Montreal Fringe Festival brings personal stories to the stage

Two Montreal-based playwrights/actors are bringing a real and vulnerable element to their performances at the ongoing Fringe Festival.

Local actors and playwrights present humorous, nostalgic narratives on insomnia, autism

Actor and comedian Al Lafrance's Fringe Festival show is a personal tale of insomnia and depression, told through a lens of good humour and affectionate nostalgia. (Submitted by Sophie Croteau)

The Montreal Fringe Festival is known as a place where underdogs and marginalized voices are put in the spotlight and real stories find a home and an audience in theatres scattered across the city.

During this edition of the Fringe, which runs from June 7 to 17, some storytelling takes that theme even further, delving into the personal and, at times, painful narratives of lived experience.

Montreal-based performer Al Lafrance has turned a lifelong battle with depression and insomnia into a 60-minute comedy show, which had its Montreal premiere on Friday.

Lafrance is well-known in the fringe scene— his play I Think I'm Dead has been touring across the country and abroad, and he'll be hosting events at the 13th hour, Montreal Fringe's official after-party, throughout the week.

The play deals with the actor and writer's very real struggles with insomnia, starting when he was a teenager, and gives a window into the choices he's made as a result of all those sleepless nights.
Al Lafrance's play is a personal and humorous memoir of mistakes gone by and many a sleepless night. (JPOC Photography)

But Lafrance is a comedian above all else, and while he puts forward a vulnerable narrative, he speaks with the affectionate nostalgia of wisdom, looking back distantly on his youthful mistakes.

"The way that I deal with everything is by making jokes about it," he told All in a Weekend host Ainslie MacLellan.

Lafrance, who is originally from Aylmer, Que., but has lived in Montreal for the better part of a decade, said that sharing his experience onstage isn't always easy, but that it's important to bring these issues to the forefront.

"I really aim to take the stigma away from talking about issues like depression and the fear of getting help. Which is a huge problem, I feel, especially for men growing up."

Despite the deeply personal nature of the content, Lafrance remains buoyant and rueful as he recalls a time where he would regularly go days without sleep.

"I went from being a straight-A student to a person who would barely show up to class," he said. "I'm a five-time college dropout. It's a family record."

Jokes aside, Lafrance is proud of what he's created and hopes his openness might encourage his audience to think and feel, as well as laugh.

Tackling autism one monologue at a time

Christine Rodriguez, a Montreal playwright and actor, also chose to centre her Fringe Festival production around stigma and acceptance — in this case, the challenges faced by people with autism and those close to them.

She pulled her inspiration both from her own experience as the mother of a son with mild autism, as well as from a series of interviews she conducted with people with autism.

Her play, The Autism Monologues, features a cast of five actors (including her) who portray multiple characters and situations over the course of an hour.

Christine Rodriguez is the playwright behind a new play, The Autism Monologues. (La Tigresse Productions)

"Every monologue is a different character, a different story," Rodriguez told CBC's Homerun. "It's a play that explores the lives of autistic people, their family members and people who work with people with autism."

Rodriguez credits her 2012 one-woman show, Dreaming in Autism, with putting her on the proverbial map, but said that the intensely personal production was not easy to pull off.

"Playing myself is like showing up naked onstage," she joked. "This is other people's stories."

Along with interviewing people, Rodriguez also admitted to taking inspiration from her son.

But Rodriguez said she's wary of bringing him to the show because she's not sure how he will react to seeing someone else interpret a part of his experience.

She hopes that her play will help break down barriers and help people to understand that every individual is different.

"Everybody touched by autism has a different experience," she said. "[Theatre] is a way to reach people in a more intimate way."

The Autism Monologues and I Think I'm Dead run at the Montreal Fringe Festival until June 17.


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

With files from CBC's All in a Weekend, Homerun