Follow the money: Montreal theatres encouraged to tell multicultural stories through grants

The Cole Foundation is donating more money than ever to local theatre with $375,000 being given to 25 companies that are working to fulfill some of the recommendations from the Bouchard-Taylor Commission.

Theatre professionals say Cole Foundation's intercultural dialogue grants have changed local scene

Comment j'ai appris à parler aux oiseaux (How I learned to talk to birds) by D. Kimm is one of the translated works made possible by a Cole Foundation grant. (Caroline Hayeur)

The Cole Foundation is donating more money than ever to local theatre with $375,000 being given to 25 companies that are working to fulfill the recommendations of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission.

The foundation started giving out its Intercultural Conversations-Conversations Interculturelles (IC-CI) grants in 2008 after the release of the commission's recommendations, which included promoting intercultural dialogue in the province.

President of the Cole Foundation, Barry Cole, said while the commission was in session it became clear that the Anglophone and Francophone communities in the province weren't as welcoming to immigrants as they should be.

"This meant the immigrants were becoming 'ghettoized,'" Cole said.

"I thought this was an interesting question to examine, and we could use theatre as a vehicle to address that question." 

While the Bouchard-Taylor commission was in session Cole decided he wanted to encourage local theatre companies to tell stories from Quebec's multicultural communities.

There was only one problem — Montreal theatre companies weren't very interested in someone telling them what to do.

Show me the money

Cole remembers the top brass at both Anglophone and Francophone companies being hesitant about what he was proposing.

"I mean, yes, you come as a foundation so you represent money, and everyone wants to have your money," Cole said.

"I'd say we have production money, and ask what were the plays — and not Othello — and no one could come up with the name of a play."

He said that meant those plays would need to be written, and the foundation began giving $10,000 for commissioning the creation of new works or translating existing ones.

It also gives up to $25,000 for the production of intercultural shows.

How essential is the story?

One of the shows being commissioned this year is about Hasidic women in Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood.

It's being created by local theatre artist Arianna Bardesono with Imago Theatre.

Imago's artistic director, Micheline Chevrier, said the work will be a kind of staged documentary called Commonwall. It will be ready by 2018.

Her company has been promoting fair representation for women and marginalized groups for decades and as such, over the years, the foundation's support has become integral part to its operating budget.

"I would say it's essential at this point," Chevrier said.

Kim's Convenience, performed at the Segal Centre this March, was one of the 2016 Cole Foundation grant recipients. (Cylla von Tiedemann)

Cole's team looks at the budgets of theatre companies requesting grant money alongside how necessary the works being proposed are. 

Cole said applications are scored by a panel of judges from the local arts community.

Then they look at the scores and decide how many projects to support depending on the priority of production. He estimates that in the past eight years they've funded about 160 productions. 

"We're not making judgements artistically," Cole said.

Shaping local theatre

Over the years, the Cole Foundation grants have increasingly influenced how the theatre community plans its seasons.

"We're hungry for money, we always need money in theatre so we adapt," Talisman Theatre artistic director Lyne Paquette said.

Talisman Theatre translates works from French to English by Quebec playwrights as a way of connecting the two solitudes. 

With the foundation's support, Talisman is going to tour a translation of a French-language play about a young immigrant who makes a Quebecer walk in her shoes called Me + You, written by Talia Hallmona.

The Tashme Project: The Living Archives, a work supported by the Cole Foundation that looked at the forced internment of thousands of Japanese Canadians during World War II. (June Park)

Paquette said the grants have almost had too much of an impact on theatre production in the city.

"There aren't enough plays written, there aren't enough good actors available in Montreal," she said.

In previous seasons, she has had to recruit actors from other provinces to fill culturally specific roles, when the local scene didn't have the actors needed.

She expects that, in the next few years, the city's talent pool will grow to meet the demand.

Cole said he sees about 30 to 40 shows per year and enjoys watching the reactions to the ones his foundations supports.

"It's wonderful to be in the audience and recognize that they're having their horizons broadened, I hope, on the issue of intercultural dialogue."