Robert Lepage (Profile) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Robert Lepage (Profile)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on September 11, 1995. Partner content is not updated.

He makes all the world his stage, quite literally. Last spring, in the space of just two weeks, he jetted to London, Paris, Venice, Spoleto, Rome, Tokyo and Montreal before touching down in his home town of Quebec City. Robert Lepage is yet to be a household name.

Lepage, Robert (Profile)

He makes all the world his stage, quite literally. Last spring, in the space of just two weeks, he jetted to London, Paris, Venice, Spoleto, Rome, Tokyo and Montreal before touching down in his home town of Quebec City. Robert Lepage is yet to be a household name. But he is Canada's leading stage director. And in cultural circles around the globe, he is a superstar. His franchise is magic. People hire him to make it happen. He has staged spectacles for opera companies and rock stars. His plays have toured from Europe to Australia to rapturous acclaim. He has worked with actors, acrobats, dancers, divas, skaters, contortionists - and a formidable repertoire of personal demons. Not only does he direct, he also acts and writes. And now he makes movies: his striking feature film debut, Le confessionnal, marks the gala opening of the 20th annual Toronto International Film Festival this week (Sept. 7 to 16).

Juggling half a dozen projects at once, Lepage is a multimedia, multilingual, multi-task talent - a one-man Windows 95. He stages and performs his work with equal ease in English and French, taking excursions into German, Italian and Spanish. And he is working on his Japanese. Among performing artists, he is the closest thing Canada has to an international ambassador. And, like the country, his identity is in constant flux.

Lepage has a lot on his mind these days, which is the way he likes it. This week in Toronto, he will be on hand for the North American première of Le confessionnal, which opens commercially at the end of the month. He is already busy developing a script for his next movie, Polygraph, based on a play derived from his own harrowing experience as a suspect in the brutal rape and murder of his best friend. The Seven Streams of the River Ota, his marathon work in progress about Hiroshima, will hit Toronto in November after touring Europe and touching down in Tokyo. The play runs 5½ hours, with a meal service. By next year, it is expected to expand to seven hours.

Meanwhile, in Quebec City, he is overseeing the construction of a $7-million multimedia lab, a workshop space designed to bring together artists from a wide spectrum of fields. He is putting the finishing touches on a new French-language production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which opens next month in Quebec's Trident Theatre. Then in November, at Montreal's Monument National theatre, he will unveil an audacious one-man version of Hamlet, titled Elsinore, in which he plays all the characters - including Ophelia and Gertrude. And, to keep things interesting, he plans to perform it in French and English on different nights.

Just who does he think he is? Leonardo da Vinci? As a matter of fact, Lepage once did portray da Vinci - and the Mona Lisa - in his one-man marvel Vinci nine years ago. Since then, he has taken his place as Quebec's renaissance man in residence. Fluent in four languages, he is a self-made cosmopolitan, one of four children from a working-class family that could serve as a case study of Canada's split personality - he and his younger sister spoke French; their adopted siblings spoke English. No wonder he manages to reconcile a desire for Quebec sovereignty with an affection for English Canada. He is the kind of visionary most at home suspended between worlds.

More concerned with the creative process than the final product, he works by intuition and collective improvisation. "He loves to take a subject apart," says actor-writer Marie Brassard, a long-time collaborator. "You have to be very relaxed when you work with him, because it's like he's unbuilding the world, and you find yourself in this big mess, this chaos. But then he finds a little thread and pulls it out, as if he were pulling it from the earth. And suddenly, the work takes form."

Lepage has a genius for conjuring mysterious and powerful images. In his hallucinogenic play Tectonic Plates (1988), he had rain falling from pianos hovering in midair. In Needles and Opium (1991), his one-man show about Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau, Lepage himself hung suspended in a harness, flying past skyscrapers projected on a screen. In his London adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1992), he had actors wallowing in mud. "He takes risks," says Toronto-based stage designer Michael Levine, who has worked with him on three productions, including Dream. "His magic is taking ordinary objects and making them seem extraordinary - such as tipping a chair back so it becomes someone on an airplane."

Lepage has worked for clients ranging from rock star Peter Gabriel to the Canadian Opera Company (a 1993 double bill of Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle and Schönberg's Erwartung). For a director adept at grafting cinematic devices to the stage, film was the obvious next step. Le confessionnal is a boldly assured, stunningly executed first feature. A byzantine family intrigue, it takes place against the backdrop of Alfred Hitchcock shooting I Confess, his 1953 film noir starring Montgomery Clift, in Quebec City. Cutting between two time frames, the story concerns a man's attempt to help his adopted brother unravel the mystery of his illegitimate birth. And, as in Hitchcock's film, the mystery lies locked in a confession heard by a priest.

