Biography: Robert Lepage

Born: 1957, Quebec City
A Renaissance man with a modernist’s flair for re-inventing media, Robert Lepage is one of the most exciting visual narrators in Canadian cinema — a talent that may be explained by his entrance to film via theatre.

Born into a working class family which had already adopted two English-Canadian children, Lepage was always interested in performance, a passion that eventually led him to Quebec City’s Conservatoire d’art dramatique. He was an engaged student, and when he graduated in 1977, he could write, direct, act and execute elaborate stage designs — but had no particular area of expertise. After a three-week workshop with Alain Knapp in Paris, he returned to Quebec and formed Theatre Hummm with Richard Fréchette.

The two produced award-winning work and from there, Lepage hooked up with Théâtre Repère, an established troupe, where he would stage works such as Tectonic Plates, En attendant and The Dragon’s Trilogy — which toured across Canada, the Uniflted States and Europe. (It even hit the Chicago Tribune’s top ten shows.)

In 1988, film-goers had their first look at him in the role of Pontius Pilate in Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal, but he soon disappeared behind the scenes again when he was appointed to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa as head of the French Theatre.

After leaving Ottawa in 1990, Lepage turned to more personal pursuits and wrote, acted and directed his second solo show, Needles and Opium, a piece dedicated to exploring altered states of mind and involved scenes of the Lepage flying over the stage. The show toured everywhere from Budapest to Zurich, Baie-Comeau to Vancouver.

In 1992, he attracted more international attention with his productions of Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung. The dedication, hard work and touring culminated in his biggest coup in Canadian theatre history: he became the first Canadian to direct a Shakespeare production at the National Theatre in London wAith A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The same year, he was the subject of a BBC documentary by Hauer Rawlence titled “Who’s that nobody from Quebec?” He also played himself in Patricia Rozema’s segment in the film anthology of Montreal, Montréal vu par…

If he wasn’t an international star already, his reputation as a mixed media innovator was flashed across the pop firmament when he designed and directed the stage show for musician Peter Gabriel’s cutting-edge Secret World tour, which performed 119 shows in 19 countries.

In 1994, Lepage founded the theatre company, Ex Machina, which was the foundation for such critically praised productions as The Seven Streams of the River Ota.

Lepage made the leap into directing feature films with Le Confessionnal, which premiered at Cannes in 1995 and went on to become Canada’s entry for ®the Oscars. For all the success, Lepage says he prefers the theatre because he can work with actors longer during  the rehearsal process.

Soon after, he made the Genie and Fipresci prize-winning Le Polygraphe, a movie based on an earlier play penned by Lepage and Marie Brassard. The film is a frame-breaking piece that focuses on the after-effects of a high-profile murder. One character is suspected in the killing, another dissected the body, and yet another is auditioning for the role of the dead woman in a filmed dramatization of the tragedy. Le Polygraphe blurs the line between reality and fiction, which seems to be a running theme in Lepage’s oeuvre as it also formed the metaphysical backbone of his 2000 film, Possible Worlds, based on the stage play by John Mighton.

“Technology is changing the way we see the world… I’ve always welcomed a new gadget because every new gadget brings with it a new idea that is trying to˝ be expressed. With a sampler, for instance, you have the recorded version of the real thing — but then you can manipulate it and turn it into something else. The new tools of the film industry, such as video, bring new ideas — not just new solutions. They form a whole new esthetic,” he says. “I’m very interested in exploring these new technoligical frontiers because they change the way we see the world — the way we perceive reality.”

Despite his love of gadgets and an interest in exploring the metaphysical space between the film frame and reality, Lepage says he still prefers theatre to film because the interpretation can be a communal endeavour, from rehearsal to performance.

“Theatre is far more collaborative than film,” he says. “Even though film is a very collaborative thing because you have so many people contributing to the project, finally, it’s the director who decides what will be in the frame. The more you make films, the more you can control what will happen. You can predict the effect of a given scene depending on the angle you use, and so on…. That’s why I tend to do a lot of storyboarding, so I can predict the outcome.” Lepage says in theatre, it’s exactly the opposite because the entire piece is played out before a live audience.

“But this is what I’m beginning to appreciate about film: the playfulness that results when you borrow the rules of theatre and change them. Film has elements of theatre, architecture and literature, and all these great disciplines come together to form a braid within the narrative…. they play a part in the storytelling, a part that may well have more impact on the viewer than the story, but not on a conscious level,” he says.

“We’re brought up in a culture where we’re bombarded by media technology making all these images user-friendly.When you’ve worked in film for a while, you can become more archaeologically specific about what you’re being exposed to. You can pull apart what the message is.”

