This year I performed in my sixth French Department play, playing a worryingly type-cast role of ‘old and hysterical woman’ in Marivaux’s Les acteurs de bonne foi. As I approach the end of my eighth year as a student at Sheffield I can say that my participation in the French play over the past six years is without doubt one of the highlights of my time here, having given me the opportunity to meet students from all levels of the French department, as well as the chance to travel in the UK and in France. The plays I have performed in have been varied, ranging from Molière’s wonderful Le malade imaginaire and Beaumarchais’s famous Le barbier de Seville to the less well-known Les esprits by Pierre de Larivey, and Le retour imprévu by Jean-François Regnard. I have also been able to perform in several different venues, travelling to the Taylorian Institue in Oxford in 2010, to Beaumes de Venise (near Avignon) and Montpellier in 2012, and Newnham College, Cambridge, two weeks ago.
Being involved in ‘the play’ (said with theatrical gravitas –there can surely be no other play?) has been a source of entertainment and fun over the past few years, but as it takes up more and more time each year, and commitments with my PhD become more difficult to ignore, I’ve more than once reconsidered my involvement as a postgraduate student. Haven’t I got enough to be getting on with?
The answer to that question is perhaps a resounding yes. However, reflecting on the past four performances in which I’ve taken part as a postgraduate rather than undergraduate student, I’ve come to the conclusion that the French play has offered me a rare chance to be part of a project where students aren’t separated due to their level of study or degree course. Sometimes as a postgraduate student there is a risk of feeling isolated from the rest of the department in which we study and to which we all make a valuable contribution. We’re no longer undergraduates, but neither are we lecturers, and although this leads to a ‘let’s stick together’ philosophy amongst postgrad students, it can also make us feel cut off from the undergraduate students around us. One of the best things about my experience as part of the French play casts as a postgraduate has been the friendships I’ve made with students from all levels, and with the lecturers directing the plays. When you’re in rehearsal and on stage the perceived hierarchies fly out of the window, and everyone gets on with the job at hand. This can be great for building confidence, improving language skills (the texts are, of course, all in French, and we often rehearse in French), and also for just getting together because you all enjoy the subject that you study, regardless of the level at which you’re studying.
I’m not very good at saying ‘no’ to things, and now the PhD pressure is on this is a skill that I must improve. However, despite the many hours spent rehearsing and helping to organise each play, I still wouldn’t say ‘no’ to being part of this project in future. If you’ve got similar opportunities and are wondering about the impact that they’ll have on your CV or academic record, perhaps think past the worries that we’re encouraged to foster during our postgraduate studies (‘will this make me look good?’), and do something that gives you a chance to just be a student of the subject you study.