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Staging the Revolution: 1970s Québecois Feminist Theatre

By: Sophie Brzozowski

The 1970s in Quebec were characterized by a sentiment of rebellion and empowerment amongst francophone Québecois, who had harbored resentment toward Canadian federalism ever since the Conquest of 1760. The founding of the Parti Québecois in 1968 gave rise to Nationalist ideologies that would pervade politics and culture throughout the rest of the decade, and incite one of the most remarkable feminist movements in North America (Scholl 478). While the Nationalist movement sought to emancipate the province and redefine québecité, feminism of the time likewise sought to free women from the oppressive systems and traditions that had stifled the expression of womanhood for centuries. The ethos of the feminist movement translated seamlessly into that of the theatre world, and dramaturgy quickly became a site of collaboration, liberation, and creation. Collective creation theatre was an experimental movement that revolutionized the medium by challenging the traditional processes and hierarchies typically upheld by the theatre. The conditions, apparatus, and results of collective creation were all imbued with the philosophy that feminist theatre should question tradition and uplift its creators at every stage of creation. The movement emphasized authenticity and freedom of expression, as the experience of performing was believed to be as significant as the performance itself. The subversive legacy of collective creation theatre, as a feminist medium that challenged existing hierarchies, was the result of its holistic philosophy, which allowed for productions that subverted tradition by staging the female experience in its entirety.

The conditions and apparatus of feminist theatre—their non-hierarchical atmosphere, collective writing process, as well as the material elements of their staging—are significant to theatre historians not only because the process of creation is considered consequential, but because in many cases, the challenges, both physical and creative, of collective collaboration came to define its aesthetic. Owing to their relative newness and lack of recognition, collective creation companies or groups were often underfunded and lacking in resources. The term ‘Jeune Théâtre’ was initially the name that a group of alternative Québecois actors gave to themselves, but eventually it came to be understood as a kind of stylistic umbrella term that referred to all independent collectives producing collective creations (Larrue 225). Jeune Théâtre collectives were characterized by the subversive and challenging content of their work, their community-oriented productions, and their scant and minimal “economic aesthetic” (Larrue 225). Théâtre de Cuisines, for instance, was a female operated non-professional collective founded in 1974 that staged subversive collective creations, and in its early years, the group often staged these in public spaces such as town halls, school auditoriums and local churches (Moss 243). A lack of centralized housing meant that the staging efforts of the productions were minimal, and that costuming was simple. Although the choice to stage the productions in this manner was made out of necessity, this modesty came to be representative of the overarching aesthetic of Jeune Théâtre. The minimal style of Jeune Théâtre was embraced by feminist collectives, in particular. The lack of elaborate costuming contributed to the creators’ freedom of bodily expression, as performers were uninhibited by the physical limitations and symbolic weight that came with excessive costuming.

Collectives were formed from a desire to express solidarity and challenge tradition, a sentiment that was reflected in all stages of creation. Feminist collectives emphasized the abolition of traditional bureaucratic hierarchies and advocated for a redistribution of power in the theatrical process; directors became “animateurs” and the creative authority of actors was taken into consideration more than it generally would have been in a traditional theatre setting (Scott 111). Further, improvisation became a powerful tool for actors to express their interpretations of the text. It was used as both a workshopping technique and a means to an end, as many collectives branded themselves as improvisation groups to establish purpose and identity within the theatre community (Scholl 481). The intuitive nature of improvisation was of much interest to theatre historians and performers alike. Performers were encouraged to follow their instincts and incorporate their physiological reactions to the text into their performance. Actor, dramaturge, and co-founder of the Nouveau Théâtre Experiementale Pol Pelletier was once quoted as saying, “Le premier element formel au théâtre est le corps de la comedienne [The primary formal element of the theatre is the body of the actress]” (Forsyth 105). The emphasis on the body was emblematic of feminist collective theatre’s emphasis on condition and apparatus, as well as its devotion to authentically portraying the female experience. Collectives endeavoured to provide a non-oppressive atmosphere where their performers felt at liberty to explore the boundaries of their craft. The emphasis on the bodies of performers was a reaction to the prudishness of the era and contributed to the emerging discourse surrounding female bodily autonomy that had arisen as a result of the recent legalization of abortion.

