The arrival of fall also announces the arrival of a now annual area theater festival that offers a different focus and accent — and is a deal too good to pass up.
“There is a great realistic theater tradition in the U.S. We (French) tend to be more abstract. So sometimes the shows will be different for the audience in the U.S., the form is different,” says Florent Masse about the fifth Seuls en Scene, a free two-week festival of professional French theater.
The 2016 Seuls en Scene arrives on the Princeton University campus on Monday, September 26, and continues in various campus venues through Thursday, October 6.
“We feature contemporary French theater,” says Masse. “The writers are not the typical playwrights that you would expect on Broadway. They work on language. The text is very important. It is a French text-based festival.”
“(Yet) we have subtitles,” adds Masse in hopes of attracting a wide audience. “Not all of them. We’re keen on developing and having subtitles in every show.”
Masse, who launched the theater festival in 2012, sits in a conference room in the Lewis Center. A tall and slender man with a youthful flair, he is just finishing overseeing a university theater project in France while also preparing for both the festival and his ongoing duties at Princeton University — he is a senior lecturer in the Department of French and Italian and the director of L’Avant-Scene (the proscenium; literally, before the scene), a French theater workshop program.
Although Masse mentions jet lag, he comes alive when he starts talking about Seuls en Scene — with the translation “sole” and “scene” giving a hint of the soul of the festival.
“Minimal forms,” says Masse about the Princeton festival’s approach, “Simple forms. Monologues or one-man shows.”
Then becoming more animated to make a point, he says, “It’s not a rule. We will produce a small work or duo, (but) not shows that are too technically complicated. But sometimes we have a show with a cast of six or eight actors.”
Masse returns to the sense of French theater, one that has “different sensibilities, because it is a different tradition.” He then brings up another difference. “French theater is subsidized theater. The theater we feature is theater featured in state sponsored festivals.”
That includes the Festival d’Avignon. Promoted as “one of the most important contemporary performing arts events in the world,” that annual summer event in the south of France has a direct link to Princeton’s Seuls en Scene.
“I see things in Avignon,” says Masse. “I see shows that I will book and invite to Princeton. The official festival is a place to know new artists.”
It is also a place to work with companies and artists to develop plays that will eventually be performed in Princeton. “I get to know (artists and companies) thanks to the festival and invite them to bring a simpler version of the show. One of the shows I saw last year I invited to come this year. And I was able to start planning to meet people in 2017 so the sixth edition of the festival is in the works. We work closely with the Avignon Theater Festival.”
Shows appearing in Princeton also go to Avignon. “A show we saw at the (2016) Avignon festival we co-produced. They rehearsed (in Princeton). By inviting them we supported the entire production.”
While the Avignon Festival is 70 years old and features more than 30 shows, readings, exhibitions, films, and debates, Seuls en Scene is a recent and more modest event. “We feature four to seven companies and will have six shows and one stage reading.”
Talking about the significance of the artistry, Masse explains the general approach of the festival. “We have three types of artists we invite. Signature names in French theater: people in their 50s, landmarks names, directors and actors, recognizable names.” That includes Pascal Rambert, the prominent French author, stage director, and choreographer who also serves as the director of Theatre de Gennevilliers (T2G), a national dramatic center for contemporary creation.
“Then, we have big groups, artists, actors, and directors representing the new leaders of French theater,” Masse continues. “They have already been recognized by the state, and we invite them at that moment in their career — people in their 30s, new leaders.” Look for Caroline Guiela Nguyen, a prominent new stage adaptor and director at La Colline National Theatre in Paris.
Finally, he says, “We also invite emerging artists in France. Some have just graduated from theater school. I know them through the conservatory. We have a relationship with the Paris Conservatory of the Arts. Another (conservatory) is based in the Theatre National de Strasbourg. When you graduate you enter a program that helps artists. We are continuing the partnership with (Strasbourg). They are coming to do the stage reading.”
Look for lighter or easily transferred shows with “seuls” or simple sets, says Masse. “We cannot bring pieces from la Comedie-Francaise — too much of an endeavor and too many sets.”
Yet the approach works, connecting the Princeton festival to other French events in the United States.
“The Crossing the Line Festival by the French Institute in New York is at the same time, late September through early November. The French embassy encourages us.”
That encouragement includes financial and logistical support. “The culture in France is highly subsidized by the French government, the French Embassy. We get support from the French government for this endeavor,” says Masse.
