Interview: Executive Director Michel Lefebvre talks 47 years of Youtheatre

Over the past half-century, over two million theatregoers throughout Quebec and Canada have experienced Youtheatre’s gamut of contemporary, thought-provoking, and original homegrown works. Founded in November 1968 by Wayne and Doreen Fines, the Montreal-based organization is Quebec’s oldest and Canada’s first truly bilingual professional theatre company producing theatre for young audiences.

This week on the Hub’s INTERVIEW SERIES, we sat down with Youtheatre’s Executive Director MICHEL LEFEBVRE – who has been the creative engine of the organization since 1992 – to examine the 2016-17 season’s upcoming shows (Delete and The Law of Gravity), expose his compelling views on the state of children’s theatre, and dissect his fixation on developing relevant new works through the integration and introduction of technology and media on stage. Read the full in-depth interview with the Hub’s Editor-in-Chief Camila Fitzgibbon below.

Michel Lefebvre (Photo Credit: Sabrina Reeves)
Michel Lefebvre (Photo Credit: Sabrina Reeves)

“He’s quite a character,” we were amusingly forewarned, “and he sees theatre in a very different light.”

Indeed. But as one with the vitality and jubilance of the young audiences he serves, you can’t help but not be enamoured.

MICHEL LEFEBVRE has been on the professional theatre scene for forty years, taking the credit (and blame) for the last twenty-three years of Youtheatre’s unfolding as the foremost figure responsible for the Montreal-based theatre company’s executive direction and artistic vision. His arrival at the organization in 1992 was preceded by a successful and well-rounded career which began as an actor in Toronto in 1976, and the mark he’s left (and continues to make) on the local scene has sparked many a stirring – and sometimes controversial – conversation on the future of theatre.

“When I was first offered the position of Executive Director of Youtheatre in ninety-two, I politely declined,” recounts Michel. “In fact, I received multiple phone calls with persistent invites, all of which I continuously turned down. I was turning forty at the time and I simply felt that I’d done everything I needed to do in theatre. I was starting to write for film and television, developing several projects in which the NFB and TV Ontario had expressed interest, and I figured that that was where I was going to spend my next twenty years.

“Youtheatre wasn’t taking no for an answer, however, so I decided to come to Montreal and tell them in person that I didn’t want to do this.”

After a weekend in town and much deliberation on the presented proposal, however, he was convinced otherwise, claiming to have been able to get a grasp on the ecology of the current arts scene and having an exciting inkling on what it could potentially become.

Michel Lefebvre performs in Youtheatre's "Simon & the Egg" - Photo Credit: Alexis Chartrand
Michel Lefebvre as The Man in Youtheatre’s “Simon & the Egg”, a story evoking environmental awareness (Photo Credit: Alexis Chartrand)

“When I go to the theatre today, ninety-eight percent of what I see is firmly, deeply anchored in the nineteenth century: the narrative form, the theatrical codes, and the relationship between the audience and the stage are all archaic. My greatest preoccupation today is to try to create work for young audiences that sits in the twenty-first century.”

One of the many strategies being implemented by the visionary director to address that concern is to heavily integrate modern technology and new media into theatrical performances – a move which has sparked heated debate and criticism within industry circles. “Many people think I’m crazy and excessive in my beliefs,” he graciously grins, “but times have changed. The human brain no longer processes information as it did centuries or even decades ago. To pull out a puppet in front of a child is to essentially transport them back into the medieval era, or perhaps the 1950’s!

He expands: “we cannot deny or exclude the power of having an actor onstage with a naked light bulb. My argument, however, is that we have so many additional resources at our disposal that we’re not tapping into. To ignore technology and say that it’s not part of what we’re doing is, for me, not interesting. We need to remain alive in the world and keep track of how things are evolving. Therefore, you have to go into unchartered territories and develop new models and new forms of theatre that make sense in the context of today’s realities.”

