Features | Bilingualism gets stage fright

A theatre school tries to untangle Canada’s language politics

It’s a cold evening, and I’m in the auditorium of the Monument National, a theatre nestled in the seediest part of the Lower Main. The floor throbs beneath my feet. A boy is dancing to repetitive house music on the promenade that juts into the audience.  His t-shirt tells me he just Facebooked my mom.  The next time I look at him, it’s on the floor.  A throng of performers shares the stage with several standalone kitchen units, a drum kit, and a couple of tents.  One actor is doing squats, another is wrapped up in a blanket, sniffling.  Once the audience has settled down – by which point the shirtless dancer is drenched in sweat  – the cast stands together, as two performers, one French and one English, exuberantly recount the fifty-year history that led up to this single sold-out performance.

On November 2, 1960, the ribbon cutting of the National Theatre School, or École National de Thêatre (NTS/ENT) was marked with the words, “I declare the National Theatre School ouverte.” That was fifty-one years ago. The school was, from its founding, supposed to be “truly bilingual.” Now, to mark its demi-centenary, students in this year’s graduating class staged the school’s first ever bilingual production, En français comme en anglais, it’s easy to criticize, an edited version of several works by playwright Jacob Wren. Described as a “neo-post-digital-clash-reality-based performance,” it ended up being a confused diatribe about the state of theatre, what theatre is, capitalism, totalitarianism, the family unit, overpopulation, the current economic crisis, and, of course, Quebec’s language divide. As you learn when you spend any amount of time around NTS/ENT, that awkward, double-barreled acronym is not the only sign that the school’s bilingual project has been about as succesful as that of the country it represents.

I spoke to the school’s CEO, Simon Brault, on the phone about the school’s approach to language.

“It was always meant to be – since the very beginning – a place where Francophone and Anglophone would study and train and experiment and develop their capacities of doing theatre at the same time in parallel,” Brault explained. “It was always understood that these two communities would be in Montreal in the same building, sharing the same space.”

NTS/ENT was created in response to the Massey Report of 1951. A survey of the state of the arts in Canada, the report highlighted many shortcomings in the country’s cultural sphere – and in particular, in opportunities for Canadian students to study arts in Canada.  The report suggested state funding to remedy the situation. This funding was meant to be be regulated by the autonomous Canada Council for the Arts, and to prevent talented Canadian artists from leaving the country to study – and never coming back. This brain drain was a problem for many art forms. But theatre, where cultural capitals were already well established in New York and London for Anglophones and Paris for Francophones, was particularly hard hit. Under these conditions, it was hardly surprising that theatre people were leaving the country. As the Massey report noted, “facilities for advanced training in the arts of the theatre are non-existent in Canada… Young actors, producers and technicians[…]must leave the country for advanced training, and only rarely return.”

So, in 1958, the Canadian Theatre Commission (CTC) struck a committee to found a bilingual school in Toronto. They soon realized that Montreal, as a bilingual city, made more sense as a location. Over the years, the school tacked on programs that cover every aspect of the theatre: acting, playwriting, directing, set and costume design, and production.

However, in many ways, the school has fallen short of true bilingualism.  The French and English sections are socially and pedagogically separate, save for one class (set design). The two language groups sit separately in the cafeteria, by and large, barely making small talk. The English section has classes on Saturdays, while the French section does not.  The English section recruits theatre professionals from all over the country to teach.  For the French section, recruitment is limited to French-speaking professionals. No one I talked to seemed to think there was anything wrong in this stark separation.

Brault defined the school as “more co-lingual than bilingual… In the sense that each language has its own territory.”  It’s hard not to imagine that Brault is talking about something larger than the school here.

Chris Abraham, co-director of En francais comme en anglais, it’s easy to criticize and an NTS/ENT graduate in Directing (1996), agreed with Brault’s description of the school as “co-lingual”.  “It’s definitely not a bilingual school,” he told me on the phone. “Language on the French side is a political entity. The fact that students are there training to speak French on stage is connected to the politics of the day in Quebec, and certainly we experienced that in the project.”

To be fair, the logistics of organizing a bilingual production are formidable, by all accounts. Because the two sections function so differently, the process took a considerable amount of time and compromise.  “If you want to be serious you need a much longer process, because French and English don’t have same training – not only taught but practiced,” Brault explained.

