Michel Marc Bouchard, of all playwrights, is sitting and wondering what the point is. "I know it's a really candid and naive question," he says, swaying from left to right, as he shifts from English to French. "Le théâtre – est-ce qu'on sert à quelque chose?" That is: Does theatre – and those who make it – serve a purpose?
Dressed dapperly as always, Bouchard is leaning over a cabaret table at Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times, where his play Tom at the Farm is finally having its English-language premiere this week, 2 1/2 years after he pulled it from the season at Factory Theatre.
That was "one of the most painful decisions in my career," Bouchard says – and so a certain amount of soul searching is in keeping with the resurrection of that production. And yet, it's a strangely solemn question to hear from him at this moment in time.
The dramatist from Saint-Coeur-de-Marie, Que. – a small village also home to another famous Bouchard, Lucien – had his first big hit with the dizzyingly passionate romance Les Feluettes in 1987 – known as Lilies in English, and turned into a Genie-winning film of that same name by John Greyson in 1996.
It was hard to top, but now, at 57, Bouchard's career has risen to a new peak – with plays having English premieres at the Stratford Festival, Buddies and the Shaw Festival all within the span of 12 months.
At the same time, hot on the heels of the release of cinematic wunderkind Xavier Dolan's film version of Tom at the Farm, an adaptation of Bouchard's Swedish-history play Christina, the Girl King, directed by Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismaki, is in postproduction.
And that's before we even broach the subject of Bouchard's burgeoning career as opera librettist. Two of his plays are headed for main-stage productions at the country's biggest opera houses – Lilies, with a score by Australian composer Kevin March, will premiere at the Opéra de Montréal in 2016, while the Canadian Opera Company just commissioned Montreal composer Ana Sokolovic to tackle Christina, the Girl King for a tentative premiere in 2019.
What accounts for this second wind of fascination with Bouchard's plays? "Maybe, for a decade, my work was a bit imprecise, because I was in search of form," he says. "But this culmination is a question of circumstance: All these projects were started a while ago."
Tom at the Farm, for instance, was meant to be on stage in 2012 – and what happened at Factory Theatre back then still bothers Bouchard. Unlike other playwrights who withdrew their work from Factory, he wasn't acting out of solidarity with fired artistic director Ken Gass. He pulled his play because a prominent group of Toronto artists were boycotting the theatre – and he didn't want to premiere a work in that hostile atmosphere. "I stopped the jobs of maybe 10 people with this decision," he says. "I tried to understand why artists would boycott other artists. … I was, I must say, furious."
Bouchard's work has frequently dealt with artists fighting to put on their work – but it is usually the clergy, in Quebec's rural past, that are standing in their way. Lilies, set in 1912 and 1952, begins with a boy's school production of The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian being cancelled (and ends with perhaps the country's first fictional gay wedding).
Meanwhile, The Divine, Bouchard's next play, set to premiere at the Shaw Festival this summer and Montreal's Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in the fall, is a fantasia based on the true story of French actress Sarah Bernhardt's visit to Quebec City in 1905. It follows two seminarians who are charged with delivering a letter to the "Divine Sarah" from the Archbishop forbidding her from performing in the provincial capital.
Quebec City was the only place in Canada at the time where a clergy boycott could work, Bouchard says – and in the play, he ponders whether, like the characters in the play, we are headed toward a Grande Noirceur of our own. "Why do we hate, or are afraid, of the intellectual, the scientific, the artistic?" he asks. "We experience that now, on both sides of this country, especially with this government we have at Ottawa right now."
And yet, The Divine is an exciting event in Canadian theatre – it's not every day a play by one of Quebec's top playwrights premieres in English before French. But Bouchard brought the idea to the Shaw Festival and penned the script specifically for its company of actors – and his translator, Linda Gaboriau, worked with him on each draft through the workshop process. (In Fiona Reid, the great comedienne who will be playing Bernhardt, Bouchard says he has found a muse.)
It's all due to the playwright's long-standing relationship with Shaw's outgoing artistic director, Jackie Maxwell – who, when she was running Factory Theatre in the late 1980s, commissioned the first translation of Lilies, a move that arguably paved the way for its astonishing continued life as play, movie, musical (in Belgium, in Flemish!) and now opera.
"More than any writer I know, Michel Marc can mix the political and the poetical together," says Maxwell, who also staged Bouchard's The Coronation Voyage on the main stage in her first season as Shaw artistic director, making him the first living playwright to sit and watch his work staged at the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., festival. "It's tricky to do – and, as a director, it really puts you through your paces."
Tom at the Farm certainly marries the poetic and the political: It has the heightened language and Gothic sexuality that are Bouchard's signatures, while it wades deep into sexual politics by arguing that just because homophobia is no longer a problem in cities among the affluent does not mean that it is not still a problem.
But the 2011 play is also a lean and mean psychological thriller, with plenty of twists and tension.
After Tom, an advertising man in his mid-20s, loses his lover in a car accident, he heads out to his rural hometown to pay his respects to the family. There, he meets Agatha, his lover's mother, who does not know her son was gay, never mind that Tom exists – and Francis, his lover's brother, who does know all this but insists he keep the relationship a secret.
Under threat of violence, Tom goes along with his deceased lover's story about a girlfriend named Nathalie, channelling messages from her – until the invented woman herself actually shows up at the farm.
Tom at the Farm is atypical in the Bouchard canon for being set in the present, but as with so many of his plays, it features characters who are forced to become actors by circumstance – usually to hide secrets, sexuality being the most common. "Homosexuals learn to lie before they learn to love," he writes in his preface to the play. "We are courageous mythomaniacs."
Eda Holmes, who is directing Tom at the Farm at Buddies and previously directed Bouchard's The Madonna Painter for Factory, finds that his writing reminds her of Tennessee Williams. "I say that in the sense that he brings poetry to the harsh realities of his characters," she says. "Even though so many of his plays have been transformed into movies, I feel like the plays themselves are plays – they're necessarily theatre." (Indeed, even if you've seen Dolan's adaptation of Tom at the Farm, it's still worth catching the play – the ending is entirely different.)
As for Bouchard, he's grateful to see Tom at the Farm make it to the stage in English with Holmes still at the helm, alongside the cast she originally assembled for Factory. He stuck by this group of artists, which includes Soulpepper star Jeff Lillico in the title role. "I refused other productions for this one," Bouchard says. "For me, it was a kind of devoir." That is, it was his duty.
Tom at the Farm runs April 11 to May 10 at Buddies in Bad Times.