In addition to the French government, Seuls en Scene is supported by Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts and Department of French and Italian. That support helps L’Avant Scene set the tone for the year’s academic work. “We are a university, and the main business is to teach and train students,” says Masse. Visiting artists also stay on campus, where Masse also lives.
The event is also supported by “dedicated” members of the community, says Masse. “We have about 5,000 French people living in New Jersey — ex-patriots or French nationals. They are mostly concentrated around the Princeton area because of the pharmaceutical companies. And I am very much a part of it through my programs.
“I know the (French) community,” says Masse. He also knows French culture and theater. “I was born in Lille (in northern France) in 1976,” he says about his background and training.
Masse, whose father taught sociology at an engineering school and whose mother tended to children and home, began studying theater in high school and got more serious when he studied American civilization at the University of Lille. “I studied theater in France,” he says. “It’s my background. I studied acting and directing.”
He says he came to Princeton via another American institution. “I spent two years at Amherst College (in Massachusetts), a teaching assistant and a fellow in dance and theater.”
About his 2001 move to Princeton, Masse says, “Someone who was teaching at Princeton heard about (my work) and invited me.” He now holds the rank of senior lecturer.
While the Princeton festival is small compared to Avignon, it is a big endeavor. “I’ve been doing it since 2012. It’s an exciting project, and we have a great institution so we can do it. (Yet) we don’t have a staff of 20 people working on the festival. Everyone has a regular agenda, so it is an extension of the opportunities we have at Princeton: the network we have and the resources. The Lewis Centers produces it, I’m the curator. I get a lot of support from the department. When we bring these things together — we have a festival.”
Another challenge comes from a perception by others artists, producers, organizers, and cultural institutions. “(Seuls de Scene) is a well known and one of the only festival like this in the U.S. But (others) don’t understand that I run it,” giving an appropriately ironic twist to “seuls.”
Part of that is connected to the project’s growth. “We started inviting emerging artists, fresh out of drama school. They were just entering their profession. One was a more accomplished artist who was good friend of mine. We had been doing a lot of staging and acting. He was a senior member of that group.
“(Then) just after two years we were inviting people who are the main artists at Avignon — people who are accomplished in their field. It developed very fast. It’s not a question of who to invite. It’s saying ‘no’ to people now. It’s going very well. And with development there are more challenges, like fundraising. Yet we are definitely growing.”
#b#Seuls en Scene Schedule#/b#
Thursday and Friday, September 22 and 23, 8 p.m.: “Dans la solitude des champs de cotton” by Bernard-Marie Koltes; directed by Rolaud Auzet, performed in French by Anne Alvaro and Audrey Bonnet. Frick Chemistry Building Atrium.
Saturday, September 24, 8 p.m.; Sunday, September 25, 5 p.m.: “Cloture de l’amour,” written and directed by Pascal Rambert; performed in French by Audrey Bonnet and Pascal Rambert, with English supertitles. Marie and Edward Matthews ’53 Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street.
Wednesday and Thursday, September 28 and 29, 8 p.m.: “Finir en beaute” by Mohamed El Khatib; performed in French by Mohamed El Khatib, with English supertitles. Whitman College Class of 1970 Theater.
Friday, September 30, noon: “Guest artists of the Festival in Conversation,” with French-Canadian artists Annabel Soutar, Princeton Class of 1994, and Brigitte Poupart. Whitman College, Octagonal Room.
Friday, September 30, 5, 7:30, and 10 p.m.; Saturday, October 1, at 3, 5, and 7:30 p.m.: “Mon grand amour,” written and directed by Caroline Guiela; performed in French by Luc Bataini, Dan Artus, and My Chau Nguyen Thi. Location TBA.
Friday and Saturday, September 30 and October 1, 8: p.m.: “Ceux qui restent,” directed by David Lescot; Performed in French by Marie Desgranges and Antoine Mathieu, with English supertitles. Marie and Edward Matthews ’53 Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street.
Tuesday, October 4, 8 p.m.: “Paroles de soldats,” directed by Marc Sussi; A staged reading in French by Victoire Du Bois, Pierre Yvon, Julien Drion, William Edimo, and Yacine Ait Benassi. Marie and Edward Matthews ’53 Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street.
Wednesday and Thursday, October 5 and 6, 8 p.m.: “Movement on Movement” by Noe Soulier; performed in English by Noe Soulier. Whitman College Class of 1970 Theater.
Admission to all festival events is free but reservations are required by visiting arts.princeton.edu/events/tag/french-theater-festival