Abraham encountered this in the day to day business of producing the show. “As much as there was excitement… there was also apprehension,” he said. “Not just because of the political content of the piece that we were working on, but the prospect of working…in two languages.”  He described it as “very, very difficult initially, when everything had to be translated into two languages… But over the year we spent working together we found an equilibrium, we found what needed to be translated and what didn’t.”

By virtue – if it can be counted as one – of its location in a province where language is so politicized, the NTS/ENT has to deal with conflicting ideologies, not simply administratively, but in the context of each individual’s relationship with language.

Lois Lorimer started studying Acting in 1978.  For such a tumultuous period of Quebec’s political history – the province’s first separatist Parti Quebecois government had been elected two years earlier – Lorimer recounts her time at the school as one that somehow lacks concrete political context.  “It was exciting, and even though much was happening in Quebec politics, being theatre artists bonded us in a way,” she wrote in an email.  “We were running around in our leotards from class to class with no time even to do laundry, training our bodies, our voices, dealing with texts in different languages but still were part of a universal alchemy of live theatre. It was thrilling to us English students to live in Montreal, where actors and artists seemed respected.”

Among the students I spoke to, the general consensus is that the language divide is more practical than political.  Abraham echoed Lorimer, saying, “I think the divisions within the school are largely to do with the fact that the students are kept incredibly busy in their time at the school. The moments for social interaction tend to happen outside of school… There’s always been a curiosity about what the other program’s doing, what the nature of their pedagogy is.  I think classes do see each other’s work, especially the public components.  The divisions are not by design.”

Darcy Gerhart, a second-year in Acting, concurred: “It’s strange because their program is completely different… We operate in the same building but it’s sometimes like two different schools.  [Language] is a hard barrier to break, especially socially.”

 

***

 

En francais comme en anglais, it’s easy to criticize  presented language as a field of conflict. “You will see,” Brault promised me, “the play is really a dealing with the differences and critics and challenges of translation, and of living together when you are different.”

The performance lived up to its billing in this respect, at least.  The audience was summoned to its feet for the national anthem in English and French. A whimsical reenactment of the story of the Tower of Babel – the biblical fable of man’s attempt to reach God, resulting in divine wrath and the separation of humanity into distinct linguistic groups – was meant as an ode to the richness and poetry of mistranslation. But it devolved into a cacophony of yelled complaints about language, hurled between the English and French performers.

“[The fight scene] was created through improvisation,” Abraham explained.  “It was interesting because there wasn’t a lot of explicit tension within the group over language. We had to really ask people to give voice to the things they sometimes thought.”  The things they thought of had an unnerving ring of truth – they frequently triggered a “someone else thinks that too?!” epiphany in me.  For example, does “I try to speak French, I do, but you always reply to me in English!” sound familiar?  Or the Quebecker plea for immigrant Anglos to at least try to engage with a culture that increasingly defines itself by its language?

The play, as its title promised, swiftly launched into a discussion of criticism. At first, the theory that when you critique something, you are supposing there is a better version of it somewhere – an idyllic version that is attainable only if the criticism is heeded.  The words of Leszek Kolakowski rang loudly through the theatre while projected images of war and destruction flashed across the screen above the actors’ heads.  “We need a socialist tradition that is aware of its own limitations, since the dream of ultimate salvation on earth is despair disguised as hope – the will to power disguised as a craving for justice.”

Message after ideological message bombarded the audience.  Don’t have children! The nuclear family is the root of all evil!  Theatre is dead!  Somewhere within this, the language issue got lost. Every speech was translated immediately, but instead of resolving the question of bilingualism it seemed to accept its failure by presuming the need for translation in one of Canada’s few truly bilingual cities.

 

***

 

When I heard this was the first bilingual production the NTS/ENT has ever staged, my reaction was predictable: what took so long?  Isn’t it supposed to be a bilingual school?

When I put the question to him, Brault replied, “I don’t think it took so long. If it had been a goal of the school, it would have happened fifty years ago.”

Despite Brault’s insistence that a bilingual production was never a goal of the school’s, the CTC’s mandate was to create a bilingual school. In this respect, the school has not succeeded.

However, it has to be asked, does that matter?  Is it even practical to have a bilingual theatre school? For the majority of students, an imposed bilingual pedagogy would compromise learning: in such a high-intensity program, starting on a new language would seriously detract from getting ahead in the cut-throat world of theatre.  Abraham sees this as the reason for the bilingual production’s fifty-year wait: “It’s more to do with [the fact that NTS/ENT is] a training institution, it exists for that.”

