Canada Scene: Questions and answers about the power of words with Olivier Choinière and Steven McCarthy

A scene from the original production of 26 Lettres.

On June 28, the Canada Scene festival at the National Arts Centre presents a new bilingual version of the performance 26 lettres: An ABC of words that are losing their meaning directed by 2014 Siminovitch Prize winner Olivier Choinière. The play involves 26 individuals, each one given a word by Choinière. The first letters of each word form the 26 letters of the alphabet. The participants then have written a letter to someone based on that word. The words have been selected because they’ve been overused and in danger of losing or have lost their meaning. In the performance, the authors will be reading their letters live. Until then the chosen words are confidential. The readers are from across the country and include academics, artists, journalists and others. ARTSFILE asked Choinière, who has been dubbed by some a “theatre hacker,” and his English language collaborator Toronto actor, director, musician Steven McCarthy some questions about the project and the power of words.

Olivier Choinière. Photo: Eugene Holtz

Q. Can you tell me where the idea for 26 Lettres began.

Olivier: The first edition happened in 2013, just after the Printemps érable (Maple Spring protests by Quebec students in 2012) where words became politically charged and distorted, mostly by policitians. I asked myself: how can I use (as a writer) those words without two pages of definition?

Q. Can you explain what people will see when they attend this performance?

Olivier: The 26 authors of the letters will be on stage for two hours. One after the other (in alphabetic order) they will come to the front and read their letter. There will be live music between each letter. The soirée is bilingual, so the translation will be projected on stage. Simple as that. But for me, it is still theatre.

Q. Where is the drama?

Steve: Letters are personal things. The magic of the deceptively simple format that Olivier has given to the evening is just that: when you address someone in a letter there is a weight, there is a significance to the words you choose. It’s different from the way we write an essay or an article or a play – it’s directed to one person and one person only. From love letters to hate mail, there is something special about the way we write to a specific person. The spectators at 26 letters get to feel almost like voyeurs listening in to a private communication.

Q. Do words carry different weights; different nuances in French and English?

Olivier: One thing I’m sure, is the same word can have a different meaning in French and in English. Steven and I chose all the words with that in mind. We had one principal question in mind: How do words lose their meaning, especially here in Canada? We wanted the event to be political; to be a critique of the “celebration” spirit we are experiencing during Canada 150.

Q. How did you convince the letter writers to go on stage and read what they wrote?

Steve: They knew going in that whatever they wrote would be part of this public show at the NAC so there wasn’t a lot of convincing needed.

Q. Do you encourage them to act out their words?

Steve: No. The words themselves have power and the act of delivering them to a crowd creates its own energy. To try to put on some kind of fake emotion would be an unnecessary distraction.

Q. Do words matter?

Olivier: Words are crucial not just how we talk to each other, but also how we see the world. The human brain can not think without words. Political and economic power has interfered in our perception of the world. Capitalism has changed our vocabulary.

Steve: Words are the way we express ideas; ideas create the way we see the world. The words we use create links of understanding between us, or barriers to communication. I think that’s what this whole evening is about: Reminding ourselves that words are tools and sometimes they can be used against us. We need to reclaim them sometimes.

Q. Given the pervasiveness of social media, is the power of a word amplified?

Olivier: Yes, but a word can easily lose its meaning if it is overused or overexposed. That’s why I chose the letter as an expression medium. There is less bullshit when you address someone personally, rather than by a tweet, (designed) to entertain your followers.

Steve: We are living through a deep division, a period of winners and losers, bad guys and good guys, us vs them. Words are wielded as weapons. We have to remind ourselves who profits when we see other human beings as enemies. Words are being used to confuse, shock, and numb us into paralysis.

Q. Have we lost the ability to be nuanced in our understanding of words and of language?

Olivier: We have not only lost the ability to be nuanced, we lost the capability to see the world and talk about it with each other.

Q. Tell me about yourselves? Who are you? Where do you come from? Why are you involved in theatre?

Olivier: I am a playwright, director and translator. With each play, I strive to build a new way of reading the world, in the hopes that, if it’s new for me, it will also be new for others. I don’t want to look clever, or even to make my work more appealing, rather I want to address each audience member directly. (I do this) to declare loud and clear that without the audience, theatre cannot happen, and to allow each spectator to escape, however briefly, from the norms that make them passive, even invisible.

