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Michel Marc Bouchard: 'My next play will be about big lies'

Playwright and screenwriter Michel Marc Bouchard has found fame both in his native Quebec and farther afield, sculpting and adapting many of his nearly 30 French-language plays to the tastes of new audiences. But his latest offering, The Madonna Painter , adds a new twist: Commissioned and written in Italy, it was first performed in Italian in Florence. On Thursday, his tale of small-town Quebec during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 premiered in English at Factory Theatre in Toronto. We sat down with him to discuss fear, lies, the church and the demands on his writing.

The play depicts a community looking for some protection from the Spanish Flu. Are there present-day lessons about H1N1 to be learned from your play?

I think fear may be the only connection, because the flu is a plague, and a plague came from God at this period [1918] not from a virus. But fear is an important thing in the play, because it's the first weapon of the church sometimes. And the flu is more efficient for the fear [it creates]than for the sickness itself. … I chose kind of a dark period; we are in the First World War, and it's a really dark, medieval period in terms of the church. But it's not a charge [criticism]against Catholics, I must be precise about that. I just use that [religion]as a vocabulary.

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You've described your play as 'a bouquet of lies disguised as a fable.' Is this a tale without a moral?

My work is more impressive than didactical or pedagogical. My story is a tale, and that means I'm working by impressive scenes, not didactical or pedagogical scenes. In the end, I don't know if I am moral or not. But I hope I live to have a few good questions to share.

The word 'lies' surfaces again and again around this play. Why the preoccupation?

Lies [are]always there in my work. The show, for me, it's a motivation to try to find the truth in the middle of the lies. My next play will be about big lies. I truly believe lies [are]more pro-active than truth for a writer. We always say theatre or art is talking about love, hate and death. But I think, add lies. ... And for me, church dogma, it's lies, because it's a fabrication of reality, and suddenly it becomes more political than spiritual.

Are you religious?

No, I consider myself agnostic. But I grew up under such a huge Catholic influence, and all my mythology and vocabulary onstage, it became Catholic. I have this idea of, when I am onstage, it's kind of a procession. It's something sacred.

You named the setting of your play after your home region, Lac Saint-Jean

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Yes, it's a real story. In 1952, an Italian painter came to my parish to make a fresco about the Holy Virgin and decided to pick a model from the congregation, and he had auditions. For the community, it was something big because someone, a foreigner, came there. He's the painter of God, so he's almost sacred, and he decided which girl. It's like a Hollywood producer going now into a town and finding the next star, because the lady picked, she will be the Madonna, she will be really close to Heaven. And we had such a rumour about [the painter]in my community, about his flirting.

But the characters in the play, they're not the people from your town. …

Absolutely, no. Because they don't speak the language of my town. It's not a vernacular. I don't try to be naturalistic in my vocabulary. It's a little bit poetic, there's a lot of lyricism.

How has your work on screenplays shaped your career?

For 10 years now, a lot of movie producers decided to adapt my plays for the big screen, and I became the screenwriter for my own plays. [The movie Lilies was adapted from his play Les feluettes ; the TV movie L'Histoire de l'oie ( The Tale of Teeka ) was based on the play of the same name.]… Now they offer me [the chance to write]new stuff, but I was a little bit fed up … always returning to some play and destroying the play to make a movie. Because at the finish, you understand the producer is more attracted by the anecdote rather than all of the play. I discovered fast that in movies, the audience doesn't want to hear the author. In theatre, you're there because you want to hear the writer.

The Madonna Painter runs at Toronto's Factory Theatre until Dec. 13.

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