“Entertaining the idea of classes together is dangerous,” Gerhart echoed. “It’s a little scary to me because it could get in the way of the work.”

“We’re learning how to act, we’re not learning French,” she said. “That’s maybe the flaw, maybe the beauty of the school. It’s not and I don’t think ever will be a bilingual place because the number of bilingual actors out there is very small.  I don’t know if it should be really, in terms of the training. I’m going to work in English Canada, or parts of the world that speak English. As much as I aspire to be bilingual, English is my first language.”

Anyway, the notion of “bilingual” is ambiguous: does it mean fluency in two languages, or respectful accommodation of two languages? Within the Quebec school system – which requires all students to attend French-language schools, unless their parents have been schooled in Quebec in English – NTS/ENT’s system is very accommodating.  My impression of the linguistic divide within the school is that it’s a constructive exposure to another culture, rather than a restriction on communication.

This is most likely why the school has shifted to billing itself as “co-lingual.”  As Brault explained, “The notion of ‘co’ means the goal is not to integrate everything… There is constant conversation exchange.”

For students like Lorimer, the resulting atmosphere was exciting. “I found my experience of actor training at The National Theatre School enriched by Quebec culture and language, and I like to think we got along and learned from each other,” Lorimer wrote.

But, for Gerhart, this isn’t enough.  She lamented that “the school doesn’t make a huge effort to integrate the programs,” saying it’s something that often comes up at student association meetings. One thing Gerhart said she and other English students wished for was “a chance to see [the French program’s] work. We get very little notice about the French shows that are going on, and I think that would be easy to integrate, and we wouldn’t need to speak the language to appreciate the theatre.”

The same applies outside the school: the English program works its schedule around major English-language productions in Montreal, but makes it difficult to attend French-language ones.  “There’s something about theatre that transcends language,” said Gerhart. “It’s not a necessity [to understand].  If the acting is good you don’t need to know the language.”

 

***

 

It seems telling that Canada’s preeminent school for performing arts should grapple with the French-English divide this way. Such struggles are at the heart of Canada’s national identity. Brault calls the school “a real microcosm of this country, [and] of the arts sector.”  With the dominance of Anglophone art in Canada, and the corresponding determination of Francophone art to assert itself, Brault is certainly on to something.  Art in this country is not bilingual – neither in execution (granted, books alternating between French and English would be impractical), nor in appeal or intention.

However, the numerous successes of the NTS/ENT should not be underestimated.  It was formed to keep Canadian artists in Canada, and over the last fifty years the resulting talent has reinvigorated Canadian theatre.  If the school does not represent what bilingualism “should” be, it may be because Canada doesn’t. The anglophone Ontarian who feels herself vaguely “enriched” by Quebec’s presence in Canada is much more common than the truly bilingual Montrealer who straddles both cultures with familiarity and ease. After all, the majority of the country is English, and so is the majority of arts exposure, funding, and creation. In Quebec, the roles are reversed.  As Gerhart notes, “we’re in their city, we’re kind of the minority.”

In the Youtube trailer of En francais comme en anglais, it’s easy to criticize, a girl crouching in a porta-potty explains, “This play is about translation and the relationship between French and English in Canada, and the art in Canada, as far as theatre goes.” While the play’s tangled political soapboxing could be analysed far more deeply, its biggest success may have been the implicit significance of its very existence.  “It was a big thing for the school to do,” Abraham, the co-director, said. “Supporting this project from both sides of the administration and being engaged in a very technically involved show required a lot of conversation between both sides of the school, and I hope that will have a positive impact.”

If the school is indeed a microcosm of the Canadian arts world, then this production has some interesting things to say about the divide within our national culture – and even about whether we even have one. The show made it to the stage: that is no small feat, and a step forward, no doubt. But in its confusion and dissonance – and the persistent problem of translation – the performance, like the school itself, reminds us that we have a ways to go.

As Lorimer, class of 1981, put it: “I thought it a tribute to the school, which is a co-lingual institution, and would have been surprised not to have both languages. It was thrilling to see the two classes merged together and working collaboratively. Also amazed that this was the first time this was done in the history of the school.”


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.