Cercle Molière, Le

 "When I think of all the political, cultural, technical and financial obstacles the Cercle Molière has had to overcome, especially at the beginning, I am proud of it, just as is every true Franco-Manitoban." (Armand La Flèche)

Manitoba's Cercle Molière is the oldest permanent theatre company with uninterrupted programming in Canada. It was founded in 1925 by a group of drama enthusiasts who wanted to promote and develop the cultural activities of the thriving francophone community of St-Boniface, situated across from Winnipeg on the Red River. The principal founding members were Louis-Philippe Gagnon (president 1925-27), André Castelein de la Lande (artistic director 1925-27) and Raymond Bernier (secretary and treasurer). The first play produced by the Cercle Molière was Edouard Pailleron's Le Monde où l'on s'ennuie, presented at the Dominion Theatre on 25 April 1925.

The company's original objective was to produce excellent theatre reflecting French metropolitan culture and ideas to both French- and English-speaking audiences. The company's founders wanted Cercle Molière to create ties between the French and English communities in Manitoba. To this end, an advisory committee composed of six members - three francophone and three anglophone - was established, a mechanism that helped to bridge the gap between the two languages and cultures.

Bringing together francophones of different origins - Belgian, Swiss, French, French Canadian, to name some - the Cercle Molière flourished, although its financial situation was often precarious. Rehearsals were held in private homes, in classrooms or in borrowed halls until, in the late 1950s, the company was offered a more permanent home by Mgr Léo Blais in the basement of St-Boniface Cathedral. In 1967 the Cercle Molière moved to the Centre culturel de Saint-Boniface, located in the Académie Saint-Joseph, before moving in 1974 to its current home in the then newly constructed Centre culturel franco-manitobain.

The Cercle Molière's plays have been staged at the WALKER THEATRE, the Pantages Playhouse and the Civic Auditorium as well as at the auditoriums of the École Provencher, the Collège de Saint-Boniface, the Académie Saint-Joseph, the Salle Pauline-Boutal in the Centre culturel franco-manitobain, and most recently at the Théâtre de la Chapelle. The Salle Pauline-Boutal, inaugurated in 1975, was named in honour of Pauline Boutal, artistic director of the Cercle Molière from 1941 to 1968 as well as comedienne and producer from 1928 to 1964.

From 1934 until 1974, the Cercle Molière participated regularly in the DOMINION DRAMA FESTIVAL (1933-74) where it won many awards and several for best French play, including Blanchette by Eugène Brieux (1934); Les Soeurs Guédonnec by Jean-Jacques Bernard (1936, a production that included author Gabrielle ROY and Eliza Houde in the cast); Le chant du berceau by C. and M. Martinez-Sierra (1938); L'avare by Molière (1950); and Les fourberies de Scapin, also by Molière (1956). Pauline Boutal won the best French actress award in 1936 and both best actress and best French actress in 1938. Many other actors and actresses from Cercle Molière won awards at the Dominion Drama Festival during this period, and actor Jean-Louis Hébert won a bursary to study at the École supérieure d'Art dramatique in Strasbourg, France (1969).

The tradition of taking the Cercle Molière's plays on tour began in 1929-30, when artistic director Arthur Boutal and his troupe took Alphonse Daudet's play L'Arlèsienne to 30 francophone villages in Manitoba. In 1959 the Cercle Molière was the first amateur theatre to receive a grant from the CANADA COUNCIL enabling the company to tour outside the province of Manitoba. It has toured extensively in francophone centres in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Alberta and has also travelled to eastern Canada; in 1974 it toured Newfoundland with the play Les Vilains by Ruzzante and André Gille. With the support of the Canada Council, the Manitoba Arts Council, the Secretary of State and the City of Winnipeg, the Cercle continues to promote francophone theatre with tours in the western provinces organized for the general public. In 1980 the Cercle Molière began touring plays for children, the first being Nico et Niski et la Raquette Volante by Claude Dorge.

Over the years the Cercle Molière has received many honours and awards. The French government has recognized the services rendered by the company in promoting French culture and, through its embassy, has given several awards to members of the troupe: the Palmes académiques to Arthur and Pauline Boutal (1939); the Médaille de la Reconnaissance to Pauline Boutal (1950); and the Médaille du Ministère des affaires étrangères to Norbert Trudel, Christiane LeGoff and Suzanne Tremblay.

 The Canada Council for the Arts has also offered bursaries to members of the Cercle Molière for studies in Canada or abroad. The Canadian Drama Award was awarded to Arthur and Pauline Boutal (1950), Elisa Houde (1949), Christiane LeGoff (1963) and Gilles Guyot (1966). Pauline BOUTAL received the award of Mérite de la culture française in Canada (1971) and became a member of the ORDER OF CANADA (1973). In 1991 the Prix Réseau was awarded to Irene Mahé, who became a member of the Ordre des Francophones d'Amerique (1991). In 1995 Roland Mahé received the Prix Manitoba Award.

The artistic directors of the Cercle Molière, with their dreams and visions, all influenced the evolution of the company. Among these, three are particularly important because of the length of their respective mandates: Arthur Boutal, artistic director from 1926 to 1940; Pauline Boutal, artistic director from 1941 to 1968; and Roland MAHÉ, artistic director since 1968.

In 1985, the Cercle Molière created the Théâtre du Grand Cercle, whose goal is to develop and encourage a deeper knowledge and appreciation of theatre in younger audiences. The company founded the Festival Théâtre Jeunesse in 1970, a festival where francophone youth, including immersion students from Manitoba and all the western Canadian provinces, are invited to perform original plays in French. In 2002, more than 600 students attended this event, presenting 26 plays, many of which were original creations.

Finally, the Cercle has collaborated with companies such as PRAIRIE THEATRE EXCHANGE, the Manitoba Theatre for Young People (1986), the Théâtre français du Centre national des Arts (1991, 1992 and 2002), the Unithéâtre (2002) and the Théâtre français de Toronto (1989 and 1991), and has hosted productions from visiting companies such as the Théâtre l'Escaouette, the Théâtre Blanc (Québec), the Théâtre de l'Île (Hull) and the Troupe du Jour (Saskatoon).

Despite the financial constraints many arts and cultural organizations have had to contend with in recent years, the Cercle Molière has consistently maintained the quality and variety of its productions and has expanded its repertoire to include plays written by Franco-Manitoban authors. To celebrate its 75th aniversary, the Cercle presented a 2001-2002 season composed entirely of a repertoire of Franco-Manitoban plays. And, in 2002, the Cercle Molière received from the Académie québecoise de théâtre a "Masque" for "the best franco-canadian production of 2001" for its production Poissons, whose text was written by Franco-Manitoban Marc Prescott for the silver anniversary of the company.