Robert Lepage, "Progress" Report

Jonathan Marlow November 26, 2007

Director of stage and screen, Robert Lepage is criminally little-known by name in the U.S. and yet he is arguably the most imaginative and talented multi-hyphenate of his generation. An exceptional writer of intelligent, complex dramas and an astonishingly skilled actor of remarkable range, Lepage’s work generates acclaim from discerning audiences and critics around the world. It shouldn’t be any surprise that his abilities and the efforts of his production company, Ex Machina, are constantly in demand. His most recent solo play, The Andersen Project, was a commissioned piece inspired by the writings of Hans Christian Andersen to celebrate the bicentennial of the author’s birth. In addition to his revolutionary new theatre piece, Lipsynch, and the stunning KA, a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas with an open-ended run, Lepage has been asked to direct his own Ring for the Met, to be presented during the 2011-12 season (although Das Rheingold will get its initial premiere one year earlier). There is even talk of a new feature film — his sixth at the helm — potentially adapted from one of his earlier stage plays, The Dragons’ Trilogy, reduced from its original six hour running time to a more cinematically-friendly 150 minutes.

Lepage is no stranger to the Bay Area. He performed an earlier solo show, The Far Side of the Moon, in 2001 and returned three years later for his reworking of The Beggar’s Opera (titled, in his version, The Busker’s Opera). He fortunately returned to the neighborhood the day after Thanksgiving with his staging of Stravinsky’s extraordinary The Rake’s Progress for the San Francisco Opera. We can all give thanks for that.

SF360: You graduated from the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique de Quebec in 1978, an institution that you joined at 18 years of age. At what point was it clear that you wanted to pursue theatre as a vocation?

Robert Lepage: I discovered theater when I was a teenager through school plays, like most people. My main interest was to become a director but, of course, there were no schools for directors here in Quebec. The best thing to do was to go to an acting class. At the Conservatoire, I was in touch with other disciplines — scenography, lighting and all these other aspects. During my three years training as an actor, I spent a lot of that time in the theater trying to do lights and sound and watching how directors worked. That was my main interest.

SF360: Where does the influence of Jean Cocteau enter into your work?

Lepage: Jean Cocteau has always been presented in Quebec because he is a French artist and writer. Our culture is Francophone; we were introduced to his films and his poetry very early on. People always kind of move away from Jean Cocteau naturally but I stuck to it because I always liked the surreal quality of his work. His films were the most interesting part for me because it seemed like he worked, at least in the early films, with very little means. He would be so clever at reinventing cinema and reinventing his own style. Something like ‘Orpheus’ was an extraordinary influence on me because there was something very theatrical as well. I’ve always been interested in how, for him, cinema was a very magical, crazy tool. He never was interested in realism or the way other people were using cinema at that time.

SF360: During the three-year period of 1984 to 1986, your reputation as one of the finest theatre directors was firmly established with Circulations, The Dragons’ Trilogy and your first solo piece, Vinci. The latter also signaled you as one of the great new writers for the stage as well.

Lepage: That was very important period. I created and produced these works when I was 27 and 28. I was still quite young but trying to impose my name in the theater world. However, a lot of what I was doing was not completely disconnected from the film world. The main quality of my theatrical work at that time was that it was very filmic. The way that the narrative stories were developed was very filmic in the way of approaching dialogue and structure. I allowed myself a lot of stage direction that borrowed much more from film than other stage directors. That definitely characterized my theatrical work at that time.

SF360: I first encountered your talents with two one-act operas — Bluebeard’s Castle [Bartok] and Erwartung [Schoenberg]. I was certainly taken with your familiarity of (and expertise with) surrealistic, dream-like imagery. You’ve also directed The Damnation of Faust and a reworking of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera [and now Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress]. Do you approach your directing for opera differently than your dramatic theatre work?

Lepage: I try to approach it the same way but of course you’re dealing with opera singers. One of the mistakes that theater directors make when they first direct opera is that they expect singers to be like regular actors. They’re not. You should never direct them the same way. They have their own craft and they have their own physicality. Opera singing is a very specific energy. You have to deal with that and favor that. Opera is rarely about realistic things. The great preoccupation is that you can’t do small, incidental things in opera. It’s about larger-than-life emotions and ideas.

SF360: How did your association with Peter Gabriel in 1983 occur? How were you asked to direct the Secret World tour?

