This book explores the development of Robert Lepage’s distinctive approach to stage direction in the early (1984–94) and middle (1995–2008) stages of his career, arguing that globalisation had a defining effect in shaping his aesthetic and professional trajectory. It combines examination of Lepage’s theatremaking techniques with discussion of his work’s effects on audiences, calling on Lepage’s own statements as well as existing scholarship and critical response. In addition to globalisation theory, the book draws on cinema studies, queer theory, and theories of affect and reception. As such, it offers an unprecedented conceptual framework, drawing together what has previously been a scattered field of research. Each of six chapters treats a particular aspect of globalisation, using this as a means to explore one or more of Lepage’s productions. These aspects include the relationship of the local (in Lepage’s case, his background in Québec) to the global; the place of individual experience within global late modernity; the effects of screen media on human perception; the particular affect of ‘feeling global’; the place of branding in contemporary creative systems; and the relationship of creative industries to neoliberal economies. Making theatre global: Robert Lepage’s original stage productions will be of interest to scholars of contemporary theatre, advanced-level undergraduates with an interest in the application of theoretical approaches to theatrical creation and reception, and arts lovers keen for new perspectives on one of the most talked-about theatre artists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
This chapter introduces the book’s subject, the Québécois theatremaker Robert Lepage, and argues that he is notable for his elusiveness and ambivalence about this work, his place in that work, and his status as a leading figure in global and Québécois theatre and arts. This resistance to being classified is a strategy which allows him to keep working as an artist on his own terms, and a measure of his success in this is the lack of scholarly consensus about the nature and effects of his work. This book argues that Lepage’s central and ongoing contribution to contemporary performance practices is the creation of productions that reflect spectators’ privileged experiences of navigating contemporary globalisation. Lepage’s preferred mode of working is a form of theatrical collective creation (also called devising) with roots in the RSVP Cycles, in which a group of artists generate and develop productions together; while his productions developed in this way are recognisable, he is typically resistant to acknowledging that they bear his signature. The crucible for his work was Théâtre Repère, a Québec City-based ensemble that flourished in the 1980s.
This chapter discusses The Dragon’s Trilogy, a large-scale work that jump-started Robert Lepage’s career internationally in the mid-1980s. This production exemplifies a characteristic aspect of Lepage’s work, and of the globalised arts more broadly: the juxtaposition of culturally specific material with material to which a broad spectrum of audience members can relate reflexively. Reaction to the production was very different depending on the positionality of the spectator. Within Québec the production was read and celebrated as an allegory of Québec’s national self-realisation and opening up to difference, but in international markets and even in the rest of Canada, the extent that it was a self-portrait – and self-critique – of evolving Québécois national identity was hardly legible. Rather, what were praised consistently about the production were the innovative aspects of Lepage’s stagecraft, which gave the impression of moments from the past overlapping with the present and of distant lives connecting. This capacity to deliver feeling-global affects has become one of the keys to Lepage’s international success, but it carries risks of sacrificing specific meanings for universal ones, and of potential misunderstanding when these powerful affects are delivered via culturally specific material.
This chapter argues that Vinci, a solo piece created and toured between 1986 and 1988, deserves an equally central place in considerations of Lepage’s creative project as the better-known group work The Dragon’s Trilogy. It comes across as a mission statement, announcing Robert Lepage’s engagement in interrelated areas of inquiry that extend across his career: autobiography, visuality, and representation. Through his solo shows, Lepage narrates his own development as an artist and a public figure through the artworks which in turn become a key foundation for his status and reputation as an artist – a highly reflexive process. The key terms in Lepage’s public persona are those of being an artist and being Québécois, but this chapter argues that other points of identification figure in Vinci and other works more obliquely: of being a gay man, and of having a non-normative experience of physicality. This chapter reads Vinci as an attempt by Lepage to understand the relationship between his body, his sexuality, his creative output, and the environments he lives and works in – a pursuit rendered particularly complicated by the fraught and contradictory ways in which male homosexuality signifies in Québec and has figured in the history of Québécois theatrical production.
