This week on HowlRound, we look at the city of Montreal through the lens of several artists who navigate its theatre scene. This series not only explores the dynamics of Montreal’s English and French theatres, but also takes a look at the work being done towards gender parity and diversity and inclusion. —Arianna Bardesono, series curator
(disclaimer) Being the curator of a Montreal series is no small feat. The city bears layers of complexities that run from its colonial past to its neoliberalist present, from its official bilingualism to the tapestry of its multi-colorful faces, from conflicting relationships with the old mama-lands to the hidden money-laden ties to the USA...All these factors have a direct or indirect influence on its theatre scene…I truly would need the space of a successful HBO series to cover all ground.
Montreal is my city. Theatre is my home.
When I want to think, I sit on my balcony, a small shared space that I have occupied for twelve years now. Back in 2005, I found this balcony because I was going to attend the Directing Program of the National Theatre School of Canada.
When I landed in Montreal everything was brand new for me. I was vaguely aware of the city’s bilingual aspect, or rather its subtle internal division. I did not know there were two theatre scenes. I learned it firsthand in school, which harbored two separate sections, a French one and an English one. In a rare exception to the rule, I managed to attend one year in English and the following mostly in French. As an Italian, I was a hybrid who could not find a natural environment in either theatre culture, so, short of other quick fixes, they let me try both. The differences I encountered were not just linguistic but aesthetic, structural, and deeply cultural.
While English was the dominant language in Canada, Anglophones of Montreal were a minority in their city and province. This in itself was a peculiar state to be in: Anglo Montrealers were humbler, more permeable than their compatriots, bohemian in their soul, and overall not the typical Canadians you might encounter in other parts of the country. Among them, theatre artists were still faithful servants to the playwrights oligarchy, bowing to the Bard, indeed, but also happy to peek and mingle in the whimsical halls of the French theatres. In contrast, Francophones had become the establishment; their theatre artists carried their own quiet revolution dethroning Molière and appointing Tremblay instead; they became sovereigns of their own planches, sure of themselves, unified and daring.
This tale from the past, a truth from the seventies and eighties, still soared over the Montreal skies and proved true in 2005, when I landed. Nonetheless both theatre scenes, so different at the core, appeared to me quite similar.
Overall, Montreal theatre, whether French or English, seemed well versed in producing with constancy, speed, and increasingly less funding. As for the content, neither of the two were political “players” in the ecosystem of the city (or the province); they both spoke about and to a middle-class white Canadian/Quebecois audience; they were both investigating the self-reflective issue of identity and they were both expressions of North-American neo-liberalism. Indeed, not too dissimilar from each other…
(a parte) I remember Robert Lepage in an interview about the time he spent in Montreal, five years total, in the early phase of his career. Using a culinary metaphor to describe his theatre practice, he explained that once established in his new home in Montreal, he put himself through the task of making a cake. He needed a baking tin, so he went out to buy one. He searched through different shops, but all he could find was a heart-shaped tin. So he made his heart-shaped cake, and when he offered it to his friends and new fellow citizens he realized that everyone else had made the same heart-shaped cake…
After graduation, in 2007, I got down from the balcony and started walking the streets of my theatre town. The view improved. It did not totally shift, but gained in complexity, a little wisdom, and direct experiences of both sides.
My first job as a director was in French at the lovely Théâtre de Quat'Sous, mounting an Anglo Canadian play by John Mighton, Possible Worlds, in a translation by Maryse Warda. A production in Mexico right after and then three consecutive years working for the independent Montreal English theatre Scene (Repercussion Theatre, Teesri Duniya Theatre, Infinithéâtre, Wildside Festival at the Centaur Theatre Company, Talisman Theatre, Playwright’s Workshop Montreal, Imago Theatre, and Geordie Productions). The French world seemed satisfied with that one play, and I did not bother them further.
During those three years, I got to better know the English theatre landscape, which was more layered and diverse than at first perceived. I was welcomed initially by Rahul Varma, playwright, activist, and artistic director of Teesri Duniya Theatre, a company that for more than thirty years had been doing political theatre on a double bill. Political in themes and content and political in its choices for casting. The mandate of the company was and is giving opportunities to artists from visible minorities. Together with Black Theatre Workshop, Teesri Duniya is a company whose mission has been to denounce and reverse the inequality existing in the established theatres of Montreal (read Canada): reverse social imbalance and give voice to the marginalized. With Teesri I had the chance to direct the premiere of Truth and Treason by R. Varma, a piece on the Iraq war; a reading of Bhopal, on the disastrous effects of the 1984 explosion of a pesticide multinational plant in India, and the English translation of L’Affiche by Philippe Ducros, on the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
After working for Teesri I became familiar with the work of Talisman, a company whose mission is to reduce the gap between French and English theatre by translating into English and producing contemporary Quebec plays. Their work would require an essay on its own to start understanding what it means to willingly walk cross-culturally through translations, aesthetics, audiences.
