2016 House Programs 887 - Page 5

UNFINISHED BUSINESS THE NEVER-ENDING ART OF ROBERT LEPAGE

You often hear theatremakers talking about the right to fail . Good art is unpredictable , they will say , and nobody can create a hit by design . The best they can do is take the plunge and see what happens .
In the case of Robert Lepage , this philosophy is more than just a get-out clause . It ’ s a modus operandi .
He is an artist who creates his work in front of an audience . Without the mistakes , the misfires and the fortuitous accidents , his productions would never flourish .
“ A lot of miracles happen on stage ,” he tells me when we meet at La Caserne , his theatrical laboratory in Quebec City . “ A cue didn ’ t work , you forgot your lines , you compensated by saying something and you think , ‘ This is so good — why didn ’ t we think about this before ?’”
For audiences , especially in the early stages of a Lepage production , it means watching work developing before their eyes . Those who saw the world premiere of the Seven Streams of the River Ota in the 1994 Edinburgh International Festival , for example , saw a fascinating but flawed three-hour glimpse of the majestic seven-hour epic it had become by the time it reached the Adelaide Festival in 1998 . It ’ s not uncommon to see a Lepage production with sections that feel like an illustrator ’ s outline . Return to the same show a few months later and you ’ ll see the detail shaded in .
“ The show will present itself to you when it feels it ’ s time ,” he says . “ In the meantime , I fill in with place-holders and eventually , you say , ‘ OK , the show ’ s trying to say this .’ I trust that a lot .”
Even before its world premiere last year in Toronto , 887 had gone through a long evolution . He and his collaborators came together for a series of two-week development sessions over a period of months , coming back with fresh ideas each time . Lepage compares the process to a ball game : “ To allow stuff to happen , you have to slip it around . You have to polish it and re-edit it , and eventually something starts to stick . But at the beginning it ’ s just a bunch of people throwing the ball and dropping it .”
He is taken by the idea of “ bauprober ”, a practice common to German theatre in which the designers will create a mock-up of the set some months before a production opens . It allows everyone to test it out , make changes and respond creatively . “ For us , it ’ s the same kind of principle except everything is bauprober , not just the set , but the text …”
When he began thinking about 887 , he was focused solely on his childhood memories . Only gradually did the parallel themes about Quebecois history emerge . By leaving himself open to new ideas , he was able to enrich the show ’ s thematic concerns . In came the workingclass separatist movement of the 60s , Michèle Lalonde ’ s angry 1968 poem Speak White and his own experience learning lines as an actor . The theatrical side was developing at the same time .
“ At the start , I don ’ t know exactly what an idea is about but I feel it ’ s rich enough for me to explore ,” says Lepage , who devises the script through improvisation . “ Then it ’ s full of surprises in terms of the things you discover . You just have to play around and eventually , there it is . But you can ’ t force it . You can ’ t pull on the flower for it to grow . You have to go , ‘ It ’ ll appear .’”
In these early stages , he holds free public rehearsals at La Caserne and canvases the audience . “ We explain that we ’ re going to be falling on our faces , that technically it ’ s probably going to go all wrong , but bear with us while we put the train back on the track ,” he says . “ It ’ s not like Hollywood where they do a test screening and it ’ s , ‘ Oh , the audience didn ’ t laugh .’ It ’ s not that you have to do what pleases people . The audience stay around and we pay for the booze and they say , ‘ I liked this , I didn ’ t like that , I didn ’ t understand this ,’ and you feed from that . I need people to say , ‘ I like your show when you touch on this subject .’ You have to listen and go , ‘ OK , our show is also about this .’ As part of the writing process , it ’ s very important to do that .”
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