PARIS – It is past 9 a.m. when Laurence Cote arrives, and throws her things on her desk.
The 20 or so students scattered around the room, far from falling silent at once for the arrival of their teacher...getting even louder instead. They run, shout, trample. “Does anyone have a blazer?” asks someone. “I do. You lucked out,” someone answers.
“Ok, let's go. We have work to do,” says Cote, not the least surprised by this strange display.
Such effervescence is not unusual here. We are at the cours Florent – or just Florent as those in the know call it – a drama school established nearly 50 years ago in Paris’s working-class 19th arrondissement.
The little troupe who just went backstage are sophomores, getting ready to take their second-term exam – group scenes, each with a dozen acting students.
Here the classroom is a dark rehearsal room, with a big stage, no higher than the rest of the room. Students not performing at the moment are seated around the stage, sometimes rehearsing their texts in the shadows. The walls are painted black. Two doors at the end lead backstage. The next room, occupied by junior students, has the same configuration -- and the same hustle and bustle and hushed tension.
It is time for “run-throughs.” The scenes are played once, in full. Then the teacher gives her opinion, asks the students to do the bits that are problematic, over and over again – ten times if need be. The sophomores are often corrected over the caesura – rhythmic pauses in a line of verse.
For the junior students, Jeremy, is playing Ruy Blas, the eponymous hero of Victor Hugo's tragic drama. He is supposed to be arguing with the counselors of the King of Spain. But he does not get to the end of his text, the young actors having started laughing out loud, soon followed by the students in the audience.
Once every one has calmed down, the teacher gives a lesson about the diction of alexandrines – 12-syllable verses. One of the actors, who says he struggles with verse, holds his head in his hands. “For those who don't know how to do it, you will have work to do,” says the teacher.
It may seem surprising that some of the students at the cours Florent admit to struggling with poetry, but it is because the school is not restricted to top-of-the class students who were brought up on Shakespeare and Moliere. Quite the opposite in fact – it aims to be open to all, from 18 years old and up. According to the director, Frederic Montfort, “It is part of the Florent philosophy to admit all those who want to learn. Our students do not all share the same cultural background. Some had never even acted before.”
There are two ways for aspiring actors to get into the cours Florent – whether they have graduated from high school or not. The first is to take a quick audition in front of teachers at the beginning of the school year. The second way, which is the most common, is to sign up for a preparatory course or the summer session.
“The teachers give their opinion but they judge the students more on motivation than on real talent. It is not really selective,” says Jeremy. But the course itself, on the other hand, is very selective. From the 600 students currently enrolled in the first year, only 250 will graduate with a diploma at the end of the three-years course.
“Many students give up. As we move on through the year, it gets harder,” says Jeremy. Not the least difficult is the tuition cost – 360 euros per month. Most of the students have other activities. Aside from the mandatory nine hours minimum per week, students also take other university courses, by choice or to please their parents. Some also have part-time jobs to pay for the course and for rent, and some do all three.
Jeremy, who left his rural hometown of Tulle in south-central France, to study at the cours Florent, tends the bar of a Parisian theater every night and plays little roles from time to time. “I was lucky to be picked up by an agent and to land a few TV series episodes. This pays very well but it doesn't usually happen before senior year,” he explains. Jobs as extras are easier to find – they are paid around 80 euros a day.
“I work six days a week, except on Monday, when I'm at Florent. I have no days off, but I’m still finding it hard to make ends meet,” says Jeremy. Only a handful of privileged students, those who attend the elite “free class,” get free tuition. Everyone can audition, but there are only 20 spots for 2,000 candidates.
This merciless selection reflects the reality of life as an actor. Of course, the school owes its prestigious reputation to the success of its students at the entry exam of the French National Academy of Dramatic Arts, as well as its alumni who made it big in French cinema: Audrey Tautou, Guillaume Canet, Isabelle Adjani, or Daniel Auteuil... who sometimes come back to meet the students. But “all our pupils will not be actors, far from that,” says Montfort.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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