In anticipation of The Andersen Project, Emerson professor Magda Romanska talks to Lawrence Switzky, professor of English and drama at The University of Toronto and author of The Rise of the Theatre Director: Negotiations with the Material World. Prof. Switzky specializes in modern and contemporary dramatic literature, the history of directing, technology and media studies, and modernism.
MR: Robert Lepage is considered by some to be one of the most innovative theatre directors of our times. His work often includes cinema, photography and technology. The multimedia approach is essential to his work as it permeates every aspect of each production, from character to space. As Lepage put it: “Sometimes we have a character that brings us to a medium; sometimes we’ve found a medium that will eventually conduct us to a character.” In what way is Lepage’s use of multimedia a reflection of modernity?
LS: Lepage thinks of modernity as the condition of being permanently in transit. We’re forever en route from one place to another. Lepage is a master at conjuring railway stations and airports, spaces of arrival and departure that you can pass through a thousand times and yet never entirely know. And we’re always between languages. We speak one language at home, conduct business meetings in another language at work, and listen to translations of a third language on the news at night. For Lepage, screens are points of access between worlds: they join one place and another and one medium and another. In The Andersen Project, Lepage begins with a screen that seems like a canvas, which then becomes a three-dimensional wall that an Algerian graffiti artist paints the title sequence on, and the title sequence is meant to remind us of watching a movie. In one brief segment, Lepage has shown us a two-dimensional space that is also a three-dimensional space, and a painting surface that is also a stage surface that is also a film screen! In his recent work, Lepage has even made his screens responsive: in The Damnation of Faust or the Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, characters touch a screen and complex computer algorithms alter the images on the screen accordingly. Soldiers walk up a vertical pond in The Damnation of Faust and you can watch the water scatter after each footfall. But screens can also frustrate our desire to cross borders; they promise and deny contact at the same time. Paris can never truly become a portal to nineteenth-century Denmark, no matter how many elaborate technological (and psychological) projections you superimpose from one onto the other.
Lepage works in the tradition of directorial titans like Richard Wagner, Max Reinhardt or Robert Wilson who see the theatre as an occasion to marshal all the arts into a vibrant, absorptive vision of the world. As often as we see the different media or arts acting in harmony to produce gorgeous or disturbing stage images, though, the characters in Lepage’s productions tend to be isolated: another outcome of the frenzied motion and mediation of modernity. And yet the lonely people we watch do not reflect the communal way we experience Lepage’s work. Lepage is after the redemption, or at least the redemptive potential, of technology. Lepage’s massive theatrical machines often serve to give us an intimate experience of another person’s life, in all its dignity and tedium. This is, I think, what Peter Brook meant when he observed that in Lepage’s theatre “the terrifying and incomprehensible reality of our time is inseparably linked to the insignificant details of our everyday lives—details that are so important to us, so trivial to others.”
MR: Lepage views himself more as a “conductor” than an “author or director.” He scores his productions with a variety of games and experiments and never considers them complete. The scores for each production can change from one performance to the next, depending on audience response. As he says it, in theatre it is important to preserve that element of surprise and tension: “People want to see … people risking something for real…They need to see people dropping the ball once in a while to be reassured that it’s a game, that there’s human beings playing it, and what you’re going to see is so authentic because it’s just happening that evening.” How important is that element of spontaneity in Lepage’s work and how it influences our experience as audience members?
LS: You would expect an artist who is so famous for his technological genius to create controlled and impersonal mechanisms, but that’s not the case with Lepage. His vision is scaled to the lives of individual people, and Yves Jacques, who plays all the roles in The Andersen Project, is the most important machine on stage. The virtuosity of one actor’s body and voice is the spectacle that supports everything else. At the center of all the clockwork is a human engine—made of flesh and emotion—that cannot ever give exactly the same performance twice. The name of Lepage’s current production company, Ex Machina, is a deliberate truncation of the poetic fallacy “deus ex machina”: god out of the machine. When the Latin poet Horace coined this expression, he was critiquing the tendency of poets to resolve plot complications by having a god step in to sweep up the mess. By removing the omniscient god from the machine, Lepage means that the outcomes of our human entanglements cannot be foreseen or resolved by external forces. His stage machines provide environments where encounters can take place, but they don’t determine who his characters are or what they will become. Lepage wants us to be caught up in the mythical intensity of what he calls a “transfiguration through playing” that a player inexplicably enacts in front of us each night.
MR: Many of Lepage’s works are very personal; they reflect his own reaction to the world around him; to the “chaos” of the world. It is quite common for artists to use their own lives, their own experiences and reactions as a source for their work, from James Joyce to Tennessee Williams. Some say that the self is the only thing we know. How does Lepage use his own experience?
LS: Lepage grew up as a francophone Quebecer, with a mother who was (as Lepage has frequently noted) a natural-born storyteller and a bilingual father who gave tours of Quebec City from his taxi. This combination of expansiveness and insularity, of imaginative voyages outward from a proudly nationalistic province, is often expressed in Lepage’s art through Quebecois characters who discover their homeland through travel, or who prefer a virtual encounter with a foreign landscape to the everyday disappointments of stale meals and misplaced passports.
Quebec is an outlier in Canada; it has a rich history and culture that have developed separately from English Canada, and its political convictions often keep it at a distance from the rest of the country. Lepage has criticized Quebec for refusing to recognize its internal diversity and for its alleged disinterest in the world beyond its immediate American and European neighbors. Lepage’s nine-hour Lipsynch was, in part, an illustration of Quebec’s ineluctable involvement in sex trafficking between South America and Europe.
Lepage’s characters, particularly his surrogate Pierre Lamontagne, who has appeared in multiple Lepage productions, swerve between an anchoring heritage and a sense of dislocation. In an interview with Remy Charest, Lepage characterized Quebec’s national temperament as reflex negation: “Quebecers as a people define themselves by what they are not.” Pessimism and skepticism are always a temptation in Lepage’s work. But so is an openness to personal transformation that proceeds from his mixed inheritance of rootedness and displacement.
MR: In his work, Lepage always uses strange and magical objects that make “an interesting playground” for the actors. Likewise, the lighting also contributes to the surreal quality of his productions. The Andersen Project is inspired by the life works of Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, known for magical children’s fairy tales. How do Lepage’s dreamlike aesthetics emerge in this production?
LS: Nothing is ever entirely solid, or entirely knowable, in The Andersen Project. There is, of course, a drug trip in a German nightclub that blurs the lines of reality and hallucinogenic fantasy. But there are also peep-show stalls that transform into phone booths, a mannequin that is magically transformed into a love object, and a person who is three people, and perhaps a Dryad.
Lepage may have gleaned certain dreamlike aspects of his work from his real visits to Japan and his imaginary visits to China (though he did tour Canada’s Chinatowns). The shadow puppets in The Andersen Project, poised between life and death, materiality and immateriality, seem to inhabit some Asiatic space of dreams where “the boundaries are always a little ethereal, hazy.”
Lepage’s work is concerned with the dissolution of boundaries—between objects and persons, certainly, but also between one place and another, one time and another, between one person and another. Frederic seems to become Hans Christian Andersen through time-bending acts of sympathy and longing. But is this blending of periods and persons any more dreamlike than the confusions that travel, digital culture, or watching a transformative work of theatre engender?
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