They live behind the stage

The Grand Theatre might not be the first place people think of when they are looking for a place to live. But international students Mollie Jagoe Brown and Leonardo Govoni have recently moved into the large building at the Grote Markt.
By Eva van Renssen / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

They say their temporarily living arrangement is ‘just perfect’. As part of the international project ‘Meet the Neighbours’ Leonardo, an Italian student of arts, culture, and media, and Mollie, a French math student, were lucky enough to be selected to live the Grand Theatre. They live in a guest room and one of the dressing rooms, respectively.

Before coming here, they had both experienced a handful of other temporary accomodations. They spent a few nights in a tent at the Zernike ACLO, a week on someone’s couch in Beijum, and a string of nights crashing with one classmate after another.

‘Couch surfing has saved my life. One classmate had to leave university because she didn’t have a place to live’, says Leonardo. Mollie: ‘I almost immediately joined DAG, because student housing is one of their main issues. I got involved in this project through them.’


The ‘Meet the Neighbours’ project is being organised across five European and North-African cities. It aims to combine art and an ever-changing society. Last year, during the first part of the project, video artists from the Groningen artist collective WERC temporarily moved into the ‘Bed, Bath, and Bread’ boat.

The original plan involved an exchange; artists would move into the Student Hotel and students would move into the Grand Theatre and its artist hostel.

The internationals living in the hotel weren’t very interested in this exchange. But that all changed when the housing crises hit, says Milan van der Zwaan, Grand Theatre’s production leader: ‘We started the project before the advent of the crisis. But then we simply changed the plan. In consultation with the DAG students, who had organised the couch surfing, we deliberately decided to give the rooms to homeless internationals rather than students who have been in Groningen for a while.’

Guest rooms

Thanks to the project, Leonardo and Mollie will have a roof over their heads at the Grand Theatre for the next few weeks. Leonardo is living in one of the guest rooms, together with a group of Iranian artists. ‘It’s very cool’, Leonard says. ‘I’ve been very lucky.’ As a newcomer to Groningen he didn’t have much of a network, but the project has given him a real connection to the city. ‘I will definitely be coming back to the Grand Theatre in the future.’

Mollie is staying in one of the dressing rooms, which has everything she needs, including a shower and a toilet. She says that being part of the project is was a unique introduction to Groningen. ‘I’ve seen so many different sides of Groningen over the past six weeks.’ What she loves most is the contrast between the austere faculty at Zernike and the artsy, lively city centre.

Next week she and Leonard will swap rooms. She doesn’t care about packing up one more time. ‘It’s the umpteenth time I have to up sticks this fall. I’ve got no choice, so why get upset about it?’

Ghosts of the Grand

Daily life at the theatre is quite different from life in a ‘normal’ house. ‘I start my day with coffee at the café downstairs. Then I go to class and come back home in the afternoon. When I wake up in the morning the first thing I see is the large lighted mirror in the room. Life is far from routine around here’, says Mollie.

Mollie, one of the ‘Ghosts of the Grand’

The students call themselves ‘the Ghosts of the Grand’. Leonardo explains the name: ‘We’re both guest and host at the same time.’ Guest + Host = Ghost. Mollie: ‘It also refers to our role in the theatre: we’re invisible, but we see everything. Once the stage is empty and the last people have gone home, we remain. The other day I watched a concert from a dark corner in the back and I stayed until everyone had left. I felt like a ghost haunting the theatre.’

Leonardo and Mollie organised a lunch for everyone involved in the project, including the group of Iranian artists. ‘We could have just bought ourselves sandwiches at the supermarket, but we wanted the people here to feel like our guests’, says Leonardo.

‘We wanted to show them how important it is to feel like we have a home somewhere, to act as a host instead of a guest for once. Even if we’re only here for a few weeks. This project really taught me the meaning of the concept of “home”.’

On 4 November, the last day of the project, the Ghosts of the Grand will talk about their experiences at the Grand Theatre, moderated by theatre producer Sieger Baljon. The time of the presentation is to be announced.

Theatre performance

Artists Alice Pons and Olivia Reschofsky with theatre collective MOHA are also participating in the project. They are studying life at The Student Hotel for their project ‘Unfolding Routines’. They clean rooms, work the reception desk, and observe the goings-on in the hotel common rooms.

The women, who were once international students in Amsterdam, study the lives of international students. They will present their findings in a theatre performance on Thursday, 25 October. They will also host tours of The Student Hotel this Friday and Saturday, 26 and 27 October.



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