The indomitable spirit of Madame Collet shines through in latest production of Molière’s ‘Le Malade imaginaire’

May 13, 2024 by Adam Elliott Segal - A&S News

Paulette Collet, professor emerita in the Department of French in the Faculty of Arts & Science, is back in the director’s chair once again as she’s been for more than half a century.

Collet is directing Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire. It’s the 55th year a French play has been staged at the University of Toronto, and 52 years running that Molière’s words have come alive on campus, with Collet at the helm each year.

“I love Molière. I love the 17th century,” says Collet, now 97. “He’s as popular in France as Shakespeare is in England.”

Paulette Collet.
Professor emerita and director of Le Malade imaginaire, Paulette Collet. Photo: Courtesy of Lia Quickert.

Long retired from U of T's St. Michael's College, Collet returns every spring to direct the performance with La Troupe des Anciens de L’Université de Toronto, the theatre group she founded in 1969.

The plays were performed at Alumni Hall throughout the '90s, and more recently the George Ignatieff Theatre, now under renovation. This year, the curtain rose for Le Malade imaginaire over two nights at the historical Arts & Letters Club. The performance was dedicated to Julie McLaughlin, a former cast member and beloved stage manager who passed away last year.

As always, Collet was joined this season by alumni with longstanding relationships to French at U of T.

Gino Muia earned his bachelor of arts in 1972 as a member of St. Michael’s College and master of arts in 1997 from the Department of Italian Studies. A cast member from the first production, Muia, now a grandfather, is a former French high school teacher who credits Collet for igniting a passion for French and teaching.

“I have such great admiration and respect for her,” says Muia, who, along with other members of the cast, often drove the director to and from rehearsals at the Collège Français de Toronto. “Not only as a human being, but for her vast scholarship and knowledge of Molière. She could probably recite many of his plays,” says Muia.

Loyalty to “madame,” as she is affectionately known, extends to familial bonds. Landon Bryson, who earned an honours bachelor of arts as a member Victoria College in 2020 and a master of arts in French in 2022, was simply following in his mother’s footsteps, Elizabeth Bucci, when he joined the troupe.

Gino Muia.
La Troupe des Anciens member, Gino Muia. Photo: Courtesy of Lia Quickert.

Bucci received her bachelor of arts as a member of St. Michael’s College in 1984 and intended to study political science. Her initial campus tour in 1980 came courtesy of Collet, and ultimately, Bucci joined the Department of French and La Troupe des Anciens. Bucci still designs the posters and programs and edited the 50th anniversary book about the storied history of this fiercely loyal group of thespians dedicated to keeping the Molière tradition and Collet’s vision alive.

Mother and son performed one scene together in 2017, when Landon was a first-year undergraduate.

“It was a very sweet scene. She was playing the mother of my love interest. It was a passing of the torch,” says Bryson.

Molière, France’s most well-known playwright, was long a staple in the professor’s course work. In the '80s, students earned half a credit for participating in the play and presenting subsequent course work about the playwright and 17th century French drama.

Collet’s impetus to include Molière as part of the curriculum went beyond a simple love for the work. “I wanted my students to improve pronunciation and fluency in French,” says Collet.

The cast, mostly non-native French speakers, deliver the entirety of the production in French along with English surtitles. Bryson credits Collet’s unmatched memory for the playwright’s work and the one-on-one pronunciation and diction lessons they regularly had together for his success on stage as the lead actor in several Molière plays.

"Madame Collet is a singularly talented educator. She is the kind of person who, with no text in hand, can correct anything you're doing related to Molière. She knows it off the top of her head, front to back,” says Bryson.

Being a part of the department and the troupe, “is the reason we speak French,” says Bryson, whose family is of Italian heritage. “I didn't have many opportunities to speak French in a way that is necessary to learn a language.”

Landon Bryson.
Landon Bryson attends the production at the Arts & Letters Club. Photo: Courtesy of Lia Quickert.

After escaping the Nazis in her home country of Belgium during the Second World War, Collet spent her high school years in England, earning a bachelor of arts at King’s College in London before moving to the island of Mauritius, where she served as an education officer in her Majesty’s Colonial Service from 1952-1960. Collet landed in Toronto in 1967 as a global citizen. For her commitment and passion to preserving French language and culture, Collet is a recipient of France's prestigious Ordre des Palmes Académiques, and the Société d'histoire de Toronto's Prix Jean-Baptiste Rousseaux.

A book was produced five years ago to celebrate the half-centenary, La Troupe des Anciens de l’Université de Toronto (1969-2019): 50 ans de théâtre français à Toronto (2019), which was donated to the St. Michael’s College John M. Kelly Library. Additional archival materials such as programs, posters and photos are housed in the St. Michael College’s archives.

“It’s a valuable collection of materials,” archivist Jessica Bar said at the time. “We’ll be able to preserve the memory of this group of students and alumni.”

What is it about Molière that Collet keeps returning to after all these years?

“He’s our Shakespeare.”