A theatre project about the French language

© Jonathan Lorange

In 2019, Zones Théâtrales presented Oh! Canada : un forum sur la langue, a project led by Nicolas Gendron and Danielle Le Saux-Farmer. This workshop launched a vast research project on the state of the French language. 
From November 23 to 27, Zones Théâtrales welcomed Danielle and Nicolas once more for a residency at the NAC. We spoke with Danielle Le Saux-Farmer to touch base on their creation.​

Tell us about the Oh! Canada project.

Oh! Canada (which, I should point out, is a working title) is an artistic creation project that started out as a major public research workshop on the issue of the French language and the languages that coexist in Canada. That workshop led to the creation of a documentary theatre show that examines the status of the French fact and, more specifically, investigates whether the French language is on life support across the country.

We didn’t take this position as researchers, but we were still influenced by those who are sounding the alarm about the French fact, warning that French is in decline in Canada, whether in Montréal, Saskatoon or Eastern Ontario.

For our research phase, we proceeded from east to west. We made a stop in Acadia last June, and in January we had residencies that allowed us to launch a research phase in Quebec. What was surprising is that, in our discussions with the presenters who hosted the residencies, we sensed that even in the Quebec regions there’s an urgency, a fear of losing that language—and this in a province where, unlike the rest of Canada, we’re not in a minority situation.

You presented a workshop version of the project at the 2019 Zones Théâtrales. What did that experience allow you to accomplish?

The working stage at Zones Théâtrales allowed us to test the format of the forum, whose purpose was to encourage interaction between experts and citizens. What we found during Zones was that the forum was more focused on the experts’ input. It provided a good launch pad for the project and allowed us to rethink our way of doing things. Last spring, during our residency at the Théâtre populaire d’Acadie, we were able to structure the meetings between experts and citizens better in order to improve the balance in speaking times, so that we could collect more testimonials from citizens.

What happened next? What did that R&D phase bring to your creative process?

In fact, the very format of the forum with its citizen component was meant to be only a first step: we had planned to use that format only at Zones Théâtrales, to launch the project. Normally, when we create a documentary, we connect primarily with experts in order to explore the different aspects of a subject. But after the Zones forum, we changed our approach so that the voice of the citizens would prevail, and the experts’ contributions would shed light on those comments.

There’s already a lot of material on the state of the French situation, and there are articles on the subject coming out every week, so we were asking ourselves: “Why use a theatrical form to talk about this subject?” One of the reasons is precisely because of the humanity that underlies language issues, because of the intimate aspect that affects us directly. When we talk about language, we’re dealing with authentic human stories that touch on a whole range of issues, right down to how this country was founded.

Glad to see it helped you move things forward! You were in residence at the NAC for a week to work on the project. Can you tell us what you hoped to get out of that experience and what it helped you achieve? 

Residency time like that is so precious, especially during a pandemic. Nicolas and I are in two different cities, and that week gave us a chance to meet face to face to conduct research together, in an efficient and focused way. We set ourselves three main goals for our residency at the NAC, but we won’t tell you what they were! Just kidding.

One of the big challenges in a documentary process, where we read a lot of articles and books and record all our interviews and forums, is information management. We’re going to partner with a professional archiving company to help us organize all these data. The idea is also to create a platform peripheral to the show that will contain a lot of resources and information related to the project.

Next, we wanted to continue meeting people. We drew up a guest list of experts as well as citizens. We planned to meet five people during the week, respecting, of course, public health measures and each person’s comfort level. Some interviews were done in person and others on Zoom.

And finally, it was a chance for us to prepare for the research we’ll be conducting in Quebec in January. The NAC residency allowed us to take a break to revisit the research we did last spring in Acadia, and to organize and structure our methods for future residencies.

How would you say the project has evolved between the initial presentation in September 2019 and now?

We want it to be a unifying project. To achieve that, we can’t just talk about the French language without addressing the whole context around the French fact. A language doesn’t exist in isolation: it interacts with other languages. French is closely related to English, but also to Indigenous languages, for example—languages that have been completely forgotten in the protection mechanisms that exist and that are so highly valued on the French side. And then there’s the whole multilingual and multicultural reality of Canada that comes into play. In Vancouver, for example, Cantonese is much more widely spoken than French. These are all questions we have to ask ourselves with Oh! Canada.

Last September, we presented the project to presenters as part of Les Fenêtres – Regard sur la création, the annual festival of new work at the Théâtre de la Ville in Longueuil. Following that, we were invited to do creative residencies in several Quebec regions. Our host presenters will be able to put us in touch with relevant stakeholders and citizens, without our having to go through university or college departments of literature or linguistics. And that reflects our approach, which is more civic than academic, more intimate than intellectual, and which revolves around not only the university community but also the cultural community.

What are your hopes for the future of this project?

I hope that all this research time we’re taking to explore the subject of language will increase the project’s outreach tenfold. Not just because I want to tour the show for a long time and across the country, but also so that we can talk about the French fact from a pan-Canadian perspective. We’d like to be able to go back to all the places where we met with citizens, and tell them: Here’s what we heard about the French fact, from east to west and from north to south.

We wish you the same! I’m delighted that Zones Théâtrales was able to play a part in the evolution of this project, and that you enjoyed your week with us.

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