The Acting Bug—Vignettes on Acting in Paris and England

First Bite

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Alberto Bigoni on Unsplash

“You got a laugh.”

I blinked as my eyes struggled to adjust from the blinding stage lights to the backstage. For the first time, I had fun instead of just going through the motions. Our amateur drama club’s was giving the last of its annual series of four performances in the local theatre. I had joined them for my year in Great Britain, working as a foreign language assistant in an upper school.

There were ten of us, including a father and his daughter. They’d all been doing this for years, performing a play every spring. This year’s production was a comedy. As I was eager but clumsy, they gave me a small part: a maidservant, who was to be French since I couldn’t get rid of my accent either.

It was a very good year. I was exasperated by the pupils’ carelessness and rejection of anything foreign; I was stuck in my writing, cranking out tiny, unsatisfactory pieces; but at least, I was acting. Last year hadn’t been so good. Plagued with anxiety about, in various orders of priority, my Master’s dissertation on Romantic and contemporary poetry, my whole future, my self and whether I was really cut for this business of living — nothing too dramatic, in short — I had finally got a grip, written my dissertation and decided to treat that year abroad as a sabbatical, to figure out what it is I wanted to do, and whether I should follow through my initial plan to support myself throughout my PhD by teaching English to French teens, as sensible people with an unreasonable infatuation with words and literature do.

And then it all flew out of the window. I’d had an epiphany while I was looking at three actors trying to stage a scene with the director. They relied on the words on the page, but their questions and their attempts showed how much more there was to words than words. A whole universe of feelings, senses, reactions, lay beneath the lines — and it felt like the story we were trying to stage had bloomed into full dimension, like a 3D universe popping out of the book. Words had turned into life. I decided there and then this was what I needed to do.

“I see you’ve been bitten by the acting bug,” one of the oldest actors told me. “Be careful: once it bites you, it gets under your skin and there’s no doing without it.”

He had been an amateur actor for twenty years, so obviously he knew what he was talking about.

When I came back to France, I undertook the long and painstaking process of finishing my dissertation on Charlotte Bronte’s Juvenilia, a subject that interests about ten dedicated scholars in the world, while taking acting classes, a passion shared by thousands, and working odd jobs, until a second change rocked my world again. This is the story of those years.

On my first day in drama school, a malicious and mysterious man in an old-fashioned school-keeper blouse guided me through the crowded hallway into the introductory course for beginners. All of us, about thirty people between 16 and 40, were sitting on the benches of a small theatre. Our new classroom.

I thought I’d find myself surrounded by eighteen-year-olds who had had the good fortune of knowing what they wanted to do right after high school. On the contrary, most people were in their mid-twenties or even early thirties, and they’d quit their prospective careers or their jobs to enter the world of drama. A brunette introduced herself.

“My name is Angeline. I’ve set up my own business with my husband and I haven’t been on stage for ages, not since I sang in a choir when I was a teen. I don’t really know why I’m here… But I’m happy to be here.”

Those last two sentences could have summed how the rest of us felt. We were all grateful to be starting this new and exciting thing. Without much warning, we had found ourselves bitten by the acting bug.

“Hi, I’m Leo. I was a medicine student in Belgium and then I dropped out to study acting in Paris,” said a lanky young man. Our teacher eyed him with a smile.

“Hi, I’m Sarah. I’ve studied acting, then I got scared, so I quit, then I missed it too much… So I came back, and I want to improve my skills.”

It turned out that a lot among us were undergoing a life change. There was the lawyer who got fired and thought she might as well take up acting while looking for a new job, the former exec turned party organizer, and two sixteen-year-old girls: a quiet Israeli, and an eagerly star-wannabe who also took dancing and singing classes. Our teacher disliked her at first sight and braced herself to bully her for the rest of the year.

I stood up, went on stage and introduced myself.

“I could have become a secondary school teacher but I’d have been so miserable I’d have only taught my pupils how to reach unconceivable depths of misery, so… Here I am.”

I got a laugh.

Once we had all introduced ourselves, our teacher explained to us the basics of making a living as an actor. The French system considered people working in the entertainment industry as perpetual job-seekers and granted them benefits based on their individual earnings. Actors and technicians often lived off those benefits, rather than from the proceeds of their work, because these are too inconsequential. The basic amount is about 600 euros per month.

“You won’t eat with 600 euros a month. Or you’ll eat shit.”

She had a beautiful raspy voice, filled with conviction. She was rather skinny. We all knew what she said was true. We all wanted to go on anyway.

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