iPlayer Radio What's New?
On Now : Afternoon on 3
Playing: Concerto no. 1 in C major Op.15 for piano and orchestra by Ludwig van Beethoven
Image for  Robert Lepage

Listen now 45 mins

Listen in pop-out player

Robert Lepage

45 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 01 May 2005

A series in which John Tusa talks to leading creative figures about their work. His guest this week is Canadian director and playwright Robert Lepage.

  • Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Robert Lepage

    In the case of the Canadian director and playwright Robert Lepage it's best to ignore the hyperbole, sorcerer of the stage, theatrical alchemist and so on. The phrases are hung on him like Christmas decorations, not by the way that the phrases may not be true, just that they get in the way of talking about what he does and how he does it, and while I'm clearing things up he's not a Canadian playwright but Quebecois. So what does he do? Well anyone remotely interested in the theatre will have seen or heard of one or more of Lepage's works, from the Dragon's Trilogy in 1985 to Tectonic Plates in 1988, Needles and Opium in '91, Seven Streams of the River Ota in '93, more recently Far Side of the Moon. These are you might say Lepage's signature creations, works built from the ground up, in the rehearsal room, with his actors and refined over time.

    Then there are his more orthodox interventions as director in the theatre, opera and on film, if orthodox is quite the word for productions where he plays all the characters in Hamlet, or where he set Midsummer Night's Dream in a huge pool of mud. What's interesting though, and where he gets his reputation and his following, is the way he works. It's through a lengthy process of exploration and discovery in the rehearsal studios where Lepage and his actors uncover the essence of the emerging piece of theatre. I'm a facilitator more than a director, he insists, and a piece isn't finished until it's finished, which may well not be on its official first night. Lepage calls himself a gradualist, allowing a piece to evolve during its run until it finds its own way to completeness. As a result Lepage has endured the experience of critical and public rejection when a work first emerges, followed by critical acclaim some years later when the work is finished, and that takes toughness of character as well as a strongly grounded personal philosophy.

    Now 48 Robert Lepage could take on any job anywhere in the world, he's now working in Covent Garden and we're in a office surrounding by the intervention of tannoy sounds for the theatre.

    Now what do you call yourself as a professional, I mean director is hardly adequate is it?

    It is, I think I'm what you may call an interdisciplinary artist, which is very, very complex and very, it's more, it's a fashionable term but I'd say it describes what I do quite well.

    Yes well that describes the areas of activity in which you work, but the contribution that you make within those disciplines director has a very active sense to it, presumably that's, that is fair. You are very heavily involved in all these disciplines?

    Yes I think that's in, in French we say artisan de theatre, artisan is a craftsman more than a, an artist, and I'd say because you, I'm interested in absolutely, absolutely every aspect of the theatrical art and I think that you're a better director if you know how to act, you're a better actor if you know how to write and you're a better writer if you're a good poet and, and you know how to dance and you know how to light and you know how to, you're interested in architecture. So I've always been very much inspired by artists from La Renaissance, whether it's the Italian Renaissance or the French Renaissance who, who were people who were very difficult to define, you know. There was Leonardo Da Vinci, an artist who was an engineer, who was a mathematician, was a musician, he was all of the above. What's important is, is the result of his researches and, and, and his artistic expression is only one, one aspect of what he brought to, to the Italian culture.

    So it's the breadth of all these disciplines that, that appeals to you, that you wouldn't feel satisfied if you were just confined to moving actors around?

    No exactly and, and for me I like the, that, those borders or those barriers be very, very vague. I remember creating shows with other actors as an actor, as a writer and actor, and eventually because I'm doing so many things the show cannot tour because I'm too busy, so then somebody comes in and replaces me and then I become the director. So I like being kind of vague in, in, in what I'm define, how I define myself and, and I believe in chaos very much. I believe that the only real invention comes out of chaos and, and so it's better not to know who you are, where you are when you start off if you want to accomplish something good.

