Tucked away in a quiet corner of Vieux Nice, there is an unassuming 17th century chapel. Tourists rarely venture to this hidden gem off the beaten path. But for international artists it is a coveted venue.
In a city that has well over 20 theatres, it’s not easy to stand out, unless yours is one of the larger and well-funded Houses. But when your venue has all of 100 seats, a very limited budget, and a location where few people ever venture spontaneously, you need to distinguish yourself in original and creative ways. Many theatres in town struggle with this very problem but Centre Culturel de La Providence has found the perfect formula.
Between traditional Niçois culture and that from far-flung corners of the world, its director Frédéric Rey has made it a sought-after destination for local and international artists, and an audience that enjoys both. And en passant, he has also turned it into THE place of reference in France and beyond for Commedia dell’Arte. In the current 2022/23 season, the Providence and Frédéric celebrate their 20 year jubilee together. It’s been an exciting journey for both.
Nestled against the foot of Castle Hill, a few steps off the busy and touristy main street that crosses the historic Italianate Old Town of Nice, and towered by neighboring houses close enough to touch, the chapel that houses La Providence has an eclectic history. It once stood proudly at the centre of the convent founded in 1669 by sisters of the Visitation Order. Over the three centuries that followed the convent became an orphanage, a hospital, and a school.
And then, by the late 20th century, it fell into disuse and disrepair. Numerous public, municipal, and private parties collaborated on its renovation. While the convent itself could not be saved, its chapel remained, and with it its priceless original 17th century organ. Building on the venue’s historic past as a place devoted to helping and educating, it was to become a place that brings together people – and especially youths – from different backgrounds. To fulfill this noble mission, it became the home of La Semeuse, the oldest socio-cultural establishment in Nice, founded in 1904 and counting over 4,500 members. And once the renovation was completed, Le Centre Culturel de La Providence was finally inaugurated in December 2002, becoming an integral part of La Semeuse.
The direction of both establishments was laid in the hand of a young man who had previously already shown his mettle at La Semeuse: Frédéric Rey. Equipped with a law degree but much more drawn to the stage, he initially felt inexperienced in the management of the cultural association La Semeuse and La Providence, the newly created cultural centre-cum-theatre. But he threw himself into the challenge head-first, and succeeded gloriously.
Frédéric instinctively understood that preserving his hometown’s traditions at such a historic venue was crucial, and therefore made it a point to give talented local artists a platform. He also took to heart the declared objective of La Semeuse to reach out to and connect people from all walks. To this day, at any given moment, there are pedagogic activities, exhibitions by a local painter or sculptor, arts and craft workshops, or even sports events on the densely packed schedule in different areas of town.
But artistic events are the core of Théâtre de la Semeuse, housed in the chapel of La Providence. And many Niçois can’t wait for the annual theatrical reconstitution of Catarina Segurana’s story – the true tale of a woman of Nice who in 1543 singlehandedly and bare-bottomed chased the attacking Ottoman troops out of town when local men were hiding in fear.
A cult event, even for those who have watched it umpteen times before… usually preceded or ended by a commemorative stop at the plaque dedicated to the heroine just steps away from the cultural centre. And of course it is presented in the theatrical style that has made La Providence a reference far beyond the borders of the region: Commedia dell’Arte.
Frédéric’s love affair with the classic Italian stage play with archetypal masks goes way back to his youth and eventually led him to also train as an actor, director, and writer. Carlo Boso, the undisputed maestro of commedia, spotted his talent and mentored him. In 2014, Frédéric created the Festival de Commedia, which by now is a much-loved staple in the city’s cultural fabric.
Faithful to the commedia’s original spirit, La Providence invites international companies to play under the open sky, in the chapel’s picturesque courtyard, on eye level with neighboring balconies and church towers. Numerous educational activities and topical exhibitions all across town complement the weeklong event. And without fail, every year, Frédéric’s former mentor Carlo Boso returns to give one or two of his legendary masterclasses.
