By: Mike Doyle
When I left for France this summer, I intended to see some theatre. I was there for ten weeks, and the closest I came was a short street performance I saw in Avignon. I have been telling people that I did not know enough French to understand a performance. But while my lack of proficiency certainly would have limited my understanding, I have to admit that I resisted plopping my butt down in a seat for another reason.
Ultimately, I see the theatre as a place of cultural exchange. I believe that at its very root, culture inhabits the individual and branches out to include a town, a city, or a region. When attending a performance, an exchange of customs occurs whether the play revolves around one’s next door neighbor or someone on the other side of the world. Essentially, this is why I love theatre.
In France, I never felt the need to go to the theatre, because I remained in a state of perpetual cultural exchange. Not only was I immersed in French customs and language, but I also met numerous other international and American students, each with their own unique traditions. I learned everything from Catalonian Christmas traditions to what foul word is uttered in Hungarian when the name “Doug” is pronounced in a French accent. I was taught the proper usage of the Minnesotan “uff da” and ferociously debated Chicago deep dish pizza’s superiority over New York thin crust. From the French I learned how to enjoy company during hours spent feasting on fresh bread, regional French wine, cheese that melted in my mouth, and mussels with cream sauce. In ten weeks, I celebrated three state holidays: la fête de la musique, la fête nationale, and l’assomption (the festival of music, Bastille Day, and the Assumption of Mary). The French have many more of these holidays than Americans do. One of my professors explained that the French resistance to working is ingrained in the language as the verb travailler (to work) is derived from the word for “torture.”
This reminded me of why I go to the theatre in the first place. I do not seek to learn about the customs and traditions of others simply for the knowledge, but because it allows me to be with people, to better understand them, and to truly enjoy their company. In my work I try to become inspired by tapping into a creative source outside the theatre, whether it be visual art, music, or a piece of writing. This seems more organic to me than trying to relate theatre to something else within the theatre. In doing so, I would neglect to glimpse into the most vibrant art source in existence: life.
The French claim to be the masters of l’art de vivre (the art of living), which is a reference to the every-day pleasure of French life, experienced by all. This summer I dabbled in this fine art, gaining an appreciation for the people around me. This art–which itself is theatrical–will serve as something which I can return to as a source of inspiration in my work. Though I may not have gone to a theatre and seen a play, theatre was all around me as I witnessed the exchange of culture and experienced the art of living.