    Interestingly you started at college with the visual arts. You moved on from that. You gave up music because you say that you lacked a musician's ear, and yet somehow all these skills are now back there, the visual, the musical and all the formal theatrical ones, so your time at college with these disciplines can't have been wasted can they?

    No not at all and, and I'd add to that geography, which was actually my first interest was really geography, and that also found its way into the way I write my work, the way I devise them, and also the fact that I'm so obsessed by touring and by intercultural exchange, so geography was also very, very important and I never, I never, when I was young never thought how all these disciplines and all those interests could actually embody themselves into one, one professional practice.

    Did you actually have to break these barriers down, or was that part of your education, because too often the curse of a, quote, good education is that it puts everything into very strict compartments doesn't it?

    Yeah exactly. I've never really tried to define myself when I was young either, so I never really knew what I was going to do for a living and, and I don't know I just was always very..., I wasn't interested in a career. I had never had any ambition. I never was interested in money, so I was kind of was very vague about what I wanted to do and I guess it kind of found its shape with time and I trusted that that would happen actually after a lot of, a lot of work, but still I trusted it would happen.

    At a very early stage I think you found that being on the stage with actors was a real personal and psychological liberation. Has that sense of being freed by being on the stage has that ever left you?

    No never and I think it has a lot to do with the fact I'm a very shy person. I mean for, for somebody who, who's in the world of communication and, and you know an actor on stage has to be everything but shy, but I'm a very, very, very shy person so the theatre allows me to hide behind the group phenomenon. Theatre is, is one of these artistic expressions that don't exist if there's not a, a, a community or a collectivity around it.

    But you do do one, you do do one man shows.

    Yes I do do one man shows but I never call them one man shows, because there's so many people in the rehearsal room that take responsibility for whatever happens. It's, it's difficult for me to, to express myself as a solo artist, and even if I do, I do call myself a director and I do put myself up front and, and defend my work, but as I say I'm a very, very shy person, so and theatres are full of costumes and sets and masks you could hide behind, and I think my, my life is about trying to get rid slowly and slowly of those crutches and to present myself as I am.

    Because I think you said probably some time ago though, when you went on the stage, if speaking made me uncomfortable I could use gestures, if that wasn't enough I could move and use space and light. Are you suggesting that you are now moving to a position where just being on the stage and speaking is something that you're happy with and you say you don't have to rely on these crutches of technical support?

    Yeah actually I have this idea for a project that I'll be developing in the next few years about voice, it's called Lip Sync and I'm forcing myself to go towards that, the simplicity of just standing there and speaking, and before, before you get to that you have to go through all the different possibilities and of course dance is one, movement is one, architecture is one, imagery is one, and so once you've tried every other avenue you naturally, I think theatre naturally brings you to the spoken word, but you have to be ready for that and, and if it takes a whole career to get there then, and, and I prefer that because I think that unfortunately the word is too often the starting point of theatre and, and that gives way to one kind of theatrical expression. I think an image could also trigger theatrical expression and maybe the word is the final thing.

    Park that idea for a moment because I want to come back to it, but I also want to go back a bit to 1978, you moved to Paris, you studied with a man called Alain Knapp. Now what did he really teach you?

    Well I think that what was interesting is it was in, it was in the years of where everybody believed a lot in improv, and improv was a very, very vague and messy thing. People just went up there and improv-d on different themes and, and the actual improv event had an importance in itself. With Alain Knapp what was interesting is that it was a kind of improv that was extremely structured so you were actually writing as you were going on, and a lot of people who would see performances made up of improvs thought that they were actually prewritten and they were not, so it was a very sophisticated refined kind of improv and, and that really, really stimulated me into working in, in that direction, and it was all based on intuition, not a lot on intellect, and in those days we were in the days of political theatre and people were using theatre as a vehicle for political ideas and philosophies and, and things were happening from the neck up and I was very interested in trying to find, to be more in touch with my intuitions and Alain Knapp had different exercises and different ways to put you in, in touch with that.

    Did that seem to come naturally to you or did that originally come as a shock, this invitation to be true to your instinct?

