La Comédie humaine is the diary of American expatriate Claire Berlinski’s amazing journey onto the Parisian stage. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.) If you missed the Introduction, we urge you to begin from there.
We started with the same warmup: arm rolls and vowel-shouting. When we get to shouting “ü,” Fabien said, “I want to see your lips vibrate.”
Yes! Yes! I think. I know how! I’ve been working on my ü for years. You pucker your lips as if to whistle, then say “eeee,”to rhyme with “bee.” I’ve spent years consciously perfecting this sound. I have more insight into that vowel, I thought, than anyone else on this stage. I know what motivates this vowel. I inhaled. ÜÜÜÜÜÜÜÜ! My lips definitely vibrated. I thought I deserved a “très bien” and was sad when none was forthcoming.
But then, instead of emoting, we learned technical things about acting on stage.
Try the next exercise we did for yourself, as an experiment. At home. Don’t watch or read beyond the video below until you’ve done it. Grab a book, a real one, and sit on a chair. Imagine you’re reading it in on your favorite park bench.
Do it naturally, don’t exaggerate.
Observe yourself. Notice all the details of your own body language, the placement ofyour head, your back, your hands, your feet. Bring the scene alive for yourself, using all your senses: the smell of cherry blossoms on the spring breeze, the happy babble of children playing in the playground, the paper on your fingertips.
The book is engrossing. Actually, it’s a guilty pleasure—a junk novel. Notice how you turn the pages. Notice what you do when you get lost in a book. Pay attention to every facial expression you make when you’re reading. Really fix every detail in your mind.
Great. Good job. Now don’t do that, ever, on stage. It’s all wrong.
Normal body language, Fabien explained, just doesn’t work on stage. In fact, everything you see an actor do in a live performance, is counter-intuitive, unnatural and artificial. All that Stanislavski technique stuff is for movies, not the stage.
Where did you put the book—in your lap, right? That’s the natural place to put it. But you can’t do that on a stage, because then you’re looking down. You’re not face publique—public-facing. The audience can’t see your face. They can’t see the book, either; they’ll only see a bowed head. So you have to hold the book high enough that it’s clear you’re “reading a book”—but not too high, or it will obscure your face, and worse, your voice: the audience won’t be able to hear you.
But doesn’t that look strange to the audience? No, apparently. Have you ever been perturbed, at the theater, by the realization that an actor or an actress is holding an object that one would usually put in one’s lap at chest level? No. For some reason, the audience just doesn’t notice. You didn’t notice it in that video, did you? But now that I’ve pointed this out to you though, I bet you’ll notice it every time you watch a play.
In fact, Fabien explained, your speech, body language, and motion must be significantly changed so that the audience can see and hear it. In normal conversations, you look at the person you’re speaking to. This very rarely happens on stage. The actors look at the audience—and the audience finds this perfectly natural.
This means you must have conversations that are supposed to be gentle, or intimate, ironic, in a tone of voice you’d only ever use in real life if you were furious or utterly berserk. Try it: Stand in a midsized parking lot with a friend on the very opposite side. Break the news to her: “My period is late.” Try having the whole conversation that way. With every single word turned up to 11.
As we practice, I feel that I’m shouting, positively bellowing. “SO, ARE YOU SEEING A SHRINK?” But Fabien kept telling me, “plus fort!” Louder! And as you can hear in the video below, he’s right. We shot that much later, but the camera was where the audience would be, and I wasn’t nearly loud enough.
He told Henriette and me to go to the opposite ends of the theater—as far as we could be from each other and still be in the theater. He gave us a text. We were to read it loud enough for the other to hear. We shouted away at each other like mariners on two ships passing in the night. At last, he nodded in approval. “That’s how loud it always has to be. Always.”
Obviously, he was right: One’s voice has to be audible even for the people furthest away from the stage, all the way in the back. Here’s what “book in the natural place, natural speaking voice” looks like:
See the problem?
At last we arrived at the final exercise of the audition. It was “to practice our memory.” We were to start walking around the stage again, as we did in the beginning. But this time, as we passed Fabien, he would whisper the name of a kitchen utensil in our ear. When each of us knew which utensil we were, we were to introduce themselves to everyone else—as that utensil. Then, when everyone had met the other utensils, we’d go around and greet each other—individually—by their utensil-name.
It was obvious why he was asking this. This is a basic cognitive test. If you don’t have the ability to remember everyone’s utensil-name, you don’t have the ability to memorize lines. That’s a basic aptitude you need to act on stage: a very good memory. He’d saved this one for last, I figured, because this was where it got serious.
