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Machines of the Mind - Christopher Innes

Lepage often seems sui generis, a unique theatrical phenomenon: both an outsider (defining himself specifically as a gay artist) and as a completely self-sufficient performer, an auteur, combining the functions of director, designer, lighting-engineer, lead actor, and even dramatist. Yet he is a part of the avant-garde movement that runs from Peter Brook through Robert Wilson. Like Brook, Lepage's aim is to evolve a radically non-traditional form of theatre, and the choreographed mime in one of his recent works, Geometry of Miracles, was explicitly based on "dance-movements" created by Gurgjieff, whom Brook has acknowledged as his spiritual guru. The connections with Wilson are even closer. Wilson's theatre was hailed by the Surrealists as fulfilling their ideals: Lepage used Surrealists as figures in an early piece like Needles and Opium, and has claimed to be the heir of European Surrealism.

Yet Lepage goes far beyond either. His trademark is the use of highly contemporary, cutting-edge technology in his performances; and (as explicitly with his most recent piece, Zulu Time) his work can be seen as a direct interrogation of technology and its impact on contemporary society. He has spoken of being very much aware that we are at the end of the millennium and the close of an era;[i] and on the surface his work presents an audio-visual collage of apparently disconnected images, which deconstructs conventional representations of reality: a deconstructionism that aligns his approach with literary Postmodernism. At the same time on a deeper level, his aim has been to reintegrate the fragmented experience of Modernist cultural dislocation into new forms of meaning.

Perhaps the most striking quality of contemporary life is its rapidity: the sheer pace of cultural and scientific change, transcontinental travel and instantaneous communication -- And high-speed movement is a central image in several Lepage pieces. Space flight is the focus of The Far Side of the Moon. Airplane flights are physically evoked in The Dragons' Trilogy, Needles and Opium, Vinci and Zulu Time. Railway trains appear in Vinci, The Dragons' Trilogy and Tectonic Plates. Cars and trucks functioned as performance-areas in his Romeo and Juliette where the Trans-Canada highway (specially closed for the performance) served as both setting and controlling image. A road-map provided the structure for his first piece, Circulations in 1984, while the program for Vinci listed its scenes as an "Itinerary". For Lepage, movement is both an action and a metaphor: "My shows are usually about traveling, about culture clusters," Lepage has said, and

"If you want to know how a culture thinks, look at maps of cities. New York's map is made up of a series of squares. The streets of Paris, on the other hand, form winding spokes."[ii]

However, this geography is psychological, and each journey through space is also simultaneously a move through time (decades and generations in The Dragons' Trilogy and Seven Streams of the River Ota, centuries and continents in Tectonic Plates). As with The Far Side of the Moon, a solo performance exploring an inner voyage to outer space, it is also always a quest into the depths of the self.

At times this psychological focus becomes programmatic -- and problematic -- as with Lepage's direct dramatization of the subconscious in his 1992 production of two operas by Bartok and Schönberg (Bluebeard and Erwartung), and his 1993 Shakespeare collage titled Map of Dreams. Emphasizing the connection with Freud, whose first psychological studies coincided with their original performances, Lepage described his aim in Erwartung as "trying to treat it in a...hyper-realistic way, trying to get inside the woman's id, as if it were a close-up of what's inside the singer."[iii] But more usually this subconscious level is the revelation of autobiographical resonance in exploring a broad cultural context. (The title of Lepage's award-winning 1995 film, Confessional, could also be applied to his theatre.)

The best example of the way this works is his one-man show, Needles and Opium, first performed in 1991, which sets up parallels between drug-addiction, psychological obsession and art. The figures of Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau, caught at a moment in 1949 when each visited the other's country, are linked through Lepage's own personal experience forty years later of making frantic transatlantic telephone calls from a Paris hotel to an estranged lover who never answers. On the surface placing the American Jazz-trumpeter and the French Surrealist poet together is an image of disjunction and displacement; and this sense of separation -- of things falling apart -- is intensified by the modern-day figure of the young Quebecker who literally cannot connect at all. Miles Davis was on his way to Paris, where he fell hopelessly in love with Juliette Greco and then spiraled into self-destructive heroin abuse. At exactly the same time Cocteau was flying to New York, high on opium and mourning the death of his lover (the novelist Raymond Radiguet) while writing Lettre aux Americains. Each is moving in the opposite direction -- while Lepage's alter-ego (named Robert, which of course is Lepage's own name) is cut off in his hotel room, as well as suffering from the disorienting effects of hypnosis therapy.