The movie unfolds as a yin-yang puzzle of opposites: past and present, English and French, Occident and Orient, masculine and feminine, straight and gay. But for all the conceptual sleight of hand, Lepage considers it his most personal work, confessional in a literal sense. It is riddled with autobiographical detail - shards of family history, sexual secrets, suicide victims floating up to the surface, ghosts of the past looming on the ramparts of a walled city.

A sweltering day in Quebec's capital. The streets of the Old City are thronged with tourists. Lepage makes his way through the crowds, looking for a suitable café. Turning down a set of steps leading to Lower Town, the director chooses a nondescript patio tucked in beside the stone staircase. He orders a salad and the first of countless cups of black coffee.

Lepage is dressed in a white shirt rolled at the sleeves, a blue striped vest by Issey Miyake and black brocade trousers by Yohji Yamamoto. He picked up the designer fashions on a recent trip to Japan, he explains later, almost apologetically. For someone who is forever between appointments, his manner is soft-spoken and unhurried. He has a playful sense of humor and a boyish grace that is reinforced by a pale, delicate complexion. As a child, Lepage lost his hair through a condition known as alopecia. He wears a wig, artfully tousled, and behind his Jean-Paul Gaultier sunglasses the lack of eyebrows or eyelashes gives him a slightly ethereal air.

Discussing Le confessionnal, Lepage says that, while the story is fiction, it plays with elements of his life. Like the protagonist, he has an adopted brother. The director's mother suffers from diabetes, a disease that plays a pivotal role in the plot. And, like the father in the movie, his own father was a taxi driver. "When my sister Linda read Le confessionnal," recalls Lepage, "she said, 'This is way too close to reality.' After that, I mocked it up a bit. I changed some stuff. But that's why you do art - to know who you're about. I said, 'Listen, it's called Le confessionnal, and the first person who has to confess is the person writing it. There are a lot of confessions.' "

Lepage declines to go into detail, because "then we start talking about my personal life." The director, who lives alone in an apartment overlooking the Plains of Abraham, prefers not to discuss intimate matters. "I'm feminine and masculine in all sorts of ways," he says. "Whether with women or men, I've always had really passionate relationships, and they always end really, really rough. It's had an important effect on my art, but I don't base the subject matter on it - it's not like Woody Allen."

As he wrote Le confessionnal, life and art, or rather death and art, became eerily entwined. Three years ago, on the day he started the script with a scene of the father's funeral, the father of a close friend died. "I postponed it for a while," says Lepage. "When I went back to it, I learned my father had cancer. That kind of spooked me. A few months later, when I had to deliver my first draft, he died. Then the actor who was supposed to play the principal character, his father died. Suddenly, all these people were losing their fathers."

The coincidences "confirmed my intuitions," adds Lepage. "You feel these things. The film is like pre-digested mourning. Elsinore deals more directly with the emotions of losing your father, and what happens to your relationship with your mother and your Horatios and your Ophelias or whatever."

The director's father, Ferdinand Lepage, spent 21 years in the Canadian navy before settling down behind the wheel of a cab in Quebec. He would be at sea for months on end. And while stationed in Halifax, he and his wife, Germaine, adopted two children, David and Anne. After the move to Quebec, Germaine gave birth to Robert in 1957, then to Linda a year later. The adopted children continued their education in English, while Robert and Linda were schooled in French. "My family is a strange metaphor for Canada," notes Lepage. "I have this strong impression we're of the same flesh, even if it's not the case."

Ferdinand earned extra income by conducting tours in his taxi. "He had a great love for the city," recalls Lepage, "and he spoke good English. He would invent all these stories to keep the tourists happy. There was this tiny house on a hill by the river, and he'd say, 'You see that house? There's a family of 14 kids living there.' He would go on about how French-Canadians had huge families and lived in very small spaces, which was true." In fact, the six Lepages - along with three grandparents, an uncle and a tenant at various stages - shared a five-room apartment. "For a long time," Lepage recalls, "my brother and I slept in the living room."

Robert's aptitude for creative deconstruction was obvious from an early age. His sister Linda Beaulieu, who sells plumbing equipment in Quebec City, remembers Robert as "the kind of child who, when you gave him a gift, he would take it apart to see how it worked." He even showed an early talent for staging. One winter, Linda recalls, he collected the discarded Christmas trees on his street and planted them in the snow behind the house to create a forest.