Although the stylistic conventions and structural characteristics of collective creations have evolved over the years, the texts that are now considered canonical, such as La Nef des Sorcières and Tu t’en t’année Jeanne d’arc?, all maintain a similar basic formula. Critic and dramaturge Jane Moss writes that collective creations can take the form of “a series of tableaux, sketches, songs, improvisations, or monologues held together by certain recurring themes or dramatic devices” (247). La Nef des Sorcières, arguably the most famous work of collective creation, exemplifies Moss’ statement. This play is comprised of seven monologues written by seven women. Each monologue takes the point of view of a familiar female archetype (the Mad Actress, the Writer, the Menopausal Woman, etc.) and develops the character until she is believably human, complex, and multilayered rather than flat and superficial. According to Moss, “Each character had a story to tell […] the dramatic monologue gave them permission to connect with their own bodies and to say things aloud that the authors, actors, characters and spectators had been thinking but not daring to express openly, not even to themselves” (102). The result of the dramatic monologue is a visceral confrontation of the influence of prevalent stereotypes on female identity.

Similarly, many collective creation pieces involve recognizable female characters taken from history or popular culture. In 1975, a collective from Southern Quebec staged an original production entitled Si Cendrillion pouvait mourrir! that examined various popular narratives, from the Bible to modern advertising, that belittle and subjugate women. The production’s creators were expressing their solidarity with the “[g]enerations of Cinderellas [who] have waited passively for Prince Charming” (Moss 243). Tu t’en t’année Jeanne d’arc? featured Joan of Arc as its protagonist, depicting her death as symbolic of the plight of the Québecois people (Scholl 482). Even Denise Boucher’s seminal work, Les fées ont soif, contains elements of intertextuality in its frequent and overt religious references: the play opens with a song that is sung to a classical Gregorian melody and its three primary characters are said to represent the “three faces of the same archetypal woman, the Virgin Mary” (Moss 249). The integration of archetypal figures and classical influences into collective creation is both a nod to the theatre’s tendency to editorialize on history, and a means of subverting the harmful and oppressive narratives concerning women that various cultural forms have long propagated.

Though the works produced by collective creation are characterized by intertextuality, at their core the stories are intimately inspired by the experiences of the playwright or the collective. Monologues, which as previously mentioned are typical of collective creation, might be compared to one’s journal intime, considering that they “are narcissistic, autobiographical forms through which women come to know themselves as both object and subject” (Moss 247). The process of depicting womanhood through art allowed performers to indulge in their emotions and reclaim their narratives by embodying the very stereotypes that had long been projected onto them. In “The Change of Life” (one of the monologues in La Nef des Sorcières) the author Marthe Blackburn, who also plays the role of a recently menopausal woman, writes:

Yes, since the beginning of time, I have been treated like a monument […]
I am the Muse […]
Since the beginning of time, women have been bound to myths,
to symbols and images.

(Blackburn, 297)

The injection of personal narrative into the shells of archetypal characters results in a kind of iconoclasm, a shattering of mythology, an elucidation of female identity in all its complexity. This message was a result of, and a complement to, collective creation’s holistic approach to theatre.

The legacy of collective creation in the seventies emerged largely as a result of the inherently political nature of the feminist theatre movement. Feminist collective creation secured itself as a historically significant faction by directly participating in and writing about political events as they were occurring. Following the arrest of Canadian abortion rights activist Henry Morgentaler, a group of political lobbyists known as the Comité de lutte pour le droit à l’avortement published a collective creation piece written by Théâtre de Cuisines entitled Nous aurons les enfants que nous voulons in 1974 (Dumont et al. 362). The production was staged as part of a series of protests that included other theatrical demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins, all of which were organized by female political activist groups (Dumont et al. 363). The involvement of Théâtre de Cuisines in the abortion rights movement further solidified feminist theatre collectives as political actors, inextricably tied, and at times instrumental, to the social progress and upheaval of the 1970s.

