Confluence (2000)

Theatre in Exile:
Four Years of Quebec Theatre in Calgary

Brian Smith
University of Calgary

The debut of Theatre in Exile in October, 1996, in a performance of Michel Marc Bouchard’s Les Feluettes (Lilies) translated by Linda Garboriau, was a significant, though somewhat overlooked, event in the history of Western Canadian theatre. With this performance, Theatre in Exile introduced the work of Michel Marc Bouchard in English translation to the city of Calgary. Although the play had received enthusiastic public notice both in its Montreal debut and its subsequent English-language performance in Toronto, Michel Marc Bouchard was still a scarcely known figure in anglophone western Canada. And so were the play’s producers, Quebec-born director Gail Hanrahan and Cape Breton-raised designer Sandi Somers, two women in exile from eastern Canada determined to challenge the tastes of Calgary audiences through the mounting of plays in exile - that is, plays from foreign cultures translated into English, an ambition almost certainly destined to gain these two women honorary membership in that legendary Calgary sub-community labelled “Eastern Creeps and Bums,” the name suggesting a cultural and social plague visited on the unsuspecting good citizens of Calgary by an unwanted horde of unsavory drifters from downwind of our eastern border. To their discredit, these latest female members of the said notorious club increased the blatant visibility of eastern creeps and bums in Calgary by presenting a play which featured, among other things, grown men dressed in women’s clothes, French-Catholic boys kissing onstage, and wouldn’t you know it, at least one bare, male, eastern-signified bum.

Little did the producers know that by polluting the vigorous mountain air of Calgary with this effete, foreign stuff they were actually following a mostly forgotten precedent for a kind of artistic challenge established in Calgary in November of 1974. In that year, a newly formed, small theatre company, appropriately named the Alternative Theatre Company, founded by Victor Mitchell and Helene White, presented the western Canadian premiere of Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna in its translation by Bill Glassco and John van Burek, the play, like Bouchard’s Lilies, having previously enjoyed successful productions in Montreal and Toronto. In the case of the Calgary Hosanna, the play almost didn’t make it to the stage. The company had booked the Pleiades Theatre in the Calgary Planetarium, but when the managers of the theatre discovered that the play would deal with the love affair between an aging transvestite and her biker lover, and especially because it purportedly would feature a scene of male nudity, something the management argued was still illegal and would have to be challenged in court, which would mean a charge would have to be laid against the producers and/or the theatre management - well, the theatre managers backed out of their agreement, a vol de face that was widely reported in the press and capitalized upon as free publicity by the fledgling Alternative Theatre, which withdrew its “homosexual play,” as it was labelled in the papers, to the safe and enlightened climes of the University Theatre at the University of Calgary, where Hosanna in translation, denuded somewhat of controversy, enjoyed a brief, successful run, and where the scene of male nudity happened so quickly it was barely visible to the audience, a sort of artistically transposed version of “flashing,” that harmlessly jocular campus recreation so popular at the time. At least that is how this eastern creep and bum, who witnessed the performance, remembers it.

But times have changed. In 1996, no such controversy attended Theatre in Exile’s production of Lilies. Besides, the mainstream press was too voraciously distracted by the homophobic furor surrounding Alberta Theatre Projects’ staging of Angels in America that season, and by the pathos of Theatre Calgary’s apparent financial collapse. Lilies was quietly and respectfully staged at the Big Secret Theatre, a tiny place of exile in the sprawling and otherwise homogenous Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts, the name ’Secret’ connoting not only the anomaly of a vest-pocket-sized theatre within a monolithic Centre for the Arts, but also the idea of the space as a “best-kept secret” specializing in experimental work, home to Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit performance troupe, who also lease the space to other small, relatively new, Calgary companies like Theatre in Exile, Sage Theatre and Ground Zero, companies interested in presenting alternatives to the work of the city’s two dominant theatre companies, Theatre Calgary and Alberta Theatre Projects, the more conspicuous tenants of the Centre for the Performing Arts. While the press took trifling, blasé notice of the homosexual content of Lilies (“it is for fans of Genet, Pasolini and Derek Jarman” sniffed the Calgary Herald dismissively, ascribing to the production and the company an exiled place on the margins of public interest), it neglected to highlight more potent contextual facts, that is, Theatre in Exile’s Lilies not only marked the debut of a major contemporary Quebec playwright in Calgary English language theatre, it also marked perhaps the boldest and most significant venture into Quebec theatre since the Alternative Theatre Company’s Hosanna in 1974. In the intervening twenty-two years, productions of Quebec plays had been remarkably few and far between. It is fair to say that the only Quebec playwright even remotely known to Calgary audiences was Michel Tremblay, and, for the most part, only through plays of his sanctioned by previous awards or artistic success in larger (i.e. eastern) anglophone centres. In other words, in spite of Calgary’s “eastern creeps and bums” cultural armour, Tremblay’s plays had already passed through an interpretive filtre of commercial and artistic approval in the east before they were ever risked in Wild Rose Country.