But childhood whimsy was mixed with the trauma of Lepage's hair loss, which began at the age of 5. "Yeah, it's the basis of my life," he sighs. "It completely sculpted my personality and my way of seeing the world. It was nothing like being a normal kid. You always wear a baseball cap. You don't go swimming because you have to take it off. You feel after a point that you'd be happier if you were crippled, because people don't make fun of people who are crippled." Then he adds: "The main impact is realizing the immense cruelty of the world towards anything that is not normal. Not that you become bitter. On the contrary. You start developing techniques so that people don't feel bad after they've been cruel to you. Otherwise, you're lonely."

As a child, Lepage retreated into television. He got lost in soaps and sitcoms. By 14, he was suffering from depression. A doctor prescribed pills and sent him to a therapist. "It did absolutely nothing for me," he says. Acting in high-school theatre proved more therapeutic. And at 15, Lepage glimpsed his future in the looking glass of rock 'n' roll, at a Genesis concert in Quebec. "It was the most theatrical thing I've seen in my life," he recalls. "That's when I became interested in staging." He was especially enamored of the British group's lead singer, Peter Gabriel, who would end up hiring him two decades later.

At 17, Lepage skipped the exams for his high-school diploma to enrol in Quebec City's Conservatoire d'Art Dramatique. Graduating in 1978, he trained in Paris under Swiss director Alain Knapp, who taught that acting, directing and writing must all overlap in an intuitive mesh. In 1982, he joined Quebec City's Théâtre Repère, an experimental troupe dedicated to a similar theory, that dramatic creation should always begin with a tangible resource - an object or experience rather than an idea.

With Dragon's Trilogy, Lepage's first directing triumph, the object was a gravel parking lot covering the razed remains of Quebec City's Chinatown, where his mother had once lived. Incorporating dance, skating and mirage-like effects, Trilogy played as a kinetic history of Chinatowns in Quebec City, Montreal and Vancouver. In various incarnations, it was staged in England, France and Australia, establishing Lepage's international reputation. Théâtre Repère, meanwhile, incubated the creative nucleus that remains with him today, notably the women known in his circle as the "two Maries" - Brassard and actress Marie Gignac.

Lepage seems to do his best work with women. Before Brassard, his closest friend and creative partner was an actress named France Lachapelle. In the fall of 1980, she was raped and stabbed to death in Quebec City by an attacker who then set fire to her house. The police questioned Lepage as a suspect, along with her lover, her ex-lover and her twin brother. There had been a wave of arson fires in the city, and although they turned out to be unrelated to the case, the police were under pressure to make an arrest. Their investigation put Lepage through a horrific ordeal. "They told members of our families we'd confessed, just to see how they'd react," he says. "They'd flash pictures of burned cadavers. The way out was to submit to a polygraph [lie-detector] test. And we were all trapped and tricked by it. I had a lot of psychological problems in the year that followed."

Adding a ghoulish twist, a young Quebec film-maker, Yves Simoneau, wrote a script inspired by the case even though it was unresolved. "We all thought it was a bit indelicate, because the police were still after us," says Lepage. It became downright indecent when Simoneau asked Lepage to play the killer, telling him: "Only you can do it." At Simoneau's insistence, Lepage read the script and was mortified to discover that it climaxed with a scene of the killer taking off his wig and false eyebrows. Simoneau shot the movie, Les yeux rouges (Red Eyes, 1982), with a modified ending and without Lepage.

The logic behind the actual murder turned out to be stranger than fiction. Two years, two months and two days after the killing, on Dec. 22, the killer of 22-year-old Lachapelle, Christian Gagnon, was caught after confessing his crime to another woman and offering to show her how he did it. Obsessed with numerology, he suffered from a multiple-personality disorder, and, like his victim, he was a twin.

Lepage later explored the trauma of the ordeal in his play Polygraph (1988). Co-written with Brassard, the story featured a homosexual falsely suspected of murder, a criminologist who lies to him about the results of his lie-detector test and an actress who has qualms about being cast in a movie as the murder victim. The stage was dominated by a wall that served as the Berlin Wall, a division between apartments, and the septum dividing the chambers of the heart.

Now, Brassard is scripting a movie version of Polygraph, in which she will play the actress cast as the victim in the film within the film. The synchronicity comes full circle: Brassard first got to know Lepage just after Lachapelle's death, and "she kind of replaced her in my life," says Lepage. "We became very close friends and lived together for a while in Montreal."

