CULTUREplaceholder

Culture | Je suis une révolution

Pol Pelletier and the state of Quebec’s feminist theatre

I enter a small room in the Centre humaniste du Quèbec and take my seat in one of the fifty chairs set around a makeshift stage. Although I am not the only person in the room under thirty – a rarity in theatre these days – it feels like I am the only anglophone here to see La Robe Blanche, Pol Pelletier’s disturbing autobiographical piece about being a Quèbecoise woman and feminist artist in Montreal. I am already uncomfortably aware of the difference between the lived experience of a Canadian who speaks French, and a French Canadian – and the show hasn’t even started yet. The lights dim and Pol “Je suis une rèvolution!” Pelletier walks toward us from a side door at the end of the room, white gloved in all black clothes with red high heels – La Robe Blanche begins.

I first heard of the great feminist actor/director/writer/pedagogue (and self-proclaimed neo-clown) Pol Pelletier in a McGill course on Quebec literature, where her name was inextricably linked to the fierce creativity of the feminist theatre scene in Montreal in the 1980s, before the movement disappeared completely after ten short years. This disappearance was never explained, and no matter whom I asked, no one really seemed to have an answer as to why all of a sudden this great movement ended. Then, through happenstance, I ran into Pelletier.

McGill hosted the annual Women and Theatre Program conference over the summer, which I was very excited for and ultimately very disappointed by. It was yet another room of mostly white women talking about their research on feminist theatre undertaken in the nineties. To add insult to injury, the majority of the panelists were American and had little to no knowledge of Montreal’s theater scene, past or present. Not once was the feminist theatre of today – in Canada or elsewhere – ever discussed.

The lights dim and Pol “Je suis une rèvolution!” Pelletier walks toward us from a side door at the end of the room, white gloved in all black clothes with red high heels – La Robe Blanche begins.

Enter Pelletier. Invited to speak at a roundtable on feminism and Canadian theatre (the only French-speaking artist invited), she swept into the room, dramatically opened all of the curtains covering the windows, patiently waited for her turn as each of the women introduced themselves, and launched into a twenty-minute speech about the disappearance of feminist theatre in Quebec and why roundtables on the subject are meaningless. It was one of the most powerful and impassioned performances I had ever seen. And the most impressive part? After her speech, she sat back down and participated in the rest of the discussion.

Her goal was to shake up the palpable complacency and sense of a ‘job well done’ in the room in order to stimulate some dialogue. She succeeded – what followed was by far the most stimulating dialogue of the entire conference.

At the Centre Humaniste, I had the pleasure of seeing La Robe Blanche, the autobiographical play Pelletier wrote in 2012 after a major bout of burnout – something that has plagued her throughout her career. La Robe Blanche follows Pelletier’s life, starting with the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her town’s priest, Father Desjardins. Pelletier utilizes her personal experience with abuse in order to highlight the clergical oppression entrenched within the history and life of Quebec. Forty-five years after the Quiet Revolution, this point might seem irrelevant to the contemporary Quebecois experience. However, Pelletier reminded the audience with her piece that the aims of this revolution are far from achieved.

Montreal’s new religion is its art, its church, its theatre, its priests, its famous Robert Lepages. It continues to repress the voices and bodies of women just like its Catholic predecessor. The patriarchy still rules, and Pelletier has been trying for her entire artistic career to fight it.

The audience watched as Nicole Pelletier, the victimized three-year-old and then troubled teen, grows up to become Pol Pelletier, the formidable force we know today. Pelletier tells us that the figure of le curè, the priest, has not disappeared in Quebec – he is now simply taking on different forms. Montreal has in fact created a new kind of church, one where the same patriarchal values of the Catholic Church still reign.

Montreal’s new religion is its art, its church, its theatre, its priests, its famous Robert Lepages. It continues to repress the voices and bodies of women just like its Catholic predecessor. The patriarchy still rules, and Pelletier has been trying for her entire artistic career to fight it.

What’s the mother of the Montreal feminist theatre movement’s take on why it ended so suddenly? Her view, expressed both at the panel and in La Robe Blanche, is that Quebec’s feminist awakening of the eighties died an abrupt and violent death on December 6, 1989, along with the 14 women at École Polytechnique. That same year, the Quebec government engaged in a battle with the its most celebrated archetype of the woman: its nurses (examples include Jeanne Mance, Marguerite Bourgeoys, et cetera). When the nurses went on strike over wages, the government responded by fining them for every day of work they missed. All of a sudden, women’s voices were being violently silenced – something that affected the crèatrices in Montreal profoundly. According to Pelletier, they all moved away or stopped making art out of fear: fear of the backlash, of the message being sent that if you were a woman who took up too much space, you would be punished.

All of a sudden, women’s voices were being violently silenced – something that affected the crèatrices in Montreal profoundly. 

By 1995, the Thèâtre Expèrimental des Femmes, a theatre Pelletier founded with two other women in 1985, decided to broaden its scope, rename itself Thèâtre Espace Go, and move away from its mandate of strictly feminist creation that Pelletier had been directing. When it moved to its new home on St. Laurent, Espace Go decorated its facade with 12 quotes – all by men. The administration later added six quotes from women, but none from its founder Pelletier.

One of the things Pelletier speaks about is the shame attached to the radical feminist Quebecois creations of the eighties. In Pelletier’s own theatre theory titled “Thèâtre des Sauvages,” she focuses on centralizing the woman’s marginalized voice and body in order to combat sexist stereotypes. To Pelletier, the theatre is a house that can heal through the linking of the collective unconscious and facilitating the voice of the woman.

La Robe Blanche leads us through all of this and more, leaving the audience blinking in the light as Pelletier takes her bows. One thing is certain: Pelletier not only is one of the most powerful performers I have ever seen, but has also perfected the skill of weaving art and politics into the fabric of performance. At 67, she continues to be one of the loudest and most energetic voices in the Montreal theatre scene, even as fewer and fewer people turn to listen and write her off as eccentric and militantly feminist. Pelletier’s aim is to tell us that the battle is far from over; there is no time to rest on our collective laurels. We are still fighting against a patriarchal society, and Pelletier will say this as loud and as long as she can in little rooms around the city until people start to listen and invite her to perform in bigger ones.


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.