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Robert Lepage

A conversation with the director, actor, playwright, on The Library at Night.



“Biblio”, by Stephane Bourgeois

sM | How did this collaboration with Lighthouse Immersive evolve, and what might the future hold between Ex Machina and Lighthouse Immersive in the VR space?

RL — We were all very seduced by their approach to the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, and how open they were to alternative methods of presentation. The whole world of immersion is fascinating; it’s not just putting something on your head and saying, “Oh, I’m immersed.” It’s about where you go, what it smells like, the people there who you share it with, and I think that’s what the team at Lighthouse Immersive has understood. It’s not just some gadget that you download; it’s a collective, communal event.

Lighthouse Immersive are extraordinary

collaborators because they’re incredibly open. The ways in which you bring grand culture to the masses is so important, and they understand that. That’s why it’s such a strong collaboration, because they can introduce and include audiences who may experience difficulties hearing music, for example, or difficulty reading poetry, or understanding art that’s too abstract. These are things that people can sometimes be afraid of—dirty words, even! And that’s the wonderful thing about Lighthouse Immersive; the possibilities available are as wide as the space in which we present these different events.

We have also been quite obsessed with introducing new technologies. For a long time, our work has been consumed by wanting to invite all the new tools in, to see how it triggers new ideas. We’re always telling the same stories, over and over again, so it’s about asking questions like, “What new things can we use to deepen these stories, or showcase them in a new light?” You need spaces for that to happen, you need people to think in that way, and from the get-go we knew that we were dealing with people who were inviting these new mediums into a place that’s human and sensuous. When you think of VR and immersion, it can become “gadgety.” It’s always a debate between technicians. But Lighthouse Immersive has found a way of understanding how to make it popular, how to bring it to the masses, and we’re very excited. We’ve been discussing so many crazy, innovative ideas, and we’ll see how they come to fruition. I’m very interested in virtual reality, but I think that I’d be even more interested in developing an augmented reality project with them. That’s yet another new vocabulary.

Robert Lepage by Ella Mazur

sM | In his narration, Alberto Manguel said that “The private library is the autobiography of its reader.” What might someone walking through your private library deduce about you as an artist and individual?

RL — Well, it’s extremely well organized, but I’m not the organizer! Every new theatre project or cultural project comes with a huge amount of research, so I don’t only have theatre books in my library, I have a wide variety of texts. Every project comes with its own continent; oftentimes, I will need to know not only about costumes and sets and period music, but about humanity and psychology. I have geography books, architecture books, and many more. So, it’s a very large, very rich library with a lot of references that needs a lot of guidance. I think people would be a bit shocked to see it; there are so many colour codes! Also, I have a large collection of magazines that I use. There is a full collection of Life magazines, from around 1946 right up to the last published, probably near the beginning of the 2000s, I would guess. There are as many magazines in that library as there are what we might call “serious books!”

sM | It was recently announced that you will be narrating a partly-autobiographical one-man-show, Courville. What are the inspirations behind this project, particularly the use of Bunraku puppetry on stage?

RL — I’ve always been interested in puppets. I’ve staged a few puppet shows, I’ve done opera with puppets, so I know a lot about them but I’ve never been a puppeteer myself or performed with them! In that way, it feels like a bit of a danger-zone, because there are still so many things for me to understand about the craft. Courville is set in the 1970s and it’s about those teenage years, but it’s not like your typical American movie about teenage life. Of course, you can’t talk about that period of time without some of the usual suspects, but it’s a very mature approach and analysis of what teenage years are about, both in my own experiences and in general.

A child has debates and inner conflicts between his head and his heart, but when adolescence arrives, suddenly sexuality comes in and it’s like you become pulled in three different directions. That’s also what a Bunraku puppet is all about; it’s a puppet that is manipulated by three people, representing different levels of consciousness. Of course, the three parts strive to work in harmony—to make the puppet behave realistically—but at times the puppet is torn between contradicting forces and I’ve always been fascinated by that. I thought how interesting it would be, instead of having an actor showing the torture of this time, to have this poetic being who is tortured by inner consciousness.

There’s also the pivotal question of the body on stage. If you want to talk about the awakening of sexual desires in teenagers on stage, you can’t do that with a teenage actor; the evolution of the body is so important, and by using a puppet or a dummy, you have more leeway to explore and express that in a way that’s appropriate. Also, a puppet is a poetic being. You cannot talk about life and love and death in the same way if it’s filtered through a puppet, and I was very intrigued by that idea. It allows me to move into a more surreal world; puppets allow you to float about, dismantle, and do all these crazy things that you can’t really do to the same extent with an actor. Additionally, the main character recounting these stories is a painter and a sculptor, so it would be natural for him to want to sculpt the story of his younger years.

sM | What is your advice to young directors and playwrights in their 20s and 30s who are facing a unique set of challenges with the pandemic, in terms of maintaining their creative independence as well as career stability?

