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It’s No Act, Fleming Loves Paris

Published: May 2, 2011

The idea of an American in Paris has generated a hit musical and a library’s worth of history and literature, but it was life as usual for Theater Arts’ Craig Fleming.

Fleming, a member of the university since 2006, knows what it’s like to be an expatriate American in the French capital thanks to the four years he lived there beginning in 1988 as the director of nomenclature and scripting effort for the creation of Disneyland Paris. He also visited Paris in summer 2009 to teach with Theater Arts’ Hugh O’Gorman.

Fleming is an actor, director, teacher and writer. His theatre background includes acting and directing for Shakespeare Orange County, the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare by the Sea, Laguna Playhouse and Performance Riverside. Prior to becoming a Disney Imagineer he wrote for Teddy Ruxpin, Muppet Babies and other talking toys.

Fleming hopes to use his international experience next year when he leads CSULB students to the City of Lights for a study abroad class in theater and cinema. “What Paris really has going for it is ‘boulevard culture,’” said Fleming, who first arrived at CSULB in 1973 for a brief stint as a 16-year old freshman. He went on to receive his MFA in acting from CSULB in 2004 where he was named Outstanding Graduate for the College of the Arts. “Boulevard culture” means weaving into everyday life what we usually compartmentalize in little discreet fragments. It becomes a daily mode of discourse.

“I went through the crucible of living abroad. I learned how difficult it can be to do the simplest things that we often take for granted. It is in that discovery where the most change is created. That is the best part of study abroad. Our students could take their classes here at CSULB. The subject matter of the class is accessible anywhere. But what will set this class apart is its context of the foreign capital.”

Before Paris, Fleming never lived in a big city, let alone a foreign capital. “My French was non-existent at first, then mediocre at best,” he recalled. “And yet, the thing that impressed me the most was the quotidian acceptance of all the culture and how it all connects. Everything in Paris affects Paris culture from the sound of the Metro to the walk home from work with a baguette in one hand. Everything was related in some way to what happened in the boulevard theaters, museums and concert halls. Everything in Paris seemed to be speaking about everything else and that’s what I hope my students experience.”

Living in Paris helped Fleming to better appreciate his California home. “In California, we live on the freeways and our homes. When we congregate, we may not connect. It is easy to completely ignore the fact that there is such a thing as society,” he said. “In Paris, it is there all the time. It is at the base of Parisian life. Everyone rubs elbows on the Metro because it is the easiest way to get about. All of that underpins the Parisian cultural life.”

Fleming felt it was a privilege to experience Paris from his position with Disneyland Paris. “I got to move in higher circles,” he recalled. “What I found was that Paris is a combination of Washington, D.C., New York and Hollywood. To visit a bistro is to discover a mixture of politicians and artists all in one place. That creates a tension. That tension becomes energy and that energy is irresistible. It is very hard to deflect even if you try to bury your nose in a guide book. Visitors such as our students may not know it, but the culture of Paris is working on them.”

It's No Act, Fleming Loves Paris
Craig Fleming

There’s a big difference in lifestyles between the Golden State and the City of Lights. “You are really alive when you are standing on a street where the signs don’t make sense and you’re not exactly sure how to get back to your home,” he said. “We get very complacent about our sanitized and convenient life in America. We suffer from the habitual acceptance of the near-enough. What we want is just close enough to be OK. Sometimes the best things students on a Study Abroad class encounter are their problems. Then they come back to California and realize that maybe they have it in them to put out extra effort to pursue knowledge, experience or fellowship.”

His Paris experience taught him a few things about how the French do it. “I remember during my Disneyland years being one of the Americans who thrived on the city’s cultural life,” he said. “Most of the other Americans lived in the Parisian suburbs. I lived in the heart of town. The other Americans were trying to recreate Glendale in Paris. I wanted to live in the midst of it all. I found the coolest apartment in Paris and, from that moment on, I had the most intense and difficult period in my life but, at the same time, the most transformative.”

The minute Fleming returned to California, he felt different. “The transformation could be as simple as coming home through a connecting flight to Houston and finding yourself being served a lunch that is much larger than the French ones you’ve gotten used to,” he said. “The aggregate of all these little things is what helps you create and paint the larger canvas. What we do here is important because of what the French do there. We are not separate. We are not islands. We are connected. It is a psychological truth that we want the same things. We just might express them differently.”

When Fleming returned to Paris after several years, he was recognized by the proprietor of a local restaurant. When he told the owner he was considering a move back to Paris, the owner replied the move was unnecessary. “He looked at me, put his hand on my chest and told me ‘Paris is here. It is inside you and will be there wherever you go. You don’t have to move to Paris. Paris is now wherever you are.’ And that is one of the many epiphanies I experienced which I hope my students experience, too.”