Lepage: It’s a bit normal that I ended up working with Peter because Peter was a great influence on my theater work. When I started doing theater, there wasn’t that much interesting theater around. Theater was a very bourgeois thing. It was something for the upper class. I was interested in theatricality but not necessarily in theater and Peter Gabriel’s early attempts at theatrical rock, when he was with Genesis, had a big influence on me. I wasn’t a musician or anything but I became interested in theater because of the theatrical rock of that time. I ended up presenting one of my shows, Tectonic Plates, at the National [Theatre] in London. In those days, Peter was undergoing therapy. Once a week, he would take the train from Bath and spend the night in London. He’d always ask friends, ‘What is it that I have to see?’ I was fortunate enough that his friends were great fans of my work. ‘You should go see the Lepage show.’ It was actually the day of my birthday, the 12th of December. He showed up after the show and said, ‘Listen, I felt really connected to your work,’ not knowing that a lot of what I’d been doing was very much influenced by him or by his music. A lot of the shows I used to do would use pieces from his Passion soundtrack. Of course, he didn’t know anything about of this but he recognized a lot of himself in what I did. He felt very connected to it and thought it would be a very organic process to start meeting up and talking about his new tour. I eventually became very close friends to him. We didn’t just have a professional relationship. We shared a lot of time together, a lot of projects and a lot of other ideas.

SF360: The opening and closing music in ‘Possible Worlds’ is a passage by Peter Gabriel, if I’m not mistaken.

Lepage: Absolutely. It’s something that he had written for the Dome project [music commissioned for the opening of the Millennium Dome]. It didn’t end up in the final cut so he very graciously leant the piece to me.

SF360: It is a great combination of imagery and music. What was the impact of the RSVP Cycles in your process of working in the theater or film?

Lepage: The RSVP Cycles [created by Ann and Lawrence Halpring] were not something that I personally studied very closely. Artistic director Jacques Lessard discovered the process while he was in San Francisco. He studied at the same time as Whoopi Goldberg did, along with a bunch of artists, architects and people from all sorts of disciplines. He brought this back to Canada for the creation of Le Thé&aâ tre Repère. The basic idea of the RSVP Cycles is just trying to create work from your intuition and not necessarily only from your intellect. To reconnect artistic expression to something that is more organic. I felt very connected with that and it had a big influence on my work. We translated that to French to the cycle repàre. We changed the letters around but it basically meant the same thing. It was a very precise method of working. I eventually moved away from some of it and only kept the things that I felt good about, mainly about listening to your intuition.

SF360: How did the opportunity to direct your first film work, Le Confessionnal, present itself?

Lepage: There’s a woman in Quebec named Denise Robert, a very energetic and feisty woman. She’s Denys Arcand’s wife now. Very early on, she tried to get a lot of film projects off the ground. In those days, she spent a lot of time in London and I met her there at a Quebec delegation party. ‘I saw your show last night, here in London. Why is it that you’re not doing film?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been approached many times to do film but I never really had time.’ She said, ‘You have to do a first movie.’ She put the whole thing on her shoulders and she fought. She knew David Putnam, a big movie mogul who had just left Columbia Pictures to go back to England. Fortunately enough, his wife is a great fan of my work. It was an easy co-production because having David Putnam on board for my first film was a godsend. Denise is the one who kind of convinced him to put some money in and get this co-production going. There was very little money in Canada for first films.

SF360: The story takes place in Quebec around the filming of the Alfred Hitchcock film ‘I Confess.’

Lepage: Hitchcock came to Quebec City in 1952 to shoot the film because he was looking for a city in North America that was Catholic enough that the secret of confession would have some kind of meaning. Of course, he also fell in love with Quebec City because the city is very beautiful and very European. Of course, in Hitchcock’s work, the place where the action takes place is always extremely important. He always makes a point of establishing it and the rules of the place have a big impact on the storyline. He came to Quebec City and he shot a part of the film in the church where I was baptized later. There’s always been this kind of mythology around it. My mother would always say, ‘You know you were baptized in the church where the film takes place.’ In those days, nobody shot films in Quebec City. Alfred Hitchcock’s presence in the city left a big impression. I was very much interested not just by that period but by that whole mythology.

