Sophia Dunnwalker is an incredible human being who is delving into the Parisian theatrical arts scene. She graduated from Reed College in 2015 with a Literature-Theatre major and directed a work called To Passion Sorrow Clings: Adaptations of Kieu, The Vietnamese National Poem.
She is a dear friend of mine, and this interview is meant as the first of series of interviews with Reed graduates and friends living all over the world- to hear about their various experiences and get a glimpse into lives in far-off cities.
In a nutshell, give the world an idea of who Sophie is.
I was working as a research and event intern at a small museum in Paris called the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art and Culture.
I was working under one of my professor’s friends for a few months and I had a good experience there. It gave me more exposure to interdisciplinary and international arts, as the museum holds both exhibitions and performance arts events in English and French. The mission statement of the museum, to bring 20th and 21st century American art to Paris, is important to me because it contrasts the superficial and violent image of the United States that I feel is perpetuated by Hollywood and the mainstream media. The museum chooses artists that discuss diversity and feminism and the complexity of American ideals throughout history.
I enjoyed my time there, but I found I really missed doing creative theatre work myself, and decided to become more involved in theatre in Paris and other parts of Europe.
Where in the world are you, and what do you love about it?
I’m at a point in my life where I’m in the process of figuring out more about who I am and what I want most. I feel lucky that I have some flexibility and I’m not tied down to any particular place. I’m really interested in performance arts and how it relates to communication/language/and relationships between people.
I grew up in an environment where I feel like expressing yourself and really embracing your inner most emotions were looked at as a sign of weakness. People in the Midwest tend to be reserved and not particularly direct about their emotions and opinions. I love my family and feel lucky to have their support in most things I do, but my schooling/town were a lot of conservative Catholics.
I think this is part of the reason I feel like I need theatre and art – it enables me to feel empowered in expressing my emotions instead of feeling ashamed of them. I think that theatre/art/film are particularly important internationally because so much is lost in direct translations of texts.
I’m currently spending most of my time in Paris working with both visual arts and theatre – I really love it here because there is so much richness and diversity and it feels like an international city.
Tell me more about being immersed in the Paris arts scene. Paint us a picture: what is the nightlife like, where does your community find its inspiration, and what is the theater like?
I try to take advantage of the exhibitions that go on here. The nightlife is interesting – it sort of depends on who I’m with. I think small parties at people’s apartments are probably the most fun.
St. Germain des Pres is probably my favourite neighbourhood to go out in. There’s a cool community there. It has a good blend of chic and bohemian young people.
Paris can get expensive, but I think France is better about making museums/operas and things like that more affordable for students and young people.
I’ve really been enjoying the theatre course I’m taking in French (at Cours Florent). I’m one of the only non-native French speakers in the class… but I think I work harder because of that. It’s been challenging and fun and a cool way to meet people.
I feel it’s improving not only my skills as an actor but my proficiency and fluency with the French language. Surprisingly, scripted scenes are the easiest for me to prepare for the class and improvisation is what has been the most challenging. I find I rely on my physicality and humor more in a second language, because I will inevitably say something incorrect and it can be funny whether I intended it to be or not.
I find that acting is particularly important to me because I grew up in an environment where outwardly expressing one’s emotions was seen as a weakness, and everyone sort of communicated through layers of nuance and politeness. I find acting to be cathartic because it empowers me to express my rawest emotions through the words and experiences of someone else, consequentially I feel it has also made me a more empathetic person.
It sounds like you are really taking hold of this opportunity in Paris. Can you locate and describe a precise moment when you decided to go to Paris? If not, tell me about your first week in Paris- the highlights, the challenges.
I knew I wanted to go here before I graduated from Reed. I remember buying my ticket and then looking for internships and opportunities here. My first week was kind of intimidating because I didn’t know what to expect and I only knew a few people here but I found comfort in finding places that I could go back to regularity where the people recognised me – like this bakery with these really good raspberry donuts haha. There are also some moments where Paris can feel dangerous – but no more dangerous than a big city in the U.S.