Cyclorama bilingual theatre French Quebec creative community

Antoine Yared and Laurence Dauphinais, Cyclorama

How Montreal artists foster a love of French with bilingual shows and anglo/franco collaboration

“While some like to paint a bleak picture of the French language’s vitality, Montreal continues to march to the beat of its own — often bilingual — drum, adding more layers to Quebec’s predominantly francophone culture.”

A common complaint many Quebec francophones have is that some anglophones and allophones are not interested in the French language and Quebec’s francophone culture. They’re not entirely wrong. I’ve met people who really didn’t care to immerse themselves in either, and while I remain convinced that many coercive and punitive aspects of the province’s language legislation significantly contribute to turning some people off, it’s still not a legitimate reason for why some people can live in a predominantly francophone province and never make French a part of their everyday lives. It’s a loss for everyone involved. 

But there’s the other side of the coin, too. Most Quebec anglophones and allophones who go the extra mile to learn and speak French, who appreciate francophone culture and celebrate it as part of their identity, too, find it exasperating and unfair that their efforts are often not even acknowledged. Both their understanding and appreciation of French is routinely treated as a rare exception, when in fact it’s an everyday Montreal reality. 

This everyday reality is often ignored for the sake of sensational headlines that create unsubstantiated fear and resentment. Statistically speaking, most Quebec anglophones and allophones speak French. And many not only speak it but are going the extra mile to promote it and allow others to appreciate it, too. I spoke with three Montreal creators who are doing their part, in their own way, to share their love of the language.

Having ‘Fun With French’

Fun With French Quebec

Filmmaker and journalist Seema Arora — director of Fun With French a new web comedy series aimed at showing viewers the fun side of the French language — is proud to speak excellent French. 

Her web series is her contribution to the ongoing debate surrounding language in this province, where, she says, anglophones and allophones are often seen as a problem instead of an integral part of the fabric.

“I was born and raised in Montreal and the majority of people I went to school with speak great French,” she says. “We like the language, but we don’t like the politics. I don’t like feeling like I’m not valued.”

Arora went to French elementary and high school but attended English university because she aspired to an international film career and wanted to make sure her English would be as good as her French. “I wanted to study film and I work in casting. English is important internationally. Most people in the film and TV industry are multilingual.” 

Working with her co-producer and long-time friend Alexandra Triantafillopoulos, Arora was inspired by the recent rise in linguistic tensions to move forward with a project she’s had on the backburner for a while. 

Flipping the narrative 

“In France, French is romanticized, and in Quebec, French is politicized,” she says. “I wanted to flip the narrative a little.”

Filming in Montreal and Los Angeles, the show was inspired by Arora’s Grade 11 teacher, who made a big impression on her. The words used in the show are taken directly from that French class. 

“I deeply value the high-level academic excellence I benefited from with my teacher who made us value the language,” she says. “I wanted to honour her with this show, which aims to be both educational and entertaining.

“Our show’s character, Steven, he literally walks up to people on the street and asks them to put that word in a sentence,” says Arora. “He’ll ask them, ‘Do you know what the word ‘volubile’ means?’ And then they try to put it in a sentence.”

Arora says she wants to show the fun side of French and dispel common myths about allophones and anglophones not speaking French. 

“I wanted to show my Montreal reality,” she says. “I’m a South Asian Quebecer with perfect French. I’m proud of all my identities. I’m an authentic representation of what Quebec is today. And yet, when I turn on the TV or watch a Quebec film, I don’t see myself represented anywhere. Quebecers aren’t just white Caucasian francophones — they’re also someone like me.”

She hopes that presenting a diverse and inclusive show will make everyone feel more included. “Today’s Quebecer looks a lot different than they did 50 years ago,” she says. “We need to be part of the conversation.”

The filmmaker hopes the bilingual show will bring English-speakers and French-speakers together because she wants to counteract what she sees as a negative and divisive public discourse and show French-speaking Quebecers that a large majority of anglophones and allophones speak French, too. 

