'Spearhead' or 'Lightning Rod'?

(Originally posted April 27th 2012)

Yesterday I went to a talk between Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera, and Robert Lepage. Without question, Lepage has been the defining figure for my work over the past 10 years, though I have been acquainted with his work for longer. When I was an undergrad I saw Needles and Opium, Polygraphe and Tectonic Plates, as well as his movie Le Confessional. I also wore a plastic raincoat for his mud-soaked production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the RNT. However, at the time, these pieces annoyed me more than they inspired me. His work upset me. I couldn’t draw the line between what he called ‘theatre’ and I called ‘tv and film’. Everything seemed ‘clever’, with audiences gasping like kids at a magic show. He would change the perspective the audience viewed a scene from, like we were the lens of a camera that could be shifted. And there was always a slow, steady tempo which I found maddening.

It also needs to be said that all of my juvenile responses to Lepage’s work were heavily informed by an initial awful exposure of mine to media technology onstage. Without getting too specific (or libelous), it was a scene in a Shakespearean play where a character watched scenes from the movie Legend. Endlessly. I didn’t know why – and still don’t know why. As the actor lay in forceful repose, gazing at a Kubrick-like monolith of tv screens playing the movie, I just became irritated. And that irritation became triggered forever after that point by any technology onstage. If I saw cameras or screens, my eyes would begin rolling into the back of my judgmental and self-righteous head. Case closed.

Then in 1996 I was in London doing my post-grad in Directing. And I went to see The Seven Streams of the River Ota. Or rather, was dragged to see it by director Geoffrey Reeves. I had avoided Elsinore (Lepage’s one-man show investigating Hamlet) the year before, because I could not face more Shakespeare butchered by cameras and screens. Luckily, my pouting had no effect on Geoffrey Reeves, who I was assisting at the time on a production of A Clockwork Orange. Even before the show started I was fidgeting like a three year old and moaning about what was to come. Geoffrey had a particularly unique way of being direct, unpretentious and yet kind. “Maybe you’ll like it, Matt”, he said, glaring at me over his glasses. I had nothing in response and so went quiet. As if the evening was going to be some kind of invasive medical procedure I may have ‘needed’ but didn’t want.

But it took no more that 10 minutes for me to be won over. In fact, not since an earlier production of King Lear (which I had seen when I was 9), The Seven Streams of the River Ota have I been so shaken up by a piece of theatre. I was delighted, I was upset, I was mesmerized – sometimes by the story, sometimes by the craft of the performers and sometimes by the stagecraft. By the end, I was overwhelmed. Lepage and his remarkable company had smashed apart my damaged psychological ‘baggage’ for technologically advanced theatre. And I was much better for it. Geoffrey just turned to me as soon as it wen to black and said “Let’s get out of here. The parking lot will be a shitstorm.” Thank goodness I had been to see the show with Geoffrey, because he’s probably the only person who was comfortable with complete silence in the car. I didn’t want to talk. At all. If you know me, this detail is probably the most disturbing part of the story. The production had literally blown out my previously held unrelenting lexicon of pre-packed derogatory quips and semi-intellectual takedowns of those attempting to merge the filmic and the theatrical.

At this point I need to make a quick pit stop : If you didn’t see The Seven Streams of the River Ota, it is still possible to see. The New York Public Library at Lincoln Centre has a copy you can book to view. The plot is an examination of destruction, through the atomic attack in Hiroshima, European concentration camps and the HIV virus. There is also a script of it for sale. However, that doesn’t help much. When you read a play, what you read is the words the characters speak. In only a few exceptions, a play is told through the spoken words. If you take an ‘acting for the camera’ class, one of the first things you learn is that film and tv scripts don’t work like that. Instead, the story is told through the descriptions of what the camera will see and how it moves. When you try and read the script for The Seven Streams of the River Ota, you are confronted with an object calling itself a play, and yet it needs the craft of reading a film script to begin to make sense of it. Like a combination lock that actually only opens with a key.

By the time Geoffrey had let me out of the car, I was able at least to thank him and I could start to put myself back together. I became intensely interested in Japanese theatre training, particularly Tadashi Suzuki and the actor Yoshi Oida (who I would meet 2 months later). I returned to a script I had started working on while an undergrad. It was a version of D.M Thomas’ Pictures at an Exhibition, a Holocaust novel that weaves the past and present together in an attempt to understand the urge to destroy or heal. In other words, I was ‘aping’ Lepage – I was effectively working on remaking The Seven Streams of the River Ota by pillaging his source material! It didn’t last, though. I followed his work passionately, but stopped short of imitation. If I was going to claim I learned anything from watching Lepage’s work, it needed to include the necessity of contributing myself and contributing what I interpreted to be Lepage’s self!

The man is a true genius of 21st century theatre. He is exactly what a 21st century director of the theatre should look like : actor, director, writer, designer, tinkerer, researcher and dancer. If I recited that previous sentence to anyone in the theatre and asked them to name who I was talking about I bet they would all answer the same way : Robert Wilson. Clearly an influence on Lepage, Wilson needs to be a part of the conversation anytime one discusses Lepage. But Lepage has transcended imitation of Wilson, and resides in a very different artistic landscape than Wilson. Because, where Wilson acts as central command for multiple disciplines in his work, Lepage blends with them.

