Interview with Julie McIsaac & Corey Payette

Julie McIsaac & Corey Payette are Vancouver-based theatre artists and composers. They are co-writers of Les Filles du Roi, and have been collaborating on the creation of this new musical for the past two years. At the beginning of the October 2016 rehearsal process, they sat down with Fugue to discuss the work and the next phase of its development.

How did this project begin? 

Julie McIsaac: We’ve been working on this show for the past two years. I was chatting with [Fugue Artistic Director] Laura Di Cicco three years ago, and she was asking me about projects and stories I wanted to tell. I told her about my upbringing in a Francophone community in Ontario - my mother is French Canadian and I went to French school until I was 18. And in school, all the history I learned was very much through the lens of French Canada and Western Europe. One of the things I learned about while in school was this era in our history, where the King of France, as part of this mission to colonize and populate the New World, collected young women - orphans and widows and anyone who wanted to go - and put them on a boat and sent them across the ocean to New France in the 1600s. I was 14 when I learned about the filles du roi, and I was reeling because these girls were between 12 and 20 years old, and so I was thinking, “whoa, what!? They’re leaving everything they know and getting on this boat and going away?!”

And, this mission worked – because from that point onwards, if you look at the statistics, the population of New France started growing exponentially. There were things like bonuses, too – if you had ten kids, you got this much money, if you had twelve kids, you got more money. So basically these women were being paid for their reproductive prowess, which, as a contemporary women, is really hard to get my head around.                                                    

So, I was interested in feminizing that narrative, and digging into what the women would have been thinking and feeling. I really wanted to work with Corey as a composer, because we’d met through other projects. I brought the idea to him, and I’m grateful to have him on board, because I would not want to tell this story without him, and the perspective that he brings.

Corey Payette: When we came into it, we were just exploring the theme of les filles du roi, and trying to uncover who these young women were and why they would come. It’s important to acknowledge that my background is Oji-Cree First Nations, from Northern Ontario, and when we started working on this show, it was around the same time that my Mamère, on my Dad’s side, said, “Oh, we’re actually not from Northern Ontario, our family moved here in the early 1900s, we’re actually from Kahnawà:ke,” which is right across from Montreal. So when Julie started telling me about the women who arrived in New France, I said, “Oh, well, my family is from this place, right across the water.” And I thought, wouldn’t that be fascinating, to be able to explore this story, through the perspectives of all the people who were here at the time?

When we began, it really started from a place of land. We were talking about survival, and what the reality would be for les filles, living on the land and surviving. And no one had a greater understanding of that land than the Indigenous people in the area. Once we acknowledged that, we couldn’t go back to just imagining it as a story of only these young women. We realized that the story is so much more rich and complex than we imagined it to be.

JM: And then, during the summer, in the midst of this process, I found out that I actually have an ancestor that is a fille du roi. On my mother’s side, if we trace my grandfather all the way back to his male ancestor’s arrival in New France in 1670, that man married a fille du roi.

CP: Which also changed our approach to the material, because we are personally connected to it. It’s not about uncovering this lost history of years ago, it’s like, we are in that history. It lives in us. And in many ways, this work is about that reconnection. So that was the direction we went, and explored with this outreach and community building trip we took in September. We went to Kahnawà:ke and I was hearing the stories about my great, great, great grandfather, who was a Chief, who negotiated peace deals with the Dutch and the English in that time, and finding out that they actually moved from Ahkwesáhsne, which is a community that is further south in Quebec. So we went there, and received the most grounding that this piece has had. We talked with community leaders, and with people from there who were able to give us a much broader sense of the history from an Indigenous perspective at that time. And that was transformative for our whole process – it changed everything. When you hear what the Indigenous people actually thought of this contact at the time, or the actual history of that area, it made you realize, “oh okay, this isn’t something we just have to guess at.” Because this history is not written in a textbook, it’s something that is passed down through an oral culture.

The script for Les Filles du Roi is written in three languages – English, French and Mohawk. What’s it like to co-write this show in these three languages?

JM: It’s really hard, but I’m okay with it being hard, because we recognize that we’re doing something that isn’t often done.  We’re creating this show because of a lack of the stories that we see on our stages.

CP: Both Julie and I grew up in French/English households and schools, and that’s a uniquely Canadian experience. That’s one reason why it’s important to have characters speaking in French and English. But further to that, is the fact that we really don’t have Mohawk or other Indigenous languages on our stages at all.

We wrote the first draft of Les Filles du Roi in English, just to get the structure of it. And now, we are seeding the Mohawk and French languages throughout, and asking questions like, “when is this character going to speak in this language?” and “is this character able to understand the other character they are speaking to?” Often there is no direct translation for Mohawk, so sometimes the translation is just aiming to get the gist of what a phrase means, and that’s been really fascinating, to allow that to reveal certain elements of character or story that perhaps we would not have known otherwise. We’re hoping, in June, to be able to work with an Elder on the script, to help us get it right and make changes.

How is music influencing this process?

JM: Every song has a different process of creation. Some songs, as Corey was writing the melody, the lyrics were coming to him. And then there’s other moments where Corey has a melody, but this character would be speaking in French. We’ve spent hours working on French song lyrics. Because, generally, it takes a more words in French to express the same idea in English. That’s tricky, and makes it harder to be concise, and also grammatically accurate, and poetic and expressive.

CP: I wouldn't say it’s an easy process, but I think, each song is inspired by something different, and emerges in its own way. I’m excited to see how this music resonates with other people, and to see if people start picking up on the hints we are dropping in each of the melodies, whether they are moments where we’re calling back to some old French Canadian song, or if it’s something that’s more rooted in a drumming song, or a walking song that an Indigenous character would sing. At this point, we’re just putting things out there, and then we’ll see what lands with people.

What are you hoping to get out of this next phase of the process?

JM: It’s great having actors in the room, because, as much as Corey and I try and get into the character’s heads, that’s very different than an actor sitting down and just inhabiting that world, that one character’s through line. So the questions that come up for them, the insights they bring, are so valuable. They question things, they offer insights that help us to know what’s on the page, versus what’s in our heads. You need to have the actors in space, interacting with one another, to truly understand relationships, and to see what they are like off the page. That’s an exciting piece to bring in. And then there’s the chorus, who will join us, and that is a real presence that is going to be really impactful.

CP: I’m hoping to engage the cast in a critical discourse around this work; giving them the freedom to speak, and share their ideas. It’s helpful to get us all on the same page in terms of what we’re doing in this stage of development. We’re not aiming towards production yet, so that gives us an enormous amount of freedom, an enormous amount to play with, which I’m excited about. And then, we just have to trust in that process, and give the actors the freedom to explore these characters and who they are. All of that works helps to influence the writing and development of the work as it moves into its next stage.