RL — I think that within the arts, we have this concept of what a theatre company is, how you should create it, and the relationship and hierarchy that needs to exist between writers, directors, and actors. To fund these companies and have freedom within the economic system, we follow the example of our peers and the people who’ve been there before us. However, when we started to do what we do in the mid 80s, there was no money for us; there was no structure and there were no subsidies, so we had to invent a new way to find our economic independence. By chance, we started to play in festivals in Toronto, and then other festivals around Canada, and eventually festivals around the world. By doing so, we discovered a wealth of audiences who identify with what we do and who truly love our work. By not thinking “locally” in that sense, we were able to find freedom, because the funding and the partnership of our projects comes predominantly from abroad. It comes from collaborations between other cities and Canada, so we're not too concerned about or reliant upon the local economic reality.

I think that today a lot of young companies believe their audience is their city, their neighbourhood. Hopefully that’s part of it, but maybe your audience is somewhere else. Maybe it’s in some other country where people identify more strongly with what you do, and sometimes they will have the means to help you. Very early on in the development of the company, we didn’t get that many subsidies. Now we have more because we are some 20 or 30 years old, so it changes with time. Though we still only get around 20 percent of our funding from federal and provincial sources, and the rest is from international collaborations. There’s a whole world out there, but a lot of people in Canada don't think that they're worthy of interest to somebody in another province or country. There’s a huge community of people, even beyond language barriers. Your audience may be somewhere else, and from the moment you start thinking that way, you connect.

In the 80s, we didn’t have the internet or the means that younger artists have today, to liaise and to find connections. And yet, very early on, we experienced such pleasure in touring or going to festivals, and we found many other people in our situation. That was a springboard to numerous opportunities. If you can get support from your local government, your city, or your community—that’s all welcome of course—but don’t count on that. Count on the specificity of what you do, its unique colour and taste, and remember that your audience could be somewhere else, and that’s more than OK.

Robert Lepage by Tony Hauser

sM | With the reckoning of Indigenous history in Canada over the past year, how has it informed your artistry and citizenry?

I strongly believe that the relationship we have with Indigenous People in this country must start locally. In Quebec, we all have First Nations blood somewhere or other; if you want to start understanding what it’s about and who you are, you should look at the community around you and the people that you choose to work with.

It’s difficult because it’s inherently complex. A few years ago, we wanted to do a project about First Nations and the community with a company that was maybe one-third Afghan refugees in France. We naively thought that if we brought them to Canada, they’d understand what the whole thing is about, but as we travelled across Canada and communicated with different communities, we saw just how complex and individual it is. You can’t look at the history as a whole and say, “This is what it’s about.” Every First Nation has their own agenda, their own problems, their own history, and their own relationship with our history. For example, you can feel the difference when you’re speaking with people on the West Coast of Canada, where the relationship between the white colonizer and the First Nations community is around 150 years old. A lot of scars and wounds are very fresh, and the conversation can be fraught with tension, at times even violent. In the eastern part of Canada, there is around 400 years of history; we went from a relationship between First Nations and the French, and then the English came and the French related to The First Nations. Then, eventually, under the menace of the British, we betrayed our First Nations blood brothers, and so that situation is radically different from other parts of Canada.

I think there’s been a huge effort in the past couple of years to try to understand what that’s all about, but I also believe you have a better chance of fully understanding it in the context of your local reality. I now realize it was naïve on my part to try to have an overview of where Canada’s relationship with the First Nations people is, when in fact there are huge differences according to location. There might be an overall way to look at it, but it is so multifaceted, and we should be careful not to homogenize the different First Nations. They each have their own relationship with spirituality, art, culture, politics. I’ve regrouped and tried to communicate more with people around me, the ones who share my reality, to see how I can relate, how I can help, and to invite them into my work and my world.

sM | How do you envision the relationship between popular criticism and artistic self expression in the present landscape?

RL — I can’t really speak for the entirety of Canada but, for example, in Quebec City or Montreal, there’s been a huge effort in the past couple of years to try to integrate. However, some people are trying to do this by starting at the end instead of the beginning. I believe that we should train people to write their own stories, to express themselves, to have them speak first, and after that I believe that everything else will fall into place. Castings will be “colourblind,” and people will be able to tell their own stories. But you must start there, and that’s not where people are starting right now. They start by casting people, and I always feel a bit uncomfortable about that because I think, “Yes, these people deserve to be cast, they’re good actors or designers or directors, but what about the good writers, the people who are the voices of these communities?” Right now, I think we are starting at the end and are too concerned with appearances. Offering what’s been called “colourblind casting” is OK in a sense, because people need to be given a chance in the first place, but that’s not where it should start. I think it’s more fundamental; I think you have to offer people the opportunity to create, write, and speak on their own experiences and from there, you won’t even have to even talk about casting because it’ll cast itself.


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