In only one short decade, a new theatre built from scratch in the small Azurean town of Antibes has become one of the leading Thespian temples in France thanks to a visionary director and a pragmatic mayor.
The announcement sent shockwaves through the Niçois art and culture community when Daniel Benoin, the much-cherished artistic director of the now-defunct Théâtre National de Nice (TNN), informed the public at the end of his twelve-year tenure in 2013 that he was leaving the Azurean capital and would go on to head a brand new, bigger, state-of-the-art venue in the small neighboring town of Antibes. Some called the project crazy, others thought it overly ambitious, given that the TNN was the High Church of the Capital of Culture in the Maritime Alps region – and it had been Benoin himself to elevate it to that status… but everyone also knew that whatever the renowned artist set his heart to, he would invariably turn into a success. And they should be right about it.
True to his word, the Alsace-born perfectionist opened Théâtre Anthéa on April 6, 2013, incidentally while his final season in Nice was still underway. But no sooner had he handed over the TNN keys to his successor, the free-spirited, Shakespeare-loving eco-hippie Irina Brook, that an amicable competition began. The Benoin-adjacent part of the public, typically those enamoured with grand classic theatre and huge billboard names, would soon transfer their loyalty and their season tickets over to Anthéa, while those with a taste for flamboyant musical shows in the vein of British and American theatre culture were excited to discover the TNN’s Brook-flavoured programme.
But while people were generally pretty sure that Daniel Benoin would do OK, no one could quite foresee the phenomenal success Anthéa would enjoy in its first decade – even with sticks thrown in the spokes such as the pandemic.
Benoin’s recipe for such resounding success? Of course his stellar track record of 40-some years as an author and artistic director at some of the finest theatres in France. Of course his little black book with the biggest names on French and Francophone stages on speed-dial. Of course his devoted fans from Nice who followed him because they just couldn’t get used to Irina Brook’s esoteric programme. But Benoin also has a keen commercial sense for the administrative leadership of a cultural institution, and the courage to innovate. He wanted more shows geared to a young audience, and more diversity than the state and municipal government-financed TNN programming had allowed him. And last but not least, he wanted Anthéa to be a venue that not only hosts shows but actually creates and produces them, with an emphasis on local talent.
A first spectacular coup gave a clear indicator of Benoin’s strategy in 2014 when he whisked Collectif 8, which until then had been the TNN’s house company, off to Antibes. It was Benoin himself who had recognized the tremendous potential of this innovative theatre company during his TNN tenure and had built them up in the preceding years. Gaële Boghossian, founder and artistic figurehead of Collectif 8, was somewhat skeptical at first – why trade in such a prestigious House as the TNN for an uncharted course in small-town Antibes? But she trusted her mentor’s vision, and the risk more than paid off. Today, nine years into this adventure, Anthéa and Collectif 8 are quasi synonymous, and the company has been offered opportunities on the national level that they could have only dreamt about, had they stayed in Nice.
The other highly promising young artist that Benoin, with his nose for up and coming talent, soon lured from Nice to Antibes was Felicien Chauveau – then a fledgling young author-actor-director, now a household name across France. He gave Felicien and his company Collectif La Machine the stage to mount his larger-than-life plays – starkly modern adaptations of classic literature in a universe somewhere between black humour and nightmarish visions. This company itself became a springboard for rising local stars like Benjamin Migneco, Eva Rami, and Irène Reva.
Benoin understands that standout artists like Collectif 8 and Collectif La Machine with their ultra-creative and decidedly futuristic productions are the way to go if he wants to fill the 1,400 seats of the two halls with a younger audience. But there is of course no lack of top quality French authors and actors to keep the more conservative audience happy. In fact, the entire league of internationally known French artists jostles to get on stage here – from Gérard Dépardieu who makes an almost-annual pilgrimage to Antibes to sing chansons, to Fanny Ardant, Sami Bouajila, Isabelle Huppert, Gad Elmaleh or Julien Clerc, to name but a few. Following the performing arts’ best traditions, Benoin likes to mix it up with ethnic music and dance shows, circus and magicians. And every now and then, he taps into his incomparable network and pulls a rabbit out of his hat… like the unforgettable day Woody Allen broke out his clarinet and played a live concert with the New Orleans Jazz Band, supported by none other than actors Colin Firth and Emma Stone.
Such eclectic programming also attracts a very different demographic: if in Paris the average age of a theatre goer is 65-70, Anthéa appeals mainly to those in their thirties and early fourties. This means bringing theatre to a whole new generation… and especially their children, as “they form the foundation of tomorrow’s shows,” in Benoin’s view.