I walked past Fabien. He whispered that I was a pissoir.
I was seriously confused. It’s true that the French vocabulary for culinary implements is unusually complex. How many words do Anglophones use for a pot? The French have a lot more. Big pots, little pots, marmites, casseroles …
He repeated it, and suddenly I got it. “Oh! A passoire!” I was a strainer.
That hadn’t got off to the best start. And it should be said that my memory for names is generally lousy. I forget everyone’s instantly. This, I figured, was going to be a challenge. Concentrate, Claire. Concentrate, Passoire.
Oneby one, we learned our utensil names, and then we introduced ourselves. I met Monsieur Knife, Mademoiselle Skillet, Madame Napkin, Monsieur Spatula, Madame Pastry Brush, Madame Fish Bone Puller, Madame Fork, Madame Ladle, Mademoiselle Spoon, Monsieur Peeler, Monsieur Grater, Madame Rolling Pin, Madame Spatula, and Monsieur Whisk.
Now, we were to greet each other—whispering, so no one could cheat—by name. Whrookay.
To my truly immense surprise, this is what happened. I remembered everyone’s utensil name—and no one else did, and not even close.
I’ve thought about this and thought about it, because I can’t figure it out. Why on earth did I do so well? My memory is okay, but nothing special. I forget keys, phones, names, what I was supposed to pick up at the grocery store—there is really no obvious reason I should have done well at all.
It had to have something to do with French not being my native language. Could it be because I’ve spent so much time forcing myself to memorize lists of French words? Maybe that strengthened the neural connections between the part of my brain that stores the French and my memory?
Or maybe I was just trying really hard?
Whatever it was, I won that one, hands down.
I smiled pleasantly at Louise. “This one is really easy for Americans,” I said.
The audition was over. Once again, I snuck off before the small talk and the kissing. I figured it wasn’t worth it to try to make friends if I’d failed; I’d never see them again. I promised myself that if I passed, next time I would absolutely positively make banal chit-chat until I keeled over.
I didn’t have long to wait. The very next day, Marie sent me an e-mail to ask me if I’d enjoyed the class. She signed her e-mail, Artistiquement, Marie.” I was a bit unsure why she was asking me: Did it make any difference? I figured there was no reason not to be honest; I wrote back and said that I loved it, but I was worried that my French wasn’t good enough and that it might drag the rest of the class down, and that I hadn’t done well with the improv.
Within an hour, she replied:
J’ai eu Fabien au tel au sujet de tes 2 cours.
Il m’a dit qu’il y a aucun problème pour la langue.
Il me dit que cela c’est Tb passé pour toi lors des impros.
Et il n’a pas senti une difficulté à ce sujet.
Tu as ta place sans aucun problème dans ce cours.
The Académie française would have freaked at the way she wrote that, but I couldn’t have been more amazed. It means:
I spoke to Julien on the phone about your two classes.
He told me there’s no problem with the language.
He said it went very well for you with the improv.
He didn’t sense any difficulty in that subject.
You have your place, no problem at all, in the class.
I was to begin acting classes the next Wednesday evening.
I was so astonished—and so exceedingly proud. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends. Maybe I could find some way to mention it, very modestly of course, on Facebook? Just drop a humble hint about passing an audition to be a comédienne in one of the most historic theaters in Paris?
Fortunately, I didn’t. For as I was to learn—although it took me several months to figure it out—it wasn’t an audition, sensu stricto. In fact, it wasn’t one at all.
It was a test, yes. But the test was to see whether I was capable of getting my ass into that theater, roughly on time, twice in a row. Anyone who can do that passes.
It turns out—as I learned over the course of the class—that most people are such flakes that they sign up and then quit. Or they miss classes regularly. And this completely screws up the rest of the class, because you’re assigned specific roles, and if your répliques aren’t there to play their roles, well, you’ve memorized your lines, practiced, and dragged yourself to class for no reason.
You can’t screen out all the flakes, but the two-class test, at least, eliminates the most flagrant ones. And people who show up for two classes also see, before they commit on an impulse or assume that just signing up is the fast-track to Cannes, that the class is hard. It will involve a lot of work. A lot of people decide, “To hell with that.”
So in reality, my only brief had been to show up roughly on time. Twice.
But I had no idea, and thus remained high as a kite on the sense of achievement—and my conviction that I had a talent I’d never known I had—for many happy weeks.
Claire Berlinski, La Comédie humaine