Festival time or not, the Semeuse association is busy throughout the year with its civic and educational mission of connecting people anywhere, and especially those who don’t have readily access to culture. There is always an event or a show they present in an outlying neighborhood or at a school, taking great care that these are easily accessible to anyone regardless of age or socio-economic bracket. “Victor Hugo once famously said that ‘theatre educates better than a big book’. This is the educational policy of the association La Semeuse in which I also believe very strongly. This sentence is always in my head when I put on a show or go to a school to teach commedia”, Frédéric explains.
But Frederic is also truly enamoured with other cultures. A polyglot world traveler, he is deeply passionate about sharing this love with the locals. It therefore does not come as a surprise when the soulful sounds of Indian sitar, the sweet harmonies of Bach’s strings, or even the jarring notes of a rock concert float through the baroque chapel baptized Théâtre de la Semeuse. Irish stepdancers and West African griots have all performed here under the benevolent eye of the Madonna, high up on her altar. Translating to “the sower”, the theatre’s name is well-chosen – Frédéric wants to sow the seeds of culture as the great uniter across borders. And many artists have become “family” over time who happily come back with great delight when called.
Old friends… that is also what Frédéric had in mind when he compiled the programme for this 20th anniversary year, “It is a reflection of all the people that have made La Providence what it is today,” he says.
One of them is Irish violinist Zoe Conway. She was visiting Nice 15 years ago and timidly knocked on the Providence’s doors, asking to perform. Frédéric, an Anglophile with a love for Irish music, offered up his stage, and her concert a couple of nights later became a roaring success. Zoe would go on to become an international star but ever since that time, she has come back to La Providence once a year to support its director in his mission to share culture from the four corners of the world.
But geographic boundaries are not all that Frédéric transcends – he also sends the audience on a time travel back to long-gone centuries via music, dance, plays, and events. Feel like listening to a recital of 17th century poetry or a concert of 18th century lutes? Or are you more hands-on and want to chase a “phantom” or solve a “murder case”? It’ll happen here – this is a place for all the family.
For this very special jubilee year, Frédéric has mixed an exhilarating cocktail of the best of everything but the highlight of the yearlong celebration is doubtlessly L’Œuvre Intégrale de Shakespeare (Abrégée) this April.
Wildly comic, eccentric and outrageous, this wild ride through Shakespeare’s 37 plays (+ sonnets!) is not your father’s Shakespeare but will leave you breathless and twisted with laughter. Its translator and director Rowena Cociuban, an Australian-Romanian author now established in Nice with her Compagnie L’Aether, is yet another perfect example for the confluence of multicultural artistic talent at La Providence.
While Frédéric knows perfectly well how to juggle two seemingly different cultures, he, too, is working on a play that can best be described as “Shakespearian commedia dell’Arte-upon-Paillon”. He may be an incredibly successful administrative director of two prestigious Niçois institutions, but he is also an accomplished writer, director, and actor. He adores slipping into historic costumes, and going extra muros, always with the idea to educate entertainingly. Together with Rowena Cociuban, his like-minded co-author who shares his love for world cultures, he wrote two ambulant shows that became fan favourites in recent years. Ainsi se Promenait Nietzsche is a philosophical, theatrical walk in the footsteps of Zarathustra, following the Nietzsche trail from its beginning near Èze-Beach to the old village of Èze. And Le Tir au Canon de Midi is another theatralized historic constitution, this one looking into the myth of the famous Noon Boom in Nice that makes unsuspecting tourists jump out of their skin, and investigating the real story behind it.
No one could know what the future held when La Providence first opened in December 2002. But now, 20 years on, this very special historic venue has become a melting pot of cultures from PACA to Pakistan, and the Point Zero for activities for Niçois youths and families. Frédéric Rey, who in the beginning “never meant to stay on for this long”, had the vision and the passion to turn La Semeuse association into one of the crown jewels in Niçois cultural and social life while preserving La Providence’s unique and sacred character as an intimate gathering place where everyone feels like coming home.
If today Frédéric has become one of the most influential voices in town in the field of culture, it’s because he proves that you don’t have to be the loudest one in the room to be heard – just show what can be done. Here’s to the next 20 successful years!
All photos courtesy La Semeuse/La Providence unless otherwise credited