Video feature: 'French Theater: Behind the Scenes'

L'Avant Scene index

Princeton students interested in developing their French and dramatic skills may decide to enroll in the French Theater Workshop, with the potential of joining the troupe L'Avant-Scène. Both under the direction of Florent Masse, a senior lecturer in the Department of French and Italian, students learn and perform a range of French plays. Above: Juniors Dayna Li (left) and Olivia Nice note that the variety of the material and the deep immersion in rehearsing dialogue and pronunciation are hallmarks of learning about French theater at Princeton.

Video stills courtesy of Evelyn Tu

The stage is a classroom for Princeton students honing their skills in French and acting. Since 2001, students have developed their fascination for French language and culture by learning and performing classic French plays under the guidance of Florent Masse, a senior lecturer in the Department of French and Italian

Annually, about 18 students participate in L'Avant-Scène, a troupe that focuses on linguistic as well as dramatic training, culminating in the public performance of full-length plays from the French canon.

Students from the troupe often also are enrolled in the French Theater Workshop (FRE 211), an academic course that provides approximately 16 advanced-level students in French with performance-quality training in the language. The workshop serves as a steppingstone to students interested in joining L'Avant-Scène.

This video gives a behind-the-scenes look at students involved in French theater as they rehearse dialogue and practice their pronunciation.

Masse said students are attracted to the French workshops from academic fields across the University and from a range of backgrounds. He noted that about a third of the students are from countries other than the United States.

About his training method, Masse said: "First I make sure the students master the pronunciation of the texts, and fully understand them. Then we move on to the acting part. The more prepared they are linguistically before taking the stage, the better it is."

Students have a rigorous rehearsal schedule, which includes individual training with Masse. The students often rehearse in pairs, which allows for intense practice in dialogue. As the performers recite lines, Masse observes and follows the scenes of each play, occasionally interjecting to correct pronunciation.

Senior Christina Bott said the French workshop, which she took her first year at Princeton, was one of her "favorite courses," and she "loved every second of it." A French major, she now performs with L'Avant-Scène. 

"Florent really takes the time to work with each student individually," Bott said. "You learn about the intricacy of language and just how important pronunciation is."

She added, "French theater is much more about the text and a lot less about what you're doing with your arms, and all that jazz, which took a lot for me to learn." 

The repertoire of plays the students learn is expansive. They have performed works by 17th-century playwrights Molière and Racine; by the Belle Époque playwright Georges Feydeau; by 20th-century playwright Eugène Ionesco; and "Incendies" by contemporary playwright Wajdi Mouawad, among others.

The students perform across campus to audiences Masse said are "very attentive," hailing from the University as well as from francophone communities in New Jersey and New York. The students have acted in theaters in the residential colleges, outside in the Butler College amphitheater and in Rockefeller College's Holder Court, as well as in the Chancellor Green Rotunda and the Princeton University Art Museum

Farther afield, a highlight for members of L'Avant-Scène is the opportunity to participate in one trip to Paris. During the eight-day trip over intersession, students attend a play every night and take acting and directing classes at the Paris National Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. The trip is supported by the Department of French and Italian, the David A. Gardner '69 Magic Project, the Lewis Center for the Arts, the Center for French Studies, and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies

Students also may have the opportunity to work with practicing French artists at Princeton. This term, they are benefiting from the visit to campus of Comédie Française actor Guillaume Gallienne, who is a short-term vising fellow at the Council of the Humanities. He will participate in a public conversation with Masse in English at 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 7 and in French at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 8, both in East Pyne, Room 010.

Upcoming performances by L'Avant-Scène are "Les Femmes savantes" by Molière on Dec. 12 at the Rocky/Mathey Theater; "Le Cid" by 17th-century playwright Pierre Corneille on Feb. 22-23 in the art museum; "Les Mamelles de Tirésias" by early-20th-century writer Guillaume Apollinaire on April 19, location to be determined; and "Partage de midi" by 20th-century author Paul Claudel on May 10 in the Butler amphitheater. Admission is free but reservations are recommended.