“I think we have to stop vilifying one another,” she says. “Knowing more languages is always an asset for anybody.”

Arora says many of the words used in the show stumped francophones, too. “It’s a show that will help improve everyone’s French-language skills.”

The series launched on the Zensa Media YouTube channel earlier this month and Arora’s goal is to ensure 10 shows for the first season. But, she says, they’re still struggling with financing. 

“Strangely, we’ve not been able to get any funding from the government, considering all their talk of promoting and protecting the language.”

How to overcome the fear of speaking imperfect French 

Nisha Coleman Cornichon Quebec French creative community theatre Fringe
Nisha Coleman

Nisha Coleman has been wowing Montreal Fringe Festival fans for years with her one-woman shows and captivating storytelling. This year, my favourite piece at the festival was Cornichon, written and performed entirely in French by Coleman, about her love of the French language. 

The anglophone francophile who grew up in Ontario tells of her playful and introspective immersion in the learning of a new language.

“My first French teacher was special,” Nisha tells me. “He made French interesting, playful and fun, like free time. Each new word I learned felt like I was adding to my arsenal. It felt empowering and exciting to know these new words that my parents didn’t understand. It felt like a secret.”

When Coleman moved to Montreal to study at McGill, she was eager to practice and improve her French. But things didn’t pan out quite the way she planned. 

“I spent a year at McGill, and like many well-intentioned anglophones who imagine themselves becoming bilingual, I intended to really learn French,” she says. “But that didn’t happen. I was very afraid to make mistakes.” 

Coleman became incredibly self-conscious. “Switching to English felt like a failure to me,” she tells me. “And it felt morally wrong to start a conversation in English, it felt disrespectful in a French province.” 

Coleman was reacting to the excessive politicization of the French language in Quebec. 

“When I moved to France, I was still speaking French poorly, but I didn’t feel disdain. It didn’t happen often in Quebec, but when it happens, those moments stick with you. None of that happened in Paris, there was no politicization, I felt comfortable speaking (imperfect) French there.” 

Coleman’s words echo a similar sentiment shared by Montreal’s own Leonard Cohen, who admitted in a Radio-Canada interview back in the ’80s that he always felt nervous speaking French in his hometown, while completely comfortable doing so in France. 

“Speaking French in Quebec, in Montreal, is a political act,” he said. “Even today, when I try to speak French, it scares me. In Europe, I can speak much more easily.”

“We do want to speak it,” Coleman says, “but we’re often so afraid and nervous.”

Battling perceptions rather than reality 

Coleman finds the language politics unfortunate and feels that much of the misunderstandings on both sides of the linguistic fence stem from perceptions more so than reality. 

“Quebecers, when they leave the province, feel like they’re not accepted by the rest of Canada, but anglophones feel like they’re not accepted by Quebec either,” she says. “It all leads to a level of heightened sensitivity that I don’t know how to solve but I feel isn’t at all accurate. Most of the misunderstandings are based on anecdotes and an overall idea of disrespect but if you live in the rest of Quebec, far from anglophones and other minorities, it’s easy to believe that they hate francophones, which I believe isn’t true.”

Coleman believes that opportunities for people to come together and connect without language being the focal point, like Pride activities for example, encourages better understanding. “Because these events aren’t focused on language, the language and the connection come naturally and organically.”

She says the big game changer for her was making Québécois friends. She encourages everyone to take French classes and practise it with someone who speaks it. “It’s such a joy to communicate in your second language,” she says. “I remember the thrill when I started mastering the language and the first time that I thought to myself, ‘This is a real conversation.’” 

“I wish that feeling for everyone learning a new language,” Coleman says. “Sure, it’s difficult but it’s also a portal into another dimension, another world.”

She finds the excessive politicization of French in Quebec an obstacle to learning it. “It seems strange that people don’t see how counterproductive this kind of attitude is.” 

