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May 18
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Interview with Florent Masse, Senior Lecturer, Princeton University

Interview with Florent Masse, Senior Lecturer, French and Italian Department at Princeton University, curator of Seuls en Scène festival and Director of the Student Theater Workshop L’Avant Scène.

Nicole Birmann Bloom (N.B.B.): The third edition of Seuls en Scène, Princeton French Theater festival in partnership with the Lewis Center for the Arts will run from September 17 to October 11 with more than 20 prestigious actors and theater directors making headlines today in France (link to the PR) The festival includes Nicolas Truong, Nicolas Bouchaud, Clément Hervieu-Leger, Daniel San Pedro, Audrey Bonnet, Xavier Gallais, Arthur Nauzyciel and Benjamin Lazar among others. How did you build this outstanding program?

Florent Masse (F.M.): At the Department of French and Italian and the Lewis Center for the Arts, we have built on from the past two festivals in 2012 and 2013 to create an exciting lineup this year. It was a great pleasure to extend invitations to artists I’ve been following closely in the past few years. Nicolas Truong, Nicolas Bouchaud and Judith Henry were very keen on continuing to take the Projet Luciole on tour (presented at the Avignon Festival in 2013, and then at Le Monfort in Paris this year). We are delighted to collaborate with Arthur Nauzyciel and his artistic team, who have already previously performed in the United States. It’s also a pleasure to be welcoming Clément Hervieu-Leger’s and Daniel San Pedro’s Compagnie des Petits-Champs again after last festival’s success with L’Épreuve. As for Benjamin Lazar, we met last year when he came to Princeton University to collaborate on a future opera co-produced by Princeton; so it was natural to invite him to perform at the festival.
At the Department and the Lewis Center, we’re interested in building partnerships with artists over time. This is best exemplified this year with the Compagnie des Petits-Champs’s return to Princeton. Or for example we also invited Stanislas Roquette to act and direct for the past two years. We hope to develop these collaborations and see artists come back to the festival and consolidate their relationship with our audience.

N.B.B.: Most of the productions are for one actor (The festival title Seuls en Scène could be translated into English as One and Alone on the Stage) but not always. Could you tell us more about your curatorial objectives? 

F.M.: When we created the festival, it seemed more apt and feasible to bring monologues to Princeton. Technically, they can be easier to tour and produce. There’s also a trend for Seul(s) en Scene festivals in France. These one-man shows put the actor’s talent at the forestage. It so happened that the first artists I wanted to invite were performing monologues and I was quite excited by displaying the miracles that one text and one actor can create together. The craft of acting seems best showcased on a quasi-bare stage. Texts can resonate even more powerfully.

But we soon found that we were ready for new challenges. Last year’s edition was a good example of our desire to develop the offerings of the festival as it featured a classical play by Marivaux with six actors on stage. We also featured collaborative works by recent graduates of the Conservatoire who had four on stage.

We would like to keep on featuring riveting monologues while also opening up to duos or shows with ensembles as we did with L’Épreuve by Marivaux last year. In addition, we’re interested in introducing students and audiences to the vibrant contemporary scene in French theater and to showcase the works of the next leading generation in French theater. We started the festival by presenting emerging new artists who had recently graduated from their drama schools such as Victoire Dubois, Louis Arène, or Elie Triffault. I am interested in discovering new talents and bringing them to Princeton while also focusing on prominent artists of the current generation of actors and directors in their late thirties or early forties.

N.B.B.: For the first time, Princeton University will partner as co-producer. The play Le Voyage en Uruguay by Clément- Hervieu-Léger directed by Daniel San Pedro, Compagnie des petits-champs will premiere at Princeton on October 9, and then travel to France. Could you tell us more about this new collaboration and what it represents for Princeton University.

F.M.: This is the type of partnership and development that we’re most proud of.
When Clément Hervieu-Léger and Daniel San Pedro proposed to premiere Le Voyage en Uruguay for the festival last October, I immediately supported the project. Their first invitation had made them want to return and strengthen their partnership with Princeton. Our audiences are very supportive towards the returning artists; they like to see familiar faces and to hear them again. It is a privilege and a delight to serve as co-producer and to support a piece of art to come to life through for example in this case, in offering a residency to a company. We are happy to facilitate their process of creation and are grateful to the companies that propose projects specifically tailored for the festival. We take pride in the future developments of these shows and what the Princeton opportunity represents to the companies. If the public’s response and enthusiasm can encourage them to further develop their shows, then we will be most satisfied.

N.B.B.: The Seuls en scène audience is composed of students from Princeton U. and from surrounding communities; more people from New York are coming as well. Could you tell us more about the students attending the performances and the impact of such a festival as part of their studies?

F.M.: Students rave about the chance of attending the festival. It’s almost as if we’re bringing them to France for a few nights each fall. The foreign context exacerbates their experience and makes them more perceptive to contemporary theatrical aesthetics and to the language. There are avid supporters among them who don’t miss a single performance! Students refine their own acting by attending the performances. It’s also a wonderful motivator for them to go and learn more on the playwrights and the topics at stake. For advanced language students, it is a great exposure to French culture and language. Some of the plays of the festival are even included in their curriculum. Some graduate seminars also include some of the productions in their courses. Students in my French theater workshop class will attend two shows of the festival and artists will later visit class sessions and engage in discussions with them. The festival serves a great learning and enrichment opportunity in our community at Princeton University.