If it’s true that companies like Teesri and Black Theatre Workshop were alone in addressing social justice issues for twenty-something years, I must admit that ten years later they are not alone anymore. The larger English theatre scene has caught up to the national credo of inclusiveness, equality, and conscious representation, on and off stage.
A great example is Imago Theatre. In 2012 the arrival of Micheline Chevrier at the helm of the company has given birth to the first truly feminist theatre in Montreal. The company immediately widened the horizon of what the word feminist can mean today and challenged audiences and peers with an all inclusive practice and total accessibility to their theatre shows and activities, by introducing the pay-what-you-decide policy.
I continued to be the hybrid, while recognizing that one side of the “family” had willingly invited and accepted me inside their walls. I cannot say the same of the French side of the family.
Between my first and second child I started teaching at the National Theatre School, mostly in English but also occasionally in French, for example in the bilingual program of Scenographie/Set and Costume Design. I was also asked to teach Contemporary Quebec Theatre to Anglophone directors. This class led me to dive into and better understand Quebec history and the current francophone theatre scene. I created a class which was fully taught in French (when the student directors are fluent enough) in which they would work on the first phases of a dreamed project with French artists, hosted by French companies. I also kept hiring French designers when directing in English, having always found artistically fertile the most diverse teams. In my own way I continued to be close, from a distance, to the French scene. I even went on to do my Master’s studies at the French university UQÀM in the theatre department.
While Montreal English theatre grew diverse and more open, even if still fighting the usual fights (shortage of performance spaces with only two official English theatre venues, scarcity in the pool of artists that flee to the Canadian theatre Mecca Toronto and getting an audience in a city that is mostly French), the well-established French scene seemed to thrive with its several theatres full on a constant basis. The times though were about to catch up with the French province.
In November 2013, the Province of Quebec was shaken by the issue of the accommodements raisonnables and the consequent attempt at passing as law the infamous Charte des valeurs quebecois of Pauline Marois’ Parti Québecois government. This Charter was claimed to be an attempt to advance the secularization of the province, but covertly it aimed at reducing the liberties of specific religious minorities. Montreal, a city who’s population is more than 50 percent immigrants, was most affected. It is thus that the French theatre scene was asked to face a blatant disconnection to its own city and its almost total lack of diversity.
In November 2015, I was asked by the Conseil Québecois du Théâtre to be the curator (history repeats itself) of a series of theatre excerpts of diverse performances for its annual congress, devoted that year to the theme of diversity. The congress was animated with fiery debates, some drama, and the evidence that the road to a more inclusive and open French theatre scene has a long way to go. Yet words were spoken sometimes for the first time and heard, ironically on the main stage of the first Anglo theatre of Montreal, the Centaur.
The French theatre world is now slowly taking steps to open its back doors. It is of course harder to let go of a power and privileged position that has been conquered with extreme efforts and many losses only sixty years ago. For much longer the French had been subjugated at the bottom of society, oppressed by France at first, then by the Crown and the English, and throughout by their own church. They managed bravely to reverse their destiny, free themselves from the religious yoke, establish their own society, language, and cultural identity. Defending it has been their on-going dogma. To redefine it now and understand that diversity can be an asset and not a threat is their present challenge.
Back on my balcony, now in 2017, I see many necessary measures taken in good directions by the arts councils and the funding bodies. Established theatres, independent companies, theatre associations, and training institutions are responding to those demands. (It is worth mentioning in this sense the new ART Program at the National Theatre School that opens its doors to the Indigenous artists of Canada). We are slowly moving through and away from tokenism and quick fixes, and trying to really ask the question of how we can operate this shift, which is not just a change in power, but a larger reconfiguration of our theatre ecology.
One danger stands on the line: that with the intention of diversifying we instead level off/conform/flatten what is true diversity, in the process of integrating “them” in “our” system. This risk ensues from the pressing machine of our economic system that demands change in a short time. The survival of small and medium companies is paramount to financial support. Theatre artists have learned how to work faster and ask less questions. But the point is: the creation of the new civil, social, and cultural us demands that we relinquish our power, like Prospero, undo the ways in which we do things, allow new ways to impregnate us, figure out new solutions built with equal input from all participants. This is a slow process not void of mistakes and steps back. Can our government, so willing to see the results, assist such process?
Only a few months ago, I created and directed a show at the National Theatre School (l’École nationale du theatre). In a highly collaborative process, we invented ways to tell three Italian folk tales to children, small and big. Connecting on ancestral stories we worked above differences and into a universality that proved to be intersectional, intergenerational, and more than anything, magical. I take this as a good symptom of the shift, of the quiet revolution that is hopefully rendering to Montreal the human wealth it owns.
Time for me to get off the balcony again, this time to leave room for other eyes and voices. For this Montreal series, I invited a chorus of beautifully diverse voices to sing. I chose people similar to me, hybrids, in-betweeners, floating souls that can see the landscape from the height of another balcony in Montreal.
I hope you will enjoy listening to them as much as I do.