Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with writer, performer, and director Émilie Monnet. At the intersection of theatre, performance and sound art, Émilie Monnet’s practice is centred on themes of memory and transformation and is often produced through a collaborative process. Monnet’s work takes the form of interdisciplinary theatre or performative sound installations. Monnet is both Algonquin and French and grew up in the Outaouais, Quebec and Brittany, France. Okinum is her first written play.
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
OKINUM is my first written play.
It stems from a desire to better understand a recurrent dream I’ve had of a giant beaver, of their visit in my dreams and the words they speak to me.
Writing became a means to decipher what this dream had to teach me.
Rapidly, I got fascinated by the connections I was making between beaver and family ties, and it got me writing about what gets transmitted or massacred over the course of generations.
The image of the beaver dam appeared as a metaphor to address these reflections. What is protected, cherished in the depths of water, or held back, sickening, stagnant at times?
Okinum has been described as “a circular and immersive experience that interweaves three languages — English, French and Anishinaabemowin” and was recently published by Scirocco Drama. Can you tell us more about the creation of the piece, and your experience in writing it?
The back and forth between languages is really at the heart of Okinum’s writing process.
The very first writings were developed in the context of Weesageechak Begins to Dance, a festival dedicated to works-in-development put through Native Earth. The project lay dormant for a few years until I was invited to take part inf the Interdisciplinary Unit at Playwrights Workshop Montreal (PWM). This really is when I started writing in a more consistent way. The Centre des auteurs dramatiques (CEAD) joined last and offered dramaturgical support until the text was ready to be staged in the Fall of 2018.
Okinum was initially written for a French-speaking audience even if some parts were kept in English and others in Anishinaabemowin. After its run at Centre du théâtre d’aujourd’hui, Okinum was translated into English with the support of PWM.
From the start I knew I wanted the audience to feel immersed in sound: of beavers, of their environment, of language too. I wanted them to be cradled into the musicality and imagery of Anishinaabemowin. For me, it really is the language that better translates the world of dreams as words are so descriptive. And because French, English and Anishinaabemowin are the 3 languages that make my identity, it made sense to have them coexist with me onstage.
People often refer to Okinum as being a solo. In fact, it’s rather a duo. It’s a very precise and multilayered conversation between myself and the sounds created and generated live by sound designer Jackie Gallant. We have to be really connected. It really is a sonic dance between the both of us.
I also wanted the audience to feel, for the moment of the performance, the stakes of learning a language that has such intimate resonance for oneself, a language that was once discredited, prohibited, not transmitted, and to understand at an emotional level the challenges of reclaiming what once was.
As an interdisciplinary artist, can you tell us about your artistic practice and how you choose a method of telling a story?
I love thinking about sound in a dramaturgical way and sound is probably the first medium to which I turn in my creative process. I like to document life around me and carry a H6N Zoom with me. I like to activate my voice in Nature and have accumulated many sounds over the years. Sometimes when I play them back, they provide the backdrop for a new scene or for voices to emerge in my head.
I also like to engage in conversations with knowledge carriers or specialists. Often some excerpts of these conversations end up being included into the final performance. I like it because it is a testimony of a process and of relationships built during this process. In some ways, you could say that my work has a documentary component to it.
And most importantly, I surround myself with collaborators who inspire me, push me in new ways, and with whom I enjoy spending time with. Together, we braid different outlooks and artistic languages to create a theatrical experience at the confluence of dream, ritual and sharing. Technology holds many potentialities for this, the work however is to make it as seamless.
You are currently artist in residence at Espace Go, and you have said that you would like to use the next two years of that residency to focus on the theme of “love”. Can you tell us more about what this theme means to you and how you will use it in your practice?
During the two years of the pandemic , I was researching, writing and creating an ambitious project around the figure of Marguerite Duplessis, a young Indigenous enslaved woman in Montreal in the 1700s, first Indigenous person in North America to have challenge the Justice system and also first enslaved person to fight for her freedom in front of the court. The project includes a podcast series, a theatrical performance and a sound walk in Old Montreal.
The play Marguerite : le feu intertwines Indigenous and Black narratives on slavery, colonization, critical fabulation and hope. It was quite dense as a process, especially with the social resonance of her story over the last little while. I now want to engage in conversations that are lighter in some way, generative of joy, laughter, still as a way to uphold good relationships and envision a better Future.
What are you working on next?
Next January 19.I will be opening Necheemus at Espace GO. This show is really a celebration of Indigenous women’s words on love and erotica. I have reunited inspiring women artists from many generations. This offering in the heart of Winter will certainly offer some warmth and food for thought.
I am also working on a new creation for the Spring of 2024, a project conceived with an artist from the Amazon in Colombia around the theme of love and friendship. With many Canadian mining and oil companies in Colombia massacring the land and killing Indigenous leaders, how do we become good allies?
Okinum will also continue to tour in the coming months, with presentations at PuSH in Vancouver, Portland in Oregon, French Guyana and Le Diamant in Quebec City.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.