However, neither the politics of sexuality nor the history of Quebec theatre in Calgary preoccupied the two producers as they prepared the inaugural season of Theatre in Exile, which included, along with Lilies, Marie Antoine Opus I by Lise Vaillancourt, translated by Jill MacDougall. They selected plays which appealed to their theatrical ideals. Both were interested in creating a kind of theatre which was freer and more imaginative in form than what they were accustomed to seeing in mainstream English-Canadian theatre. Hanrahan’s ideas of theatre had undergone a transformation in 1988 at the Festival International de Théâtre in Quebec City, where she had been astonished and changed by the visual and emotional impact of works that were essentially physical and non-dialogic in conception. With plays from Quebec, and from European cultures, she saw the possibility and indeed the necessity of working outside the seemingly immutable norms of English-Canadian theatre practice -- in exile, as it were, a bicultural, bilingual Qubécoise working in translation and against the grain of Calgary’s theatre community. Sandi Somers, the company’s co-producer and resident designer, had received her formal theatre training at Dalhousie University in Halifax, and was interested in “breaking the rules” of theatrical convention, as she put it, possibly as a result of her previous experience as resident designer at One Yellow Rabbit and more recently in film production. When the two women met in 1994, they quickly discovered mutual artistic goals, and determined to form a company. This would allow them to experiment freely with the spatial, visual and gestural language of theatre in search of a performance style they described as visceral, sensual and immediate. “I want the audience to feel while they are in the theatre, and to think later,” Hanrahan has stated. All seven plays produced by Theatre in Exile over four seasons have freed and challenged the producers to realize these artistic ambitions. In addition to the two plays already mentioned, their repertoire has also included Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Orphan Muses translated by Linda Gaboriau; Stone and Ashes by Daniel Danis, translated by Linda Gaboriau; The Four Lives of Marie by Carole Frechette, translated by John Murrell; George Sand by Ginka Steinwachs, translated by Jamie Owen Daniel and Katrin Sieg with Sue-Ellen Case and, most recently, Provincetown Playhouse, July 1919 by Normand Chaurette, translated by William Boulet. Hanrahan has directed all but one of these productions, and Somers has been continuously involved with visual design, notably set and lights.

Working together as director/designer collaborators as well as in the roles of co-producers, Somers and Hanrahan have forged a distinctive performance style for their company. The style is strikingly visual, underlining their belief that the theatre is primarily an imagistic medium. “Theatre means nothing to me if it is visually boring,” Hanrahan has stated. She seeks conceptual approaches to theatre that communicate visually in a striking way, and she views Somers not merely as a technical expert, but as an equal contributor to the evolution of visual style. In Theatre in Exile productions, meaning is most vigorously conveyed by metaphoric images which signify multi-layered responses to the text. For example, Lise Vaillancourt’s play Marie-Antoine Opus I deals with a splintered and dysfunctional family, each member of which is isolated in what amounts to a house but certainly not a home. The setting by Jarvis Hall for Theatre in Exile’s performance of this play was boldly metaphoric, consisting of a floor and back wall painted to resemble paper, which was inscribed with a draftman’s plan for a house, and furnished with makeshift benches and tables like those used by carpenters, a conjunction of images that captured the incompleteness of the family which occupies the plans, but not the heart, of an unrealised home. Often, the visual elements are intensified by striking juxtapositions. In Lilies, for example, the tension between classical restraint and romantic freedom, a thematic tension in the text, is suggested by the collision of silk draperies with rigid, vertical columns. Furthermore, these columns convey more than one meaning, their skeletal construction from rebar suggesting both the real bars of prison cells and, at the same time, the crudely fabricated set pieces the prisoners might have knocked together for the play they perform within the play.