In 1998, Lepage directed Nô, another film inspired by his previous theatre work, in this case The Seven Streams of the River Ota. A two-part story that takes place simultaneously in Osaka  and Montreal during the days surrounding the 1970 October Crisis, Nô focuses on a couple trying to negotiate their relationship while stuck in different worlds. Sophie is in Osaka working as an actress with the Canadian delegation to the World’s Fair while Michel is a writer who finds himself involved with the FLQ. Black humour abounds, but so does love and compassion, making for a balanced — but perfectly ambiguous journey. The film met with tepid reviews when it premiered at the Montreal festival, but it picked up the Best Canadian feature prize and the Toronto Film Critics Association Award at the Toronto festival. Lepage says the mixed reaction in Montreal was probably the result of his characterization of the FLQ, who appear in Nô as a Laurel and Hardy types. “The October Crisis is part of Candian-Quebecois history,” Lepage says. “And sometimes it’s healthy to look at history in a humourous way. . .”

Lepage is also ambiguous when it comes to politics, calling himself neither a formal separatist nor a federalist, but a world citizen who sees the new European political order as a model worth emulating. The idea of one currency and a myriad of social realities — each with its own set of laws and protections — appeals to Lepage, but politics are not his passion. Creating dynamic art with a group of others is what Lepage loves most, and so it is that you can spy his name on the head credits of many films, and his face in front of the camera in others — such as Ding et Dong and Stardom (in which he plays the ubiquitous videographer)œ.

“I was never interested in doing just one thing. I think it’s important to be able to change your perspective as an artist. You have to be have the freedom to see things from all the angles, otherwise you don’t really understand what you are looking at. You would never know if something is flat, or three-dimensional if you stood in the same place… I get very excited when I see something familiar in a different way. It reminds me that change is possible.”

Film Credits: Jesus of Montreal (actor, Denys Arcand, 1988), Montreal vu par… (plays himself in Patricia Rozema’s Desperanto, part of the anthology, 1992), Ding et Dong (actor, 1992), The Confessional (director, 1995 — winner of Genie for best film, best direction, best art direction), Le polygraphe (co-writer, director, 1996), No (co-writer, director, 1998 – winner of best Canadian feature at Toronto International Film Festival), Possible Worlds (director, 2000). La face cachée de la lune (director-writer, 2003), Cirque du Soleil KA (director-writer, 2007), Triptyque (co-director with Piro Peres, writer, 2013).

Selected stage credits, as director unless noted:  L’attaque quotidienne (director, co-writer, 1979), Alequin, serviteur de deux maitres (by Carlo Goldi, 1979), Animal Farm (by George Orwell, 1979), Saturday Night Taxi (by Richard Fréchette, 1980), the puppet show Oomeragh, Ooh! (by Jean Truss, 1980), Six petits negres (by Agathat Christie,1981), Le coq (by Albert Uderzo and Rene Goscinny, 1980), Pas d’chicane dans ma cabane (by Michel Bernatchez, Odile Pelletier, Marco Poulin, 1982),  En attendant (collective work, co-writer 1982), A demi-lune (by Lepage, Johanne Bolduc, Estelle Dutil, 1982), Dieu et l’amour complexe (by Woody Allen, 1983), A vol d’oiseau (actor-puppeteer, 1983), Solange passe (by Jocelyn Corbeil and Lucie Godbout, 1984),  Circulations (by Francois Beausoleil, Bernard Bonnier, Lise Castonguay and Lepage, 1984), Stand-by 5 minutes (by Jean-Jacques Boutet, Louis-George Girard, Ginette Guay, Martine Ouellet, Marie St-Cyr, 1984), A propos de demoiselle qui pleurait (by Andre Jean, 1985), Comment regarder le point de fuite (one man show, 1985), Histoires sorties du tiroir (by Gerard Bibeau, 1985), The Dragon’s Trilogy (by Marie Brassard, Jean Cassault, Lorraine Cote, Marie Gignac, Marie Michaud and Lepage, 1985), Vinci (one man show, 1986), Polygraph (by Marie Brassard and Lepage, 1987), Tectonic Plates (1988), La vie de Galilee (by Bertolt Brecht, 1989), Romeo and Juliet (1989), La visite de la vielle dame (by Friedrich Durenmatt, 1990), Needles and Opium (one man show, 1991), Bluebeard’s Castle (by Bela Bartok, 1992), Erwartung (by Arnold ShoenbeOrg, 1992), The Seven Streams of the River Ota (by Eric Bernier, Normand Bissonnette, Rebecca Blankenship, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Normand Daneau, Richard Frechette, Marie Gignac, Ghislaine Vincent and Lepage, 1994).

Awards: O’Keefe Trophy (1984), The Pierre-Curzi Trophy (1984), Prix Gemaux for best TV performance (1988), Prix de la creation awarded by the Quebec Government (1986), Prix Metro-Star, for Quebecois artist who has achieved the most international fame (1987), The Order of Canada (1995), Ordre de la Pleiade (1995), Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France.

FROM WEIRD SEX & SNOWSHOES by Katherine Monk, reprinted with permission.