Horror Story by Greg MacArthur is a play about the limits of fantasy and the numbing effects of graphic violence on a generation. Premiere: March 2014 (from Youtheatre on Vimeo).

Delete, the first production on the menu of Youtheatre’s 2016-17 season, is a prime example. Far from being a traditional play (there are no actors or text), it’s an interactive installation that will immerse its audience members in a live artistic experience. From November 15th to 30th, the Eastern Bloc venue in Montreal will accommodate the site-specific piece. A maximum of 120 kids will be filtered into four different environments – rotating and spending eight to twelve minutes in each room – where they will individually and collectively interact with projectors, moving images, and computer-programmed elements that, once touched, will alter the spaces they’re in.

Promoting themes of digital citizenship and awareness, Delete was conceived for children aged 8-12 and hopes to elicit responses from them to the following question: in a world where the line between what’s real and what’s virtual has disappeared, what part of what makes us human do we want to keep?

“I’m seeking to explore how humans are controlled and influenced by technology and media and vice-versa,” explains Michel, who is co-devising the play with Daniel Iregui. “What prompted me to develop this work was my careful observation of the world around me and my understanding of my own behaviour. I’m aware of my addiction to technology, for example, and more and more I resent it. Why do these gadgets take up so much space in my life? Why are they such a determining and driving force? Where do I, human, stand in all of this? That larger picture is what we’re looking at here and what we’re hoping kids will also deliberate on.

Dreaming Now, devised by Michel Lefebvre & Guillaume Lévesque, premiered in November 2013 and also used new media and interactive technologies to explore a world of digital connection (from Youtheatre on Vimeo).

In arguable alignment with the avant-garde projects being birthed inside Youtheatre’s bright, open-plan rehearsal hall, Michel has an unconventional approach when it comes to assembling a creative team. “More and more I’m working with artists who are not from the theatre so that they show up in this room with no preconceived ideas of what they should be doing,” he rationalizes. “For me, it’s become so much more interesting to talk to a visual artist and ask for an environment, a space, a colour.” In addition to recruiting professionals from other disciplines, he also invites them to take on the simultaneous roles of deviser, writer, designer, and performer. “I try to steer away from rigid hierarchies. Say you’re doing sound… okay, but you’re not just doing sound. You’re also going to write that sequence or tell me that part of the story through the sound board.”

He further elaborates: “We as humans have multiple abilities and sensibilities – why would we want to block them off? And here, everyone is encouraged to be at the top of their game, so why not give them the permission to co-create and contribute in providing input on all aspects of the show? I just think it’s so much more fulfilling and gratifying as an artist to be recognized as wearing more than just one hat.”

On the challenges of developing the blueprint for Delete, he reveals: “when I’m working with a traditional script, I know exactly how to approach it in order to get to where I need to be at the end of the performance. When you’re not opting for that kind of narrative, however, it can become difficult to make intentions clear. Here, we’re looking for meaning in a sensory experience.

“Something like soundscape, then, can be incredibly powerful in colouring and changing the feel of an environment. What we can do in that scenario is have the composer sit in the room with us during the creative process to create an original piece of work, as is the case of Delete.”

You theatre’s signature piece “Bang Boy, Bang” by Ed Roy takes on the subject of sexual violence (Photo Credit: Youtheatre)

In addition to gaining notoriety for fostering new voices, Youtheatre has over time eloquently painted itself into the portrait of Canadian theatre by being the nation’s first truly bilingual production company for young audiences.

“I’ve made huge efforts to integrate myself into the francophone community,” voices Michel. “It’s been extremely beneficial as it has allowed me to reach out to everyone on both ends of the language spectrum. However, it took a very long time for people to see the work and to establish those connections.” Ever since he took over the reins over two decades ago, the most consequential change for the organization truly has been in terms of cultural context. “Today we can commission, develop, and produce work in French that is then translated into English (it’s more common for it to be the other way around) and we are proud to be able to offer a lot of our shows in both versions.”