SF360: The film screened at Cannes, a relatively unique occurance for a first-time filmmaker. Your next film, ‘The Polygraph,’ was based on a play. It is one of the rare times when you made films year after year. Normally, there is a larger gap between films.

Lepage: I usually shoot a film every two or three years. After my first film, I decided that it would be difficult to have both careers — to be a film director and a theater director, because I was very busy doing opera work and big productions in the theater. I said, ‘Well, if I take time to write a new script, it’s going to take too much time. I should start adapting my plays.’ Unfortunately, not all plays adapt well. You have to learn how to adapt a play to the screen and, through the years, I’ve tried adaptations and different ways of approaching it. Sometimes in a satisfying way but often in a very difficult, unsatisfying way. It’s a learning process and I think I know more about adapting today than I did then, for certain.

SF360: ‘The Polygraph’ is more of a direct adaptation, whereas ‘No’ partially comes from a segment of The Seven Streams of the River Ota ...

Lepage: ... and half of ‘No’ is completely written for the screen. I tried to be less faithful to the play, unlike ‘The Polygraph.’ I ran into less problems, I think.

SF360: Do you feel that ‘No’ is more successful for that reason?

Lepage: I think so. I think there’s something about ‘No’ that is more crafty. It has more poetic license than ‘Polygraph.’ We think that a play and a film are very close cousins because it’s about character and dialogue and action and conflict but actually they have very little in common. It’s two radically different ways of telling a story. I think film is much closer to novel writing. It’s much closer to that kind of literature than it is to a play. These days, when I try to adapt a play that I think would make a good film, I try to think of it as a novel first. Then I can adapt that to a screenplay.

SF360: In No, I was really touched by your affinity for time displacement, reminiscent of the work of Resnais and Ruiz.

Lepage: I’m very obsessed with that specific theme in The Confessional as well. There’s a scene where one of the characters’ father just died. When he comes back home for the funeral, he removes all of these frames from the wall but they leave these kinds of ghosts. He decides to paint the wall but the ghosts always come through the different coats of paint. The film segues between 1952 to 1989. It is very obsessed by the passage of time.

SF360: Do you find that Confessional and No, being so specifically related to the history of Quebec, present difficulties for audiences outside of Canada that aren’t completely able to grasp their nuances?

Lepage: It depends. I’ve seen too much work watered down because the filmmakers were trying to make it appeal to an international audience or to get their film distributed in the very precious and lucrative American market. You have to be very faithful to the nature of the story that you’re telling and the context in which it is told. I think you have to take the chance that it will be universal. Even if people don’t understand all of the conflicts and they don’t understand the political history, there’s something universal about what human beings go through. I don’t know everything about the political history of Poland, for instance, but I’m still very interested in the films of Wajda and other directors from that country. Of course, I don’t know all of the complexities and I’m not too sure I understand the names — they’re difficult to remember and pronounce. But what’s interesting is the universality of the inner conflicts of the characters. I think that’s the most important thing.

SF360: When you began ‘Possible Worlds,’ was Tilda Swinton always your first choice for the role of Joyce?

Lepage: When you’re doing a local film, you look around for local actors. But when you get the possibility to do an international co-production it usually comes with certain conditions. You’re going to be taking somebody from that country. In the case of England, it’s great because they have access to many actresses or actors that I’ve always wanted to work with. With Tilda, it was a really obvious thing with because she started in the theater. She’s a very courageous and strange actress who allows herself to indulge in very unusual choices. She is a really interesting, extraordinary person. She’s creative and has ideas, unlike a regular film star. She’s a real artist. Of course, I thought she’d want to do something completely crazy [like ‘Possible Worlds’], because of her work in ‘Orlando’ and ‘Love is the Devil,’ about the painter Francis Bacon — I didn’t even recognize her in that film. She did something completely, radically different. I always thought she was a very courageous actress. It was really great to work with her.

SF360: Was Inspector Berkley an addition to John Mighton’s script or was this character already a part of the original play?

