(This post is part of the Canadian theatre salon curated by Chantal Bilodeau for the World Theatre Day 2014/Crossing Borders salon series.)
Part 1: Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road?
“Mais les mots SONT l’action.”
Sébastien Harrisson and I are deep in discussion, in a room, in the Rockies, in Alberta, in Canada, in over our heads. Yet here – in the rugged heartland of a country on which Québécois artists have largely turned their backs – I just traversed a border that I’ve been regarding wistfully for years.
We are at the Banff Centre so that I can translate Sébastien’s luminous two-hander, D’Alaska. It is the initial project of the Banff-CEAD Translation Exchange… and it is not going well. My dramaturg, Maureen Labonté – co-chair of the Playwrights Colony, a leading translator of Québec drama – is completely unimpressed with me. (In the first days of my residency, I do a quick and dirty draft, but in my joy at getting SOMETHING on paper, I sound arrogant and sloppy. Maureen refuses to read it.) Though a new-ish translator, I’m a published, produced, even academically studied playwright, yet no one here knows my work: either because they’re from a different region of our enormous country, or because most of my plays have premiered outside Toronto (the rural/urban divide is a whole other border). Sébastien, hugely respected in Québec, is unknown in English Canada. So I hole up in my room, revising, and we flit through the halls like ghosts.
D’Alaska recounts a blossoming friendship between a teenaged skatepunk and a retired librarian. It turns out both have been abandoned by the one they love. Maggie – the librarian’s partner of forty years – has just left her to go on a cruise to Alaska. For diving, underwater photography, and a younger woman.
My eyes are old, Maggie
I try to decipher the little games of love
Being played beneath the arctic blanket
But my eyesight isn’t sharp enough now
All hearts are like enormous tomes in a foreign language
Do we become unfit for love as we age?
Do we become glaciers?
We ought to dive in the deep sea
Stop dipping our toes in it
Be without fear
Hold the breath and go down to see
See if what we perceive on the surface
Is really anchored to the depths
See if it’s not all just a snare, a mirage
Or if it’s solidly attached to the depths of us
And made to last
And our petty opinions about things
The lamplight wavers, then goes out. Momentary blackout.
For never having been able to understand
Except through words
That’s my first attempt at a key moment when “Miss” – she never reveals any other name – monologues to her absent ex. It’s an ‘accurate’ rendering; but as theatre, it just lies there. In the original, it shimmers. It soars.
Maureen finally reads my text and is impressed that I have chosen “Miss” as the idiomatic equivalent to the French “Madame:” a tiny victory. The actors have a go, with encouraging results: that speech, however, proves as inert in the mouth as on the page. Dead birds don’t soar.
I stop trying to schmooze the Playwrights Colony and realize that Sébastien and I can be a colony of two. We walk scenic trails and hear dazzling jazz bands. My companion is cultured and kind: the more I dig into his writing, the more I dig it. We drink scotch on my birthday, and talk: about our work; theatre; how Québec artists – after two exhausting referendums on Québec independence – are increasingly discovering that they don’t need political separation to have all the autonomy they want. Buffered from the ROC (“Rest of Canada”) by their language, collectivist culture, and flourishing arts scene, they focus on interacting – as Québécois – with Europe, Mexico, the States. Montréal festivals invariably list productions as being from “Québec” or from “Canada.” Toronto – with the largest theatre scene in Canada – is four hours down the highway, but most Québécois theatre people I know have never seen a play there. (Most anglophones would not be able to follow a Québécois show unless it was by the Cirque du Soleil.) When I mention Margaret Atwood to a Montréal colleague, she stares in blank incomprehension.
Part 2: To Get To The Other Side.
My road to this particular border was twisting and strange. I grew up in an itsy-bitsy Ontario village. Before I reached high school, I was soooo bored. Enter the Toronto French School: back then, nerd heaven. My poor widowed mother gambled that I’d prefer to be miserable at being far from home, flunking everything, and not understanding a word the teacher said, than because learning was impossible and intellectual curiosity made you a social outcast. She was right. TFS saved me. Falling in love with the French language was a spectacular bonus.
As an actor/playwright in Toronto, I supplemented my income doing French-to-English translations: dog food ads, TVOntario… Eventually, thanks to Paula Danckert at Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal, I got to translate Philippe Soldevila’s Conte de la lune. Some zigs, some zags, and here I am at Banff. Sometimes the chicken chooses the road: sometimes the road chooses the chicken.
