L’Avant-Scène’s Grande Fête: Princeton’s French Theater Workshop Celebrates 20 years

May 15, 2024
Florent Masse (center, seated) with the cast of L’Avant-Scène’s “Le Dindon.” Photo by Sameer Khan/Fotobuddy

By Carrie Compton, Luke Soucy, and Mary Cate Connors

A host of French theater-lovers, dignitaries and alumni united April 18-20 to celebrate L’Avant-Scène, a Princeton stronghold that for the last 20 years has bonded French-speaking students and faculty from all across campus through the dramatic arts. The weekend event—funded in part by a Humanities Council Magic Grant and co-sponsored by the Department of French and Italian, the Lewis Center for the Arts, Rockefeller College and Villa Albertine, the cultural arm of the French Embassy—featured panel discussions, informal talks, and a revival Georges Feydeau’s farce “Le Dindon,” which the troupe first produced on campus 20 years ago.

“I was invited to Princeton to bring French theater to students. That was really my mission from day one,” said director Florent Masse, professor of the practice in French and Italian, who founded L’Avant-Scène in the early 2000s. Starting out as a group rehearsal in the Rockefeller College Common Room, the performance-meets-French-instruction workshop quickly exploded in popularity among the student body.  “When I returned to Princeton for my third year, I found myself with 37 students!” Masse said.  

Masse soon split the company into an annual beginner’s course, now FRE 211, and an extracurricular troupe, which he would direct in full-length classic and contemporary plays from the French repertoire. Performances began with the 2004 production of “Le Dindon,” and two plays per year ballooned quickly to five. Masse estimates that about 120 Princeton students have participated in the program, most in multiple productions.

Along the way, Masse began deepening the breadth of his students’ understanding of the French language and French theater by organizing trips to theatrical productions across France, teaching advanced courses, and creating an exchange program with the French National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts (CNSAD). By 2012, the program’s growth had attracted the interest of the French theater world, resulting in Seuls en Scène, an annual festival co-sponsored by the French Embassy and curated by Masse, which brings French theater makers to the Lewis Center for the Arts.

The 20th anniversary event was a way for Masse to honor the collaborators and sponsors who helped make it all possible. “I love L’Avant-Scène so much,” said Masse. “That’s why I want to celebrate it with all the people that have mattered for its development.”

The array of events included a L’Avant-Scène alumni panel and talks with Rima Abdul Malak, former French Minister of Culture; Mohamed Bouabdallah, cultural counselor of the French Embassy; filmmaker Alice Diop; Pierre Gendronneau, a 2012 graduate and deputy director of the Festival d’Avignon, one of the foremost arts festivals in France; and Sandy Ouvrier, director of the CNSAD.

“I wanted to include [a performance], but also conversations on the state of culture in France,” said Masse, explaining the variety of events. “And [I wanted] to mark the occasion by opening up conversations on democratizing culture in France, on the state of the arts in France.”

A lively event featuring Rima Abdul Malak, who served as the French Minister of Culture from 2022 until 2024, gave those in attendance that opportunity. Abdul Malak has been a vital supporter of French theater at Princeton since she was introduced to Masse during her time serving as cultural attaché to the French Consulate in New York in 2014.

Her long history with cultural policy in 21st century France was the topic of the wide-ranging conversation, helmed by Masse and Sophie Meunier, director of the Program in Contemporary European Politics and Society and senior research scholar in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

Abdul Malak discussed the complicated rise of social media platforms like TikTok, the growing popularity of French TV shows and film worldwide, her fight to make culture offerings more accessible and to increase budgets for cultural programs across France, and the efforts to preserve freedom of expression amid ongoing culture wars in France. 

Rima Abdul Malak (center) in conversation with Sophie Meunier and Florent Masse. Photo by Sameer Khan/Fotobuddy

In reflecting on L’Avant Scène’s birthday celebration, Abdul Malak recalled being inspired by a French theater teacher in her elementary school. A shy student who fled a civil war in Lebanon, she said her teacher cultivated an environment where she felt welcome and comfortable.

“I had a ‘freedom moment,’” she said of that experience. “French theater for me has always been associated with freedom—with something emancipatory.”

Abdul Malak was not the only attendee to connect a theater teacher with a formative experience. The L’Avant-Scène alumni panel similarly furnished an engaged conversation on the impact of Masse’s program and its lasting effect on their lives.

“With L’Avant-Scène, I truly found a family outside of my academic life,” said Laurent Pueyo, a 2008 graduate alumnus who appeared in the original 2004 production of “Le Dindon.” Pueyo performed with the ensemble for five years while earning his Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering. “It gave me a place to forget about the ups and down of research.”

Macs Smith (PhD ’18, left), Laurent Pueyo (PhD ’08), Jenny Marlowe ’04 and Prof. Masse speaking on the alumni panel. Photo by Sameer Khan/Fotobuddy

Pueyo traveled to Princeton from Baltimore, where he is an associate astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, reuniting with friends he’s remained in contact with for over 20 years. Among them was Mina Morova, who came to campus from Dubai where she works as an international arbitration lawyer. A comparative literature major from the Class of 2007, Morova is L’Avant-Scène’s alumni president and also appeared in its first production.

For Morova, who decided to join the group during Princeton orientation, learning the lines and performing in plays by great French writers challenged her “to digest and decipher the meanings” behind the text. “That process definitely adds a certain amount of maturity in your life,” she said.

Morova also recalled favorite memories from one of L’Avant-Scène’s first trips to Paris, led by Masse, where she met Daniel Mesguich, then head of the CNSAD, and actor Guillaume Gallienne of the Comédie-Française. “It’s not every day that you meet and interact with such masters of their craft,” she said. “I am very proud of the legacy we, and particularly Florent, created with L’Avant-Scène.”

The celebration culminated with a performance from the latest Princeton students to embody that legacy, the cast of L’Avant-Scène’s revival of “Le Dindon”—in English,“The Turkey.”A comedy by Georges Feydeau, the late 19th century’s leading writer of French farce, the play follows the attempts of the philandering Pontagnac (Clément Génibrèdes GS) to seduce his friend’s wife, Madame Vatelin (Lana Gaige ’24), unaware that both she and his own wife are pursuing affairs with the same dandy, Rédillon (Clément Herman GS). Rédillon and Monsieur Vatelin (Gil Joseph ’25), meanwhile, both have secret paramours of their own. Further complicating the plot are a soldier and his lover, several interloping maids and policemen and an emotionally unstable Englishwoman (Mikaela Avakian ’24) hell-bent on seducing Monsieur Vatelin herself.

Seeing both the 2004 and 2024 casts of “Le Dindon” in attendance, along with so many other L’Avant-Scène alumni, Masse expressed appreciation for all they had accomplished. “It’s been most gratifying,” said Masse, “to introduce French theater to America and my students here.”

Masse finds much still to do, however. The fall will see him developing a new course on making theater in the age of climate change, presenting the 13th edition of Seuls en Scène, and beginning a new partnership with the Festival d’Avignon.

Even so, his focus is unchanged. “I want to sustain the programs, I want to see how I can develop them, but the core of it [all] is L’Avant-Scène,” Masse said. “We could only do it because there was an audience and a program from years of French theater already at Princeton. It’s the students and the partnerships on campus that have given me the confidence to thrive.”

Jamie Saxon contributed reporting to this story.

Humanities Council Logo
Italian Studies Logo
American Studies Logo
Humanistic Studies Logo
Ancient World Logo
Canadian Studies Logo
ESC Logo
Journalism Logo
Linguistics Logo
Medieval Studies Logo
Renaissance Logo
Film Studies Logo