Balconville returns to Montreal's Centaur Theatre for 50th-anniversary season

Balconville is a simple two-act play about working-class people living in Pointe-Saint-Charles during the late 1970s. It's widely considered Canada's first bilingual play.

David Fennario's play is considered Canada's first bilingual theatre production

Alison Darcy is directing, and David Fennario's son Tom will read the stage directions during a staged reading of David Fennario's classic 1979 play, Balconville, at the Centaur Theatre. (Amanda Klang/CBC)

When Montreal playwright David Fennario's Balconville first hit the stage in 1979, it was unusual in more ways than one.

For starters, it was the first bilingual play in Canadian theatre history, with about a third of the dialogue performed in French.
This is the poster for the original 1979 premiere of Balconville. (Centaur Theatre)

This — at an English-language theatre company with a majority English audience — was revolutionary at the time, a little more than a year before the first sovereignty referendum, with language tensions in the province arguably at their height.

Fennario's portrayal of a group of working-class people living in Pointe-Saint-Charles was also a departure from the usual onstage fare.

Fennario's son, Tom, says that's part of the appeal.

"I think, back in the day, people weren't that used to seeing themselves represented, at least on the English-Canadian theatre stage," he told CBC's All in a Weekend.

The play has been remounted many times since it premiered, under the direction of Guy Sprung, on Jan. 2, 1979, at the Centaur Theatre — including once at Place des Arts, when Fennario famously picketed his own play (but more on that later).

Balconville is being presented as a staged reading at the end of September for the company's "Legacy Series," in honour of the Centaur's 50th-anniversary season.

The playwright's son Tom, who will be reading the stage directions aloud, isn't the only recognizable name on the list of cast and crew. Director Alison Darcy is herself part of the legacy of the Centaur Theatre.

Montreal playwright David Fennario was the writer-in-residence at the Centaur Theatre when his hit play, Balconville, premiered there in 1979. (Google Maps)

Darcy, daughter of Centaur founders Maurice Podbrey and Elsa Bolam, has been around the theatre all her life.

"I probably spent my whole childhood in the costume department," she said. 

Balconville is Fennario's most well-known play, but not his favourite, according to his son.

"I think if you ask my dad he'd say, 'It's a good play,'" said the younger Fennario. "He wouldn't even call it his best play."

 "He's proud of it, but it wouldn't have worked as well if it had come out even five years earlier."

The tension of the play emanates from the day-to-day interactions of people of diverse backgrounds, all crammed together in tenement housing during a heat wave.

The title of the show, Balconville, refers to a joke that still rings true to this day — that Montrealers don't go on vacation, they go onto their balconies and fire escapes instead.

A full production of Balconville was performed in Hudson in spring 2017. (Hudson Players Club)

Darcy said the play, produced the world over, has come to symbolize a time and place in Montreal's history.

"It's interesting, revisiting it now with a completely different set of eyes on it," said Darcy, "looking at it as a moment of our past, and recognizing that it's not completely out of our systems."

These tensions around language and minorities still pervade dinner-table discussion in Quebec, even four decades later. 

Fennario — now 71 and less prolific since his 2002 diagnosis with Guillain-Barré ​syndrome, which attacks the nervous system — was known for his left-wing activism as well as his writing and caused quite a stir during a revival run of Balconville at Place des Arts in 1980.

"He picketed his own production with the ushers on strike in solidarity," said Tom. "I can't cross a picket line," he recalled his father saying at the time.
This is the poster for the Centaur Theatre's 1992 remount of Balconville. (Centaur Theatre)

While some in the English arts community bristled at David Fennario's decision to join the ushers and picket his own play, Darcy said she has a great deal of respect for what he did.

"That's amazing for an artist to be, like, 'I'm not going to take the grandeur and the beauty and the money or whatever it is that comes with me doing my show. I'm actually going to stick to my political beliefs.'"

Tom Fennario, a reporter with APTN who has next to no experience in the theatre, said he's just glad to be along for the ride.

"I'm not really a performer," he said, joking: "there's a reason I'm reading the stage directions."

"It's special for me, too, to be able to get involved."

The Centaur Theatre's staged reading of Balconville runs from Sept. 28 to 30.

With files from CBC's All in a Weekend



Marilla Steuter-Martin has been a journalist with CBC Montreal since 2015.


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