Bringing Bilingualism to undercurrents festival: In Conversation with Alain Richer

Undercurrents festival logo. People's profiles in pale purple and pink overlaid with the undercurrents festival logo.
Poster courtesy of undercurrents festival.

It’s the coldest, most unpleasant time of the year in Canada’s National Capital Region. The O-Train is a frequent disappointment. One year post-convoy, some parts of Centretown still feel haunted by the echoes of truck horns.

But there’s a reason to leave the house. Promise.

Nestled into the centre of Ottawa’s downtown core lies the much-beloved Arts Court. An impressive stone building connected to the glassy Ottawa Art Gallery (as well as part of the University of Ottawa’s theatre department), Arts Court is home to Ottawa Fringe, as well as its curated winter event, undercurrents festival. In the summer, and for one thrilling week each winter, Ottawa Fringe hosts an array of new theatrical works from across the country, plus outreach and networking opportunities for Ottawa’s close-knit community of artists. For years, Fringe and its winter offshoot have been a vital home-away-from-home for Canadian theatre-makers.

undercurrents festival, not dissimilar to Toronto Fringe’s Next Stage Festival, has always pushed boundaries in the Ottawa theatre scene with accessible ticket pricing, ASL-interpreted performances, and collaborations with theatre programs at Ottawa’s universities and colleges. 

But for its thirteenth season, the festival’s just getting sweeter: undercurrents has gone bilingual.

For Alain Richer, executive director of Ottawa Fringe and undercurrents festival, more fulsome bilingualism is long overdue to undercurrents.

“There’s been French works here before, peppered throughout the festival,” he said in an interview. “But it’s nothing very formalized. There’s long been this conversation in Ottawa — there’s a vibrant French theatre scene and a vibrant English theatre scene, and maybe they should work together one day — but then it never comes to fruition.”

This year, undercurrents was the recipient of a grant specific to making the festival bilingual. For Richer, incorporating bilingualism was an important part of revitalizing the festival post-pandemic.

“We need to re-engage our audiences and grow further audiences,” he said. “We have this untapped resource of Francophone theatre and Francophone audiences, and we’re trying to bridge that gap between the two languages. We want folks to support each other’s works, attend each other’s work, and we want to house that under one roof as much as possible. Because right now, that’s something that doesn’t happen. Right now, these works exist separately, and they’re being created, but they’re not housed under one roof.”

For this year’s first step into bilingualism, English captioning will be offered on much of the French programming. As well, undercurrents will host two “any language” discovery shows, using limited “universal words,” Anishinaabemowin and physical gesture to tell stories without the need for English or French language.

Bringing French into undercurrents programming is a cause “near and dear” to Richer’s heart. A native of Cornwall, Richer has spent most of his career making and fostering French theatre in Ontario. He spent seven seasons as artistic director of Toronto’s Mainstage Theatre Company before moving to Ottawa to take over Fringe and undercurrents — and he learned along the way how few resources there are for French theatre outside of Quebec.

“Outside of Montreal, there’s no specified French category at [most theatre festivals across Canada]. If we were able to offer that in Ottawa, that would be so great — it would help support French artists and just make sense in this city as well,” he said. “So far it’s been really well received that we’re doing this. We’ve talked about bilingualism for so long as a theatre community in Ottawa. So it’s nice to actually be trying something with it.”

One of the challenges of running undercurrents over the years has always been the weather — February in Ottawa is cold, dark, and frequently snowy. Richer recognizes it’s easier to stay home and stream a movie, but getting out to live theatre in these darker months can be much, much more rewarding. It’s particularly important to give live arts a chance now as they begin to recover from the pandemic.

“I think as an arts community, we’re still figuring out what theatre is after all the closures,”he said. “We’re in a rebuilding stage right now, so we have to relearn some things and kind of adapt….the way people engage with theatre has changed a little bit. 

“The pandemic has changed how we connect to people…Ottawa has always loved to support their own. But to be able to see a new group of people who are doing great theatre, who maybe haven’t been to undercurrents yet or haven’t had this opportunity on our stage, is really, really exciting to me.”

undercurrents festival runs February 8-18 at Arts Court in Ottawa, ON. For more information, click here.

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Written By

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.