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Sunday, May 13, 2012

First-Person: Stéfan Cédilot on Poutine Masala

(Photo credit: Louis Longpré)

On collaborations, handling the spice and writing a Bollywood play à la Québécoise called Poutine Masala 
by Stéfan Cédilot
Deepali Lindblom walked up to me one evening last Autumn, after one of my performances of All I Want is U2 at MainLine Theatre, introduced herself, said she was a dancer/choreographer, that she had liked the show, and that she would be interested in working with me on a future project. No further explanation. No attempt to sell the project to me. She simply asked for my email address and said she would contact me. 
Next thing I know, a few days later, I’m sitting in MainLine Artistic Director Jeremy Hechtman’s office with Deepali, and they’re telling me that they are going to produce a Bollywood play and that they want me to write it.
“Sure. No problem. I can do that.”
Wait. Rewind. What did I just say? What just happened? This conversation can’t be happening: 
1. Jeremy “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” Hechtman just used the words Bollywood and play in the same sentence. 
2. I had not written a play in over ten years. Not a real play, anyway. By real play, I mean something with characters and actual dialogue. I had strictly been writing monologues for years, usually for my own one-man shows about rock music. Since the original MainLine production of Zeppelin Was a Cover Band back in 2006, it had never occurred to me to ever write dialogue again.
3. I had never seen a Bollywood film in my life. For real. When I first became aware of the Bollywood craze, maybe twelve years ago, I pretentiously and snobbishly discarded the whole thing as cheap, commercial cheese, the equivalent in film to my perception of a Justin Bieber concert today. I had even managed to survive this century so far without ever coming close to watching one. 
So I said: “Sure. No problem. I can do that.” (cont'd)

