Miami students are bringing a little piece of Europe to Oxford in the form of live theatre. French professor Jeremie Korta and 10 university students are preparing to perform a production of a French play at the end of the semester.
The Foreign Language Theatre Club is rehearsing “Macbett” by Eugène Ionesco. A spinoff of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the play follows the story of a man turned power-hungry by the manipulative Lady Duncan. Sinful chaos ensues as Macbett does everything he possibly can to keep his place as king.
Korta hopes that through these rehearsals students will be able not only to deepen their understanding of the French text, but also boost their confidence in the language and in themselves.
“I worked with a professor at Harvard as a graduate student who was staging plays, and I saw [the students] memorize these monologues, and I was just floored,” Korta said. “I noticed their progress in French, and also just their confidence. I think that affected them, and that affected me.”
Korta’s efforts are working for these Miami students, who have been up on their feet and embodying these characters since the first rehearsal. Korta is drawn to physical theatre, so at the beginning of each rehearsal he leads the students in yoga to warm up.
“I find that somehow having that substratum physical play can maybe, hopefully, have them forget for a moment the challenge of speaking in a foreign language,” he said. “When you tell a student to say a line while they’re crossing the stage or feel the impulse to go in a direction, that playfulness helps a lot.”
Senior Kadi Jallow was surprised by the amount of physical activity at first, but now finds herself enjoying it.
“It was very different because I was expecting just reading,” she says. “But you have to use your body a lot. One thing that helps is the exercises we do at the beginning, before we start practicing. It helps us just loosen up a little bit and just be more comfortable.”
Jallow is originally from Senegal, a French-speaking country. She moved to the United States 11 years ago, and says that although she’s been studying French her whole life, this club definitely offers her something more.
“I’ve learned a lot from Professor Korta,” Jallow said. “It helps me connect with other people, and it’s also another way for me to be more open-minded and just try different aspects, since it’s my first time doing [theatre].”
The Foreign Language Theatre Club is also senior Annie McFarland’s first exposure to acting. McFarland was a part of the production this past spring, when the group performed a night of excerpts from different plays they had worked on throughout the semester.
French is one of McFarland’s three majors at Miami. This organization has helped her realize her newfound passion for theatre.
“It was really intimidating at first because I felt like, ‘I’ve never done theatre, I can’t act!’” she said. “But just from one semester, from the first rehearsal to our end-of-production, I was a completely different person. It’s a very freeing experience… you feel like you can be anyone in that moment.”
The Foreign Language Theatre Club has been organizing performances since the fall of 2015. Between 30 and 40 graduate and undergraduate students have participated. Besides French, the group has also experimented with Italian texts under the guidance of visiting assistant professor Nicoletta Pazzaglia. They have studied and staged plays by Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Molière, Alfred Jarry and Filippo Tomaso Marinetti.
Korta uses theatre as a vehicle for learning, but theatricality is not the most important aspect of the group’s work. The thing he strives most to accomplish is to get students out of their shell and actively explore the text, whether they are experienced performers or not.
“It’s something that goes beyond theatre,” he said. “I like to take on students who have never acted before. I encourage them to kind of play with the language, and that’s what we do during every rehearsal.”
Students wishing to join the club don’t necessarily need to know a foreign language beforehand. Korta says that students wishing to perform should have some basic knowledge of the language, but there are also students wishing to stage manage or work on the technical aspects of theatre who don’t know French at all.
For the actors, learning another language can be difficult, and even more so with the added pressure of performing. From years of experience in both acting and in teaching French, Korta has a plethora of strategies to pull from to help guide his students. He records himself saying the lines so that students can work on pronunciation at home, and he has them sing the lines and even just play with the vowels in the language.
“I sit down with them individually and we really break it down to the atoms of the language, focusing on vowels, which can be pretty complicated in French,” he says. “Just having them play with the language, just making music out of it, really.”
But for McFarland, the most enchanting thing about the theatre is the storytelling, and how it has changed her in a personal way.
“You create this whole story of a character through so many lines that you have, but you have to be able to adapt who that character is and create something more from it,” she said. “You get to do a lot of self-developing within that too, because you get to put yourself in a different perspective and a different point of view.”
Korta sees the bigger picture as well. At the end of the day, he and his students are working toward personal development more than anything.
“I think once you’ve challenged yourself to speak and perform in a foreign language, it becomes easier, perhaps, to really be mindful of how you are in your own,” Korta said.
“Macbett” will be performed in late November or early December at the Oxford Community Arts Center. In the meantime, the Foreign Language Theatre Club meets from 6 to 8:30 p.m. every Monday at the Oxford Community Arts Center. To join the club or for more information, contact Jeremie Korta at firstname.lastname@example.org.