    It, it came as a shock because what drew me to theatre was the theatre that I saw and it was a, a theatre of words, a theatre of ideas, a theatre of the intellect a lot, and suddenly I was, I felt much more familiar and much more, it was much more close to me to actually just let go and, and indulge into, into my intuitions, and they brought me on, on paths that I never would have imagined before, so suddenly all the possibilities, everything was possible.

    Was it anti-intellectual or just non-intellectual?

    It was, it was non-intellectual, not anti-intellectual, and I'd say that it had a lot to do with the fact that you know if, if one was interested in doing some collective work, people, nobody ever took into account let's say if we would be using a theme like war for example and say well let's do a show about war, nobody took into account the fact that the collectivity was made of people from different classes, who had different experiences, sometimes different cultures, and war doesn't necessarily relate to them in the same way, so in order to have a communal piece of art you have to do a lot of compromises, you have to put a lot of water in your wine. By working with non-intellectual themes and just images or objects or impressions you, you do not debate impressions. I cannot be confronting your impressions, your impressions are your impressions and mine are mine, so, so it was a much more open and, and a richer way of working than working from themes and intellectual ideas.

    You got back to Canada and as you said at the time you had no expectations did you? You said you had no place in society, no pretensions, no ambition, no plan, no interest in, in, in money, but then you did a piece in 1982 with, called En Attendant, while waiting I suppose, three suitcases and a flashlight. Now can you remember what that felt like somehow. You know did you think that was going to be a breakthrough for you or was that the only thing you could think of doing?

    Well no I think it is, you know we only had fifty Canadian dollars in the bank to do this show and I never saw that as an obstacle. I always saw that as a great starting point and you, you squeeze, you have one orange and you squeeze it as much as you can, and, and there was a lot of talk around saying well artists need more money, and of course artists need more money and I, I, I don't disagree with, with that debate, it's just we rely on that argument to justify our difficulties of production or our difficulties of creation, and I always say well yes we need more money but we, it's always better to start with poverty, you know it's better to start with, with the minimal and to, to make the best use of it, and those were very, very important days because they, they were about you know being young and you know when you're young you know very little but you're sure of it and you defend it until death and, and of course that the older you get the more you doubt, the more you know the more you doubt and, and I think that you know in the early eighties I was very young and I knew very little and I had very little to do but I was so sure of what it is that I, I knew, the very little that I knew.

    Is there something of that experience, without being too sentimental about it, I mean the thought that you can do things with three, three suitcases and a flashlight which is still with you, have you ever kind of rejected that original instinct?

    No I didn't, the thing is that you know for example I did a, a production of the Dragon's Trilogy with you know a sandpit and a couple of chairs and, and fifteen years later we remounted and we can't pretend that we're fifteen years younger and, and that we don't have the means that we have now and that our research hasn't led us into some new, new realms and, and so you have to reflect who you are at the moment when you do it. So I'm not saying that I will not go back to that. Of course after doing all the big shows that I've done recently and all that I'd like to experience something that would sound like a Robert Lepage unplugged, but I guess I'll have to wait for that moment to come, but, but without denying that, that I think that you really have to, your work has to reflect who you are and the means that you have to achieve that.

    And what you've become.


    Yeah. Now the question of theory well you've denied, you always said very firmly I have no theory, no recipe, no set of rules, but you said just now I believe in chaos. Can chaos be a theory of working in the theatre?

    Absolutely, I mean and I call it organised chaos, which is quite a paradox but you know chaos is at the, the, the beginning of everything. It's supposed to be at the beginning of life, so I think it's also at the beginning of, of, of artistic research, and it's always a question of being a good leader enough so that you say to people I don't know where I'm going, I don't know what it is that we're going to be doing, but I know we're going somewhere. I, I have the intuition, I have the feeling that we're heading towards something really interesting and crazy and new, except I cannot tell you what the rules of it are yet, and, and if people trust you and if you're a good leader they will follow you and you'll eventually make sense of the chaos and it will bring you somewhere you never thought you'd be going.