Then, smiling proudly, Deepali and Jeremy announced that the show would be called Poutine Masala. The slogan was going to be “Can you handle the spice?” I see. This was going to be a collaborative effort. Jeremy was having a ball. He thought this was hilarious. He was right, but I was too terrified to notice. Deepali then proceeded to give me the synopsis of the play and the first five or so scenes, which had already been written. They needed someone to rewrite what was already there, and to write the rest of the play. I suddenly felt more secure. Now this was interesting. You see, I actually enjoy these kinds of creative constraints. 
I became this kind of one-man play factory, writing everything for everyone
Back in the nineties, when I was in theatre school studying play writing, I pretty much sold myself to the acting students as the go-to playwright if you couldn’t write a play but had enough ideas for one. I figured it was good practice. So I became this kind of one-man play factory, writing everything for everyone, from surrealistic acrobatic children’s plays to violent psychological thrillers, with the odd love story thrown in for good measure. I would not stand by most of it today, but I learned a lot. Through it all, I figured out how one can really write someone else’s play, and actually enjoy it. In such a task, there is no place for self-indulgence. The idea, as much as humanly possible, is to give them exactly the play they have in their head, not yours, while at the same time sprinkling it with subtle ideas and flourishes of your own. 
I’ve tried the “I’m an artist and I do my own thing” attitude before in this context, and it just doesn’t work. One awesome fail among my theatre school era plays was a project for which the Director had invited me to a series of rehearsals, in which the actors were to improvise variations on the theme of relationships. The point was to have me take notes and write a love story based on those improvised scenes. Except that the actors spent most of those rehearsals arguing with each other. So I took a lot of notes. Those arguments would sometimes get ugly, but it was so much more interesting than anything they could possibly improvise! To me, this said a lot more about relationships than any generic love story. So, without giving anyone involved a clue about what I was up to, I went home and wrote a whole play of couples fighting, screaming and insulting each other. I thought it was great. I will never forget the first reading. The Director and actors felt (justifiably) cheated. That simply wasn’t what they wanted to do. Lesson learned. I had to go back home and write the generic love story.
MainLine creations have always relied as heavily on how they tell a story as they have on the story they tell.
But now, Poutine Masala. “Can you handle the spice?” It’s almost like being challenged to literally create a new genre of theatre. Now that I think back on it, it makes sense that Jeremy would want to produce this. MainLine creations have always relied as heavily on how they tell a story as they have on the story they tell. For example, with Johnny Canuck and the Last Burlesque, Jeremy and Patrick Goddard used the Language of burlesque to tell the story of Montreal's burlesque scene in the 1950s. The Midlife Crisis of Dionysus, again devised by Hechtman & Goddard, used the structure of Greek tragedy to tell the story of the Greek god of theatre. Poutine Masala had to be a uniquely Montreal story told in the language of Bollywood cinema. For me, that meant homework. Lots of homework.
Deepali sent me home with some Bollywood DVD’s and videocassettes. I watched them all. Some of them I watched more than once. It took one film to instantly turn me into a fan. I was fascinated. It was so cheesy it was hilarious. Every cliché Hollywood ever invented, all in one film. A pure postmodern pop culture remix, Indian style. These people film love stories like Sergio Leone filmed westerns. And they can make any type of character break into dance at any moment in any kind of story. For example, Dabangg (2010) is simply one of the most awesome action films ever, plus no Stallone character could ever shake his ass between gunfights like police officer Chulbul Pandey while remaining totally virile and dangerous.       
For example, how the girl often has wind blowing her hair when the boy meets her for the first time
The theatre buff in me was also fascinated by the genre. I realized it was not unlike most traditional forms of Asian theatre. It had its own language. It was codified. There are very specific ways to film various types of scenes, and most Bollywood films stick to that code. For example, how the girl often has wind blowing her hair when the boy meets her for the first time, or how she almost always gets caught in the rain when they break up. Because there is almost always a breakup toward the middle of the film, and then you spend the second half wondering by what miraculous events they will possibly get back together. And the events that bring them back together are almost always close to being miraculous. And throughout the whole thing, characters constantly express their feelings through gigantic choreographies involving hundreds of people that just happened to be there when the song started playing.
I read Deepali’s scenes and synopsis a few times, then Deepali, Jeremy and I sat down and brainstormed a new synopsis, adding some Montreal Steak Spice to the trilingual story (French, English and Hindi) of an Indian girl who fled an arranged marriage (most Bollywood films feature an arranged marriage that the protagonists are trying to avoid, because they’re in love with someone else; very Shakespearean, when you think about it) by moving to Montréal, and fell in love with un Québécois pure laine. I told them it would be finished within a month. It would be four months before I really finished it. The more I watched the films, the more the play appeared to me in all its complexities. For example, the dance numbers. Deepali being the choreographer, she was already working on various dances for the show as I was writing it. Creating the short scenes that lead in and out of Dee’s dance numbers turned out to be one of the many great challenges I faced while writing Poutine Masala. And then, of course, there’s the trilingual dialogue between bilingual Montrealers who speak French and English, and bilingual Indians who speak Hindi and English. Deepali would write all the Hindi dialogues and send them to me, and I would have to devise ways of interlacing these three languages together, all the while trying to make the mix (a real poutine if you ask me) completely coherent for the average Montrealer.     
The challenge with this piece was to honestly portray a complex, contemporary relationship while staying true to the Bollywood aesthetic.
While the characters and the trilingual text make the show Montreal-centric, the central themes of the show are universal: a culture clash that lies at the heart of the show, in this case between the Indian and Québécois ways of life and love. Bollywood cinema is famous for exploring complicated romantic relationships through cheesy song and dance numbers. The challenge with this piece was to honestly portray a complex, contemporary relationship while staying true to the Bollywood aesthetic.
Poutine Masala is not a traditional musical. The use of dance, the style of acting, the choice of music is unlike anything local audiences are accustomed to. But that’s the whole point. Both Indian and Québécois cultures are deeply rooted in traditions which, on the surface, seem incompatible. Creating a show which bridges these two cultures and speaks to both was arguably the biggest challenge I have ever faced as a writer. 
So, the question was: “Can you handle the spice?” 
I think we handled it pretty well. Now, can you handle it? 
You should come out and taste the spice.
Writer/performer Stéfan Cédilot first graduated from L’École Supérieure de Théâtre de l’UQÀM in 1999, and again in 2010 with a masters degree in theatre. His first one-man-show, Zeppelin c’t’un cover band, was originally produced in French in 2006 at Mainline Theatre, and remounted for the 2007 Montreal Fringe Festival. The English version, Zeppelin Was a Cover Band, became one of the hit shows of the Montreal Fringe in 2008, and was also performed at Centaur Theatre’s Wildside festival in 2009. Autobiomusicograph(y)ie, his bilingual duo performance with fellow writer/performer Ben Kalman, was nominated for the Cirque du Soleil « Best Original Production » award at the 2010 Montreal Fringe. Stéfan’s latest one-man-show, All I Want is U2, was co-produced by Mainline Theatre in 2011. He is currently directing the upcoming Montreal Fringe production of Ben Kalman’s  Vicious Circles, while still performing Zeppelin Was a Cover Band regularly in bars and small venues from Montreal to Chicoutimi. 

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