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Historic theater reimagined as refugee camp for new show

Set for “The Jungle” painstakingly transforms the Curran’s interior to go beyond the stage

A makeshift auditorium made of plywood and cloth panels, with a catwalk stage in the center of the room.
The multimillion-dollar interior of the Curran Theater for The Jungle.
Photos by Little Fang

The nearly-century old Curran Theatre in Union Square reopened after a 15-month renovation in 2016. It now bears a gorgeous new interior that’s often one of the best assets for a show on the Curran stage.

But not for The Jungle, the acclaimed British production making its West Coast premiere Thursday.

This show’s set almost entirely conceals the theater’s historic stage and seating area, a feat that took three and a half weeks and as many as 45 stagehands, who created a working facsimile of a real makeshift cafe from the French migrant camp that gives The Jungle its title.

Step past the lobby and the Curran theater is no more, replaced by the Afghan Cafe in Calais, France, where between 2015 and 2016 thousands of refugees waited to cross the English Channel and start new lives in the United Kingdom, just 20 miles away.

According to the Washington Post, the real Jungle housed nearly 10,000 people at its height. Among them: British playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, who wrote The Jungle after operating a theater company in the Calais migrant community for seven months before French police demolished the camp.

Robertson and Murphy’s theatrical production recreates the Afghan Cafe and, if the show is successful, the tense and bustling atmosphere of desperate but resolute Jungle life.

The cafe is not just the set; it’s also the orchestra seating. Audience members sit at the tables during the show, and the kitchen serves naan and chai tea.

The interior is stocked with the same sort of supplies Jungle refugees relied on; audience members walk by the makeshift shack that serves as a main character’s bedroom; the floor is partially dirt, the kitchen is semi-functional, graffiti on the walls reflects realities of migrant living, and the unmistakable smell of freshly cut sawdust is everywhere.

A water spigot spouts from the ground in the northwestern corner of the set. Turning the valve reveals that, like much of what audiences see, it’s a practical element that really works.

“In a way, it’s the star of the show,” says actor Ben Turner, who has played in The Jungle previously in New York and London, tells Curbed SF of the transformative set.

“It’s fun to come to a commercial venue and cover it in mud,” adds Turner.

Compared to previous productions in other cities, Turner says that the Curran’s interior is a bit wider, and that breadth makes it a little harder to cover up.

“You can see the old Curran peeping in,” at the upper edges of the set, he points out, mostly where the cafe’s fabric ceiling—a construct that took a crew of 40 people five days to create and install—rises to make room for the seats on the balcony.

That balcony does spoil the illusion a bit. But it’s a necessary concession—building out the set like this reduces the Curran’s seating space to just 600 people (the Curran regularly seats 1,600), and without those upper rows even fewer could squeeze in to see the show.

When it opened in London, the Guardian called The Jungle “vital drama” anda necessary piece of theatre.” The New York Times dubbed it an “extraordinary work of immersive theater.Variety, while far more critical of the show, praised the design and pointed out its “extreme efforts at verisimilitude.”

The cafe set (originally designed by Miriam Buether) is the show’s master stroke. It’s also a creative risk—as Turner acknowledges, recreating the refugee camp experience in such immersive detail for the benefit of mostly affluent western theater audiences (tickets run up to $155) risks feeling exploitative.

“It’s a commercial thing,” says Turner, pointing out that the show must make business concessions if it wants to keep going. But he argues that if The Jungle exposes more privileged people to the realities of migrant living, it will achieve its mandate.

The Jungle plays at the Curran April 4 through May 19.

To see how the interior transformation took place, check out the time-lapse video of construction below.