As film crews and Hollywood stars poured into town last summer for the filming of Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Empire Falls, the buzz in Waterville coffee shops and at dinner parties was that actor Ed Harris would play the beleaguered character Miles Roby, and what would Waterville look like on the screen?
Playwright Gregoire Chabot reads from his work at a recent performance in Waterville. Chabot's work explores Franco-American culture in milltown New England.
But while hundreds of residents stood in line for the chance to be extras in the film, a smaller audience gathered to hear a different story about the intersecting lives of a man down on his luck and a powerful older woman,not Russo's Robys and Whitings but Gregoire Chabot's Fortins and Desbleuets.
Chabot '66 has stories of his own to tell about life in a mill town in central Maine.
Set in Waterville, Chabot's play A perte de vue (As Far as the Eye Can See) is a bittersweet and often wryly comical story about coming to terms with one's community. And it resonates on many levels with Les Bavards (roughly translated as "conversationalists"), a group of Franco Mainers who meet regularly to speak and live in French. They have gathered to hear Chabot's story, set in the neighborhood many of them grew up in. Afterwards they trade half-remembered French expressions from their childhoods and speculate not about movie stars but on the real-life inspirations for Chabot's characters.
Like many Americans with an ethnic identity, Chabot has a double life. As owner of Chabot, INK, a New Hampshire marketing, communications and consulting firm, he makes his living as a writer in English. But he writes in French in order to survive as a Franco American. "It's a way of being and expressing myself to my community," he said. Eager to reach anyone who will listen, Chabot also translates his stories into English, often weaving back and forth between the two versions, though his characters and situations are more vivid, as he is, en français.
Chabot grew up in Waterville in the '50s and '60s when "preservation" was the watchword for keeping French language and culture alive. But this attitude had the opposite effect, he said: "In order to preserve it, you have to kill it; you embalm it and you set it there for everyone to admire, but you can't touch it or you'll go to hell." Faced with such a stark choice, many of Chabot's young peers said "to hell with French," which is why his audience today is mostly grayer than he is. At a time when French seemed to be all about the past, many chose a future in English.
Ironically, becoming a French major at Colby was Chabot's solution to remaining connected to his heritage without getting trapped in the nostalgia of the preservationists. Though it meant leaving behind the familiar accents and vocabulary of home, there were compensations: "My name wasn't murdered by Anglos anymore," he said, laughing.
Meanwhile, across the border in Québec, the Quiet Revolution was proving that a vibrant French cultural life was possible in the present. Pursuing graduate studies in French at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Chabot encountered Professor Don Dugas, who found Chabot's Franco heritage something worth celebrating, not erasing. Chabot, whose love of theater had been fostered at Colby through the student theater group Powder and Wig, began to write skits with Dugas for a French-language show on the local public radio station. "Using theater is nice and subversive because you can put the language right in front of people," he said. (In Waterville, when Chabot and Marie Cormier performed his satirical mock commercial for Assimilo, their Les Bavards audience talked right back to them, ignoring the "fourth wall.")
Chabot's success with French theater in the 1970s led to a contract for Jacques Cartier Errant, a play that is now studied at Colby, UMO, Brown and SUNY-Albany as part of a living canon of North American francophone writers. But oddly enough, Colby professors Jane Moss and Arthur Greenspan both learned about Chabot's work from their colleagues elsewhere, despite the fact that he still has strong ties to Waterville (his mother lives there) and lives in New Hampshire.
Gregoire Chabot and actress Marie Cormier perform one of Chabot's works in French at Waterville Public Library.
While attending a conference in Fredericton, N.B., Robert E. Diamond Professor of Women's Studies and Professor of French Jane Moss says her head "snapped" when she heard a reference from the back of the room to "this wonderful playwright from Waterville, Maine." What she discovered in her own backyard was a unique voice in francophone literature. "Rather than looking back with nostalgia he looks back with a more analytical, satirical sense of humor," Moss said. "He never goes for the easy explanation or falls into victimhood."
Why isn't Chabot better known in his own community? "We're always on the edge of disappearing," he said. In fact, Chabot himself "disappeared" for 10 years, disillusioned with attempts to revive French. After his initial success with French theater, he had become the assistant director of a bilingual resource and training center at Boston University. When funding evaporated in the early 1980s, Chabot headed into the English world of commercial writing for high-tech companies.
His frustration with the francophone community is still palpable: "We're in a paper bag and the opening is here, and we keep going that way," he said, pointing in the opposite direction. "Francos are wonderfully process-oriented, which is great, but after a while the American side of you says, give me a product!" And here he slips into one of his zany characters: "We've been processing for the past twenty-five years, for chrissakes! Give me a product,anything, just the smallest thing,I'm not asking for much. Gimme a radish, I don't know, something!"
Chabot finally received a "radish" in 1996, when the University of Maine Press published a collection of his plays, including Jacques Cartier Errant. That led to the formation of a theater troupe, Les gens d'à côté (The folks next door), based in Waterville, which has since taken Chabot's stories of Franco Maine to Québec, Louisiana and France. In 2001 he participated in a panel discussion on Franco-American history, literature and culture at Colby, organized by Jane Moss. Extracts from his witty essays, Entre la manie et la phobie were published in a 2002 volume of Québec Studies on Franco America, which Moss edited.
These days, Chabot is cautiously optimistic about an apparent renaissance in Waterville, where 40 percent consider themselves Franco Americans. In addition to groups like Les Bavards, there have been film festivals at Railroad Square Cinema, a Franco-American Festival hosted by the city and plans to develop a French cultural center. In addition, Chabot is excited about a new generation of college students who think it's cool to study Franco-American culture and don't carry the baggage of his generation.
He's determined to document the experience of his own community. With "creativity" as his watchword, he is writing his way out of that paper bag with his unique blend of delicious wordplay and sharp cultural analysis. According to Moss, it's a fine line he is walking between respect for the old community and those who have lost their language.
It may be a delicate balancing act but Chabot seems to thrive on the edge, and he notes with pride that French is still spoken after 300 years in North America. It doesn't look like Chabot's audience will be disappearing any time soon.