Part 3: So, Now What?
“It’s not about the words.” Sébastien and I are in my room. Our second reading is imminent: brass tacks are being got down to. Maureen has turned out to be a hugely giving mentor: our sessions are an intensive in the meticulous consideration she had expected from my first draft. Surprisingly, about the dreaded icebergs, she says: “You need to throw it all away and get inside the speech. Make it work for an English-speaking audience. It’s not about the words.”
“Look,” I tell Séb, “it works BEAUTIFULLY in French. The ocean imagery is like this feather that your language keeps puffing up and up and up, or a balloon carried off by the wind: we love watching how high it will go. There’s that whole rhetorical tradition in classical French drama, where Phèdre or whoever just takes an idea and runs with it. It’s a virtuoso turn, an aria. It’s also why Racine and Corneille aren’t produced in English: we find those moments static. I mean, I’ve always hated the Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet. It’s pretty and poetic and it stops the action dead. How the hell are you supposed to act that?”
He looks bewildered. He is trying so hard not to take any of this personally. “But,” he says – in French, the language we have been speaking – “the words are the action.”
The light-bulb illuminates. Okay, I say: walk me through this play. I will ask really stupid questions. I need you to be explicit about stuff you left deliberately ambiguous. I must understand this speech – its genesis, implications, inner workings – better than if I were going to act it.
I must understand it as if I had written it.
Off we go. Sébastien is enormously patient. We parse each word, each thought. He talks about same-sex couples, and the implications of a lifelong relationship that seems to dissolve without a trace. I suddenly remember, in Newfoundland, watching a “growler” – a splinter calved from the big ‘bergs floating southward – melt away. A piece of a once limitless ice sheet, slipping into nothing.
It’s one of the most memorable afternoons of my artistic life.
A few days later. The reading is electric. Val Pearson reads the re-imagined iceberg speech, and it lights her up. Banff is a well-known launching pad, and a bright future for Sébastien Harrisson’s From Alaska seems assured.
Six years later, I have yet to find a producer for this gorgeous, hilarious, passionate play: perhaps because it crosses a line between theatre for adolescents and theatre for the general public; because it’s too gay for some companies, not gay enough for others; because I am still not part of the Canadian theatre establishment, and it’s hard to get them to really hear me?
Yet nothing can diminish the rush of the border I crossed, for one afternoon, after years of preparation and toil. Not just a border separating cultures. Rather, the ultimate border: the one that artists are always trying to sneak across. The border between two minds.
Time marches on, Maggie
And my eyesight isn’t what it used to be
The heart seems to me, now, like a weighty book
In a foreign language
Have I become too old for love?
Too blind, too slow, too cold, like a glacier?
Is our love an iceberg solid as an island
Ready to stand the test of time
Or a mere fragment, melting in the sun
Rolling over and over
Until it is only a stain on the water
An oily ghost
I need to know
But I’m too weak to make the descent
Dive, Maggie, dive
Don’t dip your toe in the water
Let go of fear
Take a deep breath and go down and see
If what was there on the surface
Is all that there is
See if it’s just a trap, a mirage
Or solidly anchored to the ocean floor
Vast and firm beyond our imaginings
And made to last
And our petty pronouncements
Our tempests in a teapot
The lamplight wavers, then goes out. Momentary blackout.
I could never understand
Except through words
Leanna Brodie is an actor, translator, librettist, and the writer of For Home and Country, The Vic, Schoolhouse, and The Book of Esther (all published by Talonbooks). She was the first Canadian invited to Seattle’s Women Playwrights Festival (ACT/Hedgebrook). Brodie has translated the Québec playwrights Louise Bombardier, Sébastien Harrisson, Catherine Léger, Philippe Soldevila, Larry Tremblay, and Héléne Ducharme, whose Baobab has toured North America with over 400 performances. Current projects include the documentary play Turbulence (Voices in the Wind) for the Blyth Festival, Lighthouse Festival Theatre, and 4th Line Theatre; the young-audience opera Ulla’s Odyssey, with Toronto’s Theatre Direct and New Zealand composer Anthony Young; and translating Rébecca Déraspe’s award-winning comic gem, You Are Happy, for Vancouver’s Ruby Slippers.