My Fulbright study grant at the Université de Caen in 1962-63 focused on French theatre. Before applying, I knew I had no chance of getting the year in Paris as a fresh graduate. I had written to several French universities to ask about their offerings in drama. I learned that Caen would be preparing to open its Théâtre-Maison de la Culture in 1963 and that I could follow the process. This became a major corollary to my formal studies. Each week, I was allowed into the office of artistic director Jo Tréhard to observe and take notes during the build-up to the theatre’s April inauguration. Decades later, when I taught French Theatre History, I could point to the Maison de la Culture movement as a significant phase in France’s decentralization of culture, and “I was there.”
Another theatre-related activity I enjoyed was to serve as lighting designer for two productions by students at the Lycée Malherbe. The older students did Corneille’s L’Illusion comique with Jean-Ghislain Lepoivre as a magnificent Matamore. The younger students did Le Barbier de Séville. Each group rehearsed one afternoon a week and I got to go to Paris to buy gels for the lighting instruments; being entrusted with that negotiation at a prestigious theatrical lighting company was a great boost to my self-confidence. At the post-production party for both groups, two of the boys gave me paintings they had done.
We, eight Fulbrighters, in Caen that year enjoyed each other’s company and often partied with the French students in our widening circle. When I longed to do some acting or directing, they volunteered to do a one-act play under my direction. We chose Thornton Wilder’s one-act Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, since four chairs forming the front and back seat of a car served all our scenic needs. We performed in English at the university, then took it on the road to several schools in Normandy, and always followed the performance with a Q&A about American life. Robert Marshall and I played the parents of Claire Slaughter and Robert Dupree as young siblings. Ralph Sharigian was the gas-station attendant, Suzanne Nielsen was the adult daughter at the end of the journey. Fellow Fulbrighters Glenda Hamilton and Ann Doemland lent moral support.
On many weekends, I took the train into Paris to see as many plays as I could cram in. It was a great theatre season with Jean-Louis Barrault and Jean Vilar in their prime, and I have often drawn on those experiences in my writing. The snapshots in my Fulbright year photo album are not the quality we expect today, but they provide a record of a wonderful year of immersion in French language and culture. My bulging scrapbook for that year, mostly theatre programs, now exists as a digital file of over 1200 scanned items.
Felicia Hardison Londré – Fulbright to France 1962