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Macs Smith on Seuls en Scène and L’Avant-Scène at Princeton

Macs Smith is a fifth-year PhD student in the Department of French and Italian at Princeton University. His research revolves around the relationship between media, technology, and contemporary Parisian architecture. He is trying to illuminate the role that Parisian architecture plays in the creation of groups, both social and political, and what consequences that has for narratives of national identity and belonging. He has been a member of L'Avant-Scene, the Department of French and Italian's French Theater Workshop, for two and a half years now, and Lac, which was staged as part of Seuls en Scène, was the third play he has performed in. He grew up in Northern Virginia, where he participated in theater in high school and later in college, but L'Avant-Scene represents his first opportunity to act in French.

Nicole Birmann Bloom (N.B.B): What has been your experience of the Seuls en Scène festival?

Macs Smith (M.S.): In my opinion, the Seuls en Scene festival is one of the most extraordinary events of the year at Princeton. We are entirely spoiled by the quality and the variety of the shows. This year the festival was different in a few ways. It was bigger than it's ever been, with nine different shows on offer, and for the first time the majority of the actors were on campus simultaneously. That was an important change because the artists were able to meet each other and see each other's shows, which gave Seuls en Scene the feeling of a real theater festival. I was also stunned this year by the interest the actors and directors showed in the students here. Florent included Lac in the official program for the festival and at the beginning I felt uncomfortable with that, because I felt like the professional actors were (and ought to be) in a different category from the students. However, the actors themselves made no such distinction and by the end of their time here they had made me feel like part of the festival. Their generosity with their time and attention made me realize that the actors in the festival were not showing us their work, but sharing it with us.

N.B.B: What did you learn from the workshop with Pascal Rambert?

M.S.: The thing about Pascal's writing is that you can't do it dishonestly. In that way it's a very pure form of theater. With Lac, for instance, the text doesn't make sense when you read it on the page, it doesn't make sense when you perform it alone, it doesn't make sense when you don't feel what you're saying. In one way that made it scarier to perform in front of Pascal; there's nothing to hide behind, which he made clear when he asked us to change the names in the text to our own names. With Pascal's writing you have to show the audience part of yourself. You have to be vulnerable. That's true of all good theater, but it's so central to the way Pascal writes that it becomes a constant presence in rehearsal. But those same qualities also made it easier to work with Pascal, because everything that he wants to say about the text is already in it. Pascal at one point told me that he directs like a chiropractor: he applies force to a few points in the body and afterwards everything moves more smoothly. That was true of his work with us. He found the misunderstandings that had resulted in our system jamming and with some short, sharp movements he loosened us up. What will stick with me most from working with Pascal is the energy. Both the energy that he has for his work and the imperative to maintain energy at all times on stage. To treat the text like an explosion being passed from actor to actor.

N.B.B.: What were your favorite moments, what plays moved you the most?

M.S.: I learned a great deal from watching the actors of the festival attack different kinds of texts in different styles over the course of the past month. I would say that the moment that will stick with me the longest was the experience of watching Mathurin Voltz perform in Le 20 novembre. The play, which recreates the circumstances of a school shooting in Germany, was performed in a classroom on campus. At the beginning of the performance, the actor pointed to a clock on the wall and told us how much time we would be there. I remember as an undergrad reading an essay by Bert States that said that you should never put a working clock on stage because it breaks the illusion. The audience will look at it and wonder if they'll get stuck in traffic after the show, if they'll make it home in time for dinner, etc. But breaking the illusion was the goal of the performance. I felt ill at ease throughout, not knowing if I should respond to the actor's questions to the audience, not knowing if I was responding appropriately. At one point I caught myself imagining how I would disarm Mathurin as he walked by with his pistol. The scariest moment of the performance was an accident of the location: the character opened the curtains to check if the police were outside, but outside there was an enormous party being held for international students. I was afraid that someone outside had seen a man with a rifle holding a classroom hostage and that they would call the actual police. There was a kind of Stockholm syndrome to the way I wanted the real world to leave us alone to watch the performance, a desire to be held captive no matter how much I actually flinched when I thought the character would start shooting. All of that culminated in a moment after the show when a little boy in the audience started crying because he had been bullied recently and his own fear and anger had found a release in Mathurin's performance. The play had been real for him in a different way. I have seldom had so complex an experience of the strange type of authenticity possible in the theater.

N.B.B: What did you take away from your experience of L'avant Scène with Florent?

M.S.: L'Avant-Scene is the best way to improve one's French that I have experienced. First, there is the work on articulation and vocabulary which are obviously useful and which Florent does very well. But the process of acting makes all of the other components of language come to the fore as well. Last year I was on exchange at ENS Ulm and I spent a few weeks participating in an acting workshop with Daniel Mesguich. At one point he asked me to read a line ironically and I did. He stopped me and told me to do it ironically. I did what I had done with a bit more emphasis. He stopped me again. After the fifth time, when his frustration at my inability to do irony was showing, I realized that the vocal cues for irony in English and in French are not necessarily the same, that what had appeared extremely ironic to me was not recognizable as such to him. Those subtleties can seldom be detected in a classroom, but they show up on stage. How would a French person gesture to indicate indifference? What sound would a French person make to show anger? Where do French people put the emphases when they talk very slowly? These subtleties that make the difference between native and non-native speakers can be explored through theater. On top of that, the group provides an opportunity for francophones from around the world to meet and hang out. I learn a lot about France and the world from talking to them.

N.B.B: What are some of your favorite French plays?

M.S.: My favorite French play is Cyrano de Bergerac, which I had the chance to see performed at the Comedie-Francaise the summer of 2013. I think the show ran four hours and I cried for about three and a half of them. Unfortunately, Florent did Cyrano last year while I was in Paris and I couldn't participate, but maybe that's a good thing. It gives me another reason to keep doing French theater.