When talking about rehearsal, Lepage insists “everybody is present on day one. No matter what you do [in the production]. Because even if it isn’t clear what you need to do in the first hour, over time you will quickly figure it out. This also smashes useless hierarchies in the theatre : the idea that there first is a ‘director’ and a ‘writer’, and perhaps under them a ‘designer’ and then way below them are the ‘performers’ and finally, the lowest of the low, ‘the technicians’.” And yet, the idea of hierarchy in the theatre Lepage talks of is exactly Robert Wilson’s model. This is partly due to Wilson’s strong hand in architecture and design for his productions. Lepage, however, blends with his company as much as works to ‘command it’. Lepage is equally adept at designing as Wilson, though Lepage will sooner ask Alexander McQueen to make his tights for him, despite his ability to design some himself. Peter Gelb pointed out how many different production teams Lepage works with, between Peter Gabriel concerts, Circe de Soleil shows, operas, new plays and large scale installations (like the brilliant The Image Mill in Quebec city), Lepage has a vital, but equal role to play in each team.

And it is here that the detractors of Lepage’s work begin to sink their teeth. By favoring a ‘blending’ of disciplines within the theatrical world, along with a fondness for challenging a theatre audience’s visual vocabulary, he is often attacked as focused on technology and not on ‘art’. As this is just a blog, Im not going to delve into his critics much. Instead, I’ll favor an analogy with the food world. In cooking today there are two polarities that seem to be at odds with one another. On one side you have the ‘slow cooking’ movement: organic, sustainable, natural and in many ways a return to a now lost intimacy with the growing, cooking and eating of food. On the other polarity is molecular gastronomy: editorial, reductive and mind-bending. This is more of a complete re-imagining of what food is and how it can taste. Returning this analogy to the theatre, many put Lepage in the ‘molecular gastronomy’ camp of theatre. This is a conflict within the theatre and opera worlds, because as ticket sales continue to dwindle in both theatre and opera, people still going to the theatre and opera tend to be in the ‘slow food’ camp. They see Lepage as a potential threat to their movement, which has already been so bedraggled by film and tv over the past 20 years.

But I don’t think Lepage is actually in either of these camps. He is slow cooking and molecular gastronomy. In fact, he is not a ‘camp’ at all, but the axis that joins them. He is as likely to use 500 year old water puppets as he is a custom designed Infra Red sensitive floor. The act of putting any kind of scenery onstage was considered ‘technology’ a relatively short time ago, all that is different with Lepage is kind of scenery he is using. What is most important and remarkable about Lepage’s work is that technology, old or new, is not the subject of his work. It is one medium by which the real story is told. And this was how he ‘healed’ a terrible early experience I had with technology onstage. What confounded me about actors watching Legend onstage was, in that particular case, the technological spectacle was the story. Lepage has far more interesting stories to tell than the technology he can use. In another revealing moment in the conversation yesterday, Lepage spoke of the need to often show the audience the technology he is using. If an actor uses a harness, he does not try to conceal it. Because, as he says “when the audience can see how the illusion is made, it actually gives them a choice between the illusion and the reality. In that moment, they have the choice of being in a theatre or not. And the eye favors the fantasy!” In the play The Far Side of the Moon Lepage had a giant mirror hung at 45 degrees over the stage. During one sequence he rolled on the floor in slow motion. When viewed in the mirror, this movement appeared to be floating. And though the audience sees the mirror and the actor rolling on the floor, they instead look at the image in the mirror and gasp at the illusion.

Near the end of yesterday’s talk, a critic launched into a gentle, but naked dismissal of Lepage’s work. Lepage listened carefully and intently, and instead of being defensive or retaliatory, he responded with “Whenever you try something different, especially blending disciplines together, you become the target of a lot of criticism.” This was as much a comment on the attacks on him in the press over his recent production of Der Ring des Nibelungen as it was an answer to the comment made in the talk yesterday. And his answer left me thinking : Is Lepage a Spearhead or lightning rod? The first suggests he’s built for a war, the other suggests he’s built to ‘trick’ his critics and syphon away the energy of their attacks. Or, is the third option that he’s not interested in either of those, and is just working the best way he knows how to? After all, by Lepage’s own definition technology is “a tool to bring disciplines together”. So I hardly believe he would use technology in his work to actively provoke criticism. Instead, I think he provokes dialogue in an intuitively nourishing way. Film is really an act of intimacy – human faces take up huge screens, silence and ambient sound is amplified, and the dark of the theatre isolates us. In the theatre, however, that kind of intimacy is impossible to maintain. The audience’s responses are thrown back to the performers and the other audience members. So by blending theatre and film onstage, Lepage is teasing out our intimate responses into a more public forum for (potentially) explosive dialogue. I should know – I hated his work for a long time. At least, I thought it was his work I hated…