The triple META-winning play, LOUIS RIEL: A Comic-Strip Stage Play is being remounted for 8 shows only, Sept. 6 to 10, in Hudson, Quebec before it goes to other cities in Canada.
Sinj Karan from Montreal Rampage caught up with the director of the show Zach Fraser:
Sinj Karan: What inspired you to work on this project?
Zach Fraser: As a kid growing up in Eastern Canada, I had an awareness about Louis Riel. He was a rebel, a hero, possibly a bad guy. People have contradictory views on who this guy was. But we never dwelled much on certain aspects of Canada’s past, or more particularly, say, the Métis people in Western Canada. I kind of knew who he was, but I had no real history lessons about his work and his contribution. As an adult a few years ago, I came across the graphic novel by Chester Brown, when I was studying puppetry at UQAM and I was immediately intrigued. What is most interesting between Brown’s work and puppetry, is that he tells his stories using comic-strip techniques, which are so similar to puppetry as a language that is used, by going to the essential visuals and the essential words. It often goes to the heart of the story. Also, the complexity of the ideas that Brown’s work brings forth, I thought this was such an interesting match.
SK: Why did you think it was interesting?
ZF: The work examines complex issues at many levels. Several other comic strips also explore history, but Brown’s work is based on a lot of research. Though he writes in graphic genre, it is supported by hard facts. Of course, he consolidates people in his writings, but he is true to the essence of the events that occurred. Brown’s graphic novel is even included in numerous university history courses. It can be hard to make history interesting, right? Most people faze out when taught dates and names, but Chester Brown’s work makes history sound so much more engaging.
SK: Are you presenting Chester’s work as a straight adaptation or is there Zach Fraser in the show?
ZF: It is a living breathing creation. It takes a different form and quality and is surely playful and yet still retains its profound core. I wanted to hold on to Chester’s artistic style, the way he interpreted the characters. He interprets people’s characters, imagining their dialogues, and there is a subtle commentary in the way he draws them too. Chester’s work is very factual, but we allow ourselves to bring a bit of irony to the work. Louis Riel is mythic as a character in some ways. The man beneath the myth is what we try to explore. He was a representative of his people and their cause. Some days he loved that role, the political role, and then other days the responsibility that fell on him was perhaps burdensome. And I think when someone takes a position of power, it’s a delicate balance to keep a sense of perspective.
What is important to me is that I’m intrigued by a community that is trying to protect their identity and as we know identity is messy. But it’s interesting to see how this community is trying to co-exist with all that is around it. It also allows us to be critical, critical of the decisions we have made in the past. Certainly, in hindsight those decisions can be seen as bad decisions, but that reflection is very important. On the one hand, it seems like this story is so specific to Manitoba, to Western Canada, but then there are so many aspects of history and our contemporary discourse that are influenced by this.
SK: Was it important for you to work on something that would bring to light an issue that speaks to the Métis people? How much of that played into your decision to work on this?
ZF: As I get older, all the work I do and more and more of the energy I spend, I want to apply it to something important. There is public money spent in the arts. When I I’m fortunate enough to access those resources, I want to create something that stirs debate and feeds debate. And to be honest, I have struggled with this piece. The discussion publicly around the history of this country has evolved and is not the same as when I started this project. I am a white Anglophone from Eastern Canada; Chester Brown is an Anglophone Quebecer so there are so many questions that stem from this in terms of a ‘White’ perspective.
I am a craftsperson who works in theatre, and I am not telling this story alone. There is an entire team that put it together. It’s a story about Anglophones versus Francophones, Catholics versus Protestants, Settlers versus Indigenous peoples, East versus West, big government versus local communities. And the essence of this is that while it speaks of this one community and their struggle to preserve their place in Canada, it has such universal themes. It can be a story from anywhere.
SK: What’s important for me as a person of colour to know is how do you respond to, or navigate issues when you’re faced with the question that a story like this is perhaps not your story to tell?
ZF: As an artist, I go through a time of reflection, thinking about my/our place in the world. I want to work on projects that force me to explore, understand and acknowledge something that is outside of me. And while I am the leader of this project, I am working with a very diverse group of people and everyone has a voice. I am not sure if this is appropriation, but I don’t believe so. I am still chewing on that one. I believe there are ways that we can create together. I’m a big fan of cross-pollination, and I believe it’s healthy for society as we move forward together.
SK: Last question, what got you interested in puppetry?
ZF: I started as an actor, directing sometimes, and then when I was introduced to puppetry, I was immediately interested in how it is used as an artistic tool which is not used often enough.Quebec has a vibrant puppetry community. There are puppetry traditions in South America, Africa, Asia and Europe. What puppetry does is it helps us remember the magic simplicity and poetry of storytelling. Puppetry can visually go anywhere and it embraces a low-tech approach to storytelling, which makes it so rich and vibrant.
I perhaps am a bit old fashioned and I love good old-fashioned ways in which objects come to life to capture the audience. Audiences are able to invest immediately in what is evolving and being revealed in front of them. They connect with it directly, become a part of its life for a couple of hours. This is a two-dimensional show. After the first few minutes of the performance, as the audience gets accustomed to the convention of the show, they become invested in the story, and they become a part of the emotional journey of the characters. Puppets have a different power than an actor, as we are averse to giving over ourselves, our emotions, to an actor. A puppet seems vulnerable and thus we don’t feel hesitant to connect and invest.
The review by Montreal Rampage of the original 2016 production can be found here: http://montrealrampage.com/louis-riel-puppeting-chester-browns-graphic-novel/
The show has been reworked and is being remounted at the Hudson Village Theatre between September 6th and 10th. Tickets can be found here. The show has 2 p.m. matinées on September 6, 7, 9, 10 and 8 p.m. on Sept. 6, 7, 8, and 9. $39.94 including tax & service charges 450-458-5361. Group rates available.