June 2017 | Profile by Jane Ledwell
"I really believe that saying, ‘Laughter is the best medicine,’” says Raymond Arsenault earnestly, writer and director of plays and dinner theatre productions in the Island’s francophone Evangeline region.
“I like to consider myself a doctor of laughter,” he says. The doctor is keeping office hours this summer in Abram-Village, where he has written a new show for the Acadian Musical Village’s “Venez Veillez” dinner theatre. The show, “Retour au fou-foyer,” is his prescription for a strong dose of misunderstanding, mayhem, farce, and physical humour.
“My favourite thing in the world is the sound of laughter,” Raymond says. “I’ve been blessed in my life to be able to create laughter.” While he has written drama and tragedy and plays with morals, he find that what people want is an escape.
Over the past years, Raymond has written about 70 plays, about 20 of them for dinner theatres. While he won’t admit to being a singer, he also writes music and has written written 75 to 100 songs, several of which have been performed in his plays or recorded by other artists. He won a competition to write a French adaptation of “The Island Hymn,” and his words in French now stand alongside L.M. Montgomery’s words in English. “When the muses sing, I have to listen,” he smiles.
“Whatever is needed, comes out. I don’t know where it comes from,” he says. “I feel like I’m a vehicle to get the songs out, the stories out. Of 70 plays, only for two did I face a blank page—and it kept staring back at me.” Usually, the words flow freely and joyfully through the keyboard.
“I love the discovery process of writing,” Raymond says. “I surprise myself. I don’t know what’s coming. Something will happen (on the page), and I wonder why the heck is that?” Several scenes later, something else occurs to explain the mystery. It’s a very different process from the writing Raymond does in his daytime work: “In my job, I am a communications officer, and I have to plan what I write. When I write, it has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Writing plays is more of an adventure, and anything can happen.
For this summer’s return to the dinner theatre stage, Raymond says, “I checked my muses, and they said, ‘Let’s revisit a show we had done.’ I am in sequel mode the last few years. People react well to certain characters and stories, and I want to bring them back.” Hence Raymond’s “Retour” to the “fou-foyer,” the crazy manor, a setting of an earlier production. In this sequel, favourite characters return – but it’s a freshly invented character who is central to the plot, when an overheard snippet of conversation leads to the misguided conclusion that the new resident is a dangerous murderer.
“I was a very big fan of Three’s Company, and I’m not ashamed to say I’ve been heavily influenced by that kind of TV show,” Raymond says. “It’s comedy in a cartoony sort of sense.”
If there’s a purpose beyond laughter in Raymond’s recent plays, it’s cultural: to expose people to the Island’s vibrant Francophone and Acadian culture and language. Raymond says, “Sometimes people suggest I should write in a very standard French, but I always use our Acadian slang and accent. You can only get that here. I tell the actors, ‘Talk the way you normally talk.’ If it’s a little effort to understand, that’s a good thing. That’s our cachet, that’s what makes us unique.”
Raymond dreams of seeing one of his plays on one of the Island’s bigger, professional stages. “The only thing is I’m not very well known in the Anglophone community,” he says. There are occasionally Anglophones at his plays, “but it’s hard when it’s a play.” Music, you can tap your foot to. But Raymond does not want audience members to be frustrated or left behind if they don’t understand the language. He wants them in on the jokes—all the jokes. For now, the doctor’s prescription for laughter requires a healing trip to Abram-Village.