N.B.B.: A decade ago, you founded l’Avant scène, a student Theater workshop in French—an excellent way to learn, study and practice the French language! So far you have presented more than 35 plays from the French Classical and Contemporary repertoire. Could you describe a drama class and how these courses work as part of the students’ academic curriculum?

F.M.: In the drama classes (for which they gain academic credits), students get involved in various acting exercises, and practice short excerpts from classical French theater drawn from Molière, Racine, Corneille, Marivaux or Musset. Class sessions usually start with French diction exercises meant to warm up and liberate the students’ voice and help them improve their pronunciation. Traditional acting exercises in body movement to learn how to walk on a stage and apprehend the space, follow and precede classical scene study of short excerpts of classical, modern or contemporary plays. Students are assigned two or three scenes to work on for the duration of the semester and are graded on both their continuous progress and final public performances.

Students train in these class and grow as actors while gaining more confidence in their language skills. It is often recommended that students take one of the two French theater classes that we offer, or both, before joining the troupe of L’Avant-Scène in the co-curricular section of the program. When entering the troupe of L’Avant-Scène, they start to be able to be cast in some of the season’s plays.

With the production of full-length plays, L’Avant-Scène takes on a new dimension; students are able to fully immerse themselves in a playwright’s work and universe, and to experience all that is at stake in building a character for a complete play. These plays also offer students the chance to take their language skills to the next level as full productions require much more diction work to master. Students make astonishing progress from one play to the next. Not only do their acting skills improve as they take on new projects, they also blossom as actors along the way.

N.B.B.: What are the students’ reactions to Feydeau, but also BM Koltès, Lagarce or Sarraute, to quote just a few experiences that amazed you, if it is not too indiscreet?

F.M.: Students’ reactions are very positive. For language learners, the language of Racine, Molière or even Koltès helps them to better themselves. They retain some of these authors’ language structures and improve their spoken French by using some of them in daily conversations. Students love French verse for its poetry and rhythm. Far from being daunted by French verse, they embrace it. In general, they always impress me with their talent at memorizing long series of text. Whether we work on texts by Corneille, Pommerat, or Koltès, they’re willing to bring all their linguistic skills to deciphering and understanding the meaning of a line. Feydeau is always a winner with them and they certainly always like working on contemporary texts. Marivaux’s prose or Molière’s can sometimes be more difficult to tackle but they usually welcome any new challenge such as more demanding texts by authors such as Maeterlinck, Claudel or Genet.

N.B.B.: Would you like to share with us some of your memorable theater experiences? And your dreams for Princeton?

F.M.: I’ll always cherish my own training as an actor with Daniel Mesguich and its artistic team at La Métaphore in the nineties, as well as the life-changing opportunities given to me when I served as Levy-Despas Fellow and French teaching assistant in the Deparment of French at Amherst College. As for L’Avant-Scène, each new stage in its development has been very exciting and memorable to experience. I hold dear the first group of students with whom I put on the very first plays, and the time when I started to direct more elaborate productions involving a new level in collaborative work with the students is equally dear to me. The chance to enrich our repertory and propose students to work on more ambitious playwrights like Claudel, Genet, Maeterlinck, Lagarce or Pommerat has been the most rewarding lately.
I’m grateful for the chance to have attended the Avignon Theater Festival each year since 2002 where I have had a myriad of memorable theater experiences under the open night sky.
I’m also grateful for the opportunity to follow the works and progress of the students at the Paris National Conservatory and to have invited them to Princeton and New York on three occasions with their acting professor Sandy Ouvrier.

I’ll never forget the very first steps of the festival two years ago when it seemed like a whole new challenge and I’m most thankful to the support of my Department of French and Italian and the generous Lewis Center for the Arts in helping me to develop the festival during the past two years. I’m equally grateful to you at the French Cultural Services and FACE, as well as Institut français, for the precious, instrumental and continuous support.

My dreams for Princeton would be to make us a known center for French theater in the US where French actors and directors always feel at home by a welcoming community of students, professors and community members who admire their work and craft, and where American students of French and professors come to enrich their educational experience.
My desire would be to enhance our international exchanges with France by taking students to France more often and to Avignon in particular, while at the same time continuing to welcome French drama students to Princeton.

Last but not least, I dream on consolidating the festival’s offerings and making it a relevant moment in the French theater season. I would love to see it grow, become a landmark in the cultural season and partner with our friends at FIAF in order to start having a New York presence. It would also be wonderful to create a branch of the festival in France featuring contemporary American theater in order to reciprocate our initiatives and strengthen transatlantic exchanges in theater.

But for now, one thing at a time, and the focus will be on the third edition of Seuls en Scène!

N.B.B.: Thanks Florent, and see you on September 17 for the opening of Seuls en scène, starting with Projet Luciole directed by Nicolas Truong and Nicolas Bouchaud. Program is available here.

L’Avant-Scène, founded at Princeton in 2001 and directed by Masse, is a unique student theater workshop in which Princeton students study linguistics and drama and perform works from the French theatrical canon in French. Florent Masse direct four to five full-length plays annually at L’Avant-Scène from the classical, modern and contemporary French and francophone theater repertoires. This fall and winter they will perform La Musica Deuxième by Marguerite Duras and Antigone by Anouilh at the Princeton University Art Museum (November 15-16, 2014). Cyrano de Bergerac by Rostand in the Chancellor Green Rotunda (December 4, 2014), and excerpts from Joel Pommerat’s Cercles Fictions (January 2015).

Interview by Nicole Birman Bloom, Performing Arts Program Officer at the French Cultural Services. Translation and proofreading by Nicole Birmann Bloom and Sophie Thunberg.