    Yes I think a lot of people would assume that the very idea of being the leader does mean that somehow in the back of your mind you really know where people are going and you're just waiting to shape them in a way which you don't even admit to them, but you insist that it is really is a much more open process and that you are open to the shifts and changes of that process?

    Absolutely and it takes a lot of courage from the collaborators I've worked with because they know that I don't know, you know I can't, I can't necessarily sculpt them and say you say this this way and you will do this this way. I'm just, I'm there more as a sounding board. I'm there as a chief boy scout of the group, but I, I don't know how the words are, are made. I'm still, I have to give the impression that I'm also discovering the path, and it's very important because we're in a society that needs a lot of leadership, you know we feel our leaders are not doing their jobs, our political leaders and all that, so everybody's kind of looking for leaders and, and of course actors who, who are discouraged by, by today's work on the stage and all that, they're looking for leadership, so of course I always feel when I start working on something that they're asking of me to direct them, to tell them very precisely what to do, and I say to them well it's only if we get lost together that we will find it.

    I think it's a very important point about the whole nature of leadership how far, well I thought the twentieth century had pretty well destroyed the idea of directed leadership, but to be both a leader and someone who is responsive to the people he or she is leading maybe that is a very twenty-first century idea and a very twenty-first century demand and not just in the theatre but particularly in the theatre.

    Yeah absolutely because it's, it's all, theatre is all about people meeting. Theatre does not exist if there's not a meeting. Film can exist on its own. Film could be projected in a room and have nobody change it or shape it or it's just there available for people to consume it, but theatre only exists if there's an audience, if there's somebody, so it's about a collectivity of actors and artists meeting another collectivity, and so it, it, it is very, very important that as a theatre artist that you're sensitive to that, to that phenomenon and that things could take on one shape or another, and I feel very privileged to be, to be able to do that.

    Give me an idea of what it's like on, on day one, because presumably at least on day one you have some idea of what the thing is about, when you were doing Dragon's Trilogy you knew it was about some aspect of China, China towns, exploring Chinese communities, but given that what is day one like with the actors and yourself?

    Well there's a lot of exploration. I think that what we do is that we try to share where we're all at as different artists. I come in with the theme, or the basic resource for the, for the story or for the, the work but the, the other actors, writers come in with nothing. They, they say oh they have these vague impressions of China or of China towns or whatever, so in order to know what that is made of we do drawings and we do improvs, silent improvs, people bring in music, they bring in props, they talk about their dreams or whatever and it's, it's a big mishmash. It's like, almost like a big pizza in the first couple of days and eventually there's something in common that comes out. There's some recurrences, whether it's an object or an image or a word or, or a piece of music or a, a, a Chinese piece of calligraphy, so eventually something emerges and it emerges by itself. It's not something that you push on.

    And you really don't know at the beginning of the process how it's going to end?

    Absolutely not, absolutely not. I suspect there are going to be this character or maybe that element or that theme. I remember when we were working on the Seven Streams of the River Ota I was always trying to push on the theme of, you know, nuclear threat and on, on the atomic bomb and it was all about Hiroshima, but for about four years of development none of the actors wanted to talk about the atomic bomb, and I said we have to squeeze it in. It has to be there, and it only came out on its own at the very end of the process when it was time for it to, to come out and it came out in something, in, in a way that was very organic to the group and that actually had the, the colours of the show and it, it didn't feel forced into, into the story, but it took all that time for it to come to fruition...

    You were the, you, you were the patient leader, you, you waited for four years for it to, to come out...

    Well absolutely because the thing is that normally I would have been more patient at the beginning or more, more tolerant because it was, we were developing this amongst ourselves, but from the moment you, you get booked on the tour to Japan and the Japanese want to know what you think about, you know, the whole question of atomic energy and atomic bombs and, and nuclear, nuclear weapons and, and you know you're going to be touring Japan you have to come in with an opinion and it's, it's, and so I, I was really, really trying to play the devil's advocate in this and, and so that, so basically what I'm trying to say is that things appear when they have to appear and, and you just have to be confident that they will appear but they have a moment and a time when, when they will appear.

