Montreal Fringe Festival makes a comeback with plays inspired by personal stories

The festival, which runs until June 20, has both in-person and online shows.

The festival, which runs until June 20, has both in-person and online shows

Uzoma Onyechekwa, left, Rana Liu, centre, and Andrea Pavlovic bonded over common experience while working on the play Generations, about the mother-daughter relationship within immigrant families. (Photo by Keegan Boulineau)

While the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival had to downsize its 30th anniversary programming last year due to the pandemic, it is making a comeback this year with a hybrid model of online and in-person performances.

Running until June 20, the festival features theatre, dance and storytelling shows in both languages.

While the plays represent various genres and explore different themes, a number of them are inspired by personal experience or family legacy.

Generations, which opened on Sunday, is one of the in-person offerings at the festival this year.

Written and directed by Montrealer Rana Liu, she says the play is a love letter to immigrant mothers and the sacrifices they make.

Rana Liu and Andrea Pavlovic celebrate the opening of their show in Montreal. (Submitted by Rana Liu)

Liu's mother immigrated from China when she was 20 years old. Liu wanted to honour her and other strong women who have inspired her.

"This play is based on the lessons and the love and the wisdom that I've learned from my mom," she said.

"Everyone involved is first or second generation immigrants as well, which has been really incredible as creators."

Liu said that "finding that community and being able to share life experiences" made for a special dynamic among the creative team.

Working with three other women, Liu said her play took on new elements during the production process.

"Throughout the rehearsals, everyone kind of brought their own flare," she said.

"I like to say I created the menu, but they brought their own spices."

Family connections

Joan Bernier's solo play is also inspired by family. In The Captain, she looks back about 100 years to the life of a distant relative of hers — Quebec sea captain and explorer Joseph Elzéar Bernier.

She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, but said bringing an excerpt of her show to Montreal audiences through the festival's Fringe TV feature feels like a kind of homecoming.

"I always wanted to bring his story back to his home province," said Bernier.

She explained that Captain Joseph Bernier worked for the Canadian government annexing northern Arctic islands in the 1900s.

This clipping was stapled to Joan Bernier's family tree. (Submitted by Joan Bernier)

He first came to her attention because of their shared last name.

"My dad stapled an article from 1935 on our family tree and it had to do with this captain," said Bernier.

Inspired to look into the history of the seafarer, Bernier started researching him.

"I opened up the book and a moment just hit me in the stomach and brought me to my knees. And I knew I was going to get to know this captain," she said.

Bernier reached out to Montreal author Marjolaine Saint-Pierre, who had written a book about the captain's life, and ended up gathering enough material to write a play about him.

While she is only bringing a 20-minute excerpt to the fringe, Bernier hopes to perform the full-length play in Montreal next year.

Joan Bernier based some of her play about her distant relation Joseph Elzear Bernier on a book by Montreal author Marjolaine Saint-Pierre. Holding up the photo of Bernier on the book's cover the playwright compares their profiles. (Submitted by Joan Bernier)

Her play also touches on the relationship Captain Bernier had with the Inuit people he met in the Arctic when he was working there, and the lessons he learned from them.

She said she wanted to reconcile the support Captain Bernier had for them personally and the colonial project he was a part of.

"This is a story about lineage, and part of that lineage is considering the consequences of what it meant to claim the northern Arctic islands. I felt it was really important in a tiny, small way to be able to give back in some way to the people who live in the area where this captain claimed their land for Canada."

With that in mind, she is donating the proceeds from her show to the Qajuqturvik Community Food Centre in Iqaluit.

Facing mental illness

In another play inspired by true events, Montreal theatre artist Michelle Soicher performs a one-woman show inspired by her experience of having a manic episode brought on by bipolar disorder.

In Spiral, which she co-wrote with Calla Wright, Soicher explores the euphoric, creative side of the mania she experienced in an effort to destigmatize conversations about mental illness. 

"Bipolar disorder is very misunderstood and very stigmatized," said Soicher. "Mania is not somewhere you want to live constantly, but it is remarkable."

Soicher experienced a manic episode for the first time in January 2020.

"It was very scary for the people in my life," she said. "But my experience was that I was flying."

She described being in a "state of inspiration" and wanted to further explore ideas and themes she had conceived during the episode.

Michelle Soicher's one-woman play Spiral is inspired by her own experience and aimed to destigmatize representations of bipolar disorder. (Photo by Jimmy Karamanis)

Soicher said the idea to create a play that dramatizes some of those emotions and present them in a comedic way had been percolating in her mind ever since.

"It was begging for me to do something," said Soicher. "I wanted to tell this story."

While her play is not autobiographical, she describes it as a "creative, winding, darkly comedic journey" — one that involves an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine.

Not having graced a stage in five years, Soicher said it was exciting to perform in front of a live audience again.

"It was wild to be back on stage again," she said. "The fringe is such a welcoming place to try things."

The St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival runs in-person and online until June 20. 


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