Regardless of the politics, she encourages non-francophones who might be afraid to speak it, to still do so. “Francophones really appreciate the effort and in the end it’s beneficial for everyone.”

English theatre working in tandem with French theatre

Centaur Theatre Cyclorama Quebec French creative community bilingual theatre

While some like to paint a bleak picture of the French language’s vitality, Montreal continues to march to the beat of its own (often, bilingual) drum, adding only more layers to Quebec’s predominantly francophone culture. French and English creators here often work side by side and inspire each other. 

Cyclorama, a creation by Centaur Theatre and Centre du Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui, created, directed and performed by Laurence Dauphinais, is an immersive bilingual documentary performance that takes place at both theatres on the same night and explores the history of Montreal theatre.

The play starts at the Centaur in English, then the audience gets on a bus and heads over to Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui for the second part in French. Productions like these that create opportunities for multilingual audiences and casts and provide an impetus for linguistic stimulation and communication that go beyond people’s comfort zones bring people closer together and make understanding another language and another community an exciting affair. 

Eda Holmes, the Centaur’s artistic director, can’t hide her enthusiasm for the upcoming production. “There’s an audience for it for sure,” she says. “The goal is to simply make it accessible to all.” She ensures me subtitles will be provided to ensure clarity for those questioning their linguistic limitations.

Different pathways, same destination

Holmes, a former ballet dancer, was born in Texas, and lived in Europe for years, working with diverse dance troupes. Montreal, with its mix of languages, was, she says, the perfect city for her to move to. She was equally compelled by the French artists she saw performing on stage.

“I love the rhythm of Quebec French, it’s very expressive for theatre,” she says. “I love the language, although I’m still trying to perfect it.” 

Dauphinais’s trajectory was quite different. She comes from a separatist Quebec family but was fascinated by English. One of her first theatre jobs was with Shakespeare in the Park. The writer of Cyclorama believes that you need to come to language primarily through love, not legislation. 

Cyclorama is a dive into the universe of collective stories, which questions how these stories are formed and last over time and what impact they have on our societies,” she wrote in a Facebook post on May 25, the day Bill 96 was adopted. 

“The adoption of Bill 96 prolongs a certain narrative in terms of language policies. It’s the one I grew up with. I understand where (this linguistic insecurity) originates, but I don’t believe that a posture of rigidity is the way to go today. I don’t think you can force a tongue down citizens’ throats with the stick approach. I think this will only create antipathy and ostracization among the English-speaking minority and some newcomers, and this law will make people want to leave.

“Why not work in the positive? Why not send other messages? Work on integration, invest more against school dropout rates, adjust teaching to the needs of students, facilitate access for marginalized communities to attend cultural places, make our language attractive by mastering it ourselves, by making it in the image of our thought; rich, diverse, broad, open, open, open…”

Holmes, too, shares Dauphinais’s skepticism about overly intrusive linguistic legislation and sees some of these language debates as a little dated. 

“There’s a generational divide, for sure” she says. “The younger generation of actors all want to work in both languages. They want the complexity of multiple languages and are drawn to Montreal as a diverse city.” 

Holmes believes language legislation has its limits. “Legislation doesn’t just magically change people’s minds about a language,” she says. “You can’t just insist that people speak French. Montreal is an island of wonders! Building bridges between our communities, we learn more from communicating with each other, rather than ignoring each other.” She believes Cyclorama, which is slated to begin its run October 11, will do just that this fall and looks forward to the reactions by both French and English audiences. 

As politicians and pundits continue to push their narratives, as those concerned with the protection of French continue searching for ways to ensure its survival, many of Quebec’s francophone, allophone and anglophone artists continue moving forward in their own ways. 

Not only speaking and performing in French, but safeguarding it and celebrating it, making others fall in love with it, too. One performance, one play, one TV series, one book at a time. Culture doing what it’s always done: bringing people together.  ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.