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After a Renovation, a Storied Theater Hopes to Entice Paris

PARIS — The workmen were everywhere. Backstage and onstage, they were hammering, banging, gluing, carrying, laying tarpaulin, shimmying up ladders and shouting, “Attention!”

In the auditorium, a team checked the red velvet seats, making sure that each was in the correct position. On the stage, performers rehearsed, apparently oblivious to the controlled chaos all around.

It was a week before the scheduled opening, on Friday, of the Théâtre du Châtelet, one of Paris’s most famous stages, which has been closed for a two-and-a-half year, $34.7 million renovation. In one of the lobbies, a large table had been set up for a group of inspectors who had spent the morning examining every aspect of the renovation. They were deciding whether to give formal permission for the theater to open.

“It’s all going to be fine,” said Ruth Mackenzie, the Châtelet’s artistic director. “That’s what I keep telling everyone.” (She was proved right; the commission pronounced a “favorable verdict” at the end of the day.)

Ms. Mackenzie, 62, is small, forthright and cheerful. When asked about her, everyone said the same thing: She is a powerhouse who doesn’t take no for an answer.

“She is artistically fearless, and an experienced and strategic political thinker,” said Alex Poots, the British director of The Shed in New York, in a telephone interview. In fact, Ms. Mackenzie worked as an adviser on culture and media to two British governments, as well as running the Nottingham Playhouse and the Chichester Festival Theater, both in England, and Scottish Opera.

After directing the London Cultural Olympiad, a program of arts events that accompanied the 2012 Olympics, she moved to the Holland Festival, which she ran from 2015 to 2018. “I hoped that would be a job forever,” Ms. Mackenzie said. “But Jean-Luc Choplin, who was running Châtelet, suggested I pitch for the job, and it was irresistible.”

Mr. Choplin, who had announced that he would leave when the theater closed for renovation, also suggested Ms. Mackenzie team up with Thomas Lauriot dit Prévost, his No. 2 at the Châtelet from 2006 to 2013. Although Mr. Lauriot dit Prévost’s title is general director, he and Ms. Mackenzie said they shared all aspects of the theater’s leadership, from budget planning to artistic choices.

“We started by spending a complete day together in Brussels,” Mr. Lauriot dit Prévost said in their shared, spacious office overlooking the Seine River. “We talked about our political vision of what a theater should be in society, what our values were, what we would stand for.”

Ms. Mackenzie is the first Briton to run a French national institution and the first female director at the Châtelet since it opened in 1862. But Christophe Girard, Paris’s deputy mayor for culture, said that her nationality was never an issue during the hiring process.

“I think the fact that she isn’t French is useful,” he said. France has its own cultural and institutional norms, he added, and Ms. Mackenzie “knows when she doesn’t want to understand, and I think she solves a lot of problems that way. Ruth knows how to use what could be a weakness and make it a strength.”

It’s hard to overstate the cultural importance of the Châtelet, designed by Jean-Antoine-Gabriel Davioud in 1862 as one of a pair of theaters facing each other across a square in the city center. (Its twin, the Théâtre de la Ville, is also currently under renovation.)

It was in the Châtelet where the artistic revolutions and innovations of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were first seen; here where Mahler, Strauss and Tchaikovsky conducted; where Josephine Baker, Cole Porter and Juliette Gréco all sang.

Although the main purpose of the renovation was to get electrical circuits, fire safety and security up to code, the Châtelet has also had a makeover: freshly gilded moldings, restored paintings and ceilings, new wallpaper, restored statues on the facade, crumbling stone cleaned and repaired.

A renovated building isn’t the only change. Mr. Choplin transformed the Châtelet’s identity — previously linked to serious classical music and opera productions — with long runs of American musicals like “42nd Street” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” and he brought in pop culture figures like Damon Albarn and David Cronenberg to direct their own work. Despite initial controversy over his choices, they proved extremely popular. Now, Ms. Mackenzie and Mr. Lauriot dit Prévost must place their own stamp on the theater.

That’s not an easy task, said Ariane Bavelier, the deputy culture editor of the French daily newspaper Le Figaro. “There is always drama around the Châtelet. Scandal and outcry are in its DNA,” she said, citing the premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in 1911, and the Jean Cocteau-Eric Satie-Pablo Picasso collaboration, “Parade,” in 1917. (She could have added “DAU,” the huge interactive art project by the filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky, whose chaotic opening in January was poorly received by critics.)

Ms. Mackenzie and Mr. Lauriot dit Prévost have deliberately alluded to that part of the theater’s history by opening the theater and their season on Friday with a reworked version of “Parade,” directed by Martin Duncan. Beginning with an outdoor procession featuring giant puppets created by Marionetas Gigantes, a company from Mozambique, the show continues with “Satie’s World,” a series of free, small-scale installations throughout the theater that evoke some of the eccentric aspects of the French composer’s life. Then comes the paying-tickets part: high-wire performances (literal and figurative) by Stéphane Ricordel’s Paris-based circus ensemble Boîte Noire and Streb Extreme Action, a daredevil dance troupe from New York.

“I always knew I wanted three continents — Africa, Europe, America — and to open up the theater to as many people as possible,” Ms. Mackenzie said. “The citizens of Paris have paid for this theater and will continue to pay, through taxes,” she added. “What are we going to give them for their money?”

What they are getting in the first season includes a musical version of Albert Camus’s “Les Justes” directed by the rapper and writer Abd Al Malik; the Australian opera director Barry Kosky’s production of Handel’s “Saul”; Pina Bausch’s little-seen “Seven Deadly Sins,” presented by Tanztheater Wuppertal; and a homage to the South African singer Miriam Makeba.

Both “Parade” and “Les Justes” were partly created and scripted from yearlong workshops in different Paris suburbs, drawing on communities who might not otherwise be exposed to theater. “We start as we mean to go on,” Ms. Mackenzie said.

In France, she added, community engagement is not necessarily seen as a positive. Her observation was echoed by Ms. Bavelier of Le Figaro. “My worry is that when you start to mix up cultural education with artistic vision, you weaken the programming,” she said.

Ms. Mackenzie defended her position. “Nothing I am saying means we are delegating the choice of artists to the citizens of Paris, any more than we are asking them to focus the lights,” she said. But, she added, the Châtelet was an imposing place, “full of gold leaf, and however much we love it, you have to think about how people can access what we offer, access the magic.”

She drew breath. “What would I like us to be famous for? That we said we were here to serve every citizen of Paris, and we did.”

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