Lepage spent six years living in Montreal. And, while serving as artistic director of French Theatre at the National Arts Centre from 1989 to 1993, he commuted weekly to Ottawa. But last year, he returned to Quebec City to create his own theatre company, Ex Machina. "People always think you have to live in big centres to survive as an artist," he says. "Montreal is a lot of fun. You go out late at night and have a lot of booze. But you're not necessarily more inspired. Quebec City is a good place to devise stuff with an international flavor." Then he adds: "Quebec City has this remote thing about it. You have to take one more plane when you fly from Europe to get here. So people who come really want to come here."

After so much jetting around the world, Lepage is ready for the world to come to him. "I don't want to sound pretentious," he says, "but I get offers from every opera house in the world - La Scala, la Bastille. We have offers from film companies, from CD-ROM people." He needs a base, however. And that is the idea behind La Caserne Dalhousie, the multimedia lab he is planning to build in an old Quebec City fire hall. The city and the province have already pledged $3.3 million towards its $7-million budget. But the federal government is still wavering. "There's been a long delay - is it the referendum?" he asks, exasperated. "We're going ahead anyway. We're taking a very big risk."

Lepage's own position on the sovereignty referendum is circumspect. "I think I would vote Yes [for sovereignty]," he says, "but with a lot of nuances and conditions." He has had frequent contact with Premier Jacques Parizeau. "I end up on planes with these people," says the director, "and the speeches they give in Quebec are not the same as what I hear from them abroad - abroad they're selling a very open-minded, less xenophobic idea of independence."

Lepage may be married to Quebec, but Japan has become his mistress. While creating his Hiroshima play, The Seven Streams of the River Ota, he became a frequent visitor. "Japan is very much part of my life now," he says. "For me, it represents an ideal environment for creativity, the way culture is embedded, and sports and health and morals are all interconnected." In Japan, the private sector feels a duty to support the arts, he adds. "They feel they have this thread to the past. Here, money just kind of zigzags - there's no sense of heritage."

Seven Streams, which is set in seven cities, involves a series of characters who cross paths in Hiroshima. The main story revolves around a Czech woman who survives a Nazi concentration camp and an army photographer's son who lives in New York City. With its ultimate seven-hour running time, the play is an adventure in scale, an attempt to defy limitations of time and space, to expand a world of shrinking attention spans. "People like to participate in an event," says Lepage. "They like to picnic, to go out and enter another person's world. Phantom of the Opera is not an event. It's a pre-programmed block of music and lighting. And you can be sure that your cousin who paid $100 last year saw the same thing you saw. I say there is another art form called theatre that does exactly the opposite. It should be like the Olympics, about human beings trying to be like gods. The theatre is an Olympic place where you see people pretending to fly, trying to achieve things beyond their capability - and where you witness their falls."

A basement rehearsal gym in Quebec City's Grand Theatre. Lepage is blocking a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Theseus, delivering his speech about "the lunatic, the lover and the poet," leads his court across the stage, stepping across a boardwalk of wooden chairs that the other actors frantically throw down in front of the procession and snatch from behind it, like a bucket brigade. Trading quips back and forth with the actors, Lepage conducts the rehearsal in a relaxed, bantering fashion. He runs the scene over and over, then dismisses all but two of the actors, who stay behind to practise some acrobatics.

A woman in black tights slithers up a rope that dangles from the ceiling. It is Angela Laurier, a former Cirque du Soleil contortionist, who plays Puck. Below her, a stocky actor named Jules Philip plays the Fairy. Delivering her taunting speech, Laurier slides down the rope and lands on his back. Lepage suggests she ride him like a rodeo bronco. The director's assistant softly reminds him that at this point the stage floor will be slanted into a vee filled with water. Not only will the actor be scrambling around on all fours with a contortionist on his back, he will be going uphill, and getting wet. "Don't tell him that right now," says the director.

Lepage sends Laurier up the rope again. He has her swing across the stage and kick Philip from behind - pushing him into a somersault - then swing back to jump on top of him. The director tells him to punctuate the end of the sequence by slapping down on the floor with his hands. "Yes, like that. Exactement - splat!" Philip wearily throws down some mats to protect his battered knees. The actors practise the movement again and again until it works with flywheel precision. Lepage articulates the action with a conductor's fluid gestures. He suggests another move. With Laurier clinging to the rope high above the floor, he gets Philip to try shaking her off. Then, he starts spinning her in circles, faster and faster, until the rope and the contortionist, who continues to recite iambic pentameter, are a blur.

The new version of Dream is Lepage's fourth. He has simplified it, he says. And this time, he is working with water instead of mud, the medium for the London production, which was hailed as a theatrical landmark on a par with Peter Brook's circus-like production two decades earlier. But Lepage claims he has no interest in his past work. "He has this attraction to the new and to the future," says Brassard. "He's always digging. He has tremendous energy."