Steve: Olivier and I went to school together back at the National Theatre School and re-met when I directed and produced his play BLISS in 2010 – it went on to win awards at Summerworks and had productions at Centaur and Buddies in Bad Times and Olivier’s own theatre in Montreal – Theatre Aux Ecuries. I am an actor, theatre director, filmmaker, and musician.  I am in a 10-piece funk band called Elastocitizens in Toronto. Theatre credits include: Bliss, Malaria Lullaby, and Boblo. Television credits include The Strain, HBO’s Good God, the indie hit Picture Day, and A&E’s The Crossing, with directors such as Guillermo del Toro, Ken Finkleman, Kate Melville and Robert Harmon.

Q. Is all theatre political? Should it be?

Steve: I decided to look up the word: “Politics (from Greek: Politiká: Politika, definition ‘affairs of the cities’) is the process of making decisions applying to all members of each group.”

It occurred to me we are living through a time when we realize that all our actions are political, every decision we make affects the members of our ‘group,’ and it affects others. The products we buy, the people we ignore, the way we smile or ignore a stranger passing by. The act of trying to create art, which in my mind means trying to create something that can reach others, something that reminds us of what we have in common, is a deeply political act. More than ever we need to gather in groups to remind ourselves of all we share and how precious it really is.

26 lettres: An ABC of words that are losing their meaning
Where: Babs Asper Theatre
Tickets and information:

Here are the letter writers appearing June 28.

Paul Wells is a journalist and national affairs columnist for Maclean’s.

Jérôme Minière is a singer and multidisciplinary artist. Originally from Orléans, he has lived in Montreal for 20 years.

Monia Mazigh was born in Tunisia and now lives in Ottawa. She is an author and academic with a Ph.D. in financial economics. She worked tirelessly to free her husband Maher Arar from a Syrian prison.

Marilou Craft supports the living arts as a writer and reviewer, as an artistic and dramaturgical consultant, and occasionally as a performer.

Brendan Healy is the former Artistic Director of Buddies in Bad Time Theatre.

Marie-Hélène Poitras works in Montreal in communications and media. Her novel Griffintown won the 2013 France-Québec literary award.

Sook-Yin Lee was born in Vancouver. She is a filmmaker, musician, actor, and CBC Radio host.

Alain Farah is a Canadian writer and academic who has published two novels and a collection of poetry.

Tanya Davis is a Canadian singer-songwriter and poet from Prince Edward Island.

Catherine Éthier is a Montreal-based writer, TV reporter and blogger.

Lindsay “Eekwol” Knight is a hip-hop artist living in Saskatoon. She is originally from Muskoday First Nation.

Pierre Lefebvre has been editor-in-chief of Liberté magazine since 2005. He has also written a book and several stage plays.

Maggie Cassella is an actress, comedian and writer.

Gabriel Robichaud is an actor, poet, playwright and singer.

Mary Simon is a champion of the social, economic, and human rights of Canadian Inuit people.

Christian Lapointe is a writer, director, actor and teacher based in Quebec City, where he is the co-artistic director of Théâtre Blanc.

Daniel MacIvor is an actor/playwright/director whose plays are staged in theatres across the country and abroad.

Marie-Andrés Gill is an Ilnu writer and poet.

Marcus Youssef is the artistic director of Vancouver’s New World Theatre and the Senior Playwright in Residence at the Banff Centre.

Fred Dubé is a writer, reporter for Rimouski’s Le Mouton Noir newspaper, and a comedian.

Michelle Latimer is a Toronto-based filmmaker, programmer, actress and activist of Métis/Algonquin descent.

Olivier Choinière is the artistic director of L’ACTIVITÉ theatre company and the recipient of the 2014 Siminovitch Prize.

Brandon Wint is an Edmonton-based writer, performer and teacher. He is a two-time national champion slam poet.

Françoise David is a Quebec activist and a feminist and anti-global politician. She is past president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec, the co-founder of Option citoyenne, and the former Québec Solidaire MNA for the riding of Gouin (until January 2017).

George Elliott Clarke is a poet and playwright from Nova Scotia currently serving as the Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate.

Marjolaine Beauchamp is a spoken-word artist originally from Gatineau. She placed second at the 2010 Slam Poetry World Cup in Paris.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.