Image is not a static visual element of Theatre in Exile productions. Setting, costume, light, sound and the moving body of the actor constitute a changing, interactive vocabulary out of which complex theatrical images are constructed. The productions are often light-centred, revealing, in the manner of dance lighting, deeply saturated pools and slashes of light which break up and define both space and action. In Lilies, Stone and Ashes and Provincetown Playhouse, July 1919, the sets are of deliberately restricted, neutral palates which permit light to provide colour, plasticity and texture in the manner of paint. Sometimes thin, vertical shafts of light pick up and seem to mould the actors’ bodies in the manner of sculpture. In watching a Theatre in Exile performance we are constantly being made aware of the capacity of light to engage audiences at emotional and perceptual levels, and therefore to exert a powerful influence over reception. The set designs of Theatre in Exile productions have the appearance of almost empty spaces which are animated by light, action and sound. When set pieces are present, they are often transmutable, allowing the director and designer to compose both horizontally and vertically in space and to ground the production in a shifting field of meaning rather than in an image whose meaning is singular, illustrative and unchanging. As for sound, Theatre in Exile productions often feature live sound created by actors and/or musicians on stage, an approach which can offer a more acute authenticity than sound that comes out of the can. And just as there is rarely an attempt to conceal the sources of sound and light - in fact, the opposite is usually true, they are on frank display - so too the mystery of scene and costume changes and other coups de théâtre is often stripped away to expose an open and sensuous celebration of theatricality. This theatricality includes the central importance of the actor’s body in theatrical interpretation and in the kinetic animation of visual styles.

These stylized, non-illusionistic preferences outlined above align the work of Theatre in Exile with various well-known counter-models of modern and contemporary theatre that came into being as reactions against overly psychologized, dialogue-based theatre. The distinction between a theatre of image as opposed to a theatre of words is one that is often used to distinguish Quebec theatre from that of English Canada. Furthermore, the idea of gestural acting, of acting based in the primacy of the body and physical impulse, is a tradition more associated with French than with English acting. When Michel St. Denis brought the great tradition of Copeau’s physically-based actor training to England in the 1930’s, he did so with the idea of strengthening the language-based English theatre by adding muscle and movement to thought. And that tradition of continental style, a style inimical to naturalism in its physical, gestural and visual expressiveness, passed on through Copeau to succeeding generations of actors and directors in France - Dullin, Decroux, Barrault, Lecoq, Mnouchkine - has had a significant influence in the post-war theatre of Quebec. However, the tradition has not translated easily into the mainstream of the anglophone Canadian theatre. Writing in Producing Marginalia in 1989, Robert Wallace declared that “For many in Quebec’s theatre-going community, English-Canadian theatre has deteriorated to the tedium of people talking in rooms.” In the case of Theatre in Exile, we have a situation which in a small way approximates the transportation of French ideas to the London theatre in the 1930’s. On the fringes of mainstream Calgary theatre, the bilingual, bicultural director of Theatre in Exile mounts translated Quebec plays in a theatrical language that owes more to francophone traditions than anglophone ones.

