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The Third Language in Montreal’s Theatres

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. Montreal is known as one of the cultural meccas of North America. During the summer, there is an average of three simultaneous/overlapping festivals that compete to win audiences. I call it the Costco of entertainment. Theatre stands apart, less shiny and spectacular, but more hearty, refined, and passionate. In and around the festivals is the unique puppet world, which crosses boundaries and flows like water. Like a gondolier, Zach Fraser takes us through the canals of puppetry in Montreal.—Arianna Bardesono, series curator

I have often explained to people that Montreal has three theatre communities: the French theatre community, the English theatre community, and the puppet theatre community. While there is no animosity between these communities, they are distinctly different, and independently vibrant each in their own way.

To have two vibrant theatre cultures within one city is already a novelty that provides a dynamic friction. But three cultures adds yet another level of cross-stimulation. Each of these communities has grown stronger through the counterbalance they foster.

Puppeteers are a bit of a rogue species by nature. They do not follow conventions.

There are artistic and structural differences in the way the French and English theatre communities work. In general terms, the French tend to create image-based works, while the English are more rooted in the written language. The French seek metaphor and poetry while the English are often nearer to realism. The French, working within UdA (Union des artistes) contracts, work on multiple projects spread out over longer periods of time. While the total number of rehearsal hours are comparable, English-speaking members of Canadian Actors’ Equity Association generally work on one production at a time, with shorter rehearsal periods.

Puppeteers are a bit of a rogue species by nature. They do not follow conventions. Up until recently, many Quebec-based puppet theatre companies worked neither under UdA nor Equity. As such, they were free to create on their own terms, at their own pace. That pace is generally slower than most traditional actor-based theatre. There’s additional labor time in preparation, plus a longer rehearsal and production period. An appropriate comparison may be stop-motion versus actor-based films. The process can be extremely slow and labor-intensive.

As natural underdogs, puppeteers are a resilient sort. They know how to make a lot from little. Creatively resourceful, puppeteers scavenge and reuse discarded materials, finding ever-new ways to give new life to rejected products. And puppeteers are blissfully defiant of any conceived divisions of tasks. Many puppeteers dabble in just about every aspect of their creations—the story, the concept, the set, puppets, lighting and sound designs, the set and puppet builds, the manipulation, the performance, the direction, the publicity, the producing. We are also comfortable with and passionate about taking part in all aspects of the creation.

a puppeteer on stage
Au Nez et à la Barbe (National Theatre School of Canada, French Section.) Photo by Maxime Côté.

Puppetry is alive and well in Montreal and Quebec in a way I have never experienced elsewhere. I believe there are a great number of actors and directors across North America who haven’t ever really given any serious thought to the art of puppetry. I would say that at least nine out of every ten actors has never really done any serious amount of puppetry before. How many of us have trained in puppetry? How many of us have sought out puppetry in the plays we create? Many of us grew up on the Muppets and Sesame Street. To many of us, puppets = Muppets. While the Muppets are brilliant, it is unfortunate that they’ve overpowered a vast universe of puppetry styles and esthetics. Puppet theatre happens on all scales, miniature and grandiose; and in all kinds of locations, sometimes traditional, sometimes unimaginable. And yet, we now have theatre students in training programs and entering the profession that have grown up on The Lion King as imagined by Julie Taymor, Avenue Q bringing Muppet-style puppets to adult audiences, and most recently War Horse that has introduced a whole new level of sophistication, artistic beauty, and emotional power to mainstream audiences. The general public is evermore seduced by the power and creative spirit that puppetry adds to stage productions for any and all ages. It is fair to say puppetry is experiencing a certain swell in popularity in recent years. I find more and more companies are beginning to consider the possibilities of puppetry in their productions. And yet, in Montreal and Quebec, this has been going on for quite some time now.

Montreal and Quebec have long been a North American hub for groundbreaking puppetry. There is an incredibly vibrant puppet theatre community in this province, but it hasn’t happened overnight. The 1970s were a time when Quebecois artists really started to take ownership of their cultural identity, distinguishing themselves from North American Anglo Saxon and French European traditions. New Quebecois writing gained prominence. The 1980s brought a trend toward image-based, poetic, nonrealistic theatre. With this wave came an increased fascination with the art form of puppetry. Since then, a triumvirate of innovative and passionate organizations have created a vibrant puppetry community in Montreal and Quebec that is envied around the world.

In 1981, the Association Quebecoise des marionnettistes (AQM) was founded, and in 1986 AQM joined as an official member of the Union internationale des marionnettistes (UNIMA). Based in Montreal, AQM’s impact over the years has been monumental. While the organization remains minimal in infrastructure with a modest annual budget, the organization’s impact has been broad and multi-faceted. AQM has become the spine of the puppetry community of artists that might otherwise find themselves very isolated. There are well over a hundred member theatre companies and artists throughout Quebec, and the broad base of member volunteers is a testament to the passion and resolve of these artists to further stimulate themselves and one another. Every year, AQM organizes and subsidizes a wide range of high-caliber workshops for their members. An online database promotes the variety and artistic quality of its members. Publications, theatre listings, networking events, and forums have proven AQM to be a real hub of activity uniting and strengthening the puppetry community here in Montreal and Quebec. UNIMA-Canada (also based in Montreal) has been working for puppeteers across Canada since 2010. With over 150 members across the country, Unima-Canada serves as an active network to bridge artists and communities, and to assist with creating professional development opportunities.

three puppeteers on stage
Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Stage Play (RustWerk ReFinery [playmakers]. Photo by Sabrina Reeves.

