Eighty-five-year-old Viola Léger has been embodying La Sagouine, the famous character from Antonine Maillet’s eponymous 1971 play, for over 40 years. She has delivered these monologues more than 2,500 times – in French and English, in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. But a new series of performances are about to begin, and the usual jitters have set in.
With immense tenderness and delicacy, filmmaker Rodolphe Caron follows the veteran Acadian actress as she prepares for the big day, giving her full rein to voice her hopes, doubts and fears.
While rummaging through her keepsakes, Léger fondly looks back on the highlights of her career and the passion that continues to fuel her even today. With equal parts humour, kindness and gentleness, her memories flow from her father to becoming a nun, from working as a teacher and discovering her passion for theatre to her friendship with Antonine Maillet, from touring with the play to her years working in the Senate… Through it all, Léger’s gratitude for all the support she has been given rings clear.
Though she still spends her summers on stage in Bouctouche, Léger cannot help but wonder about her final scene. One thing is certain, La Sagouine will surely live on.
Eighty-five-year-old Viola Léger has been embodying La Sagouine, the famous character from Antonine Maillet’s eponymous 1971 play, for over 40 years. She has delivered these monologues more than 2,500 times in French and English, in Canada, the U.S. and Europe – not to mention the many other theatrical and TV roles she has played over the course of her career. But a new series of performances is about to begin and with them come the usual jitters. Despite her rock-solid experience and recognized talent, the thought of returning to the stage always fills Léger with trepidation. This time around, Léger is gearing up for twenty performances in Gatineau.
For Uniquely Viola, filmmaker Rodolphe Caron (Marie Hélène Allain Speaking with Stone, For the Cause, Viola Léger, Together) joins the veteran actress in rehearsal, inviting her to talk about her long and successful career and the passions that fuel her.
La Sagouine’s facial expressions, mannerisms, hoarse voice and way of speaking all but second nature to Léger after all these years. Nonetheless, she still toils, questions and repeats scenes in rehearsal as if it were the very first time. Léger may not have the same energy she once had, but she artfully adapts. She has never been afraid to roll up her sleeves; those who know her describe her as a headstrong go-getter. Despite all this, her nerves get the better of her during the many readings, set changes and whatnot. What if people don’t come? What if they don’t like it?
With immense tenderness and delicacy, Caron closely follows Léger as she prepares for the big day, giving her full rein to voice her hopes, doubts and fears. When she dons her old “rags” and makes up her age-worn face, Léger’s sharp mind and wit are as endearing as her joy in returning to her much-beloved La Sagouine. The play’s enduring success is no surprise to Léger: It’s a universal story with timeless themes and flawlessly written lines.
Caron allows himself to completely fade into the background, leaving Léger to fill the screen as she rummages through her many keepsake boxes, retracing the path that led to her becoming an actress at the age of forty while still teaching alongside Antonine Maillet. For Maillet, meeting Léger was a pivotal moment for her world-famous play. “Without Viola, La Sagouine would not be what it is today,” she says, a comment that that speaks volumes of the era in which it was written. It was the early 70s, and the future of Acadian culture was in serious doubt. Maillet’s strong character quickly became the voice of a people, but nothing could have prepared Léger for the success that awaited her.
Speaking with equal parts humour, kindness and gentleness, Léger reminisces about the past: about her father, the short man forever a giant in her eyes… becoming a nun at the Notre-Dame-du-Sacré-Cœur Congregation… working as a teacher and discovering not only her passion for theatre but also her friendship with Antonine Maillet… and how La Sagouine came to be. As Léger’s stories of touring with the play shift to her years working in the Senate, enhanced by Caron’s light-handed use of photo archives, her gratitude for all the support and opportunities she has been given rings clear. In one box, Léger finds the many prizes and medals she has been awarded over the years: the Order of Canada, the Order of New Brunswick, the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la France, the Ordre des Francophones d’Amérique… She also fondly remembers working in the Senate and being chosen to represent minorities, passionately defending Aboriginal rights and the role of artists in society.
Though she still spends her summers on stage in Bouctouche at the Pays de la Sagouine, playing the harmonica and telling her stories, Léger cannot help but think ahead to her final scene, wondering if another actress will ever be able to fill such big shoes. But one thing is certain in Léger’s mind: La Sagouine will surely live on. Whoever Léger’s replacement may one day be, she will certainly need plenty of strength and talent. And for anyone who has seen Léger embody La Sagouine on stage, a huge helping of that famous Acadian charm as well.
A film by
Researched, written and directed by
Music Recording Studio
Paul Marcel Albert
Raymond Guy LeBlanc
Infographics and Titles
Research and Rights Clearance
Centaur Theater Company
Theatre New Brunswick
Nérée De Grâce
Centre d’études acadiennes Anselme-Chiasson
Grand Falls Historical Society
Journal La Cataracte
Compagnie Viola Léger
Senate of Canada
Original Literary Works
La Sagouine – Antonine Maillet
Poème du mois de juillet 1982 – Raymond Guy LeBlanc
La petite histoire de la Sagouine, Veillée avec Viola – Viola Léger
Additional Technical Support
Director, Radio-Canada Acadie
The National Film Board of Canada
Canadian Francophonie Studio – Acadie