Montreal theatre scene Wildfire Wildside

Photo by Maxime Côté

The Montreal theatre scene is celebrating linguistic and cultural diversity this month

“This year’s lineup at the Wildside Festival is a celebration of the city’s diversity and its distinct French heritage and soul, with English-speaking organizers and translators openly professing their love of francophone Québécois culture.”

Montreal’s annual Wildside Festival has always been an exciting couple of weeks for theatre lovers. But this year, its universe expands as Centaur Theatre is collaborating with Théâtre la Chapelle and opening in both languages (with surtitles) aimed at celebrating the city’s linguistic and cultural diversity. The thought- provoking collection of experimental artistry showcases five theatre works until February 11.

What’s more, this year’s offerings are not only a celebration of the city’s diversity, but of its distinct French heritage and soul, with English-language organizers and translators openly professing their love of francophone Québécois culture.

Reached in Paris, Centaur artistic director Eda Holmes praises the lineup’s breadth, pointing to a very contemporary play from Ukraine, The Maids (an adaptation of the play Les Bonnes by Jean Genet, performed in English, French and Spanish) and Wildfire, a wonderful, exciting Québécois play performed in English for the first time in Montreal. Vice Versa, a free bilingual post-show music series celebrating English songs originally written in French, also adds to the mix. 

“We’re really looking for a way to find the best of Montreal and it happens to land between all kinds of things,” says Holmes. “It’s not the best of English Montreal and it’s not the best of French Montreal, it’s the best of Montreal.”

David Paquet’s Wildfire makes English-language Montreal debut

To kick off this year’s edition, Talisman Theatre presents the English-language premiere of renowned Quebec playwright and winner of the 2022 Governor General literary award winner for French drama, David Paquet’s fierce dark comedy Wildfire (originally in French as Le Brasier.) The award-winning English translation had its Canadian premiere in Toronto last summer, world premiere in St. Louis, Missouri in 2020 and now arrives in Paquet’s home province for its Montreal debut. The play includes French surtitles so that anglophone and francophone audiences can enjoy it. 

Talisman Theatre artistic director Lyne Paquette can’t hide her enthusiasm for Wildfire. “It blew my mind when I first saw it,” she says. “It’s so well-written, so well-constructed. It hits you like a speeding train, and you can’t even afford to laugh because you’re going to miss the next clue. I just love that type of storytelling that plays with words and structure, and a lot of authors offer this in French. I don’t see it as much in English.”

Wildfire is a dark comedy that follows three twisted triplet sisters with a toxic family heritage through a cycle of destruction, taking audiences on an unexpected emotional journey of ups, downs and laughs. 

“It’s a fantastic play and people should come out to experience it,” says Paquette, who herself is representative of Montreal’s linguistic and cultural plurality. With a francophone father and an anglophone mother, Paquette went to school in French, university in English and later attended the National Theatre School, which is bilingual. 

Since there’s much more French theatre in Montreal, Holmes says it’s understandable there’s more variety possible in that language.

“There’s just many more people making it,” she says. “But within the English community there are a lot of exciting artists, like Lyne Paquette, who’s been committed since she was in theatre school to bridging that gap. I think what’s interesting about Montreal, from a theatre point of view, is the opportunity to speak to a wide array of people, different types of people, and that’s hard to do in most cities. Cities tend to often be very homogenous, but Montreal isn’t, and there’s a whole lot more we can do to really celebrate its diversity, because that to me is what makes it so exciting.”

The French-English divide

Paquette openly professes a preference for French theatre. “I mostly speak English, but I only attend French culture events,” she says. “French theatre is more abstract and for me that’s more interesting. I find that in English theatre, everything is more spoon-fed. They don’t challenge the audience as much as they do in French. And I like to be challenged. I want to see something that will ignite my imagination and require me to fill things in. It doesn’t have a regular narrative with a beginning, middle and end.”

Paquette bemoans the lack of crossover and, often, the lack of curiosity for the city’s majority culture and language. “I find that Montreal is like two cities. You’ve got English theatre and you’ve got French theatre,” she says. “It’s such a shame that so many anglophones have no idea about French theatre, they’re sort of shut out of the francophone effervescent culture scene. I see myself as opening a window or a door for them to see.”

A lack of curiosity goes both ways, of course, and plenty of francophones know little about English theatre. Holmes agrees the city’s bilingualism should be celebrated and experienced. “This ability that we have to switch languages and enjoy each other’s cultures is remarkable and unique and makes Montreal the best city in Canada, at least for me,” she says. “I’m not Canadian and I’m not a Montrealer (Holmes is a transplanted American, originally from Beaumont, Texas), so I can say it with real passion as someone who’s become a part of it.”

Despite this coexistence that nourishes so much art, Paquette points out a big difference she says she sees between French and English audiences. “English audiences are easily offended,” she asserts. “In French, they’re politically incorrect, they’re willing to open the conversation, they’re willing to pick the scab, make it bleed.”

For Holmes, the goal is to be moving beyond Montreal’s French-English duality. “That’s just a starting point,” she says.

