Cyclorama Antoine Yared Laurence Dauphinais Centaur Theatre d'aujourd'hui

Laurence Dauphinais’s Cyclorama celebrates Montreal’s linguistic duality

In the tradition of David Fennario’s groundbreaking bilingual play Balconville, Cyclorama aims to unite audiences and help heal linguistic division, with humour, nuance and love.

When actor, director, writer and musician Laurence Dauphinais was entrusted with writing a bilingual theatre production that would appeal to both francophones and anglophones, while tackling potentially different viewpoints, she knew she had her work cut out for her. But she was also up for the challenge. 

A proud Quebec francophone who loves her language and culture, Dauphinais is also an unabashed anglophile who has spent much of her career working in her second language. She’s excited about the prospect of bringing together two cultures that co-exist side by side in this city, often rubbing shoulders but never quite speaking. With this production, not only does she want Montrealers from both linguistic divides to meet, but she wants them to laugh at themselves and at each other as well as challenge their preconceived, perhaps antiquated, ideas about one another. 

“In some ways this play is about bursting the abscess,” she says, “but it’s also about healing it, too. I think of David Fennario’s play Balconville, where francophones and anglophones had to work together to save themselves from the fire.” 

When Balconville premiered back in 1979 at Centaur Theatre, it completely changed the Quebec theatre landscape, making it the first bilingual play in Canadian history.

Be prepared to take a ride 

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

The play starts at Centaur Theatre 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 — which create opportunities for multilingual audiences and casts, and provide an impetus for linguistic stimulation and communication that go beyond people’s comfort zones — are precisely what excites Dauphinais. 

“When I started writing this play, I was trying to put two audiences who rarely meet, together,” she says. “I couldn’t understand why our two theatre communities knew so little about each other.” 

Dauphinais recalls attending the METAs (Montreal English Theatre Awards) and realizing she was in unknown territory. “I only knew three people there. I kept wondering why I knew so few people in attendance.” 

Bringing two different theatrical visions together 

Realizing that there should be a way to bring Montreal’s French-speaking and English-speaking theatre audiences together, she enthusiastically took on the challenge to find a way to represent two theatrical visions that co-exist in the same city but have a different history, different language and different mandates. 

“I chose to make Cyclorama a comedy because I wanted it to be palatable to the audience,” she says. “People should expect a bilingual show, but it’s subtitled so it’s accessible to all. In essence it’s documentary theatre, but with a lot of humour. When I was writing Cyclorama, I was contemplating the challenge of trying to appeal to two different audiences. How do I do that? These two separate audiences have been exposed to two different theatrical experiences, often go to the theatre for different reasons, and this also shapes their expectations.” 

Historically, both collaborating theatres were founded around the same time but with very different mandates. Located on St-Denis, Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui is a more nationalist theatre, with all 300 or so of its productions since 1968 dedicated exclusively to French-speaking Quebec and French playwrights. The Centaur Theatre, on the other hand, was founded in 1969 and located in Canada’s first stock exchange building in Old Montreal. The company’s formative years were devoted to producing contemporary and classical plays from the English international canon and as an English Canadian theatre in Montreal it also reflects Quebec’s unique cultural landscape.

Dauphinais wanted to take these two very different realities and bring them together somehow. 

“I really wanted to laugh at everyone and make fun of everything,” she says. “I wanted to take all of our preconceived ideas, clichés and misconceptions of one another and play with them.” 

Both actors represent Montreal’s linguistic diversity well

Cyclorama bilingual theatre French Quebec creative community
Antoine Yared and Laurence Dauphinais, Cyclorama. Feature photo by Valérie Remise

Actor Antoine Yared plays her alter ego in the production. Born in Lebanon and raised in Montreal, the trilingual actor has performed in English in theatres across Canada and the United States, as well as in many local French productions. Yared originally studied in French and Arabic but went on to study at Dawson’s and Concordia’s English-language theatre programs. 

Dauphinais’s trajectory was quite different. While she comes from a separatist Quebec family, she was fascinated by English. One of her first theatre jobs was with Shakespeare in the Park. 

“I live in both languages, but I’m still marked by my education and my social environment,” she says. “Yared and I have very different backgrounds, but we’re both very ambiguous people with multiple identities. In Cyclorama, we play with the notion of facts and fiction, the collective stories we tell ourselves. The history of Quebec that I grew up with, stories of survival, oppression — these are good stories that shape who I am.”

