Courtesy of Lillian Wenker

Lillian Wenker ’23 spent her spring like many others thrust unexpectedly into quarantine: baking a lot of bread. The Yale comedian rolled and kneaded loaves, boules, English muffins, challah, two pans of focaccia and at least one loaf set in a bundt cake pan in a Red Hot Poker music video with increasingly frenetic lyrics published last May.

The “bread girl” protagonist of that video — a Saybrook College actor and prospective humanities major from St. Paul, Minnesota — has spent this semester adopting a mantra of “radical acceptance.” That means renaming herself “dairy girl” during the first month of her gap year, while she worked on a central Connecticut farm with friends. It also means spending the rest of the year as a student of a professional clown.

“A play is called a play for a reason,” Wenker said. “It’s important to take a work seriously, but that shouldn’t mean that it’s precious and that we can’t throw everything up on the wall and see what sticks.”

Wenker is currently in Étampes, a cobblestoned village just south of Paris, enrolled at an acting conservatory run by the renowned clown and drama teacher Philippe Gaulier — Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are among his former students. Wenker is the youngest of her cohort, which includes actors from Switzerland, Canada and the United Kingdom. 

Wenker spends her weekdays in workshop with her classmates and performs a piece every Friday for Gaulier — a wizened man sporting spectacles and unkempt silver hair who is known for his notoriously harsh critiques. For Wenker, who said she has been a “theater kid” since she was six, the training is the most rigorous she has had in her career.

“Training programs in acting are usually very regimented and interested in producing a specific type and quality of performance,” she said. “Here, everyone is able to do different things and explore the games you like to play and the ways you are the most beautiful.”

Wenker arrived in France in October and expects to be enrolled in the conservatory until June, when the program concludes. During her month-long breaks, though, she is planning to hop across Europe with her student visa: she is going to spend the winter holidays in Brussels with a family on a work-exchange program, housesit in Greece during the spring trimester break and work at a surfing hostel in Portugal later in the summer. 

Wenker is quick to observe that the life she has led since the summer is a marked departure from that of many of her peers and family members. Rural central Connecticut — where her early morning chores included baking, mucking stables and milking cows — was a “self-contained, beautiful paradise” where COVID-19 didn’t seem to affect daily life.

Though she was initially apprehensive of her farmstay’s host — who, Wenker said, would squeeze milk from a cow’s udders directly into their coffee — they soon became close friends while sharing music and meals. 

Étampes, too, is a world removed from New Haven and Yale, and the small community, she explained, has been largely shielded from rapid COVID-19 spread. She wakes up to church bells tolling, takes Sunday walks with an old woman she met in a local park and picks produce from the local farmers market for dinner with her acting friends.

Going about her ordinary routine in France while November election results rolled in made her feel “a little sad and disconnected,” and she “misses desperately” performing in front of her friends and hosting them in her suite for pancakes on Thursday nights. Now, instead of penciling in weekly check-ins, which she worries will begin to feel like an obligation, she’s been staying in touch with friends by exchanging voice memos and recipes.

But intentionally distancing herself from Yale has also allowed Wenker to fully experience her year without the linear expectations and pressures of an academic year. She’s still actively a part of the Yale Herald and the Red Hot Poker comedy troupe. Otherwise, though, Wenker is saving her essays and math credits for when she comes back.

“I am so profoundly lucky that I’ve been able to do the exact thing I wanted to do that I was too scared to do before [the pandemic],” she said. “I feel so lucky to go to Yale, but I’m also discovering how to exist in a very fruitful way without the University.”

Emily Tian |