In translating plays and in presenting translated plays outside their original cultural contexts, we struggle with the challenges of cultural difference. In an interview with Calgary’s Fast Forward magazine in February, 2000 during Alberta Theatre Projects’ playRites festival, Michel Marc Bouchard spoke about this problem from the writer’s perspective and in connection with Linda Garboriau’s translation of his Le Voyage du couronnement (Coronation Voyage). “I am a writer, and I use words in French, so when they are translated, they are strangers. It creates sometimes a kind of distance with my own material.” And then, about Coronation Voyage: “Maybe for French Canadians, when we created the show in Montreal, it was a little baroque, you know, a Québecois who wrote a play about the Queen of England. I think it looks more familiar in your culture. . . . It really is an English situation so we have to remind the (anglophone) public that the characters are French.” For Theatre in Exile, the issue of cultural difference is complicated by the fact that the plays in their repertoire are not only translated works which reveal inter-cultural differences, but by and large they are plays which explore intra-cultural instances of social and psychological difference, including the stories of marginalized and isolated individuals and families who don’t fit social and cultural norms. That intensified idea of difference in the work of Theatre in Exile makes especially interesting its reception in the critical press, which in Calgary is dominated by the Calgary Herald.

I’ve already mentioned that the Herald paid scant attention to the issue of sexual difference in Lilies, an omission all the more curious coming in response to a play which foregrounds sexual difference in a specific cultural context, which the reviewer, Martin Morrow, did not critique. But there were other interesting differences about this debut performance that Morrow also ignored. No mention was made, for example, of the highly irregular circumstance in Canadian theatre of two women producing, directing and designing for the company which they formed a play featuring a cast of nine male actors. While the production was given a strongly positive three and one-half star review, overall credit for success was not given to the director for her vision, nor to the producers for their courage, nor, for that matter, to the play itself, which was criticized as being “too derivative, with a plot too contrived and questionable to warrant the praise heaped on it since its 1987 Montreal premiere.” Instead, the headline of the review read, “Inspired Casting Allows Play to Reach New Heights,” and went on to suggest that the really inspirational thing about the production was the casting of well-known local actor Wes Tritter in the role of the countess, whose “expert” playing “runs away with our sympathies.” In other words, it was the familiar, not the different, which seized the attention of this reviewer. “[T]he eight other actors,” he continued, “are able and sometimes surprising,” surprisingly able, I’m tempted to infer, in spite of the fact that they are appearing in this play, in a production by this director and company, none of which is credited with enabling the able performances. As if to further valorize the familiar at the expense of the different, the review goes on to suggest that “if the new Theatre in Exile company continues to allow good actors like these (i.e. familiar, local ones) to stretch their talents, then it’s a welcome addition to the city’s theatre scene.”

In Producing Marginality Robert Wallace argues that in the process of presenting a translated work in a foreign cultural context - a Quebec play, for example, translated and performed in English Canada - the appropriation of culture that occurs in the production of the translated work can lead to an effacement and diminishment of cultural difference, an effacement which often occurs in the critical reception of the work. The Calgary Herald’s review of Lilies validates that argument. While Morrow acknowledged that Bouchard’s work is “vividly theatrical,” no attempt was made to question the particular artistic or cultural differences that have given rise either to that dramatic style or Theatre in Exile’s transposition of it. This diminishment of Quebec cultural experience is registered more forcefully in Morrow’s review of The Orphan Muses, a play which examines the issue of loss. The review offers no analysis of the particular cultural milieu evinced by this play about a rural Quebec family whose emotional baggage surrounding abandonment and loss is resurrected at a family reunion at Easter. Sidestepping difference, the reviewer reads the play as a formula play just like the ones we write in English Canada, an all-too-familiar family saga about “an ignorant provincial backwater” and another instance of Theatre in Exile’s “crusade” to “expose Quebécois plays to Calgary audiences.” “Unfortunately,” the reviewer concludes, ‘‘the only thing that this play proves is that our French-Canadian playwrights can write ham-fisted family dramas with the worst of them. . . . The Orphan Muses is a very clunky family revelations story whose oddball characters can’t hide a banal plot”.