    Just unpick a particular remark that you made, you say that even before the work begins the show somehow exists and what you're doing in the course of the work is to reveal its nature through digging and exploration. I mean that's a very philosophical idea, that's even before a, a show is anywhere near its end that somehow it has a sort of platonic entity?

    Yeah well I mean I really see our work as the work of archaeologists, you know, and I always found that in Quebec City where, where I come from is a, is a very, an old town, it's a, a town protected by UNESCO because it's one of the, the cradles of the, the, the French culture in America, so there's a lot of excavations and a lot of archaeological work and findings and, and so next to my home there's all these fields of archaeologists kind of with their little brushes and they're doing ten centimetres by ten centimetres, and it's interesting to see how they work because it's very similar to how we work in the sense that we, we dig a little bit in a little corner here and then there's a little thing appears and you go in another corner and eventually you know there's a canon that's somewhere under there just by the little hints that you have, so at one point you trust that there's something under, under there, you're not too sure how the shape is, how it's positioned, but you know there's something there.

    Now that's very challenging. Then we come to the question of the fact that the first night isn't the first night, and that Robert Lepage's productions are famous for the fact that they start one year and then they are fully realised four years later. Now did you set out to do that or was it just how it happened that.....?

    Well it's how it happened, I mean the thing, that's why I mean to work this way you need to not have any ambition. You have to forget about having a career in the theatre, you have to say well what, what interests me is really the work and where it, where it will bring me, and I've fell on my face so many times doing this that you eventually understand that you're not gonna die from it and it's okay to have a bad opening night and that you're gonna survive and the proof of that is that it happened many times where you present something that you, you completely believe in it, you know you present it and all that and it's terrible actually, you discover with the audience that it's actually terrible, that you haven't gone all the way into the themes, that you haven't squeezed everything that needed to be squeezed, that there's confusion and, and that's a learning process and eventually if, if you don't let go, if you persevere after a couple of years you will have a jewel in your hand, you will have polished it...

    Is that quite fair on the first night audience or do you think that they're used to it now, but for example the first night audience in, in Edinburgh with the Seven Streams of the River Ota I think they, they were, they were a bit take, taken aback...

    Absolutely, absolutely, but then we have to explain what the context was is that we knew that we were going to present the result of a workshop and the people in Edinburgh promised that we weren't going to be the opening thing of the festival and, and we were supposed to be playing in a small remote little garage somewhere for maybe two hundred, three hundred people and it was going to be presented as a workshop, and eventually their opening event fell through and we ended up being the big thing, the opening night in front of a thousand people in a more traditional venue. So of course we suddenly had this responsibility, but even, even if we didn't have that excuse for being bad I think that we, we were, it was still in its terrible state more interesting than a lot of things that were presented in that festival, first of all, so and you have to persevere, you have to believe this, what brought us to do that are noble ideas and they're noble intentions and you, you have to persevere and, and we're in a system right now where you get three maybe four weeks to prove your point, you know in, in our theatre system and after that you move on, every, everybody moves on to the next, the next theatre project and you say well that's not, that's not fair to an idea, to a group, to a vision, and you have to work on it until you get it right.

    Well of course one reaction would have been that you might have said look I will never, and leave aside the special circumstances of Edinburgh, you might have said I will never go into a first night with a work that I think is in..., incomplete, but you took the other route and said even if it takes two years or three years to complete it I will take two or three years to, to complete it, but was the first reaction I will complete it by the first night, was that ever an option for you?

