Director Simon Mallett says Bashir Lazhar — a play later turned into an Oscar-nominated film — is about the challenges of leaving one’s homeland.
Canada’s identity, he says, has evolved in part as a result of ongoing immigration, but Bashir Lazhar is also about education and the role educators must play in the lives of young people.
These dual themes are interwoven through the story of the play’s central character, Bashir Lazhar, who escapes conflict in Algeria by immigrating to Canada and taking a job as a substitute teacher.
Lazhar passes on his love of learning to his Grade 6 class and the students come to admire and respect him, but his unconventional teaching style and his troubled past drag him into troubled waters — particularly after he helps the students deal with a tragedy of their own. The play was originally written in French by Canadian playwright Evelyne de la Chenelière and translated into English by Morwyn Brebner. The film adaptation of the play, titled Monsieur Lazhar, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
For Mallett, the play asks important questions about Canadian identity and how that identity is comprised of many unique experiences. Calgary itself is a destination for many new Canadians seeking out its economic advantages, and Mallett believes that many of the critical roles in the city are played by people from diverse backgrounds.
“Who we are as a city is a byproduct of a million different stories,” he says, adding that the diversity of those voices is part of what strengthens us. He says it’s crucial that Calgarians think about ways to facilitate the journeys and settlement of new Canadians, because what new Canadians have to offer our city is a big part of how we will develop over the coming years.
“And we [at Downstage] are excited to be contributing to the conversation about how both new Canadians and the next generation can fuel us in our continued evolution. I think the dialogue around that is critical for a healthy and strong and sustainable municipal landscape.”
In terms of the play’s educational theme, assistant director Stacy Harrison points out that schools are essentially helping to raise the next generation of children, and play a role as important as parents.
“There are difficult things happening around and to children all the time. It’s a different world than it used to be,” she says, explaining that how we teach young people to deal with these problems will affect their growth as citizens.
Mallett agrees. “If a tragic event happens, is it okay to ask your students to write essays about tragic events and share that with the class? Or should we not do that because, ‘Oh my God, someone could be offended’ — someone’s parents could be upset? What’s the right way to deal with these difficult subjects? What’s the role of the school through difficult times? There’s a need for schools to nurture students forward as human beings and not just be babysitting.... The way we deal with students and children at times of crisis goes a long way to determine how they deal with crisis down the road.”
Lazhar’s love of education and children — and the experience of tragedy he shares with his students — bring these seemingly unrelated topics together. Lazhar says he needs to be surrounded by children because they help him hope for a better future.
Though the play was written as a one-man show, the Downstage production will feature a second person who manifests a childish presence onstage. Mallett says that although the film differs from the play in many ways, it articulated the importance of the students on the journey of Lazhar. The second performer will be largely movement-based and bring to life that crucial part of Bashir’s story arc.