A couple of weeks ago, inspired by Philippe’s words of advice to the second-year clowns, my roommate inscribed the words BAD + HAPPY on her inner wrist in blue biro. She was considering getting them permanently tattooed, but thought better of it in the end. (I think in part because I pointed out that the word ‘bad’ might read differently in different circles, and wouldn’t necessarily give the impression of a happy-go-lucky theatre student to everyone she met.)
It’s something I’ve been struggling with ever since I arrived in Etampes last month: how to feel glad to be here (in France, at school, onstage) in spite of the knowledge that I’m not doing anything well. It goes completely against the grain for me. I hate being seen as incompetent above almost anything else. Being good at stuff has always been my ‘thing’, and the rest – liking myself, being liked by others – has somehow seemed to depend on it. Why should my colleagues want to spend the evening with me if I’ve been useless at work all day? How could my crush be reciprocated if that show I directed just bombed? So the twisted thinking goes. Without being good, how could I possibly deserve to be happy?
Philippe said something in our class today that got me thinking. It was prompted by someone else’s question, but came at a timely moment – just as I felt myself slipping into the familiar slump of Idon’tknowhowtobebetteratthisandIamsodepressinglybadIjustwanttogohomeanddrinkwinenowplease. In order to be beautiful onstage, he told us, you have to have a dream: that you’re a beloved actor, performing to a thousand (or at least 700 – any less won’t cut it) adoring spectators.
I realised then that I’d been kidding myself about becoming braver here. I’d spent so much of this first month paralysed by fear, that reaching the point of volunteering regularly-ish for exercises in class actually felt like being courageous. But there’s being onstage, and there’s being onstage. And what I’d mostly been doing was skulking in the shadows: trying to get through exercises as painlessly as possible, without being too ridiculous, so that afterwards I could tell myself I’d been brave and got up there and done something. I would learn stuff, just at a comfortable pace, getting slowly but steadily less bad. In reality, all I’d been getting was an increasingly colourful array of criticisms.
This week, two of my classmates have asked Philippe to clarify what he wants from us. I don’t want anything, came the reply, on both occasions: I’m the teacher. It’s not my job to want anything. His job, he said, is simply to watch us do things on stage, and pass comment afterwards. He doesn’t mind if we’re good or bad. We’re the ones who want something from the process.
The first weekend here, the lady behind the counter at Etampes station had to repeat the ticket price three times before I understood it – and then I put the money in the wrong part of the sliding tray (don’t ask). A few minutes later I got myself stuck halfway between the carriage doors and had to be rescued by the guy behind me, who tried to show me how the (totally counter-intuitive) doors functioned as I scuttled off in embarrassment. And later that afternoon, a toddler ran into my shoulder bag at the park, fell flat on his face and started wailing, while I attempted to apologise profusely to his mother in broken French. All I’d wanted was to spend an uneventful day acclimatising to life in France and getting to know some of my classmates. But I was so flustered by trying to speak French, and trying not to come off as too spacially or socially inept, that I spent a lot of the day making a complete buffoon of myself.
If it’s true in life that desperation of any sort (and in my case it’s usually to not look like an idiot) invites the opposite of your desires, it’s probably true onstage too. Anyone can be average, Philippe said today, but to be beautiful you’ve got to have that dream. And if I’m really honest with myself, lately I’ve been replacing the dream with a desire to just get away with it – driven, I suspect, by that desperation to not look like an idiot. Perhaps being afraid of being bad – being sad about being bad – is the quickest path there is to averagedom.
I wonder how long I’ve been kidding myself that I’m being ambitious and daring. After all, it’s not that hard to do it superficially: quit your job, move abroad, volunteer for that scary exercise you haven’t quite understood. It’s doing it in your head that’s the hard part. It’s silencing the voice that says: right, I’ve been prancing around in this mask for at least a minute now – can I go home yet? – and replacing it with… well, I’m not sure yet, to be honest. But I know that I’d like to start finding out.