to re-energize. “Ah, London – I just love anything English… theater, people, the language…” Karine raves. And dreams of playing there one day… or, why not? – in Vegas.
And for that occasion she’ll really leave her panties and her hat on, Granny Yvonne, promised!
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Natja Igney is a senior global communications strategist with 1021 Global Communications Consulting. She has a particular interest in theatre and filmmaking.
All images courtesy Théâtre Athéna