Can you talk about me without me

As many of you locals know by now, the Theatre du Soleil’s play on the making of Canada–early days, so La Nouvelle France and the First Nations, I presume they won’t go as far into the era after the British takeover–is going to go ahead after all in the TdS’s Paris HQ, with a diminished budget and only Robert Lepage’s nominal engagement / blessing. The NYC co-producer pulled out due to the controversy in the North American media, social media and among activists national and cultural. Which erupted after it was learned that Lepage & Ex Machina did not engage any actors or creatives of Native origin for the play that was to have quite a few scenes involving Native people.

The way the thing was covered and debated in Canada’s English language media (and what made it into the US coverage) left much to be desired. The falsehood that this is Lepage doing an all-white play in Paris about First Nations became a currency and swiftly moved from one outraged take to another. It did not help  that Lepage just came out of another controversy (see under SLAV) and people were ready to pounce along these lines again. It did not help that Lepage did not give any interviews to the English language media, and gave only one to Radio Canada (this one). It did not help either that apparently nobody who is paid to opine or report on these things in our big media actually reads French, or consults any non-English sources. Due to the years of editorial and publisher neglect, we don’t really have actual arts journalism in this town any longer–people who do in-depth research, speak other languages (or at least French), read a lot within and without their beat, follow foreign media and don’t base their opinion columns on their emotions solely.

What nobody cared to report on was that: 1) Theatre du Soleil has its own ensemble–multinational and multiracial, with a lot of refugees who’ve moved to France, people from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Togo, etc. It’s people like that who would be playing characters from Canadian history. An Iraqi was to play the King of England, for example; 2) TdS has its own esthetic: workerist-egalitarian, internationalist, large-scale, epic sometimes (see this TNY profile); physical, with elements of mime (Mnouchkine trained in Lecoq method; for local echoes of that kind of theatre, see Mouthpiece coproduced by Buddies and Nightwood Theatre), collectivist way of creating a play. Was Lepage to insist on introducing a few Canadian actors into the ensemble, they’d have to undergo a crash course on TdS method/approach. 3) related – Lepage says in that interview with RC that he had no say in casting. He was, he says, invited to co-direct an already formed ensemble. If this is true, what he would have to have done then, and what Canadian pundits apparently have wanted him to do, is to say Wait, I’ll replace THESE FIVE PEOPLE because um they belong to the wrong races for these roles, and I’ll put in THESE OTHER FIVE PEOPLE in their stead.

At which point you may–and Stephan Bureau in that linked RC interview indeed did–ask, But wait, you are Robert Lepage, you are co-directing, you can do anything you want, at any stage, even before you were presented with a fully formed ensemble? No, he says. He was brought before the fully formed ensemble. To want to replace people based on their ethnic origin would be extremely bizarre.

While the scandal was raging and churnalism was churning outrage, the TdS, the Ex-Machina, Lepage and Mnouchkine met in July with several Native Canadian organizations and had a long conversation–a symposium, in a way–and parted ways on friendly terms but with no agreed solution. Soon after the Park Armory withdrew its funding, and Lepage threw in the towel.

Until Mnouchkine decided the show will after all go on, by the TdS for Parisian audiences, with no formal or financial involvement from any North American producer.

All this by way of intro to this: the other day, Telerama, a culture magazine from Paris, dedicated a special dossier to this story, and tweeted out their interview with Mnouchkine. Since it was in the subs section of the magazine only, I asked around and a friend from Lyon who has access logged on, got the PDF of the relevant pages and mailed them to me. Here they are. There’s the Mnouchkine interview, and the longer piece which includes conflicting views on the issue of the so-called cultural appropriation and what it might entail. I have to say although I disagree with some of what he argues, David Bobee makes some beautiful points there (“Je n’ai pas de leçon à donner, mais je pense que ça n’aurait pas été compliqué d’enrichir la troupe du Soleil de quelques artistes et penseurs directement concernés par le sujet. Nous devons tous apprendre à décentrer nos regards, nos pratiques, nos imaginaires.” It’s exactly what Lepage says was very complicated to do indeed, logistics-wise. I tend to believe him, but Bobee sounds perfectly reasonable as well.)

The piece concludes with the grim diagnosis of the state of discourse on these topics — it’s worrisome that the loudest, crudest voices dominate these conversations for everybody else and shut things down, rather than let actual hard dialogue take place and from it, change–in representation, in practices, in, as Bobee says, imaginations.

This new/old Kanata will take place from December through mid-February in TdS HQ La Cartoucherie, a repurposed factory.

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