Skip to content

Bursting the theatrical bubble

A conversation on McGill students involved in Montreal theatre

“I think the main barrier [to performing off-campus] is language,” explained Meghan McNeil, who has worked on stage management, lighting, and set design for a number of McGill theatre productions. “Many students heavily involved with McGill theatre are not confident enough in their language skills to branch out of the anglophone theatre community, which more than halves the opportunities. Any monolingual artist will lose audience and some of their medium in a multilingual area.”

Montreal has over 50 indoor and outdoor theatre and performance venues, according to the National Theatre School of Canada. The majority of these showcase francophone performances, while the Centaur Theatre Company and the Segal Centre for Performing Arts reign over the anglophone theatrical scene. But a number of independent anglophone theatre organizations have sprung up in the past few decades and continue to develop, often dabbling in bilingualism.

Amy Blackmore, director of the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival told Silo Magazine, “The [Montreal] anglophone community really needs the Fringe. The theatre community doesn’t have tons of opportunities for emerging artists in Montreal. Whereas, on the French side, there’s lots of opportunities all year. So they don’t need it as much as anglophone artists.” The Fringe Festival has recently implemented a quota to ensure it features both French and English productions. Blackmore reports that the festival headquarters themselves have become bilingual. “I’ve been joking about the idea of next year having a Frenglish category for quotas at the festival,” said Blackmore. “Now I’m wondering, is there a need for [a Frenglish category]?”

“As an audience member going to see performances I don’t feel that language should be a barrier,” explained Daniel Carter, the Drama & Theatre Representative for the Department of English Student Association (DESA), and the Publicity Director and Secretary for the McGill Savoy Society, “it is only one tool of many that is used in theatre, and understanding and meaning can come from several outlets, not just language. I’m hopeful to see a more diverse collection of theatre at McGill and in Montreal in later years; witnessing a performance in a different language is pleasantly surprising and enjoyable.”

But the number and diversity of people who come to see McGill theatre productions is still very limited, partly due to this language barrier. “Honestly, most of the people who attend [McGill theatre productions] are people who know someone in the show, or who are heavily involved in McGill theatre,” said McNeil.

This does not, however, limit the knowledge and experience gained from working with the McGill theatre community. For many, McGill theatre has been the stepping stone for later entering the greater Montreal theatre community.

“I have found that the strength of the McGill theatre community lies within the foundation it has provided for many people to move on into various theatrical performances in the larger Montreal community,” explained Jess Banner, Publicity Director for the Players’ Theatre. “Theatre companies have been formed and [have] succeeded in the world of Montreal theatre in part from the experience and support of the McGill community. As the community is fairly small, the sense of support is tangible.”

“A lot of theatre buffs from McGill have gone [on] to work within the established Montreal theatre community, and some have even created their own production companies,” said McNeil. “Quite a lot of these people are still in touch with their McGill roots, especially through social media.”

Juggling a class load and involvement in campus theatre often limits the time and energy students can put into looking for gigs off-campus. “My off-campus theatre experience is a bit limited [and] my main role is being a theatregoer and watching the plays and productions that are in the community,” explained Carter. “However, just this year, I have decided to branch out into the Montreal theatre scene and will be performing in the Montreal Fringe Festival in June.”

Despite the language barrier, theatre at McGill provides something unique and invaluable for students trying to turn their passion into a career. “I find that the student theatre at McGill is very politically, socially, and culturally aware, much like many productions that are being mounted in Montreal,” said Carter. “I like to think that both McGill and Montreal theatre [aim] to make a critique and be critical of things, rather than existing solely for entertainment. There’s quite a bit of experimental theatre that happens in Montreal and I think there is a simultaneous mirroring of this between student theatre and professional theatre. At the same [time], I think student theatre is more aware of itself as being something greater than just theatre and performance. It seems that many directors and performers want to do something with their work – to have an effect on those watching, not just being concerned with entertainment.”

Yet most acknowledge that members of the McGill theatre community still need to actively make an effort to get out of the bubble. “It’s difficult to get involved if you don’t have a network and the right resources,” said Carter. “In my experience, so far, it really depends on who you know. And while you are trying to build these connections, it takes a lot of time and patience to find the right opportunities and meet the right people who will be helpful in your theatre career. Also, not knowing the right vocabulary as you start off in Montreal theatre, and any greater theatre community, gets to be a bit inhibiting. It’s important to just keep trying and searching and not being afraid to take those chances [and to know that] something will come along.”