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Beyond Limitations

Montreal’s Resilient English Theatre Scene

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. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an island is:

  1. a tract of land surrounded by water and smaller than a continent
  2.  something resembling an island especially in its isolated or surrounded position
  3.  an isolated group or area; especially: an isolated ethnological group

Montreal English theatre fits these definitions because its artists work on an island, and in an island that is part of a larger island. Aki Matsushita takes us through a community that is peculiar, unique, and effervescent. The discovery of a hidden gem. —Arianna Bardesono, series curator

Growing up, I began studying theatre at the tender age of thirteen in a francophone high school for the arts in Ottawa. I always dreamt of moving to Montreal to pursue my dreams, whatever those dreams may have been. It was an idolization of a place that I knew little of, but wanted to be a part of so much. The only equivalent image that I can describe would be the cliché scene of a girl dreaming of moving to the big apple—in a way, Montreal was my New York.

Being the country’s capital, Ottawa is a completely bilingual city. I was educated entirely in French until my graduate studies. Having moved to Montreal just a year and a half ago, I came to this overwhelmingly vibrant city as a blank slate with no idea what awaited me. My francophone theatre upbringing made it so that I only began discovering English Canadian theatre later in life. It wasn’t until after moving to Montreal that I discovered an impressive English theatre community that hid within this mecca of Canadian and international arts.

Montreal English theatre may be smaller than other regional theatre communities, and is at times made to feel isolated and overlooked by the rest of the English Canadian theatre scene. However, I see the community as a modern day embodiment of this land’s indigenous significance, being a place that has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations—and in a way it still is. Our community welcomes theatre practitioners from across the country, be it for education and training, touring productions, co-productions or annual festivals, such as the Wild Side Festival at the Centaur Theatre Company, or the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival that inhabits the city every summer. We all gather here to share, exchange, create, and tell our stories and those of others.

The Montreal English theatre community is home to approximately eighty-five professional companies. This community is like no other in Canada, and possibly the world, due to its very particular socio-political positioning.

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Fleur-de-lis maple flag.

The Montreal English theatre community is home to approximately eighty-five professional companies. This community is like no other in Canada, and possibly the world, due to its very particular socio-political positioning—being an English language community that resides within Quebec (a historically and predominantly francophone province), thus, making it a linguistic minority. The challenge of being a linguistic minority within their environment has an impact on the community—from “getting bums in seats,” Anglophones only make up 13.2% of Montreal’s population, to insuring growth within the community. Despite these constraints, English theatre in Montreal thrives and contributes to the larger Canadian theatre landscape through its talent, openness, commitment to inclusion, and collaborative nature.

As a whole, the Montreal English theatre community is permeable, with companies that dedicate themselves to bridging the language gap within artistic circles in the city; collaborations and connections between French and English theatres are growing. Companies like Talisman Theatre, whose mission is to produce English language premieres of contemporary Quebecois plays for non-francophone audiences and students, allows Anglophone audiences to follow and explore current Quebecois theatre culture by lessening the divide between languages and giving the opportunity for non-francophone theatregoers to delve into Quebec’s contemporary works, such as its English language production of Sarah Bertiaume’s Yukon Style.

While acknowledging the challenges Montreal English theatre artists face, the reality is many artists work beyond the English theatre “bubble”—our artists, French and English alike are working together, which is a reflection of our bilingual country. Bringing together artists of different backgrounds, and from different communities to tell stories is key. For example, Imago Theatre’s recent production of The Intractable Woman staged three women, all from different paths that were brought to Montreal to tell the story of Anna Politkovskaya, the only Russian journalist to cover the war in Chechnya.

Since moving to this great city, I’ve lived the dream of every young theatre geek—meeting artists that only existed in your bookshelf, and artists that you only saw from afar on stage.

Another part of this community that contributes to the healthy ecology of our community is its next generation. Montreal is home to five English language post-secondary theatre-training programs including: Dawson and John Abbott colleges, the theatre departments at Concordia and McGill universities as well as the National Theatre School of Canada (NTS). The community is fostering and shaping the next generation of theatre artists. Notably, NTS, being a bilingual institution, is training the next generation of artists to work collaboratively beyond linguistic and cultural backgrounds. These emerging artists are being trained in a city that offers a broader perspective on art, owing to the coming and goings of artistic creators.

A challenge this community faces is that every year graduates leave Montreal to contribute to the Canadian theatre across our vast country, and let’s face it, there are more English gigs outside of Quebec. This movement impacts the regional theatre scene’s growth and future. The recent graduates who do chose to stay in Montreal are survivors, who work tirelessly to keep this community alive and bring new life to what is produced here in Montreal. Although it’s not an easy task to take on, the community support its next generation of theatremakers as they learn how to walk in the early stages of their careers. Be it through The Quebec Drama Federation, or mentorship programs offered by theatre companies like the Artista program at Imago for young women, or Black Theatre Workshop’s mentorship program, there are companies and organizations committed to cultural diversity and promoting works and artists within those groups.

Since moving to this great city, I’ve lived the dream of every young theatre geek—meeting artists that only existed in your bookshelf, and artists that you only saw from afar on stage. And although I’ve only scratched the surface of the local theatre scene in the whirlwind that was my first year in Montreal, I now have a better understanding of English Canadian theatre as a whole. Just as theatre brought me here, Montreal has allowed me to discover the artistic riches it hosts. I hope that one day you come to discover the hidden gem that is Montreal English theatre. 

Thoughts from the curator

A discussion on the Montreal theatre scene and community.

Montreal City Series

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As a disabled theatre maker, I find Montreal difficult. We live less than two hours from the city so are drawn to Montreal's vibrant, diverse theatre scene. However, all too often performances are in inaccessible places. I guess this goes along with the city's reputation as one of the least disability friendly cities in the world, but it is deeply disappointing and limiting.

I loved reading this. As an Atlantic Canadian now completing a Master's in Theatre in Ottawa, I am unaware of the intricacies of Montreal theatre, but am also very drawn to it. Maybe I somehow perceive it as a link (geographically and metaphorically) between my East Coast past and Ontario present?

I saw Wig in a Box's devised piece titled Docile Bodies (it'll be at the upcoming Montreal Fringe festival - check it out if you haven't!) and I was so impressed. My thesis is on the intersection of queer theory and geography in theatre and they blew me away with their ability to collaborate and build a family in a queer way. The queerness stemmed from their exposing, questioning, and resisting of structural power regimes, and they extended that into a questioning/warping of traditional theatre practices as well. Playing with such heavy material as Foucault's Discipline and Punish is a challenge and they were able to make it engaging and accessible.

All that to say, I'm very drawn to the work of Montreal artists at a larger scale as well, especially collaborative risk-taking across linguistic and cultural borders. Can't wait to read more!

I spent half the year in Montreal last year and have collaborated on cross-cultural projects with Quebecois artists. I second your experience. Montreal and Quebec City are dense with writers, makers and doers who are an active part of small/large communities and very "present" on the scene.