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Guillaume Gallienne’s Approach to Teaching, Acting, and Life: “Responsible but lucky”

“I’m there to tell them they are not alone. I think that’s my job. The purpose for me of theater is to say that we’re not alone, or that we’re not separated,” explained Guillaume Gallienne, sociétaire of the renowned French theatre company Comédie-Française and winner of multiple César Awards for his autobiographical film “Les Garçons et Guillaume, à table!”

Gallienne, a Visiting Lecturer in the Humanities Council and Belknap Fellow in French and Italian, attempts to impart such a message every day to his students.

“Today a lot of people are trying to separate things; to separate people for their skin, for their religion, putting up walls, separating humans and nature, humans and animals,” Gallienne said.

“I think theater makes you realize we’re not any different. We laugh at the same things. We’re moved by the same things. We are shocked at the same things. We’re not alone. We’re all together in this.” 

Together with Senior Lecturer Florent Masse, Gallienne teaches FRE 311/THR 312: Advanced French Theater Workshop. He also teaches a workshop in acting Chekhov. 

Gallienne regards teaching theater at the University as combining the French and American approaches to education. The former prioritizes the text, while the latter takes care to nurture the feelings of its students. 

“I think theater can bring a good equilibrium between those two extremes,” said Gallienne. “Your feelings are important, but the author is as well, and that is why I try to work in such a way to understand the author, as much as you can, his writing, his rhythm, how he wrote, and at the same time how you feel about it and how you can be honest and very personal and not erase yourself. It’s not being possessed by the part; it’s possessing the part.”

Another part of Gallienne’s teaching philosophy is to encourage his students to inhabit the present, rather than the immediate past or near future. 

According to Gallienne, learning to live or act in the present is a gradual process. He loves seeing his students surprise themselves and “discover things about themselves they didn’t even know were there.” 

To help students make these discoveries, Gallienne’s teaching is direct and honest, and he gives responsibility to his students. The American approach has its merits, but sometimes, Gallienne observes, one has to say, “Feel responsible here and now. Mobilize yourself.”

Gallienne’s Great Souls

Gallienne’s students regard his directing and teaching as inspirational.

“He has this wonderful infectious personality — he’s very funny, but also quite critical, which I think is great,” explained Caroline Stafford ’18. “Guillaume can be quite straightforward and direct, but I think that’s part of the charm of Guillaume: he’ll tell you how it is.” 

Stafford, who is a part of the French theater group L’Avant-Scène, worked closely with Gallienne in March on “Un Fil à la Patte” by Feydeau. It was then that she realized the importance of applying what she has learned from Gallienne beyond theater. 

“I try and throw myself into my part when I’m doing it, and I try to channel that kind of energy that Guillaume has, but I try not to lose it when I’m done with rehearsal,” said Stafford. “I try to carry through that sense of excitement, that sense of energy when you’re working with others, to the other things I do at Princeton.” 

Tigist Menkir ’18, a student in the Advanced French Theater Workshop, which is preparing scenes to be performed on May 9, appreciates Gallienne’s attention to detail.

“He brings with him his years of experience in French theater, which is very different than American theater,” said Menkir. “You have to be, like he says, ‘soyez large’, and ‘large’ means you have to be outside of yourself, very expressive and effusive, and really going outside of your comfort zone, I think, is something he emphasizes, and we’ve grown to learn.” 

According to Menkir, Gallienne’s focus on the here and now has affected his students to quite a degree.

“The lessons he’s taught us extend beyond acting itself and can be reflected in the way we carry ourselves in daily conversations, or in presenting ourselves, whether in interviews, or professional settings,” explained Menkir. “It is being more assertive, and more confident in what you have to say and in your presence.”

Many of the students in the class did not have much theater experience and Gallienne does not expect them to necessarily become professional actors. Nevertheless, he feels lucky teaching them, especially when they experience special moments of understanding with the texts.

“They are great souls,” he said. “It’s great to have moments like that.”

The scenes that the class is working on were selected from French plays of different historical periods, all centering on the meaning of love. Menkir found this intimidating at first but later acclimated to the idea. 

“You are supposed to really connect with your scene partner… going outside yourself, and really finding a common thread with them, to learn more about them, and to find a rhythm. I think that can be carried on to any interactions you have outside of class,” Menkir said. 

Jane Sul ’20, another student in the class, explained that she found the intellectual approach to love compelling.

“Guillaume emphasizes that we are in a laboratory inspecting these different types of love,” noted Sul. “I think it made me more aware of how significant love can be in our lives.”

According to Sul, when Gallienne previously came to the University he observed that there were very few couples walking around campus. 

Sul is a Staff Writer for The Daily Princetonian.

“I think it is very relevant to Princeton students, because a lot of the time people say, ‘Oh, we don’t have time for relationships’ or ‘We don’t have time for getting to know more people or engaging in more social aspects of life,’” said Sul. “It doesn’t have to be just more serious relationships, but I think he put emphasis on the fact that love is important. It is relevant because there is a lack of love, per se, on the Princeton Campus.”

Chekhov and the Democratic Chorus

In addition to the question of whether life has meaning, love is one of the most important themes in the scenes and monologues that Gallienne’s Chekhov workshop is working on. On scenes like Nina’s monologue in “The Seagull,” Gallienne always focuses on the clarity and direction of the lines, on delivering the text rather than trying to perform it, and on prompting real emotion and openness in the actors. 

“I think it’s the whole idea of not adding anything onto the text,” said Abby Spare ’20, a student in the Chekhov workshop. “The skeleton of Chekhov’s work is there to support everything, so it’s not necessary for you to create something that is already there.” 

Spare also explained that she appreciates the freedom the course gives her, freedom which is tailored to what the students need to improve.

“It’s not like he comes in and says, ‘Okay, today we’re going to focus on this aspect of the work.’ Instead, you come in with what you have, and he works to improve that,” Spare noted.

For Gallienne, working on Chekhov differs vastly from working on other playwrights. “I feel very humbled in front of the text,” Gallienne explained.

He described Chekhov’s writing as a “democratic chorus” without beginning, middle, or end. “You have motive that is circling, it doesn’t go to one center, it is centrifuge,” said Gallienne. “We are the center. The soul is the center, but it is just motives: boredom, love, and capacity of love, meaning and meaninglessness of life, and work, and revolution, or bourgeoisie. Motives circulate and that’s all.” 

According to Gallienne, since the text is so superb, there is no need to take charge of it. He described art as the meeting of “the text and you here and now.” 

Gallienne works continually on his acting, “on emotions, on life, on grief, on happiness, on a different way of breathing.” What is most important, however, is the emotions of audience, not of the actors. “It’s important to be honest, here and now, but here and now, you just deliver the work,” Gallienne said. 

As a teacher, this is an attitude, or approach to acting, which Gallienne communicates to his students. The approach is responsible, honest, and oriented in the present. It involves an awareness and excitement regarding the honor involved in delivering significant works of art. 

“Responsible but lucky,” Gallienne says. “That’s the way I would put it.”

After the semester ends, Gallienne will be performing in New York at the Park Avenue Armory with the Comédie-Française in an adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s Les Damnés from July 17 to 28. 

According to Gallienne, the play chronicles the descent of a family into barbarism, through the basic passions of greed and ambition, under the Nazis. The play shows “how easy barbarism is, and, at the same time, how much we mustn’t forget.” 

Gallienne notes the relevancy of showing the play in America, now, as it ends with the main character taking a machine gun and symbolically shooting the entire audience. “Call it a statement,” he says. 

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