    It wasn't really because I've always believed that the real work starts on opening night, that's where the real writing process starts when the audience comes in and there's a dialogue between the actors, writers and the audience, and that's really, and, and today there's so many plays that are being written and they're never put into the meat grinder of the production. They're never read by actors, they're never spoken by actors, they're never presented to audiences and they're published and you can even buy them and they've never been staged before and I, I, I, I don't think that that's what theatre is about. I think theatre, and certainly in Shakespeare's time it was like that, things were written with the audience, they were perfected every night, they were changed, they were restructured because it was a, it was an ephemeral living thing and, and so what I, I try to do my best for the opening night always but I know that it will be in a much better shape in a year, in two years from now and that the audience eventually, even critics have learnt to, to say well we've seen phase one or we've seen version one and they accept and, and they take pleasure into seeing how the work evolves and, and how their personal input actually has an impact.

    I think you must be the only director that, that I know of who says that he actually listens to what the critic says and learns something from them as part of this process of allowing the work to, to, to emerge.

    Absolutely and you have to, good or bad critics you have to read them and all that and you could disagree, disagree, you know I don't, I don't listen to everything, I, you know, but I, I always try to see why does this person have this impression, why do we leave this impression on that person and not only try to see it as with this person's eyes but to say well you know if this is what people get of what we're doing well then this is wrong, or this is good, or this is misunderstood and, and you have to do that and, and as I say, and it's very pretentious what I'm going to say but I don't need critics to make a living any more, you know I mean I could do what I want when I want now, so I think it's I'm a much better rela..., I have a much better relationship now with critics than I used to because it's a dialogue and, and I read what people read or listen to. What people have to say of my work with a much more relaxed ear and I try to re-inject that into my work.

    You have to be very tough to go through this process of persevering and development. What is the nature of your own personal toughness and resilience which allows you to do this?

    Well I think, I mean I, I, I'm discovering because I'm, I'm bumping into more and more Buddhist people and I'm not, I'm not a Buddhist personally but I'm, I'm, I think I'm, my life embraces a lot of fundamental Buddhist philosophies and, and I'm as I say just discovering, I'm putting a name on it right now, but since I was very, very young I've always had a very, very difficult existence and I've been, you know, victim of a lot of bad luck and sarcasm and all of that so I, I guess you, you, you grow tougher and it makes you a, a tougher person and, and this whole idea in Buddhism that you know the, the most beautiful flowers grow in, in murky waters and, and it sounds a bit like Hans Christian Andersen's Ugly Duckling but we have to remember that the Scandinavian writers of the nineteenth century were very, very much influenced by Buddhist philosophies and whether it was Strindberg or even Ibsen I mean people were more and more interested in that vision of, of, of life, that philosophy of life, so...

    Have you become harder though, have you become a nastier person?

    Not a nastier person but a much more I wouldn't say insensitive, I was a very sensitive person, but I'm, I'm not upset, it takes a lot to upset me I'd say, and I am emotionally much stronger than I was and, and, and also I'm discovering the, the, you know the gift that I have been given to be you know working in the theatre and being able to communicate with audiences and I get a chance to express myself and all that and I'm very, very, very conscious of that now.

    Everything you say speaks of the person of certain important creative confidence, quite right, but you also said that you're blessed with doubt. Now what's the nature of that doubt and I wonder what the difference is between corrosive doubt and self-doubt and a positive doubt?

    Well I think you have to question everything and, and you have to, you have to accept that whatever truth you have found or whatever discovery you've done when you were twenty-five or thirty that all of that is completely irrelevant when you're fifty and, and sixty and seventy that, that times changes that, that things fall apart, that, and, and it's interesting because it, it, I see that as a spiral. You always kind of walk back and circle back on your own footsteps but you're one level higher each time and, and what makes those, those differences are, are really how things have changed and, and.. I did a show called Zulu Time and it was just one big technological mess and we were doing research with new gadgets on the market and all of that and, and it was a kind of technological cabaret and it didn't have any meaning and it was all about airports and all of that, and it didn't make any sense until we were about to perform it on September eleventh in, in two thousand and one in New York and it was, it was all about putting, placing bombs on aeroplanes and about the Muslim war and all that but it didn't make any sense, it was a very, very kind of shallow thing and suddenly one day in history made a difference and it became very charged with meaning, so I trust that life put these things on your path.