Lepage: Actually, the adaptation was very faithful to the play. Sometimes a bit too much! It was great working with John on adapting it. John’s a mathematician, a doctor of mathematics, and that’s his first thing. He’s written some fantastic plays but they’re all very mathematical. It’s very difficult to change and move things around because suddenly his whole system crumbles. I’d say it was very difficult to adapt in that sense. We couldn’t just wander off. We did a few things that ended up on the editing room floor. We tried to break it up, adding characters and changing things, but it’s such a tightly knit structure that all of the things that we shot were removed from the film. John is very influenced by [Andrei] Tarkovsky in his writing and I’m a great fan of Tarkovsky as well. I’ve always been interested in the culture of the north. The Russian culture is radically different from Canadian culture but, because we’re both from the north, there’s something that we share. Because of the nature of the story, I thought that it would be interesting if we were a bit Tarkovskian in our approach. That was my main contribution. Not to rip off Tarkovsky but to try to refer to him in some of the shots and some of the editing.

SF360: Most of your work seems driven by an intersection of contrasting themes and ideas. You also seemingly create new challenges for yourself with each project. In ‘Far Side of the Moon,’ in addition to writing and directing the film, you portray both of the brothers. How much of the story is autobiographical? Obviously, the older brother and the relationship with your mother...

Lepage: I have an older brother and we shared a room that was divided by a bookshelf. I was born the same year that the character was born and I’d been through the same kind of fear and fascination with space travel. In that sense, it’s very close to home. But it is still fiction. The characters of Phillippe and Andre are not really influenced by my relationship with my brother. They are two sides of myself that are at war. I tried to divide the sides into a shy character who is more of a loser and a character that is kind of a loudmouth, pretentious bastard. Those two things are within me. It’s more an expression of that than actual facts.

SF360: The story began its life as one-man show. You obviously fleshed out details of the story in different ways than the stage version.

Lepage: You end up having to make radical choices. Playing all of the characters, like I do on stage [or Yves Jacques, on occasion], would be a bit narcissistic. It would also be a bit too much and very non-cinematic. However, if you have someone else play the other brother, you’re betraying that the characters are two sides of yourself. The theme of the far side of the moon is the idea that it is the side of yourself that you never see. I was trying to be faithful to that. I wasn’t trying to be controlling by playing the two main characters but I have to admit it was great fun to do. To direct a film from within the film was actually very exciting.

SF360: In addition to your own films, you’ve acted in the work of other directors. You’re notably in Denys Arcand’s The Jesus of Montreal...

Lepage: I’ve worked in a few of Denys Arcand’s films. Once in a while, I do a cameo here and there for films that are shot here. I don’t really have time to say yes.

SF360: How does the macchinista — the theatrical machinery — effect the creation of your theatre pieces? I am thinking specifically of Ka. Cirque du Soleil does not traditionally have a literal story as a framework for their performances, an element that you added to the MGM show.

Lepage: I’m always dealing with the grocery list. People come up to you and they say, ‘Okay, what we know is that we’ve never dealt with martial arts and we’d like to work with some puppetry.’ You put all of these things together that aren’t related and you don’t know what to do with them. They also want new media and state of the art technology. You put all of that in a box and shake it until you find the connections. There’s something about all of these things that are connected. At face value, it’s very difficult to see. Usually, my talent or my intuition for these things is to find the connections. Of course, you need to give me a bit of time. I’ve always felt — and it’s the same thing for my film work, of course — that the subject matter is very important. There are a lot of urgent things that need to be expressed but there are also the tools that you use to tell the story. Each new gadget that’s available on the market comes with its own rules and its own vocabulary. I’m always very curious to see how can we tell the same old story again using a different code and a different vocabulary. It has to be 50/50 because sometimes the medium is the message.

SF360: With Orphee, Cocteau brings with him an appreciation for the history of cinema. His use of the mirror evokes the trick films of Georges Melies, using elementary optical effects to imply something larger. With Erwartung and KA, you’re similarly taking these simple elements and using them in imaginative ways. Particularly in KA, a single platform evokes a beach or a mountain. With very simple devices, you’re creating a whole new world.

Lepage: There is something that I learned about the topology of cinema when I was doing KA. The shadowplay coach explained to me the origins of doing shadowplays with your hands. In France, the tradition belongs to magicians because it had to do with the hands being quicker than the eye. The people that did shadowplays weren’t necessarily storytellers. They were magicians. In the earliest days of cinema, there were also magicians. Georges Melies himself was a magician. Magicians immediately realized the illusory possibilities of cinema. Melies film about a trip to the moon is about trickery and illusion. Today, such a trip would be displayed as a hyperrealistic, naturalistic thing. It’s not without interest but people have lost the tradition of very simple tricks. Cocteau was very much interested by that.