In an Ocean of English
Keeping a language afloat
by Guy Mignault
Dear readers, I was asked to participate in The Charlebois Post to talk a bit about what it is to run a French theatre company in an ocean of English speaking people.
First off I must say that for any theatre company to exist for 45 years, it is a feat in itself… but for a French theatre company to exist and thrive in French in Toronto for 45 years, this company deserves a medal!
My name is Guy Mignault, I am the Artistic Director of Le Théâtre français de Toronto. I arrived in Toronto 15 years ago as AD on what was to be a two year contract. As I often say, I forgot to go back to Montréal.
My arrival in Toronto was a bit peculiar. I used to own a private summer stock theatre in a little village called Saint-Fortunat in the Québec Appalachian Mountains. In 1996, I decided to change my life a bit. So I got rid of the theatre and sort of decided to take a sabbatical. I received a phone call from TfT asking me if eventually I would like to become Artistic Director of the company. I quickly answered no, thank you, I am fine and doing well in Montréal. At that time I was working on a project that fell apart. I phoned my agent and told her that I wanted to take a break and so would drive to Toronto and tell them, thanks for thinking of me but no thanks as I had said before. En route, I phoned TfT’s Administrative Director to ask him if he would be there the next day because I wanted to drop by for a short visit. He answered that not only would he be there but the selection committee as well. This is how I learned that they were not offering me a job but wanted me to apply. My answer was, I can meet your committee but I have nothing to say to them.
As scheduled, on the next day I met the staff, the Administrative Director and the committee. We talked for about an hour... and as I left I told them, you’ve tickled my curiosity and have made me feel that maybe I could do this. Let me think and I’ll get back to you. Had you asked me while I was driving to Toronto the day before if I would ever move to Toronto, my answer would have been : never in a thousand years. But driving back to Montréal I was excited by the prospect of being part of the challenge of being the head of a French devoted theatre in the so English Toronto. Also, I said to myself, what do you do when you get to be 49 years old... do you buy a bigger TV set and a more comfortable Lazy Boy or, do you pick up the challenges that life might throw your way?
I faxed those 13 pages and they asked me to come for another visit, this time they offered to pay for my transportation and accommodation.
Driving home with a notepad on the passenger’s seat I started preparing a program for a full first season should I become what I put my mind to become. Taking notes and putting down ideas... I had many. (I still do) When I got home, I went to my computer and wrote 13 pages. Proposing things that finished with, if you don’t like this well, it would have been my way. So we leave it at that. But I would greet the patrons at every performance. I would try to start having theatre for children again. I would do this kind of programming on the short and on the long run. This is the way I see theatre, being the best means of communication at our disposition. Etc, etc. I faxed those 13 pages and they asked me to come for another visit, this time they offered to pay for my transportation and accommodation. We talked and talked and eventually they offered me the job. I said give me three hours, I want to take a walk downtown. I did: my journey ended at the St-Lawrence Market. I went around, I sniffed the counter at Alex Farms Cheese, I looked at the meat counter at Whitehouse Meats, I looked at the fish, the bread and the fruit and vegetables, I ate a peameal-on-a-bun and realized: well, I certainly could live here. And fifteen years later, the rest is history.
This wonderful City at first gave me a honeymoon period that lasted for about 6 months. Then reality hit me. I started making comparisons. Questions started to pop up in my head. Why would a perfectly established theatre professional change cities at 50 years of age? Why, did I at times feel as I once did when my parents put me in boarding school? How did Diana Leblanc (my predecessor) manage to stay for 5 years? What am I going to do? Then, we took things in hand. We succeeded to erase the accumulated 20% budget deficit. I received my first Dora for a musical I wrote. I stopped making comparisons. I started bicycling in the ravines. I started to go to the Islands. And I discovered that the most cosmopolitan city in the world is a great place to live, love, laugh, work and strive in. I even wrote a song in French that in a nutshell says, « to take a walk in Toronto is like taking a trip around the world ».
As I have suggested to many theatre companies, we removed words like “survival” from our vocabulary.
There were ups and downs like for every other company. We had our challenges, money problems, identity problems, recognition problems, but finally, we became this 45 year old success story. As I have suggested to many theatre companies, we removed words like “survival” from our vocabulary. We agreed to do the best we could... and see what happens. We did and we are prouder than ever to be Le Théâtre français de Toronto. All we need now is an address of our own, or at least to be in a building that bears our name.
About seven years ago, we started using English surtitles for some of our performances. On the French CBC I heard: « Théâtre français de Toronto has sold its soul to the devil. »
I reacted very quickly and requested air time to explain what our intensions were. Instead of ghettoizing TfT, we decided to open up, to invite the whole community of theatre goers even if they did not speak French. We never denied our French status, we are not the “Bilingual Theatre of Toronto”, however, we are here, loud and proud and not scared of showing off « our French stuff ». Theatre with a French je ne sais quoi is perfect for people to get contaminated (in a good sense) by French tinted essential work.
Don’t you think that after 45 years we should have a place to call our own?
Proud as we may be, even loud sometimes, I don’t think it’s enough. We are presenting all of our shows at the Berkeley Street Theatre, but what we need is our own theatre, one that will bear the name of Théâtre français de Toronto in large letters… maybe even in neon letters. Then with our pride, we will have claimed who we are, a successful, critically acclaimed, independent French language theatre in an ocean of English speaking people.
Don’t you think that after 45 years we should have a place to call our own? No need to be proprietor, just to be in our home? This pledge was taken during our 40th anniversary gala at the Casa Loma and we continue to work toward fulfilling this vision and realizing our dream.