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.