But they’re not the only stories, Dauphinais appears to imply. She says Cyclorama approaches these questions about identity through the angle of theatre, but the play is also connected to culture and politics. “It’s good to go into the piece without fully understanding what’s about to take place because it changes constantly,” she says. 

What Dauphinais finds has often been lacking in some of these conversations about identity in Quebec are humour and nuance. She hopes her play tackles these issues from a slightly different angle. 

“Every point of view is represented in this piece, even when we’re not politically correct,” she says. “People expecting traditional theatre might be disappointed. Cyclorama is ultimately 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.”

A celebration of Montreal’s plurality 

Like Montreal’s les 7 Doigts de la main and its latest love letter to Montreal, Ma Ville, Mon Coeur — an immersive circus cabaret that celebrates our city’s thriving cultural pulse, its intriguing contradictions, its unique beauty and, yes, it’s linguistic duality and often plurality — Cyclorama also delves into celebrating Montreal’s uniqueness and its strengths. 

While she celebrates the French language and culture, she disapproves of the rigidity of enforced legislation fuelled by linguistic insecurity that makes some people closed off to more. 

Dauphinais is tired of the clichés about “Quebecers being racist, or more racist than the rest of the country,” a claim she says is both hurtful and untrue. However, she also recognizes that some of the current positions on immigration held by the Quebec government, and attempts made by many politicians to decrease immigration — while still telling people to feel welcomed as real Quebecers — are deeply disconnected from reality and almost feel like gaslighting. 

A better way to protect and promote French 

Cyclorama playwright and actress Laurence Dauphinais
Cyclorama playwright and actress Laurence Dauphinais

“Immigration is not a problem” she says, “but an exciting opportunity. I’ve been hearing about some of these fears about the French language all my life, and I don’t want to hear it anymore. I want to hear about measures to teach and promote French; I want to hear about how you’re going to get people excited about French. I lived in Brazil for a while and every single diaspora was excited to speak Portuguese, along with all the other languages they spoke. If we keep talking about protectionism and language purity, we won’t get people excited. It’s just not sustainable. Our politicians keep trying to appeal to those who are afraid, and that’s dangerous. We need braver politicians.” 

Dauphinais says some people constantly fear that French is losing ground and are desperately holding on to something that gives them a sense of identity. 

“I grew up in a sovereigntist family where my dad would point to the Quebec flag and say, ‘Vive le Québec libre!’ That’s my storytelling,” she says. “There’s a beauty behind that fight. I have great admiration for René Lévesque. Some of Quebec’s greatest politicians, its most progressive politics and social programs came out of the sovereigntist movement. That emotional drive gave a lot of strength to the people here and the province has a lot to be proud of, but it doesn’t end there. What do we do with that now? How do we move forward and progress from that point forward? I find it sad to see so much richness on both sides and we don’t take advantage of it.”

It’s about wanting access to more, not less

“I’m an adder, not a subtracter,” she says. “It’s not really about the language, but about the culture and what we do with it. Are you just speaking French or are you taking advantage of the language by reading, immersing yourself in the culture, creating new experiences? We want to force people to speak French from the start but what about the quality of French? Are we going to stay in this zone of intellectual poverty or are we going to progress beyond that? Are we just going to get by?” 

The playwright believes that what’s needed are more resources, more tools and more interest in culture. “You can’t force people to speak French — you need to make people fall in love with it,” she says. “This current approach is just not productive. You need to excite people about the language.

“Yes, the French language is rich,” she says, “but, most importantly, to me it’s a conduit, a window into a culture. It’s important because of what it gives us access to. I remember the very first time I understood the lyrics to ‘Ahead by a Century’ by the Tragically Hip. I became emotional thinking of this journey and the access to beauty that learning English gave me. Theatre, too, is a public agora where we can meet and speak to each other.” 

Dauphinais says that living in a city like Montreal that has so many amazing cultural offerings in both languages is invigorating and everyone should try and take advantage of it.

“Growing up, I was always excited by what was not familiar,” she says. “I grew up in a very homogenous environment with a very homogenous vision and I wanted to learn the language of the other. This thirst for the unfamiliar — I wish it for everyone.” ■

For more on Cyclorama, please visit the Centraur Theatre website.

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.