In The Vertical Mosaic, a classic 1965 study of class and power in Canada, John Porter declared that in Canada “there is almost no one producing a view of the world that reflects the experience of the poor and the underprivileged.” The plays selected by Theatre in Exile are evidence of the fact that in the last thirty years that situation has changed, especially if “underprivileged” can be interpreted broadly to mean those not included in the secure and comforting ark of the “privileged” majority. Theatre in Exile is only one of many small, poor, homeless and underprivileged theatre companies in Canada which from the edges of the Canadian theatrical establishment fashion images of difference in theatrical languages which are deliberately not mainstream. Not surprisingly, in the city of Calgary at least, it’s the alternative press which has best understood and communicated the unique contribution made by these companies. Lori Montgomery’s preview article in Fast Forward Magazine announcing the opening of Lise Vaillancourt’s Mary Antoine Opus I contained an intelligent summary of the distinctly feminist and Quebecois flavour of the text, including its exposure of the oppression of women in turn-of-the-century Quebec and the corrosive influence of the Catholic church. Furthermore, Calgary’s alternative press, which also includes the Vox and Calgary Straight tabloids, has understood best the opportunities and challenges that arise for actors and other theatre artists as they interpret works from foreign cultures. Recognizing that acting skills and styles usually come as a response to dramatic styles, Lori Montgomery, in the previously mentioned Fast Forward article, captures the insights gained by Calgary actors Val Campbell (who played Marie-Antoine) and Barbara Campbell-Brown (who played the Mayor’s wife as well as the opera singer Jva Nel) as they rehearsed Vaillancourt’s text. Campbell Brown spoke of the powerful poetic images of Vaillancourt’s (and other) Quebec texts, and the need for the anglophone actor to find new ways to respond freely to these images, a need which gives rise, according to Campbell-Brown, to a more “raw” way of acting than that demanded by many anglophone plays where the actors’ responses are more likely to be mediated through thought and dialogue. This sentiment is echoed, by Val Campbell, a movement specialist as well as an actor, who speaks in the Fast Forward article of the need for the actors of Vaillancourt’s text to explore the physical, gestural traditions of Quebec theatre in search of the heightened, non-literal performance style demanded by imagistic texts. And it is the alternative press, too, which has best captured the edgy spirit of the company, succinctly communicated in Vox magazine by Jarvis Hall, who has directed, designed and acted for the company: “We’re not interested in doing the kind of stuff that can sell mass blocks of tickets to oil men. We just decided there’s room for some more interesting kind of work. Something different.”

I’ve tried in this paper to give you an overview of the vision and creative methodologies of Theatre in Exile and to convey a sense of how their work has made an important contribution to the visibility of Quebec theatre in western Canada, and Calgary specifically. I’ve tried also to make some observations about the reception, both by artists and by the press, of cultural and artistic difference in Theatre in Exile’s work. Like all good alternative theatres working at the edge, Theatre in Exile may well be sowing seeds of change that affect the theatre of the mainstream. Since the advent of Theatre in Exile in 1996, there has been an increased commitment to the staging of translated plays from Quebec in Calgary. In 1997-98, Theatre in Exile’s second season, which included Daniel Danis’ Stone and Ashes, another play by Danis, translated as Thunderstruck, was read at the playRites festival and then staged by One Yellow Rabbit in 1998. Since 1998, Alberta Theatre Projects has also produced Francois Archambault’s 15 Seconds, as well as Bouchard’s Coronation Voyage, and has announced plans to produce Vingt-Quatre Poses by Serge Boucher next year. So, at the moment, there is a healthy interest in Quebec theatre in the city of Calgary, and I would propose that Theatre in Exile has made a huge contribution to that burgeoning interest. The health of Theatre in Exile itself is considerably more precarious. Like many other alternative theatres, it is homeless and impoverished. Those who direct the company must hold other jobs as a matter of financial necessity. It is always a struggle for the company to properly pay the artists who work for it. The largest amount of money the company has received in grants for a single project was $9,000 for The Orphan Muses. In 1999, they received their first Canada Council Grant, the sum of $6,000 for the production of Provincetown Playhouse, July, 1919. These small sums are only modestly augmented by revenues and contributions provided by a loyal but small audience composed largely of the extended arts community. Like many ’art’ theatres before it, Theatre in Exile has not enjoyed the support of a broadly-based popular audience, nor can it be said they have enjoyed the unqualified support of the mainstream press. The constant struggle for survival poses a formidable challenge to the artistic will of the company. At the time of writing, Theatre in Exile quietly weighs its options and ponders the next step it might take in Calgary’s increasingly complex cultural landscape.