Gail Marlene Schwartz and Élisabeth Couture have found fertile ground in Quebec for their dialogue project, the bilingual production of which will be staged on Feb. 5 at Mainline Theatre, 3997 St. Laurent Blvd.
The two initiators of Traverser la Main: Histoires de francophones et d’anglophones à Montréal/Crossing the Main: Stories of English and French Montrealers have managed to do what has proven difficult for others.
They allow French and English speakers to reveal their true feelings in a non-threatening atmosphere. Audience members are able to listen to one another’s viewpoints, which are then filtered through interpretive movement and key words as performed by six actors. The distilled result defines the human need for identity as well as respect from others.
Schwartz, a writer and performer with a MFA in interdisciplinary arts from Goddard College, was born in Rochester, N.Y. She came to Montreal from Vermont six years ago to marry, settle and have a family.
“I had been here less than a year when we were watching the news and they made reference to the ‘language police.’ I was astonished. As a Jewish person, what came to mind were the Nazis,” says Schwartz.
“So I wrote a letter to register with them that I had experienced that moment.”
She received a letter back, welcoming her to Montreal and explaining the need for language laws. She recalls how her own “cultural language, Yiddish, was erased within two generations. I wanted to explore this in some way as an artist,” she says.
Schwartz found a way to do it through the Playback Theatre technique, a method developed in 1975 by Americans Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas that has since spread to six continents and 40 countries, including Israel, many of which will be represented in Montreal this July for an international Playback conference organized by Schwartz and Couture.
The Promito Playback troupe that they co-direct, recently came up with the tripartite project on language, with performances in November from English and then French viewpoints, and the upcoming bilingual show, where stories from the audience will offer both perspectives.
At the French show, held at the Centre culturel Calixa-Lavallée, the audience arrived to a stage set with a row of boxes and a ladder hung with long lengths of coloured fabric, often used metaphorically.
The cast, including Schwartz, introduced themselves with statements about their own language experiences.
Then Schwartz, as the musical accompanist, seated herself at a table laden with percussive musical instruments and a harmonica and Couture took on the role of MC or “conductor” of the proceedings, asking for stories and directing the actors.
Accounts ranged from an Italian immigrant embracing the excitement of an indépendentiste rally to a francophone woman’s rejection by her father when he saw her expanding her linguistic borders. Stories of prejudiced anglophone bosses and ethnocentric co-workers also came to light.
The actors “improvise without judgment what the person just shared. This is not a sharing of opinions but of what tellers have lived and experienced. We feel that people could be listening to each other rather than projecting prejudice,” says Couture, who holds a PhD in collective creation from Université Laval.
Schwartz met Couture during a Playback Theatre training session on the theme of bullying, another of their pertinent topics, and she joined the bilingual Promito troupe to improve her French. Schwartz worked with Couture on a previous project, funded by the Canada Council, called Différences/The Clash, based on communication across differences. The current show on language arose from it.
Promito Playback is now hoping to tour “places where there are pockets of anglophones and francophones living in proximity,” says Couture. Adds Schwartz, “People want to talk about this topic. Everybody has a story.”
For tickets to Crossing the Main,