While Anthéa was busy building a robust national reputation and a handsome war chest over the years, its Niçois rival, the National Theatre, was increasingly getting into hot waters. Although Irina Brook had managed to create a faithful followership, revenues from the sale of season tickets failed to come in, while bills for extravagant productions sky-rocketed. Then, from 2019 on, the TNN had to take one blow after another. In that year, Irina Brook announced her resignation to the end of that season, one year before her contract was up. Her successor Muriel Holtz-Mayette, the antithesis of poetic, playful Irina Brook, favours a cultural fare of Greek tragedies and classic text-based theatre which to this day has not yet won people’s hearts. Then Covid-19 struck. And once that somber period seemed finally a thing of the past, Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi went ahead with the highly unpopular demolition of the TNN, farming its programme out to various venues across town, several of which have yet to see the light of day.
In the light of such turmoil over the past four years, Anthéa was the safe haven for theater goers from the entire region who appreciated the steady leadership and programmes that went from strength to strength.
Of course, the pandemic didn’t spare Benoin’s theatre either and shut it down for the better half of two seasons (2020/21). But where upon the public reopening of cultural venues Nice’s flailing TNN only offered more gloom and doom, Anthéa came back with a sonic boom. An even more joyful programme, even more shows, even bigger names, and free entrance to boot! And just like that, Benoin made Anthéa rebound faster than Nice, and even the entire Paris theatre scene.
But even pre-lockdown, Anthéa was already well en route to overtaking Paris and setting the trend for the must-see plays of French theatre. “What we see in Antibes today, we see it before Paris does,” says the mayor of Antibes, Jean Leonetti. “Before the creation of Anthea 10 years ago, it was the opposite.”
While Daniel Benoin brought the professional knowhow and the connections to the table, it was Jean Leonetti who had paved the way for him by making a property available on which the stuff that theatre dreams are made of could thrive. As long as 15 years ago, Leonetti understood that with the exception of Théâtre de Grasse, the residents in the Antibes-Cannes-Sophia Antipolis conglomerate were woefully underserved when it came to the performing arts. What he wanted was a great venue for a wide variety of shows, not just theatre.
In 2009 the mayor of Antibes gave Benoin carte blanche to design such a place from scratch, and the artistic director wouldn’t need to be told twice: from the marble architecture – a modernistic reinterpretation of the historic Fort Carré just a few hundred meters away – to the plush halls, the custom-designed acoustics, and the welcoming mix&mingle spaces, he was involved in every aspect of the construction. Anthea was designed with artists AND visitors in mind, and it paid off. The theatre was delivered in late 2013, had its soft opening midway into the 2013/14 season, and would turn out to be one of the great success stories of this region… or as things stand today, THE greatest success the department has seen in the past ten years.
One of Anthéa’s hallmarks is its big emphasis on social inclusion. There are “Immersion” nights into young people’s musical universe. There are readings. There are events that celebrate other cultures. “But this is also a place for those who aren’t theatre people,” says mayor Leonetti and points to an event with iconoclastic chef Pierre Gagnaire, holder of multiple Michelin stars, who will round out the jubilee season on 28 June in good taste. Between now and then, the programme is still a firework of artistic highlights worthy of such a momentous celebration. And for good measure, Anthéa also presents a photo exhibition as well as a book reviewing the past decade.
Interviewed by RIVIERA BUZZ contributor Margherita Bassi about the future of Anthéa ten years down the road, Daniel Benoin was positive that “though theatre’s course through history is undulated, in general, it is an upward trend.” He does lament the lack of creativity of contemporary writers though, stating that “we are in a bit of a slump, where famous works today were actually made 40 years ago.” What is he hoping for for the years to come? “My dreams are more artistic than from the point of view of a director.”
Back to his artistic and creative roots? It would be a treat. The 75 year old is as dynamic as ever. He has never stopped mounting at least one opera and one play per season, and he has serious artistic mettle. His adaptation of Molière’s “Avare” turned out, by the way, to be Anthéa’s number one success of its ten year history. After premiering in Antibes and its subsequent export to Paris, it has travelled around France, racking up 200 performances in front of 32,000 spectators to date.
Anthéa has proven against all odds and naysayers that anything is possible if you only set your mind to it. It truly has become the place where people from all kinds of backgrounds meet, connect, enjoy a show, and share a drink on the roof terrace with the sweeping vista across the Baie des Anges. Daniel Benoin, along with his highly competent secretary general Vincent Brochier, their dynamic team, and of course mayor Jean Leonetti, have reason to congratulate themselves on ten spectacular years. And so does the region which acquired the finest jewel in its cultural crown. Right now Anthéa is still “the second House in France after Comédie Française in Paris,” but it’s surely only a matter of a few more years until that label is turned around.
With contributions by Margherita Bassi
Lead image © Philip Ducap; all other photos as credited