Skip to main content
Louise Bessette
Louise Bessette

Montreal actor and theatre head, and 2019 Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards recipient, Lorraine Pintal got bitten by the bug during a high-school turn as a character in Waiting for Godot

Martin Morrow

Published April 22, 2019

Lorraine Pintal receives a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement later this month.

Christinne Muschi / The Globe and Mail

There is something delightful in learning from Lorraine Pintal that her career epiphany came while acting in an all-female high-school drama club production of Waiting for Godot.

“It was directed by a professional director who loved to get involved in amateur theatre and he gave all the roles to women,” Pintal recalls. “I played Lucky.”

Picture, if you will, a teenage version of the petite, blond Pintal, distinguished head of Montreal’s Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, in the part of that ill-treated slave, a human beast of burden who hauls about the rich man Pozzo. It’s a taxing role that would be thankless if it weren’t for Lucky’s extraordinary Act 1 monologue – a strange, rambling, stream-of-consciousness tour de force.

Performing in the Samuel Beckett classic was enough to convince Pintal that she’d found her métier. “That type of absurd theatre literally overwhelmed me,” she says. “The theatre became a dream that I had to pursue.”

She took on roles both onstage – notably in her celebrated one-woman show Madame Louis 14 – and offstage, where she continues in her long-running dual role as Théâtre du Nouveau Monde’s artistic director and general manager. It’s a part she adopted in 1992 and one she has played with success – if occasional headline-grabbing controversy – ever since.

Her remarkable career is being recognized this month, when Pintal receives a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement.

But if that sounds like the cue for a well-earned retirement, Pintal, 67, is having none of it. Even after more than a quarter-century at the helm, she hasn’t lost the energy to fight for the theatre she believes in.

“On the contrary, it is increasing,” she says. Today, TNM, one of Quebec’s flagship theatres, is facing the challenge of proving its continued relevance to a more culturally diverse province. “We’re being forced to show boldness, creativity and renewal in order to broaden the influence of this living art,” she says.

Besides, she adds, she’s too busy planning the theatre’s next renovation project. It’s a $20-million expansion and upgrade of the company’s iconic venue at the corner of Montreal’s Ste-Catherine and St-Urbain streets, to be completed in 2022. “So my passion and desire to carry out TNM’s mission are still alive and well.”

Story continues below advertisement

We’re being forced to show boldness, creativity and renewal in order to broaden the influence of this living art," says Pintal of the future of Théâtre du Nouveau Monde.

Photo by Jean-François Gratton

Born in 1951 in Plessisville, Que., and raised in Granby, east of Montreal, Pintal has always loved the arts. As a child, she aspired to be a singer in the Édith Piaf mould. “However, very early on I was enrolled in poetry classes given by the great actress France Arbor,” she says, “and she introduced me to the theatre.”

Schooled at the Conservatoire Lassalle (scene of her Godot revelation) and the Conservatoire d’art dramatique in Montreal, she burst on the Quebec theatre scene in 1973. That year, she co-founded the collective Théâtre de La Rallonge and performed in her first Théâtre du Nouveau Monde show – a production of Dario Fo’s satire Mistero Buffo, directed by the legendary André Brassard.

Pintal credits Brassard with influencing her own style of directing, which empowers the actors. By the 1980s, she had made the transition to director herself, staging a string of acclaimed productions for La Rallonge. When she did act, it was to star in 1988’s self-penned Madame Louis 14. Based on the life of the Marquise de Maintenon – secret wife to France’s “Sun King” and, in Pintal’s view, a 17th-century proto-feminist – the solo show was an award-winning hit that toured Canada and France. She revived it in 2011 for TNM’s 60th anniversary.

Pintal says the project grew out of a crisis in her artistic life. “I had arrived at a turning point, where I was questioning the meaning of my involvement in the theatre and, especially, the role played by a director in the creative process.” Creating the production, which she also directed and designed, gave her a renewed sense of purpose. “It was a landmark experience that reinforced my choice to devote my life to the theatre.”

Soon after, she was successfully tackling another crisis. When she was hired to run TNM, the illustrious company was in trouble, shedding patrons and bleeding red ink. Pintal wiped out a deficit of more than a million dollars, more than tripled subscriptions and oversaw a $13-million renovation in the mid-1990s that transformed its aging building into one of Montreal’s cultural hotspots.

As a director there, she’s staged an array of memorable productions, from Bertolt Brecht’s St. Joan of the Stockyards and Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler to Claude Gauvreau’s Les Oranges sont vertes and Réjean Ducharme’s HA Ha! As a programmer, she has made the theatre a home for Quebec’s leading contemporary playwrights, including Michel Marc Bouchard, Carole Fréchette and Evelyne de la Chenelière.

Story continues below advertisement

She has also proved fearless in her defence of TNM’s artists when they have provoked controversy.

In 2011, she faced an outcry over the theatre’s decision to present Quebec playwright-director Wajdi Mouawad’s international production Des Femmes, a trilogy of Greek tragedies featuring a score by French rock star and convicted murderer Bertrand Cantat. When word got out that Cantat – who had served a prison sentence for killing actress Marie Trintignant – would be performing in the show, it was met with outrage from women’s groups as well as politicians. Pintal countered by supporting Mouawad’s decision. “I was asked to retry [Cantat] but I can’t be a judge,” she told the Globe at the time. “I’m an artistic director who believes in an artistic project.”

As it turned out, Cantat was legally unable to enter Canada, so a substitute stepped in and the show went on. That wasn’t the case last summer, however, when Pintal and TNM again faced protests, this time for hosting the Robert Lepage-directed SLĀV. A revue of African-American slave songs, performed by a mostly white cast, it was accused of cultural appropriation and, following pickets outside the theatre, ultimately cancelled.

Pintal doesn’t want to re-open the Cantat debate today, but she still stands by her artists. “As far as SLĀV is concerned, I have repeatedly denounced what for me was an infringement of freedom of expression, which seems to me to be a fundamental right of any artist,” she says.

“We have all learned from this controversy,” she adds. “I hope that in the future we will be able to establish the kind of respectful and constructive dialogue necessary to discuss these issues.”

Pintal has made regular forays outside the theatre over the years, acting in films, producing television series and hosting a literary talk show on Radio-Canada. She also flirted briefly – and painfully – with politics, running as a Parti Québécois candidate in the tumultuous 2014 provincial election that brought down the PQ government. “Beyond a personal defeat, it was above all the defeat of the party that shook me,” she says.

She remains committed to the social causes that prompted her run, but says she has no desire to enter the political arena again.

As for the future?

“My head is filled with projects that are not all necessarily related to the theatre,” she says. “Such as writing, filmmaking and – why not? – a happy return to the acting game.”

The Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards gala will be held on April 27 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

More stories from the Globe and Mail