Thursday, November 30, 2006

atelier theatre

Early in the school year and there was an announcement for an atelier theatre (theater workshop) to be held on Thursday right after school, which is to say at 5:00 pm. I decided to make this one of my personal growth initiatives for the year so after my 4 o'clock class I went.
The setting for the workshop, a salle polyvalence ( multi-purpose room) is one of those modern, antiseptic, tile-floored rooms with a tiny stage area. There is virtually no backstage nor any lighting or sound equipment. Whatever theater happens here will be owed entirely to the capacity of the actors themselves to create and sustain an illusion. It will in other words be a minimalist production.
The teacher who is charged with supervising the atelier and actually taking attendance (yes they take attendance for real) is M. Dubedat, the German teacher. He is a delightful man, full of humor and energy, always ready to leap onstage and offer throw himself into the breach. He is clearly beloved by the students. He seems to relish the twin roles of entertainer and taskmaster. He glares at everyone as he underlines the terms of participation...every Thursday, 5-7, no exceptions. No bailing out later in the year, no prima donnas, no letting the rest of us down.
In the beginning there was very little talk about the play, in fact no play had yet been chosen. There was therefore at that point no sense of anticipation, no social politicking, no rampant speculation about who'll "get the lead". No one who signs up for the atelier has the slightest idea of what play we're doing let alone what parts they might "compete" for. Yet they sign up for a year long commitment nonetheless (granted, a year of Thursday evenings). The stakes are lower and perhaps because they are lower there is more of a spirit of amateurism in the best sense of the word than of the professionalism which tends to animate the great majority of our extra-curricular activities in the US. It would be silly of me to claim to know exactly what the trade-offs are let alone how to evaluate them...but it is eye opening to see that there is another way of prioritizing and valuing and structuring student's time and experience.
As an a further aside, I am not at all convinced that the most useful way to look at the differences between French and American schools is through an either/or perspective. I tend to feel that the creative and performing arts are likely undervalued within the French school curriculum but that they are perhaps skewed into a competitive trophy-centered model in America. I would suggest that both systems (in very different ways) have marginalized what I would call "manual arts" by which I mean the skills related to fabricating and fixing things. The French have made these arts accessible only via a fork in the road facing kids around the age of represents the road less travelled insofar as the large majority of French kids will pursue a more scholastic or academic formation. As for American kids, electives like wood shop are theoretically available but in actual practice they operate on the margins...but I digress.
The workshop leader is a professional actor from Bordeaux named Marie. It is she who will ultimately help us to mount what is called a spectacle. IThe workshop itself has been conducted in the spirit of exploring the craft of acting with absolutely no reference made so far to the particular play we will put on next May. It is an interesting and very different pace and orientation. We have spent two months now, really only eight sessions (the investments of time are targetted and prioritized so differently here), getting comfortable with being onstage, by ourselves and with each other. Marie is obviously quite skilled in her craft, she clearly wishes to impart a certain respect for the craft to others, and she subscribes to an approach that is very much the master-pupil paradigm. She lays out fundamental principles, we listen, she demonstrates, we practice and then we demonstrate for her. Finally, she critiques our demonstrations. This approach is sometimes a bit talky but Marie has one very essential gift...she enjoys other people. She has progressively involved us in an ever wider range of improvisational excercises, some non-verbal (my favorites) and some verbal, some individual and some in small groups.
When you enter a domain like theater you quickly see how the notion of fluency in a language is an incredibly high bar. One of my pet peeves happens to be the way people toss around the word fluent. I am not now nor do anticipate being fluent in French. I would dearly love to be fluent. Listening to the others improvise and one hundred miles an hour (like most theater beginners they talk too fast, too softly, and they don't articulate) is for me a continual source of puzzlement.
On the other hand I am very fluent in the customs and practices of theater which in certain instances supercede the language...thus it is that I often feel simultaneously at home and at sea in this workshop. Only once so far have we been asked to read a prepared text onstage. I chose a song lyric by Maxime Le Forestier called La Rouille (Rust). Again, this allowed me to draw on my "fluency" in literature as well as theater while at the same time controlling the language factor in a way that kept it well within my grasp.
I think I may have surprised some people with my reading...not to overdramatize the moment, but for me this workshop is an opportunity not only to stretch personally but to put myself out there in front of students and colleaugues in a way that allows them to see me in a different light.
Evidence that this is happening is slowly being manifested. Some of the students in the workshop are also in my classes. We sometimes share brief asides in the classroom about the workshop. On one occasion, the after I missed a workshop due to illness, Ameline et Juliette, two girls in my 2e class, came took time out during a class activity to let me know what our "homework" for the next workshop would be. The other kids overheard us and quizzed us about it. There was a little buzz in the room for a few seconds and I could see kids entering new bits of info into their brains, recalculating perhaps their answer to the question, "Who is this guy anyway?"
Because we are about twenty-five strong, including by the way five teachers, Marie has chosen a script that will allow for a large cast. The play is called Veillee Funebres. If I were to translate the title I'd probably call it "Last Respects". It's a very irreverent and self conciously funny piece in which several anonymous figures come to pay their last respects at the open casket of an equally anonymous dead person. The entire script consists of a series of comments made by the onlookers, inspired in part by the deceased but what also emerges is a rather bizarre series of ripostes launched back and forth over the corpse on the various subjects ranging from his hygenic habits, to his character or lack thereof, to his relationships or lack thereof with those present. The conversation rapidly descends into something not exactly befitting the occasion but entertaining nonetheless. The script is marked by a penchant for word play and scatological humor that is quite characteristic I think of French comedy. Probably a bit too spicey for some of the people who come to LHS productions although I'm not so sure people wouldn't enjoy it given the chance.
More on the theater scene after a few more Thursdays....


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