Le Cercle Molière, the St. Boniface-based francophone theatre, is building a bridge across the language gap with Winnipeg's English majority.
Canada's oldest continuously operating stage company is introducing English subtitles to some of its performances next month with the intention of regularly allowing Canada's two solitudes to come together to be entertained under the same roof.
Subtitled Soirees will kick off Tuesday, April 1, during the run of Le Dieu du carnage (God of Carnage), which closes Cercle's 88th season. It will also be offered April 2, as well as April 8 and 9.
"We're definitely trying to access new audiences," says artistic director Geneviève Pelletier. "The experience can be different here than anywhere else in the city. I'm hoping that cachet will lure some new folks in."
The company will make 10 iPod Touch devices available to non-francophone patrons, on which they can read a translation of the dialogue onstage. To minimize any distraction with other members of the audience, those using the handheld devices will be seated in the back row of the theatre.
For year, Franco-Canadian theatre companies from Toronto to Vancouver have been experimenting with several translation strategies in the hopes of encouraging cross-cultural bonding. Toronto's Thé¢tre Française offers English Surtitles in over half of its performances and has reported increased attendance.
For most of the last decade, Cercle has not had to worry about filling up its theatre, especially since 1997, when it moved into the 85-seat Thé¢tre de la Chapelle, a 19th century-era church, where it sold out regularly. It was the same when its $9.7-million, 19,000-square-foot facility on Provencher Boulevard opened in 2010 and season-ticket holders filled its 125 seats.
While this season, the number of season subscribers has slipped, single-tickets sales are up significantly. Le Cercle shows still play to about 90 per cent capacity -- a number no English theatre averages -- but company brass would like to put bums in those empty seats, too. On their radar is the growing number of mixed marriages between francophones and anglophones. While it's great to get one partner to Le Cercle, it would be better to get both. Also, this initiative will make it more comfortable for Winnipeggers who don't think their French is good enough to follow a play.
Surtitles -- projected above the stage -- are ubiquitous in the opera world, both as translation devices and as aids to the hearing impaired. They have also become quite popular in Europe, where companies want to welcome foreign tourists to their theatres. In Dubai, screens are embedded in seatbacks like on airplanes to display subtitles.
Pelletier wanted to avoid hanging a screen on the theatre's stage that could disrupt the concentration of other spectators.
"We looked at the possibilities and decided to put our own twist on it," says Pelletier, in her first season since succeeding Roland Mahé after his 44-year tenure. "I just wanted to explore the notion of subtitling without it being intrusive on stage where everyone would read it.
"We are hoping to get feedback from users and offer up something even better next year."
Last weekend, Winnipeg's Samantha Hill returned to Broadway in the role of Cosette in the latest revival of Les Misérables.
The reviews were generally very positive for the 1980s Alail Boublil/Claude Michel Schnberg mega-musical, starring Iranian-born Canadian Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel.
The same can be said for Hill, the University of Winnipeg graduate who took her first Broadway bow as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera in 2012.
The Hollywood Reporter praised Hill's "crystalline soprano lending purity to the discovery of love that signals the end of childhood." Newsday said Hill "keeps the soubrette saccharine to a minimum as Valjean's ward Cosette."
The New York Times critic Christopher Isherwood declared Hill "sings and looks pretty, which is about all that is required of her."
The Frenzy of Queen Maeve, which was a hot ticket at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival last summer, opens March 27 as part of the Tara Players' 40th anniversary season.
The dark comedy, written by Toronto's Anthony MacMahon, is set in 1972 during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. A Belfast woman finds herself torn between an idealistic IRA operative and the responsible son of an English landowner. Whichever lover she chooses will mean the loss of either her country or her safety.
Megan Andres directs a cast of Eric Rae, Mallory James and Justin Otto. Showtimes at the Irish Association of Manitoba (654 Erin St.) are 8 p.m. March 27 and 28, 8:30 p.m. (after dinner) March 29 and 2 p.m. March 30. Tickets are $15 ($45 for the dinner show) and can be reserved at 204-774-8272.