Franco-albertans love theatre and have long been actively involved in various theatrical activities. The earliest mention of these endeavors is found in the first Francophone newspaper L’Ouest Canadien published in 1898. Early references to theatre in other Francophone newspapers describe the success of Joseph Bilodeau’s group and of Émile Tessier’s troupe called Le Cercle canadien d’Edmonton.
In 1911, a special year in the history of French theatre in Alberta, le Juniorat Saint-Jean presented its first play and a group of 140 actors and various participants organized the Représentation de la Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ in Saint-Albert. But that year’s main event, however, was probably Sarah Bernhardt’s visit to Edmonton.
The Cercle Jeanne d’Arc was created in 1913 and its first artistic director was Paul Mauvier. Alphonse Hervieux who replaced him in 1917, held the post for more than 20 years. French theatre’s greatest contribution probably occurred in 1935 when Hervieux and his troupe participated in the Alberta Dramatic League Festival with a play was called Bon sang ne ment pas written by a Franco-Albertan named Emma Morrier. Hervieux’s troupe won first place and went on to represent Alberta at the National Festival of Theatre. History repeated itself in 1938 when Le Cercle Molière d’Edmonton again won first place at the provincial competition. After his death in 1943, Hervieux was replaced by Laurier Picard and his troupe.
At Saint-Jean, two groups were particularly active in the 60’s : Les Collégiens Comédiens under the direction of Réginald Bigras (1963) and Le Rideau rouge (1967) created by France Levsseur-Ouimet both of whom were founding members of the second group called Le Théâtre français d’Edmonton (TFE) created in 1967.
In August 1970, for the first time in history, the TFE’s artistic director Julien Forcier was a paid employee. Many people occupied that position over the years : France Levasseur-Ouimet, Jean Fortier, Claire Ifrane, Eve Marie and Pierre Bokor.
In the ‘70’s and 80’s many new groups were organized. For example, the Boîte à Popicos who specialized in children theatre was created in 1978. It organized the first Festival de Théâtre Jeunesse in 1989. In 1980, Pierre Bokor established the Théâtre à la Carte at Faculté Saint-Jean. In 1985, Gisèle Lemire organized Le Théâtre du Coyote. Many small troupes such as Toutourien, or La troupe 2+1 only lasted long enough to present a single play. In Calgary, two major groups were created in 1981 : Le Tréteau des Rocheuses and La Troupe des Avant-Cimes. La Débâcle under the direction of Ernest Chiasson did a lot of theatre in Falher during that same period. And between 1988 and 1992, a Plamondon troupe called the FrancoGang presented a continuing saga called Séraphin.
In 1992, all the existing troupes were reunited to create L’Unithéâtre under the direction of Guylaine Normandin with the help of Daniel Cournoyer, L’Unithéâtre’s present artistic director. Since its creation, l’Unithéâtre has not only staged many great plays it has also encouraged local artists to write and direct plays written in Alberta. These productions have included several musical comedies with large casts of thirty or more actors, musicians and dancers who in turn have attracted large audiences. Daniel Cournoyer is also responsible for many interprovincial productions that have toured extensively.
French theatre is alive and growing in Alberta.