How to Successfully Transition from French to English Theatre Audiences?

Claude Montminy, Canadian Playwright

Claude Montminy says comedy has his heart. It allows him to emotionally connect with audiences from all walks of life. 
Montminy has written 10 plays, 8 of which are comedies that have been produced for the professional stage. Since then, critics and audiences can’t get enough of the French playwright. We know transitioning to English theatre audiences can be challenging. It’s why we interviewed Montminy on how he did it, successfully. He revealed that it’s a combination of passion, communication and taking calculated risks.

Q1. What is it about Comedy that makes your heart sing?

“I write comedies because it’s my point of view on the world. It is as simple as that. It comes from the firm conviction that all stories can be told either as a drama or as a comedy. I tend to see what is absurd, silly or foolish in every story I hear. I sometimes say that I write funny dramas because my plays usually have a dramatic starting point. Comedy gives me the opportunity to talk about almost every subject and allows me to be very touching and dramatic from time to time while giving the audience the opportunity to have a good time to laugh and relax.”

Q2. What kind of impact do you want comedy to have on your audience?

“I once read that the stories we hear on the radio, see on television or on stage can have a strong impact in shaping our personalities. Realizing this comforted me because of the kind of works I want to write: simple stories, based on real life, human emotions and desires.

In my comedies, my characters are confronted with a dilemma and I always make them choose a doubtful path. I want people to laugh, but I also want them to be absorbed by the intrigue and questioned by the dilemmas in the play. What choice would they have made?”

Q3. How does the meaning of your work change once it’s translated from French to English?

“I guess some of it is lost in translation, but there are definitely some gains. I try to write plays that will resonate with whom I share a cultural background but I realise that some plays may have as big an impact abroad as they do at home.

About ten years ago, Marie-Josée Bastien, a playwright and actress from Quebec City, wrote a play called “La librairie” (The bookshop). It was translated into at least 3 or 4 languages. Each time the play is produced, it’s still a huge hit especially in Japan where it’s particularly successful.

In the province of Québec, if there were ever a play where the translation was lost, it would be Mark Crawford’s comedy “Stag and Doe.” The loss isn’t due to language barriers but cultural norms. We simply don’t know what the “stag and doe” tradition is! So, I think the meaning of my plays change with the translation only because the language is the carrier of the culture, which sparks the question whether a complete adaptation is needed? As a straight translation loses necessary context, which provides the audience with a greater understanding and meaning of the work.”

Q4. How do you counterbalance any cultural differences that may impact how English and French audiences relate to your work?

“I have to trust the creative team. It’s the director’s and the actors’ job to appropriate my work, adapt it to their cultural reality and make it come alive for the audience. I’m always so impressed by the finished piece; it’s sometimes close to magic. After all, they are the experts of their own culture so I have to listen carefully to what they have to say and be humble. I tend to believe that the musicality of comedy, it’s rhythm, is the same everywhere; but again, I could be wrong. Effective communication is key among the playwright, director and actors.”

Q5. How have programs like the PGC’s Creator Exchange helped your work resonate more with English audiences?

“After Maestro was translated into English, I realized, that I didn’t know a single director or artistic director outside of Quebec. It struck me then that even in the Canadian theatre community, French and English cultures produce their work in silos. Either that or I was totally ignorant. Maybe both? So, in order to eat that elephant in the room, I had to take one bite at a time. The first bite was to register for the Ottawa Creator Exchange so I could meet the first person in the English-speaking theatre world.

On the day of the Creator Exchange, Ottawa was under the biggest snowstorm it had ever endured. It took me hours to drive through the storm but it was worth it. I met a very creative group of people especially the very kind director of Plosive Productions, David Ross Witheley. He took a chance on me and a year later produced Maestro. Honestly, those Creator Exchange programs are extremely valuable for playwrights. I wish I heard of them earlier.”

Q6. What advice do you have for playwrights trying to transition to English theatre audiences?

“Secretly, we all wish that the sheer value of our work would open doors to a huge Broadway production starring Hugh Jackman. In reality, the quality of our writing only goes so far. Doesn’t it? So, my advice is the same I would give to any young playwright: meet people and talk about your plays. I think that theatre is an emotional “business” rooted in the desire to communicate by telling stories. But, in order to enjoy the story collaboration process you have to find people who also share your vision! Get yourself out there. Sign up for programs like the Creator Exchange, workshops, join a theatre board and other professional networks. These avenues are great ways to promote yourself to achieve your goals.”

To learn more about Claude CLICK HERE!

Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.