(This post is part of the Canadian theatre salon curated by Chantal Bilodeau for the World Theatre Day 2014/Crossing Borders salon series.)
(Photo from left to right: Olivier Kemeid, Park Krausen, and Aimée LaBerge)
The first time I went to Montreal, the snow piled up six inches.
The next time I went to Montreal, the Christmas Market was closed due to a blizzard.
The third time I was in Montreal, it sleeted every day.
The last time I was in Montreal, I had to fight my way onto an earlier flight home that might take off in a winter tempest. That meant trudging down an outdoor spiral staircase with a large suitcase, gingerly wading through the still falling knee-high snow, and getting into a cab with a driver recently from Haiti, who somehow skated us to the airport amidst the rush hour traffic.
And I keep going back. Why? For the artists and supporters of artists – their generosity of spirit, their hunger, their curiosity, their desire to reach out from Quebec and to connect with other “Francophones.”
When I came on as Artistic Director of Théâtre du Rêve (TdR) in 2006, after working with the company as an actor, I was dead-set on one thing: creating cross-cultural dialogues with living artists from the French-speaking world. The company’s founding model was to produce one play a year in French (traditionally by a dead French guy). I had admittedly loved acting in these plays by Moliere, Ionesco and Anouilh, but after a year of studying at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Paris, my world shifted. As did a world at war.
I was in Paris when Bush decided to invade Iraq. The French students in my program newly pegged me as “l’américaine,” and interrogated me, my country, my president’s choices. How could I answer for choices that were not my own? I challenged them: “Does Chirac represent your best interest? Your entire country?” The tensions between our countries were playing out in the halls of the oldest and most selective theater school in Paris. It was then that I asked: “How can we reach across borders, cultures and have an artistic and political conversation; have a cross-cultural dialogue through theater rather than through the political leaders who may or may not represent us?”
As Artistic Director of TdR, I became a producer who 1) sought out political, dynamic and poetic voices from the French-speaking world, 2) sought to create a space for a conversation, and 3) made Francophone work more accessible to U.S. audiences with super-titling and bi-lingual productions.
After 5 years of nurturing and insisting on these conversations with artists (mostly from France, Belgium and Switzerland), I asked the question: “Why don’t we work with our French-speaking neighbors to the north? It’s about time.”
And it was. In 2010, the question led to a dream, the dream to an investigation, a finding that led to a conversation, the conversation to a commission, and the commission to three workshops that would bring a new play and its translation to fruition. TdR is currently launching into the creation, premiere and tour of a full-length play.
What came to be, what is still in gestation, is a project that we, at Théâtre du Rêve, fondly refer to as the Quad City Collaboration or Projet Quatre Villes, out of which will be born the premiere of new play Celles d’en Haut (The Women from on High) by Québécois playwright Olivier Kemeid.
We gathered generous bi-lingual artists from four cities: Atlanta, Brussels, Chicago and Montreal. (That said our artists also have other “homes” in Quebec, Los Angeles and Burkina Faso.) Not only do we cross nations’ borders, we cross state and city borders.
People often ask how Projet Quatre Villes/Quad City Collaboration came to be. Voilà:
THE DREAM and INVESTIGATION, March 2008
Sent by the Quebec Government Office in Atlanta to “check out the scene” in Montreal, I managed to trudge and taxi and metro my way through the city where I met with theater directors who might be interested in a collaboration. I asked everyone which contemporary playwrights excited them most, visited the Centre des auteurs dramatiques (CEAD) and was given 40 plays written by living writers. Thank you CEAD. I heard about a writer, Olivier Kemeid, whose name I would hold on to.
INVESTIGATION, December 2008
I managed to trudge my way out to Espace Libre with Olivier Coyette, a Belgian director friend of mine (now the Artistic Director of Théâtre de Poche in Belgium and the Director of Quad City) to meet this Olivier Kemeid, then Espace Libre’s Artistic Director. This Olivier Kemeid guy was nice and ran a tight ship. But would he ever want to work with Théâtre du Rêve?