Due to their subversive subject matter, collective creation pieces were often a source of controversy. Some of the most famous feminist theatre pieces achieved their notoriety from their reception as well as their production. The mounting of Boucher’s Les Fées ont soif in 1978 became something of a political scandal when The Greater Montreal Arts Council attempted to block the play from being staged by drastically cutting the production’s funding (Moss 248). The attempted censorship of the play was allegedly motivated by Boucher’s language and his unflattering depiction of Quebec, but it was believed by many that this intervention was actually due to “the presence onstage of a living statue of the Virgin Mary” (Moss 248). Regardless of its true motives, the Council’s attempted derailing of the production prompted tremendous pushback from artists, activists, and theatre devotees, resulting in Boucher’s play becoming something of a “succès de scandale” (Moss 248). Not only did the event garner attention and intrigue that surely contributed to the reverence that the piece enjoys today, but the eventual staging and subsequent success of Les Fées represented a triumph of female creativity over censorship and oppression.

The drama and sensationalism surrounding feminist theatre collectives, owing to the intimate and personal nature of their work and the controversy that they inspired, created a sense of mythicism surrounding the creators. Pol Pelletier made the decision in 1990 to write an autobiographical play entitled Joie that catalogued her experiences writing and performing in feminist collectives throughout the 1970s and 80s (Forsyth 105). By dramatizing her own experiences and those of her colleagues, Pelletier helped secure the work of feminist collectives within the canon of feminist theatre, expanding the narratives of female experience to include that of the feminist playwright. Forsyth wrote that Pelletier’s choice of a play as the medium for retrospective reflection, rather than an essay, highlights the fact that for Pelletier theory has not ever been abstract. Rather, the theoretical imperative for her is thought, emotion and imagination in action on the public stage” (Forsyth 105). Pelletier’s choice to explore her own narrative through the medium of theatre allowed the actress to depict her life in a way that was visceral rather than didactic. Joie was symbolic of everything that collective creation stood for as well as an evocative meditation on theatre as an outlet, an experience, and a way of life.

Collective creation revolutionized the theatre from the inside out. It created a new space for women to express themselves in a way that felt natural and authentic, and posited that this is how women should feel when they create. The range of content is subversive and radical because of the juxtaposition of personal narrative with canonical archetypes, which is characteristic of collective creation theatre. The reception of and reaction to the productions contributed to their historical significance of the plays and the collectives themselves, situating them within a revolutionary moment in history. The holistic process of creation allowed for a genuine and honest expression of the female experience and, against the backdrop of the political upheaval of the 1970s, collective creation in the dramaturgical context provided women with an outlet where notions of womanhood could be expressed freely in a context of their own design.

Works Cited

Blackburn, Marthe et al. “A Clash Of Symbols.” Anthology Of Quebec Women’s Plays In English Translation, Louise H. Forsyth, 1st ed., Playwrights Canada Press, Toronto ON, 2006, pp. 288-329.

Dumont, Micheline et al. Quebec Women: A History, The Women’s Press, 1987, pp. 362-364.

Forsyth, Louise H. “A Clash Of Symbols: When I Put On What I Want To Put On.” Feminist Theatre And Performance, Susan Bennett, Playwrights Canada Press, Toronto, ON, 2006.

Grotowski, Jerzy et al. Towards A Poor Theatre, Taylor And Francis Group, pp. 15-27.

Larrue, Jean-Marc. “Collective Creation In Quebec: Function And Impact.” A History Of Collective Creation, Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva and Scott Proufdit, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY, 2013.

Moss, Jane. “Women’s Theatre In Quebec.” Traditionalism, Nationalism And Feminism: Women Writers Of Quebec, Paula Gilbert Lewis, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1985.

Scholl, Dorothee. “Drama And Theatre From The Quiet Revolution To The Present.” History Of Literature In Canada: English-Canadian And French Canadian, Dorothee Scholl, Camden House, Rochester, NY, 2008, pp. 475-482, Accessed 8 Dec 2018.

Scott, Shelley. “Collective Creation And The Changing Mandate Of The Nightwood Theatre.” Feminist Theatre And Performance, Susan Bennett, Playwrights Canada Press, Toronto, ON, 2006, Accessed 8 Dec 2018.

Photo: “POW,” Orly Cogan