Yet underlying this geographical and psychological fragmentation is a net of coincidental correspondences. Cocteau made a film with Juliette Greco immediately after her relationship with Miles Davis broke up; both Cocteau and Davis were high on derivatives of the same drug; and the art of each changed in response to meeting an alien society for the first time; while their music and poetry are integrated in the cultural context of the present. As Lepage put it:

"It's important to see all these old European surrealist roots and newer things like jazz and black culture that's actually embedded in everything [now]."[iv]

This cross-cultural focus is one of the defining elements in LePage's work, which is also trans-generational. Typically, his pieces combine the experience of people from completely different eras as well as widely separated countries -- for instance, Chinatowns in Quebec, Toronto and Vancouver during the period from 1910 to 1986 in The Dragons' Trilogy. Or take Seven Streams of the River Ota. This interweaves the lives of Holocaust and Hiroshima survivors and their descendants, paralleling this with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ending with a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima -- where the past is finally exorcised by casting the ashes of one of the American bomber pilots (a variation on Pinkerton in Madam Butterfly) into the river Ota -- inter-cutting scenes, from 1943 to the present, which switch between Hiroshima and Osaka, New York, Amsterdam and a Polish death-camp Sequences are arranged in a non-linear order, switching time-frames back and forwards, so that the fusion of experiences signifies that different worlds are being forced together in a late-20th century equivalent of nuclear fission, out of which reconciliation and new life can emerge.

Extending this cross-cultural basis, Lepage also combines anything from two to five, or even six different languages in a single show -- not only French and English, but Chinese, German, Italian, Catalan and Japanese. The effect is to give speech a physical, objectified texture, emphasizing musicality by removing linguistic meaning. However, as Lepage has underlined: this is also specifically "in reaction against a word-culture." The weight of communicating is thrown onto the non-verbal language of action, requiring imaginative participation by the audience to piece together a holistic interpretation. Lepage's definition of his linguistic technique is,

"I have an idea, I say it in a language people don't     understand so they're interested to know what it's all about. So I say it again, but in another language they don't understand... It's very active. It's like saying the same thing over and over again, but with different images. People associate words and senses and objects and imagery." [v]

Such a technique produces a radically non-linear structure. Lepage's narratives are designed to draw spectators into the creative process. But they are also intended to destabilize and supplant conventional modes of thinking. The first scene of Lepage's "Itinerary" in Vinci is titled "Decollage" (in French: point of departure, but also colloquially "coming unstuck"); and the "journeys" his audiences undertake in his shows are multi-media montages where the action is aligned with cinematic principles, specifically mirroring a contemporary mind-set.

Since today's society has a film education, Lepage insists theatre must "use the capacity of an audience to read things in fast-forward, jump cuts... People have a new language, and it's not all linear."[vi] In Needles and Opium there are two moments that together could stand as an emblem for this approach. In the first Lepage appears to be in free-fall, suspended on wires and revolving vertiginously against a disorienting spinning disk: destabilization. The second is when Lepage reenacts the famous photo in Life magazine where Cocteau appeared with multiple arms, each holding a different object: reintegration. And that Cocteau image highlights another aspect of Lepage's structure: the use of cross-media intertextuality. Reviewers noted cinematic clichés in the surreal vision of Schönberg's Erwartung. Seven Streams of the River Ota plays off Alain Resnais' film Hiroshima Mon Amour. Tectonic Plates specifically evoked both Delacroix's paintings and the novels of George Sand, as well as Hamlet. Zulu Time recalls the films of Atom Egoyan.

The essence of Lepage's cinematic structure is complex inter-connections, which require rapid mental activity for the spectators to synthesize them; and the characteristic quality of his work is speed. The text of Vinci announced:

"imagination allows you to soar to liberating heights and, in the final analysis, the difference between flight and the force of gravity is simply a question of speed."[vii]

And the final moment of the play was an image of Lepage, outfitted in Leonardo's wings, jumping off a cliff to reappear behind a screen as a shadow that rises out of sight in a soaring illusion of transcendence. As with all his work, the appeal here was entirely to the audience's imagination: there was no attempt to imitate actual flying.