THE CONVERSATION, September 2009 (Sidebar in France)
At the Festival des Francophonies de Limousin in Limoges, I reconnected with Kemeid, who was able to see Théâtre du Rêve’s work. He really loved it. I got up the courage then to ask: “Do you want to write a play for Théâtre du Rêve?” He said yes, let’s keep talking.
THE COMMISSION, March 2010
Thanks to the Quebec Government Office, I had the chance to see Kemeid’s adaptation of L’Énéide. I was sold. We formalized the commission, sought out potential theater partners in Montreal, and decided on a team of actors from each city on the American continent. Barbara Robertson from Chicago, Carolyn Cook and myself from Atlanta, and Kevin McCoy (a former Chicagoan) from Montreal, Quebec.
WORKSHOPS in the U.S., August 2011, March 2012, December 2012
Over the course of two years, we met in Chicago, Atlanta and Louisiana with the help of friends and partners from all over the world, but always with the staunch support of the Quebec Government Offices in Atlanta and Chicago, the Alliance Française in both cities, the Belgian Consulate, the Centre de Francophonies des Amériques and CITF. Each time we met, we gave Kemeid time to share what he had written and respond to questions. We gave Coyette, the director, time to dream. And we started gathering additional artist/collaborators in each city. The luxury of this process also gave the artists time to deepen their relationship with each other, and with the text. Kemeid gave us the go ahead to translate the play as a company. At each stop, we cultivated a loyal audience. Now, we have only to head towards a full production in 2014-15, which is harder than it sounds. Scheduling some of the most prolific and desirable theater artists from each city to be in the same place at the same time? NOT EASY.
CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION, March 2013
This time the snow was so terrifying, I am glad that I made it to Montreal. Not only were Coyette and I able to see Kemeid’s newest play, but we were able to discuss next steps and funding for Quad Cities. I was also able to meet yet another amazing playwright and novelist, Fanny Britt, with whom I went on to collaborate on the creation of a reader’s theater version, with projections, of her graphic novel Jane, le renard et moi.
Unlike their rough and rude winters, Québécois people are anything but. Beyond being “North American Nice,” generous, with a good sense of humor which might sound milk-toast, I find Quebec artists to be hungry, political, daring and curious to dialogue with international artists. There seems to be a stretching of theatrical antennae across the Anglophone Sea that surrounds them, in order to connect.
The collaborations are rich and keep me and our company coming back for more. There is a resonance that keeps humming, there is a way in which we share indomitable spirits, as artists from the North American continent – we are all “others.” Save the indigenous populations, many of our lineages traversed an ocean to rebel, to escape – some of them dragged or forced. We ended up here to set up shop, to begin again. And here we begin again again.
Park Krausen is an actor, producer and the Co-Artistic Director of Théâtre du Rêve. She is a bi-lingual theater artist and has acted all over the U.S., in France, the Netherlands and Poland. She has performed with a number of theaters around the U.S.: The Lincoln Center Living Room Series, Hartford Stage Company, The Alliance Theater, Chicago Dramatists, About Face Theatre, North Carolina Shakespeare Festival (3 years), Georgia Shakespeare (where she is an associate artist), Actor’s Express, Theater Emory, Out of Hand Theater (core company member), Théâtre du Rêve and the Wadsworth Atheneum.
She has produced over 30 plays and events for Théâtre du Rêve, including international collaborations: 3 pièces courtes, shorts by Samuel Beckett in French and in English with Walter Asmus directing; Olivier Coyette’s Voir un ami pleurer/To See a Friend Cry which toured to DC, NY, Maine and France; Valère Novarina’s L’acteur sacrifiant with Valery Warnotte, which toured to Limoges, France and DC. Favorite productions in the U.S. include: A new theatrical adaptation of Le ballon rouge/ Red Balloon by Park Cofield, and SO COCO, a theatrical experience creating a dialogue between theater, fashion, fine dining and film.
She holds a B.A. in Theater and in French from Emory University, Graduate Year: CNSAD, Paris.