    Yes now this idea of going on a, an upward spiral and that you know you're improving and, and learning, I wonder how that squares with something else you said about yourself, you said I'm really a big loser, a big liberal pessimist, because the other idea of being on the spiral, I mean that's, that's a very optimistic view, that's the sort of idea of progress view, so where does the liberal pessimism come in?

    Well I, I guess that's one side of my personality and I discovered that when I was doing the Far Side of the Moon, which says of course it's about the conflict between two brothers, but these two brothers are actually two sides of my own personality and, and the show was an opportunity to explore the two extremes of my personality, one is a pretentious bastard and I show off and the other one's a very, very liberal pessimist who, who thinks nothing, nothing will change and, and I guess it's the, the balance of these two personas that, that make me go, makes me go forward and, and so I'd say yes I, I am, one part of me is a, a liberal pessimist but thank God I have, I have another side of my personality that puts me back on my feet and makes me, makes me go forward.

    Going back to the question of words which you raised earlier, somebody said Lepage is not aggressive, he harbours no aggression towards language. Now just define what your attitude to the text and words is?

    Well I'm very much fascinated by words, but I'm more fascinated by language than I am by words, I am...

    And what's the difference?

    Well I think that we're in a literary culture and I don't necessarily embrace the literary culture of theatre. I think unfortunately because the literary people are the only people who really kept traces of what theatre was, so they think they own theatre but theatre can take, it could be non-verbal too and it could, but I think unfortunately it's the, the written text that today is, is the dominant form of theatre and it's not always what it should be, so...

    Oh I understand that, I recognise that but I don't think it explains what your attitude to language and words on the stage is and that lingering feeling, or maybe not a lingering one, but somehow in your work it comes second?

    Well it doesn't necessarily come second all the time. It is there sometime as musak, it is, it is there sometime as the main character, it is sometimes totally absent and I have, for example I've just finished doing a show called the Anderson Project and I've created it in French language with a bit of Danish, and I'm about to perform it in Denmark and everybody's saying well what are you going to do are you going to translate it all to English, because of course the Danish want me to do it in English, and I said well I can't because there's a French character from France and of course he's going to be talking to his wife on the phone in the French language and we'll just put surtitles, but there's other characters that are going to be speaking English and there's going to be people, people speaking Danish, so it's going to be a big mishmash of languages, even if it was created in one language only the translation of it will be in three languages, so it means that some of these words, it's necessary that people understand very well. Some of them they're more as the musak in the background, so there's many levels of how I use language, and sometimes I discover it when I go through a translation process and that's where I see what it is exactly that needs to be understood and what needs to be heard, not necessarily understood.

    I think what I'm probably prodding towards is the idea of narrative and a sense of a strong line through a piece which is word-driven, plot-driven, narrative-driven, now unless I totally misunderstand you that is never one of your, never one of your, your priorities?

    No not in the theatre no, I'm more obsessed by that in film, when I do film, when I do theatre I'm not interested in, in plot as much as I am in film...

    Why not?

    Because I think that there's, the audience doesn't necessarily rely on the plot to stay hooked to the, the, the suspense is made of something else. It's like a sport. They're also looking at actors performing, dropping the ball, passing the ball, that's what, that's also part of the evening. It's not just what's happening to the characters and who the characters are, so it's very, for me that's very important. Sometimes people come out of a performance and they haven't seen necessarily a great story but they saw a great performance, and I think that if you find a good balance between all these things that you can, you could have a very enjoyable evening in the theatre.

    Going back to the balance between technology and simplicity, to put it over simply, you referred to that piece Zulu Time which was heavily laden with technology, but where do you see your work evolving now, with something like the Far Side of the Moon where you used a washing machine to symbolise almost everything, and there was a lot with an, an ironing board and you, you made some extraordinary effects with, with very, very simple banal objects. Now you don't have to choose between the two production techniques, you're obviously at, at home with both, but I wonder how you sort of work between still the very simple, the very symbolic and then the very technological?

