Five adults were tossing a multicolored kindergarten ball to each other as they conjugated the verb “to be” in French in strong American accents: “Je suis, tu es, il est, nous sommes, vous êtes, ils sont.”
The exercise, part of a class in basic French, was held on a recent Monday night at Pearl Studios, on 8th Avenue and 34th Street, in Manhattan.
“Language is a baby’s thing,” explained Manisha Snoyer, the founder and head teacher of the program, Act French.
“By throwing a ball at someone at the same time you conjugate a verb, you focus on the other and not yourself,” Snoyer said, shaking her curly brown hair. “It resolves self-consciousness and nervousness issues students usually face when learning a new language.”
Snoyer uses this back-to-basics approach in the classes Snoyer she created in the two past years – Act French, Act Spanish, Act Russian, Act Italian, Act American, Act French with wine and cheese and Atelier Francophone.
Snoyer, who speaks French with a light and indefinable accent, is an actress herself. Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., she studied theater for three years at Le Cours Florent, a famous Parisian drama school.
When Snoyer returned to New York, she regretted that French playwrights were not well known in the United States. In order to promote them, she started to teach French plays to fellow actors and actresses.
“Acting in an another language was a great opportunity for the actors to reinvent themselves,” Snoyer said. “They let go the mother tongue pressure, and they become liberated from it.”
Soon enough, Snoyer noticed all the actors and actresses had made great improvements in French. As she started receiving increasing requests from people out of show business, Snoyer decided to expand her classes to all, far from traditional teachers and textbooks.
The program costs $330 for six weeks, and the beginner classes are every Monday evening from 8 to 10. Returning students pay $225.
While Snoyer is confident that she created the “only school in New York that teaches foreign languages with acting games,” it is not entirely true. The Alliance Française has many “traditional” courses for beginner adults. Among them, there is a very similar program called “Acting & Expression,” taught by Eleonore Dyl, a stage director. She promotes the program on the same ground that theater is “fun” and helps “build confidence and learn how to express yourself freely.” A 2-hour weekly class costs $475 per term, for a lower cost than Act French but with a longer commitment.
Back in the small Pearl, the rubber ball stopped bouncing. For the second part of the class, the four students started a role-play in French. They were sitting in a circle on gray folding chairs, next to a closed piano and a huge ballet mirror. Dalit Kaplan, 29, pretended – in French – that she was Silvio Berlusconi. “It is hard but I like the fact that we are in immersion,” Kaplan said.
Interviewing her, Elana Adderley, also 29, a singer and an actress, played at being Julia Roberts. “I have this kind of brain, when I am merging myself into somebody else, I find it easier to be,” Adderley said.
Hannah Kloepfer, in a mustard yellow sweater, listened to the fictional interviews and punctuated the students’ contribution with a boost. “Excellent, Excellent,” she kept on saying, in French.
Kloepfer is American and looks younger than all the students in the room. She has been teaching this beginners class for three weeks, in addition to studying French and Francophone studies at Columbia University. She sometimes mispronounced a word or left a mistake uncorrected, but the beginners wouldn’t notice it.
Like Snoyer, Kloepfer is also an actress.
“Being an actress makes you a better at teaching languages,” explained Snoyer.
Kloepfer, on her side, is thrilled by the method.
“We eliminate the fear,” she said. “I call it an out-of-your-mind-and-into-your-body approach.” She is confident that after the six weeks program, “the students will be able to have a conversation in French or travel to France.”
Koepfler’s favorite moment is the play reading, which takes place in the last 30 minutes of the course. The students rehearsed an excerpt of a French contemporary play by Jean-Luc Lagarce. The passage is full of misunderstandings and arguments.
“There is no complexity in the plot,” Koepfler explained. Ironically, she said, “Complexity is in the communication amongst the characters.”
And as the scene went along, the students read their parts out loud, in clipped and shaky voices. Then began an absurd exchange of “Je ne comprends pas!” (“I don’t understand”) and “- Antoine? – Non, je ne me souviens plus!” (“Antoine? – No, I don’t remember you!”)
“It is very amusing when the actors don’t even understand what they are saying,” murmured Josh Harmon, 26, a law student at New York University.
Harmon was brought here by another 26-year-old, Nina Salpeter. They got married less than a month ago, and Salpeter already has a good level of French.
“It is a bonding activity,” Harmon said. “It could become our secret language at a party if we don’t want anybody to understand us.”
At the end of the semester, the students are expected to stage the little excerpt in front of other students from other classes in other languages.
“We will find out some costumes, maybe hats and accessories,” said Koepfler, smiling and looking very excited.
Next week, they will read works by the more classical writers, like Moliere’s “Les Précieuses ridicules,” a play about very witty ladies who indulge in conversations and word games.
Aside from its literary value, Harmon, the newlywed, remembered one other reason why he followed his wife to the class. “And French is the language of love!” he said.