This chapter argues that Lepage borrows filmic techniques and reworks them for the stage to keep theatre in step with changes in human perception brought about by advances in media technologies. Such techniques are a key tool in Lepage’s attempts to evoke in his work the complex lived reality of contemporary culture in the developed world. Montage is a key term in this consideration, and this chapter focuses in particular on his deployment of spatial montage, the placement of material depicting different temporal realities, scenes, and/or characters on stage at the same time and suggesting relationships between them. Transposing this filmic effect to the stage exploits theatre’s unique qualities of liveness and three-dimensionality to make montage do representational, symbolic and affective work not achievable in screened forms of representation. While Lepage’s description of his work as characterised by metaphoric relationships is widely accepted, this chapter argues that his work also employs the figures of metonym, synecdoche, and condensation. Lepage also relies on genre as a key scaffolding for his stage works, and this chapter explores three productions’ engagement with genres including melodrama (Tectonic Plates), thriller (Polygraph), and art film (Needles and Opium).
This chapter looks at the effects of Lepage’s theatremaking techniques, engaging with broader discussions of the effects of montage on theatre and film audiences. Questions have long been asked about the political efficacy of montage: whether the intended message of a piece can be guaranteed to land with viewers; whether absorbing a message through a montage necessarily results in the spectator changing attitudes or behaviour; and about the potential of montage techniques to grow familiar. This is a particularly contentious aspect of Lepage’s work: while some scholars argue that his use of montage is knowingly critical, others argue that it is uncritical to the point of being irresponsible. Drawing on affect theory (Sarah Ahmed, Brian Massumi) and the work of Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Rancière, this chapter argues that Lepage’s productions engage spectators in characteristic ways but contain the potential for very different effects. It identifies two recurrent tendencies which have led to critiques of Lepage’s work as not sufficiently responsible for its representations: the inclusion of cultural references detached from their contexts and histories, and the use of transformational staging moments as attempts to sum up a production’s meanings. Productions discussed include The Seven Streams of the River Ota.
Through his productions and his public statements about them, Lepage has long worked to debunk the lone genius model of artmaking. He has nonetheless become known for a distinctive and saleable artistic signature and is the only creative constant in work that, since the mid-1990s, has been produced and distributed via the production company Ex Machina, in association with Robert Lepage Incorporated, a private enterprise; in 2019 the arts centre Le Diamant, a project which Lepage initiated, became part of this small conglomerate of arts organisations with him at their centre. This chapter explores Ex Machina’s attempts in the first decade and a half of its existence (1994–2009) at branding its work in order to assist its circulation in the deterritorialised space of global performance, by associating the company with a set of core values including freedom from classification, collaborativity, and commitment to creativity as process. Engaging with the response of journalistic theatre critics to five of Lepage and Ex Machina’s productions (The Seven Streams of the River Ota, Geometry of Miracles, Lipsynch, Zulu Time, and The Blue Dragon), the chapter argues that Ex Machina’s attempts to turn process into a brand were not successful.
In the mature period of Lepage’s career (2008–), Ex Machina foregrounds its capacity to deliver excellent and creatively daring performances across a number of genres and in multiple international locations with high levels of professionalism and efficiency. With the Le Diamant project Lepage and Ex Machina are also working to cement their position as leaders in Québec’s cultural economies by creating a permanent site for the creation of new projects and the performance of existing repertoire. Drawing on Jen Harvie’s scholarship about the creative arts and neoliberalism, this chapter argues that Lepage’s creative enterprises are arguably driven by the neoliberal values of individualism, entrepreneurialism, and resistance to external regulation, given that they are defined and driven by the creativity and narratives of a single individual (Lepage) and are calibrated to maximise that person’s productivity. It presents Lepage and Ex Machina’s relationship to neoliberal systems as one of active and ongoing contestation, focusing in particular on the relationship between the individual and the collective, on creative destruction, and on the necessity of non-stop productivity. It suggests that an articulated plan is needed for the futures of these companies once Lepage stops generating new work.
This chapter argues that while Lepage’s group-created productions declined in quality and touring success in the mid-period of his career, his solo productions continue to be successful because the material in them gravitates towards the poles of the personal and the global. A middle term of reference, which tends to be engaged in the larger group productions and which is grounded in history and in national, gendered, and ethnic identities, has become increasingly difficult for Lepage to navigate over the course of his career. This chapter briefly discusses significant controversies in the summer of 2018 around Lepage-directed productions representing experiences and identities that are not directly his nor those of his collaborators (Slàv and Kanata); it was striking to observe Lepage, who has worked so long and so skilfully to avoid being caught in any definition or discourse, entangled in situations in which his approach was held up to sustained and divisive public scrutiny. It ends by offering snapshots from three of Lepage’s solo productions (The Far Side of the Moon, The Andersen Project, and 887) – moments when Lepage has briefly appeared from behind layers of discourse, allowing himself, his strengths, and his weaknesses to be seen.