    Well I think that the very technological allows me to invite film and/or television into the theatre and I think that's a very, very important step to take for theatre, because theatre cannot survive on itself if it doesn't take into account all the different narrative languages that are around. The audience we are telling stories to in the theatre nowadays have a different narrative education than we had, or the generations before us. They, you know they're, they're being told stories through rock videos and commercials in a narrative way that we didn't, you know we, we never had access to that twenty or thirty years ago, so people know what a jump cut is, what a flash forward is, they know what a completely discursive montage can be, so I think you have to embrace all of these narrative rules and try to impose them to the theatre, otherwise you start the play and the audience at the end of the play before you are, and you, you have to catch up with your audience's intelligence and unfortunately we're in a, a world where artists and raconteurs believe that the, the audience is not intelligent. The audience is not cultivated, but the audience is intelligent and, and I think that that changes how you tell the story if you believe that the audience is intelligent or not, and so that's why I think that that's the, the whole simplicity of theatre versus the very complex technology of, of canned storytelling, like whether it's cinema or, or television or, or radio for that matter that that has to merge and, and, and meet the, the same way opera in the nineteenth century allowed all the different disciplines around to merge and meet and learn from each other, and I think that it's about time that we tried to push that forward and that's my interest right now to, to, to be as theatrical as I can but at the same time to embrace and use the tools of other storytelling technologies.

    Now you charged around the world a lot, and I think you'd probably describe it as charging around the world, there was a certain stage in your life where you clearly overdid it. Can you be still and silent for your own needs and purposes?

    Well I discovered I could. I, I never thought I, I could do that before and completely by chance two projects were cancelled one year about two years ago they were cancelled and, and I ended up having two months and a half not doing anything and I thought I'd go crazy in the first two weeks, but after that I went to Iceland of all places and I discovered that if you want to be, that if you want to have some kind of inner peace and if you want your energy to be a more a kind of reflective energy and concentrated you have to be in an environment like that and in time I've discovered deserts also and I've been driving through the Arizona Desert and the Nevada Desert and all of that and there is something about once again that brings us back to my interest in geography, there's something about the geography where you were and that determines your inner geography.

    Do you do that more regularly now, is this something that you have to do to recharge your creative energies?

    Yeah I, yes I do and, and maybe it's the, my travelling that brings me that. It used to be that I'd be very urban, maybe because I come from a very small urban world. Quebec City is a small city so when you, when you travel you, you tend to go to the big cities. I think I've pretty much visited the big cities now and I'm more interested in, in the, either the countryside or the desert, or the, the nature of, of a, a certain country or another and that changes who I am definitely.

    If a young theatre student came to you now as you came to Alain Knapp and said what is theatre about, what would you say to them?

    Well I, I think it's about storytelling, and it sounds like an obvious answer but most people don't come to the theatre for that reason. They come to the theatre to be seen, to find some kind of personal goal that has nothing to do with communicating or telling a story to an audience. Its, it's a very important communication thing theatre and people don't see it that way.

    Would you also say to them follow your instincts, follow your, your guts, follow your feelings?

    Yes I would and I certainly would, would want to, in French we say unicité, unicité is what, the uniqueness, what makes you unique. We're in a world that wants to make you number one, we're in the, you know theatre and film make actors win prizes and they are the best or they're the supporting best or whatever, so you're either number one or number two, or you're number zero, but you're never unique and that's a very, very, very different way of seeing things and, and, and I'd encourage young people in the theatre to find their uniqueness and not trying to be the best.

    And how much have you changed over the twenty or so years that you have been working actively in the theatre?

    Well I think I've, I've changed a lot because I was a very bad student when I was in the conservatory. Teachers never understood why I was so interested in doing everything but acting, and until I discovered that that made me a, a better actor to, to, to do all these different things and, and I had to I guess to prove my point but I didn't have any teachers around to prove to any more so I had to prove it to myself so I think I've pretty much went a long way in that direction.

    Robert Lepage thank you very much.


Philip Sellars


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Added. Check out your playlist Dismiss