Lepage tends to sleep just three or four hours a night, a habit he says he inherited from his father. Actors have trouble keeping up to him. "We're dying, and he wants to keep going," says Gignac. "It's his curiosity. And he can get impatient if someone is a bit slow to understand. If we're doing an improvisation and it doesn't happen the first time, he gets nervous." Adds Gignac: "Sometimes he wants us to write something, and we give him 40 different versions and he says, 'No, that's not it!' So we tell him to write it. But the strange thing is, he doesn't believe he can write. Writing takes time, and Robert is someone who wants things to happen immediately."

The director's obsession with work leaves little time for a normal life. He rarely takes vacations, and when he does, "it's very tiring to be on holiday with him," says Gignac. "If you take a paddle boat, he always wants to go faster." His assistant, Philippe Soldevila, says Lepage "doesn't have a driver's licence, and doesn't know how much he makes, or what he's got in the bank." Laundry is another blind spot. "I've seen him show up at receptions with a big stain on his shirt. He'll wash his clothes in bathwater and hang them on the towel rack - he needs a maid." Adds Soldevila: "Material things do not interest Robert. But he's very generous. He's always buying people meals and plane tickets to Japan."

Lepage has a clear disdain for the trappings of show business. And he insists that he is not about to abandon theatre for movies. After Le confessionnal opened the prestigious Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival last May, everyone kept asking about his "career move," he says. "They'd say, 'Now that you've made it, what are you going to do next?' But I'm not interested in becoming a film director - I've got a career." Eventually, he sees film merging with theatre, and for now he treats it as a way to communicate on a more personal level. While his plays tend to be collective improvisations, "film is a solitary thing," he says. "It's very therapeutic. You sit in hotel rooms writing the script." Though new to film-making, Lepage was a quick study, according to his colleagues on Le confessionnal. "Many directors today don't even know their lenses," says the film's star, Lothaire Bluteau. "I felt he knew everything by heart in three days because he's got that f--g memory. Dialogue is not his forte. You're repolishing things at the last second. You have 17 drafts and then you choose one, you jump without a net."

Critics have occasionally complained that there is a coldness in Lepage's work, that visual gimmickry masks a lack of emotional expression from actors. "But are tears proof of emotion?" asks Lepage. "I don't think so. Emotion is something the audience has to have, not the actors. Actors are not necessarily possessed by the character." Certainly there are strong emotions at work beneath the surface, notably a profound fear of being alone. "That's my main fear," he says, "my fear of losing friends, parents, lovers. Death is not an obscure thing for me. My grandmother and grandfather died in my house, in the bed that I later slept in. A lot of my friends died or committed suicide. So I always feel I have to live fully, to dive into the pool. It gives me vertigo - which is the feeling I wanted to express at the end of Le confessionnal."

On the set, says Bluteau, Lepage always "explains a scene visually. That's his way of directing, and you are the go-between." Lepage's art is preoccupied with going between. The final image of Le confessionnal is a dizzying shot of a bridge spanning the St. Lawrence River. Its maze of girders repeats a grid motif that recurs throughout the film - from the lattice ceilings of cabins in a gay bathhouse to the grille of the confession booth. It is the image of the filter, the porous wall, and it runs throughout Lepage's work. From Polygraph to Erwartung, he has hands and faces and blood coming through walls.

For Lepage, the medium is the membrane. He is a Canadian thinker in a tradition that ranges from Marshall McLuhan to cyberspace oracle William Gibson. He is fixated on what separates us, the blank landscape, and on the doors and windows that connect our divided extremes.

Attempting to explain his method, Lepage offers a time-worn analogy, of the Inuit carver who waits for the rock to tell him what to sculpt. "You start with something you suspect contains a lot of rich stuff and you chip off the excess as you go along. As an artist, to come out with anything meaningful you have to be extremely lost. Picasso once said - and I always use this quote - that people expect artists to come up with answers. On the contrary. You have to come up with questions."

Curiously, Lepage has a scar on his wrist in the shape of a question mark. There is not much of a story behind it, he says. He was 16. It was a hot spring day, and he splashed some water on his sister Linda, who was in the backyard, sunbathing in a bikini. As he chased her into the house, he put his hand through a window in the kitchen door. "It was deep. I could see the bone," he recalls, examining the scar as if appreciating its novelty for the first time. "It's weird, eh?" By a fluke event - one of many in his life - Lepage has been branded by a scar that could serve as his signature.

Maclean's September 11, 1995