Founded in 2005, Casteliers is a Montreal-based organization focused on the promotion of puppet theatre. Founding artistic director Louise Lapointe and her artistic committee program a full season of puppetry, with activities spread throughout the year. In March 2017, they produced their twelfth annual international puppet theatre festival. With shows of all varieties, for children and adults alike, this festival brings world-class puppet theatre from emerging and established artists, from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and across the globe to the charming and elegant neighborhood of Outremont in northwest Montreal for a week-long extravaganza of all things puppet-related. While this event is extremely well attended by the general public, it is also an event heavily attended by artistic directors and festival programmers from around the world with an ongoing desire for cross-pollination.

Momentum for puppetry arts in Montreal has continued in recent years. 2007 marked the founding of the specialized program in contemporary puppet theatre at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM). The DESS in puppetry (Diplôme d’études supérieures spécialisées) is a post-graduate program spread over two years. It is the first of its kind in Canada, offering in-depth training in the various aspects of creating puppet theatre. Various forms of manipulation, design, and building techniques are covered, but so too are directing and writing for puppet theatre. The brainchild of founding program director Marthe Adam, the local instructors are among the highest quality artists we have working within Montreal, but there are also several guest instructors invited from abroad; each a master in their specific area of expertise. One beautiful aspect of the program that I believe paramount to its success is its determination to emphasize contemporary approaches to puppetry, expressly encouraging experimentation to push the boundaries of the art form. The DESS in contemporary puppet theatre at UQÀM has generated a whole new wave of vibrant, energized, and skilled creators. Strong bonds have also formed on a local and international scale between these students and their professionally active mentors.

There is a growing number of young theatre artists who, upon finishing school, produce their own work at fringe festivals and the like. For several years now, events such as Café Concret offer a chance to try out creations in development in front of a cabaret-style audience. For the past three years now, Festival Ouf has been the official Off Casteliers festival, adding a whole other abundance of puppetry offerings and an opportunity for emerging and established artists to take more risks and test fresh creations in front of engaged and curious crowds.

three puppeters on stage
The Aeneid (Talisman Theatre). Photo by Maxime Côté.

I am delighted to see a bit of development within the training programs too. Apart from UQÀM, Concordia University, John Abbott College and the National Theatre School of Canada are all beginning to include some form if training in puppet theatre. I have often compared puppetry to masked theatre. In the context of training institutions, masked play is a style of performance, but also a powerful teaching tool that encourages the student to focus on the language that the body is expressing on stage. Likewise, puppetry is a performance style, but also extremely effective as a teaching tool, requiring the student to step outside of the character and focus their energies on the clean and precise execution of every little moment and gesture of the character. As the distinguished theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine has said, puppets are the mentors of actors. As actors, we can only dream of achieving all a puppet can achieve; they go straight to the essence of a character with a fraction of the energy we spend as actors.

Even Montreal’s world-renowned Cirque du Soleil has been dabbling in puppetry in recent years with puppetry playing an integral part in a growing number of their recent productions.

And, opening later this year, the Montreal puppet community is thrilled to welcome the Maison international des arts de la marionette (MIAM). Canada’s first international centre dedicated to puppetry arts, the MIAM will be a home for creation residencies, professional training and cultural mediation.

Puppetry most certainly awakens the imagination. They ask us to believe, to be transported to their universe.

I’m thrilled to see growing enthusiasm around the art of puppet theatre. Within Montreal, more people of discovering puppet theatre, more people are training in puppet theatre, more trained actors are learning the techniques of puppet theatre, more directors are considering puppetry as an exciting tool in telling their tales, more set, costume and props designers are being asked to create puppets, and more audiences are getting to know the language of puppetry. As I write this article, the world-renowned French street-theatre company Royale De Luxe is exhilarating Montreal with their majestic Giants, as they roam the streets of downtown Montreal for three straight days to the awe of tens of thousands of passersby. It is fair to declare that the vast universe of puppetry is seducing Montrealers, and as such, is having a significant impact on the way we imagine and create our stories on stage. I believe this is not just about the puppetry, I believe puppetry represents a return to the good old-fashioned magic of storytelling. Puppetry most certainly awakens the imagination. They ask us to believe, to be transported to their universe.

In the past, I assumed plays were made for actors. Playwrights write, directors direct, actors act. That’s always been the natural order. And yet, there is an alternative. In fact, there are so many alternatives! 

Thoughts from the curator

A discussion on the Montreal theatre scene and community.

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