She hopes that, coming out of the pandemic, audiences will gain the courage to try something new. “I think Wildside offers an opportunity to do that,” she says. “The world is shifting quickly, and theatre is a very vibrant, in-the-minute art form.” 

Holmes points out that people are accustomed to seeing an international film or listening to a musician from different parts of the world, but this idea that theatre must land in one language or another is unnecessarily limiting and not even the way most of us take culture in. 

“Montreal is a city in translation all the time and that’s what I want to promote and celebrate.”

Translating one’s love for Quebec French-language theatre 

Both Holmes and Paquette had nothing but praise for Leanna Brodie’s French-to-English translation of Paquet’s Wildfire. The Winnipeg-born, Ontario-raised, Vancouver-based translator says she has a particular passion for sharing the plays of some of Quebec’s finest young playwrights because “their work is intelligent, theatrical, accessible and often astonishing.”

She says she instantly connected to Paquet’s work and fell in love with his phenomenal precision of language, poetic pulse and impressive linguistic dexterity. 

“Once I read and absorbed the material, I just locked in on this tremendous, beating, dark heart of the piece,” she says. “It’s hugely challenging but I felt connected to it from the get-go.” 

Brodie says translating is something she’s passionate about. “I get quite excited about trying to find the equivalent,” she explains. “These vivid individuals that he’s created, how would they be in my culture, how would they live, how would they speak? Quebec expressions and jokes and humour are individual, but their impulses are familiar. How do I give them a voice that is as vivid as it is in French?”

Falling in love with French 

Paquette says Brodie has a real authentic passion for Québécois theatre and translating the nuances right. “Finding the right people to translate something,” she says, “is not easy.”

Brodie has translated two other plays by Paquet, whose work really resonates with her. “David grew up in a small place,” she explains. “I grew up in a small place. A village of 500 people.” 

She learned French by accident. “I was miserable in my little country school in a small town in Ontario and feeling very unchallenged,” she says. “I was desperate for a challenge and my poor mum, who was widowed, was desperate to find something for me. She somehow locked in on this French immersion school in Toronto.” 

Brodie attended not knowing a word of French. “I was 14 years old, I was away from home, I had just lost my father, I was miserable,” she says. “And yet I developed this great love. After the subjunctives and the plus-que-parfait, and all the misery of that mechanical apprenticeship to the language, I suddenly realized I could read the originals of books I had fallen in love with, like Cyrano de Bergerac, and Anne Hébert and Le Petit Prince. It was like opening the gates to fairyland.” 

Discovering Quebec and Canadian French was another linguistic expansion for her. “It was a whole second level of language learning for me,” she says. “And through that I was able to discover Montreal theatre, and that was another love affair. The sensibility, the aesthetic, the rigour that people brought, the love and joy of language, and the celebrated place that artists occupy within the culture. It really spoke to me. I feel as a translator like somebody who’s desperately making a mixed tape for their friends, going, ‘Oh my God, guys, you have to hear this!’”

For the love of French

Brodie equates the art and skill of translation to smuggling. “It becomes a way of smuggling things that you love across the [linguistic] border essentially,” she says. 

She’s excited about Wildfire’s long-awaited English-language premiere in Montreal. “It’s very special to me that this piece is being performed in English here because my work is about access and connection,” she says. “Not because you’re forced or legislated into speaking a language, but because you realize the richness that is next door to you and you gain access without guilt, you get access through pleasure. Because the pleasure of David’s sensibility, the passion these artists are pouring into this production is infectious, and the minute we retreat into, ‘Oh, I’m being forced to do this, I’m being forced to wear a mask, I’m being forced to speak French,’ than our inner mule, our inner three-year-old child kicks in and there’s no dialogue.”

Paquette echoes the sentiment. “This might help [more English speakers] fall in love with French,” she says. “They realize this is something they’ve never seen in theatre before. It might be the spark they need to be more engaged and discover the original source. It’s an opportunity, not just for anglophones but for people newly arrived in Quebec, for whom maybe French isn’t their mother tongue.”

We laugh to survive

“David’s writing is fundamentally humane,” says Brodie. “He writes with tremendous humour and tremendous compassion. The poetry and the darkness of the piece leap to the forefront. Audiences always start with this ripple of surprise that they’re having fun and then this nervousness because it’s so dark as if they seem to be asking, ‘Are we allowed to laugh at this?’ And as someone who survived losing a father at an early age, I say there is a gallows humour that comes with suffering, and it’s legitimate. I would tell people, ‘Yes, this is very dark and it’s absolutely okay to laugh because that’s how we survive — and that’s how we’ll survive the times that we’re in.’

“Theatre is so powerful,” says Paquette. “It’s live, it’s full of human error, you’re on a journey while you’re there. It’s not always an easy thing to be challenged, but theatre helps people understand where they’re living.

“Everyone wants to live in Montreal,” Paquette says, “it’s a great city… But you’ve got to delve in, you’ve got to be curious. And art helps you, both understand the culture, and maybe encourage you to dig deeper and learn the language.” ■

To read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis, please click here.