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Established in 1967, the Théâtre français de Toronto is one of the city’s most venerable theatre organizations, founded before Theatre Passe Muraille, Tarragon and Factory theatres, and the two companies that in 1987 merged to become Canadian Stage.
But many non-French-speaking Torontonians may not think to attend its shows, because they don’t think they’ll be able to understand them.
It’s a not well known enough fact that, in 2005, TfT pioneered the use of English-language surtitles at selected performances, a practice that’s since been adopted at numerous other theatres across the country.
“It’s always been central to TfT that there’s a place at the table for anyone who wants to come,” explains artistic director Joël Beddows. “So how do we make that as easy as possible?”
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Beddows underlines that the surtitles are not complete translations of the plays but rather “adapted versions of the text, a little bit like cheat sheets. Enough information to make sure you follow the dialogue, you follow the story.”
And they’re a big success: the year after the theatre started using surtitles, attendance went up by 40 per cent.
There remain non-surtitled performances of each show for Francophones and Francophiles who want to immerse in the experience. “Some people want it to be this moment in time when they can dream, live and be in community, in French,” says Beddows.
It is a community that is robust and growing. According to the 2016 census, over 460,000 inhabitants of the GTA know both English and French, and over 72,000 are first-language French speakers, up from 63,000 in 2011.
“Half of Ontario’s Francophones live in Toronto,” says Beddows. “That population comes from all of the world and all over Canada, and has a lot of different tastes.”
The cosmopolitan nature of TfT’s audiences was a big part of what attracted Beddows to take the company’s helm in 2016, succeeding Guy Mignault, who had been in charge for 19 years.
Originally from northern Ontario, Beddows has a PhD from the University of Toronto, formerly ran Théâtre la Catapulte in Ottawa and was most recently chair of the theatre department at the University of Ottawa (where, full disclosure, he hired me in 2013 as an adjunct professor).
The company unveils its eight-show 2018-19 season Wednesday under the banner title “Paroles manifestes,” which translates imperfectly into English as “speaking out” or “giving voice.” The focus is on “different forms of communication onstage,” says Beddows, including but not limited to spoken language.
For example Bigre, a production from France that TfT is co-presenting with Canadian Stage, contains no dialogue at all. “It draws on Charlie Chaplin, silent movies and pantomime,” all played against a soundscape of French chanson, says Beddows. “It’s about people living in a close environment in an urban setting; the comedy and the poetry of that.”
In Par Coeur (By Heart), another Canadian Stage co-presentation, the Portuguese actor/director Tiago Rodrigues teaches 10 volunteer audience members a poem. The audience will learn the poem in French for the TfT performances and in English at Canadian Stage.
Under Mignault and previous artistic directors, TfT was best known for productions of the French and Québécois repertoire, particularly plays by Molière and Michel Tremblay. Beddows acknowledges that he is “shaking things up a bit” by including a lot of new work and by expanding its roster of established playwrights. But he underlines that the classics are still central to the TfT offer: “You’re going to get the same kinds of theatre and more.”
He’s currently directing Le Menteur (The Liar), the first play that Tft has ever produced by the 17th-century French author Pierre Corneille; and in the 2018-19 season he’ll direct La Seconde Surprise de l’amour (The Second Surprise of Love) by Marivaux. Both plays (along with Molière’s Dom Juan, which he directed last year) fit into the overall theme of language, in that they focus on the misuse of words — that is, lying.
Another of Beddows’ big passions is bringing more theatre for children and teenagers to TfT and to Toronto theatre more broadly. “When I go to Montreal and open up a newspaper, I can see four or five shows on any given weekend I can bring my daughter to and I can’t do that here, even in English,” he says.
Among the four productions for younger audiences in the 2018-19 season is Estelle Savasta’s Traversée (The Crossing), the story of a young girl’s search for her mother in a faraway land, which is performed by two actors in French and Quebec sign language (which is not the same as ASL). The theatre is also continuing its successful Les Zinspirés project: the performance of stories by teenage writers.
Given the recent crisis at Soulpepper, management flux at Canadian Stage and major conversations in the GTA theatre community around issues of representation and equity, Beddows says he feels he landed “in the middle of a storm.”
“I do wonder if Toronto theatre doesn’t need a good think. We have a tradition in Quebec theatre called États Généraux, for (theatre) leaders all to get together and talk about a plan for the future; where do we want our institutional theatres to be in 10 years. The amount of flux I see around me, I find scary at times.”
That being said, Beddows says overall he’s “incredibly optimistic, because if the Francophone theatre artists under 35 are any indication, there are a lot of talented and savvy people out there in this city. Maybe younger leadership might be a good thing.”
Le Menteur plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs from April 11 to 22. See theatrefrancais.com for tickets and information about the 2018-19 season.
Karen Fricker is a Toronto Star theatre critic. She alternates the Wednesday Matinée column with Carly Maga.