Prologue: An evening with Cirque Alfonse

Back in October 2014, when I first started to think about what conversations to have at the PACT pre-conference, I was invited by Patrick Leroux to see the Cirque Alfonse presentation at the NYU Skirball Center. I felt this would be a good way to enter the project. Short of flying to Montréal in advance of the conference, here was a Montréal performance on my doorstep. I am also aware in pursuing this exercise of reading plays by Montréal writers that Francophone theatre has a rich tradition in visual storytelling, something I will never be able intuit from the page. What could be better than the non-verbal, visual spectacle of circus? 

Prior to the performance, Concordia professor Patrick Leroux was invited to give a pre-show talk to contextualize the event for American audiences. Leroux explained that given Quebec’s distinctiveness linguistically, circus shouldn’t have been the defining feature of a society trying to position itself linguistically. Yet, one of Montréal’s greatest cultural exports has been the graduates of the National Circus School in Montréal who then perform in larger U.S. venues in Las Vegas. While the performers of Cirque Alfonse could have continued to work internationally, they decided to return home to Montréal and train at their homestead to create their own company of performers. The grandfather played the circus archetype of “the person to whom things happen to”, the wife was a dancer/singer/aerial artist, the husband and his friends performed the most aggressive stunts, and the young toddler ran briefly on stage to charm us with his adorable tricks imitating his parents.

This resonated with me immediately because as playwrights, we are all in search of an artistic home. A few seasons ago, Todd London, the former artistic director of New Dramatist, wrote passionately about this very issue on Howlround (as have many others since) and it’s certainly an important theme of his book An Ideal Theatre. I don’t know how many conversations I’ve personally had at new play development festivals about what dramaturgs and literary managers should be doing to change our current practices to better serve the writer.

Leroux then described how in the larger shows that Americans know through venues at Las Vegas, the concept behind the shows is that the audience is admiring the technical proficiency of the performer from a distance. Conversely, Cirque Alfonse wants to create a devised circus experience where the audience is leaning in and empathizing with the performers. The guiding principle of the show is that all the acts are authentic and truthful. There’s “no faking” here and they do perform moments where injuries are possible. An as an audience member that evening, I certainly was a bit on edge, but it was also clear that this tight-knit family of performers knew each other’s performance rhythms so intimately that I could also relax and enjoy it.

I don’t want to review too much of the performance, since that’s something that can be Googled, but my interests in the show were to get a better sense of mood and tone as the performers were importing their personal statement on Montréal  culture. If Cirque has been one of Montréal’s great cultural exports, this show is more of a genuine, authentic statement by one family of highly trained performers. Music, dance, and storytelling all hold a great sense of hometown pride.

But there is one experience of the show that I know will stay with me. After all the frenetic energy of the show and the house lights went down, I lingered longer to watch the family of performers remain on stage. One by one, they sat down at the long wooden table that had been part of their act and simply ate dinner together. It was a private, backstage kind of a moment, probably a routine but clearly a choice to stay on stage as the audience left the building. Most people filed out of the auditorium once the spectacle was over, but I found this moment a continuation of the authenticity that they were aiming for with the show. While there are plenty examples in American theatre and theatre history of a company formed by friends and family, or just plays that are set around the family dinner table. Yet, observing this post-show family dinner made me pause and consider what conversations we should be having around the table when we all fly in for a visit to their city.—H.H., dramaturg

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