TfT, 50 years later… by Anne Nenarokoff-Van Burek
Sadly, I do not have a PhD.
Thanks a lot TfT.
I was flirting with a PhD about Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal at the University of Toronto, when I stumbled upon John Van Burek…and… somehow I did not get around to writing my thesis.
I never looked back either because John opened up a world of magic for me: the world of theatre, the life of an artist against which my parents had so warned me!
So, that’s how I found myself married to the theatre… before I became a “theatre widow” and, a few years later, with Nicolas’ arrival, “a stage mother”. But I am getting carried away…
When I met John, le P’tit Bonheur, as TfT was named at the time, had just found a home at the corner of Broadview and Danforth, on the third floor of a building occupied mainly by a Macedonian restaurant where there were frequent weddings with de rigueur broken plates, dancing, music, all of it very noisy.
Founded in 1967 by Charlotte Gobeil and a group of francophone ladies who wanted to do theatre, le P’tit Bonheur got its name from a play by renowned Québécois poet Félix Leclerc. Later on, the ladies met in the living-room of one of them and they mounted one show a year. In 1971, Jacques Zouvi, Alain’s father, would fly in from Montréal on weekends to direct the amateur troupe in Le Fou d’Agolan, and that’s when John Van Burek joined the company. Le Théâtre du P’tit Bonheur became a professional theatre in 1972, thanks to the Local Initiatives program brought about by the government of Pierre Trudeau. Le TPB, as it was then called, started with the support of volunteers in a spurt of extraordinary enthusiasm. In the early seventies, were born at the same time the Tarragon, the Toronto Free Theatre, which we know today as Canadian Stage, Theatre Passe-Muraille, Factory Theatre… Canada was creating itself on stage and it discovered a theatrical community. Shortly after that period, thanks to Eugène Gallant as the Artistic director of P’tit Bonheur, we discovered the marvelous Viola Léger in La Sagouine. And then, she went around the world.
Meanwhile in Québec, all hell broke loose with Michel Tremblay and André Brassard. Les Belles Sœurs marked the beginning of the long collaboration between John and Bill Glassco and revolutionized theatre. It is still performed worldwide. It had a production in Sottish and Japanese… and quite recently a production in Ireland.
When you are a person, this is not an age you want to yell from the rooftops, but when you are a theatre, it’s a different story. Quite a story.
Jean Cocteau has been credited with a quote he might have borrowed from Mark Twain:
“They did not know it was impossible, so… they did it.”
And so, le Théâtre du P’tit Bonheur was built on the backs of enthusiastic volunteers who did not know what they were doing or how to do it. Their tasks consisted in cleaning toilets – no enthusiasm there – painting sets, finishing costumes, silk-screening posters, distributing them, all off it in a joyful cacophony where feeling that we were contributing to Art put firecrackers in our backsides.
In those days, cigarettes were cheap – we all smoked – and Hungarian wine, Seksardi Voros, cost 2 dollars 25 a bottle – one LITRE! We had everything we needed.
And then, le P’it Bonheur grew, became Théâtre français de Toronto.
After John, Diana Leblanc took the helm. Diana opened the door to a wide diversity of actors – which provoked some murmurs of disapproval of the accents… not everybody was born … pure laine, eh…
And then, Diana left TfT to pursue a brilliant career as a director.
TfT also had several Administrative directors. Claudia Lebeuf held the strings of the purse for several years, and she continues to be a faithful friend and benefactor, and then Greg Brown of course.
After John and Diana at the helm, it has been Guy Mignault’s long and fruitful directorship which brought stability and continuity. Guy opened the door to so many new talents, interpreters, authors, designers and craftspeople. He widened TfT’s horizons from coast to coast with co-productions: Catapulte in Ottawa, La Rubrique in Jonquière, Théâtre Blanc in Québec city, le Tandem in Rouyn Noranda… Every evening, Guy was at the door to greet his beloved audience, who loved him back. Guy also initiated les Zinspirés, this amazing initiative which, every year, reveals young authors of talent among high school students from all over the province. And, for the last 25 years, it is under the rigorous and watchful eye of Ghislain Caron, Administrative director and true pillar of TfT, that everything has been running smoothly. Ghislain has overseen the transition between four Artistic directors: he started out with John, continued with Diana, then, with Guy Mignault established himself as an exceptionally talented administrator. Today, he and Joël are a team. Good luck Joël!
But, come to think of it… a French theatre in Toronto? In the beginning, it was a dream, it turned into reality and, today, as Toronto has become the most cosmopolitan city in the world, it is a portal for inclusivity and the future.
TfT has always been a meeting place for francophones of all ilk: Franco-ontarians, Québécois, French, Vietnamese, Africans, Haïtians, Europeans, Iranians and many Francophile anglos. An evening at TfT is an occasion to reconnect with one’s roots or to open up to others’, depending on the programming which encompasses classical and contemporary works. In the course of its remarkable existence, TfT will have made known plays, actors, launched young careers, given a chance to many authors, of which I am one.
So, re-merci TfT.
Twenty years ago. We were praising TfT’s longevity and the great Huguette Oligny said: “Thirty years, what a beautiful age for a theatre!”
What about FIFTY? Let’s yell it from the roof tops. Let’s celebrate! Let’s drink to it!
And let’s bow to all those who have made this possible, who have helped nurture this theatre born almost miraculously and today, firmly grounded.
Over to you Joël.
And long live TfT!
Anne Nenarokoff-Van Burek