Youtheatre’s other main production this season – The Law of Gravity, which plays at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts from January 23rd to 27th and tours high schools thereafter – is a translation done by Bobby Theodore of a french script by Olivier Sylvestre. While more traditional in form when compared to Delete, it remains just as contemporary and relevant in subject matter.

The Law of Gravity tells the story of two sixteen-year-olds who meet at the beginning of the school year and are questioning their genders and sexual identities. Fred, a new student from another city, is a gracious gymnast who is unsure whether he is gay or not. Dom, who welcomes Fred to the school, decided over the course of the past summer that he wished to be referred to as a he and no longer a she. The two form an unlikely friendship and they begin dreaming of a move across the river to a place called The City where there are no labels and they can just be free to live as their true selves.

“At the end of the play we find out what the world holds for these two individuals, but what I love about Olivier’s script is that it doesn’t tell you that everything’s going to be okay when they get across. All of us have felt like freaks at some point – even the most popular and beautiful people – and this important story is all about the struggle to find a sense of self and the power of having a connection with someone.”

Hannah Moscovitch's In This World is a provocative play for teen audiences that asks difficult questions but avoids pat answers. (Robert Desroches/Youtheatre)
Hannah Moscovitch’s “In This World” is a provocative play for teen audiences that talks racism, class, and reputation (Photo Credit: Robert Desroches)

Upon being asked to share his thoughts on the upcoming season: “what’s most exciting to me about these two shows in particular is that not only are they new works, but they are pieces of their time. When we look at the The Law of Gravity, for instance: this is not a production that we could have done even five years ago – schools would not have been willing to go there. That’s how quickly the landscape is changing.”

Michel is also quick to note that, while Youtheatre tackles themes that may be just as relevant to adults are they are to children and teens, the work being devised has a very specific audience in mind. “Everyone is welcome to come see our shows,” he says. “However, they are carefully tailored to a particular age group, and that kind of targeting is something that I really believe in because then, there’s no confusion as to who we’re addressing.

“In fact, kids are the only audience I wish to speak to. I find many adults incredibly boring and unsophisticated. After 25 years of working with kids, I’ve noted that an 8-year-old is present in a way that an adult will never be. They notice every single aspect of what you are giving them – nothing escapes them. It’s actually quite terrifying. They get what doesn’t work and what does, what isn’t interesting and what is. Kids are incredibly perceptive and they can go to places that you would never imagine they would be able to go to.

“We have to treat kids like the incredible human beings that they are,” defends Michel, “and everything we’re doing today at Youtheatre is all about pushing the possible in terms of new ways of storytelling and connecting to this audience that is bright and curious and desperate for an opportunity to reflect on deeper topics.”

Refreshingly uncensored on his viewpoints, he confesses: “Often, I find, theatre can be extremely painful. I no longer see the point of putting on the The Glass Menagerie, for example. I would much rather check out an electroacoustic ambient music event or visit a museum of contemporary art (which is exactly where he’s headed after this interview) than sit through a dated piece of theatre,” he muses. “Although… I would like to hope that some of the work that we are doing today will be remembered in that same high regard and respect fifty years from now.”

The Pencil Project is a unique introduction to electroacoustic performance devised by Martin Messier & Jacques Poulin-Denis which premiered in 2009 (from Youtheatre on Vimeo).

Michel Lefebvre


Devised by Daniel Iregui & Michel Lefebvre
For children ages 8-12
November 15 ― 30, 2016
Presented at Eastern Bloc (7240 Clark, 2nd Floor, Montreal)
Cost: $8/student

By Olivier Sylvestre and Translated by Bobby Theodore
For teens ages 13-17
January 23 ― 27, 2017
Presented at 10AM & 1PM at the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts
Cost: $10/student

January 30 ― February 10, 2017
Presented on school tour by Youtheatre, Montreal-area.
Cost: Minimum of $875 (250 students)

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