John, the bad boy!
I was asked to speak tonight about John Van Burek’s contribution to Francophone practice in the “Queen City” in general and at Théâtre français de Toronto in particular, and this in four minutes is no easy task, you will agree…
I will start with a few facts. He was the company’s first artistic director from 1970 to 1974, at a time when “TfT” was called “Théâtre du P’tit Bonheur”. He was also the individual who orchestrated the professionalization of an organization born in a church basement, L’Église Sacré-Coeur on Carleton Street. Today, “Théâtre du P’tit Bonheur” may sound somewhat dated, possibly because of the overt reference to Félix Leclerc. However, I can assure you that at the time, it was seen as a sign that the company was at the very forefront of artistic practice. The Quiet Revolutions that rocked Québec and French-speaking Ontario coupled with the “théâtre populaire” and “nouveau théâtre Québécois” movements had turned all of French-speaking Canada, inside and outside Québec, into a huge cultural laboratory. These were exciting times to be an artist.
Authors such as Michel Garneau, Antonine Maillet, and Michel Tremblay, shaking up normative conceptions of the French language and theatre through texts that today are regarded as canonical. The need to create a modern theatre and a politically enlightened population preoccupied the creators of the time, including John.
After a six-year hiatus, John returned to head the company between 1980 and 1991, rebaptized the “Théâtre français de Toronto” – TfT – in 1987. It was during this second mandate that the company become an institution proudly anchored in Canada’s most important city, itself becoming the cosmopolitan metropolis we know today. Theatre for young audiences became a staple. To Molière and Tremblay, John added original works by Franco-Ontarian playwrights Lina Chartrand, Marie-Lyne Hammond, Anne Nenarakoff-Van Burek, and Monika Mérinat.
This is how he proposed a theatre that was distinguished from the cries of the “guys from the North,” or the Québec theatre where men ran the place. In fact, it is clear that women have always had their place in TfT, a tradition that continues to this day. As an additional legacy, it was also during this period that he began translating and promoting Michel Tremblay’s work to English-language companies. It is thanks to John that Tremblay has become, according to the English Canadians, one of the country’s foremost playwrights, from coast to coast to coast.
I cannot stress the scope of this accomplishment enough since this was a time when, in many if not all francophone circles, this was considered the equivalent of sleeping with the enemy. John did so gleefully in the name of promoting a new theatrical tradition that had the merit of being innovative, thought -provoking, and universal. Quite evidently, our John was on the right side of history. And speaking of history, when preparing this speech, I came across a Ph.D. dissertation penned by a much younger version of myself. My topic? The first twenty years of French language practices in Ontario. I had not yet met the man here with us tonight when I wrote the following based entirely on archival research.
“TPB and later TfT do not look like other Franco-Ontarian companies. During John Van Burek’s two terms, this structure appears to have developed expertise in audience development. While houses in Ottawa and Sudbury are often empty between 1970 and 1990, this is not the case in Toronto. How to explain this difference? While TPB produces plays from the French and Québec repertoires, contrary to what some stakeholders say, this theatre does not neglect Franco-Ontarian creation. To its credit, it is even a home to a series of talented and bold authors. Nurtured by an awareness of the complexity of Toronto’s francophone landscape, the company wants to offer a diverse program, which is one of its major strengths. Should we talk about a counter-model to the more well-known Franco-Ontarian theatre? From a black sheep? From a bad boy of francophone theatre in Ontario? Perhaps. One thing is certain, if this company becomes part of history, it is thanks to the first authority of deliberately eclectic, diverse programming. I hereby nominate John Van Burek.”
And so I say, “Not bad, John”. Sometimes being the “bad boy” pays off. As we happily work today in a rich and diverse “Francophonie” which reflects Toronto’s multiculturalism ; as we embrace technologically rich forms unimaginable even 20 years ago ; as we seek to offer more theatre to children and teenagers and open the doors to international productions ; we are able to do all this because we are standing on the shoulders of giants. As we build on the work of Diana Leblanc and Guy Mignault, we also never forget that John laid the original foundations for everything we do.
On behalf of all the Franco-Ontarian artists and spectators of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, thank you, John.