This focus on imagination explains the centrality of objects in Lepage's work: objects being the "Resources" to which the first syllable in the name of Lepage's Théâtre Repére refers. ("Repére" is an anagram for REsource, Participation, Evaluation, REpresentation.) The point is that very ordinary objects -- such as children's shoes in The Dragons' Trilogy -- undergo continual transformation in performance. In place of mimetic realism Lepage presents what might be called "virtual" reality; and this computer-analogy is not coincidental.

Though Lepage sometimes conjures up imaginative effects from the simplest of objects on a bare stage, most of his work is highly technological. Needles and Opium, for instance, surrounded the live actor with trompe-l'oeil, shadow play, documentary and doctored film footage, projection, voice-over and strobe lights, as well as presenting recorded music as a character (Miles Davis' trumpet) in interplay with spoken dialogue. The significant factor here is that all this comes from the modern media, rather than mechanization: no lifts, revolving stages or mechanized scenery, which mark the industrialization of theatre at the end of the nineteenth century, and would represent a technological throwback. In fact, the context of Lepage's later performance-art is specifically the high-tech world of rock-videos and the internet.

Indeed according to Lepage, it was seeing a Genesis concert in Montreal at the age of fifteen that first interested him in staging; and in 1993 he repaid the debt by conceiving and producing a rock-show for Genesis: The Secret World Tour of Peter Gabriel. Centred on the myth of Eden, this used spectacular mechanical effects and giant screens on which huge images of Peter Gabriel or the group were projected, to convey (in Lepage's words) "a heroic message, calling for a total change in society".[viii] And the name of his new Quebec theatre company, Ex Machina, puts technology front and centre: specifically the cutting-edge "interactive technology" of Softimage computer animation, CD Rom and 3-D TV. The aim of Ex Machina is to explore new ways of devising pieces by bringing creative technicians, including video artists, computer programmers and sound engineers, together with actors, musicians and stage directors; and Lepage envisages "virtual rehearsals" that would link his theatre-company in Quebec with artists "in Barcelona and in Toronto, live by satellite, in real time... The whole goal is to find a way for art to be on the internet."[ix]

In fact, one dominant subject of Lepage's work has been art itself. This corresponds to the self-reflexivity that has become one of the defining marks of Post-modernism. But Lepage has turned it into a continual interrogation of artistic form and function. From his earliest one-man show, Vinci, where the actor announces that "the plot follows the creative evolution of a visual artist" and the slogan of "Art is a Vehicle" appears as a toy train circles the screen, to the seven distinct styles of performance (including puppet theatre and the Japanese Noh drama, Brecht and the Wooster group, as well as Feydeau-style farce and Naturalism) in which The Seven Streams of the River Ota is acted out, the focus is on defining art and exploring the way performance communicates.

In Vinci, the narrator (played by Lepage) -- who introduces himself as a constructed character "played by an immensely talented actor" -- states: "At the outset, the cars of a sentence, like those of a train, are empty. They must be loaded with meaning." He goes on to compare this type of communication to the sub-titles of a silent film; and he concludes that since "art also serves the function of casting light on the chaos of our society, it is to a certain extent a SUB-TITLE." [x] That speech has turned out to be programmatic for Lepage's career as a whole.

Lepage's progress has been an on-going search for the kinds of meaning that will both reflect and express contemporary consciousness. And a central aspect of this is the deliberately unfixed quality of his work: performance as process, which has led to each theatre-piece being in a state of constant evolution and re-evaluation. The Dragons' Trilogy expanded from a 90 minute performance in 1985, to a 3-hour version in 1986, ending up as a 6-hour piece in 1987. There are two completely distinct scripts for both Vinci and Needles and Opium. With major changes in the cast as well as the cultural context for its three separate productions, performances of Tectonic Plates altered radically from Montreal to New York to Glasgow, mirroring the content of the show, which Lepage summed up as being "about expanding and contracting." Seven Streams of the River Ota went through numerous quite different versions, ranging from 4 to 9 hours in length between 1995 and 1997, and is (still) explicitly labeled "a work in progress."[xi]

And this artistic freedom is set against the constraining limits of technology -- sometimes all too literally, as in Elsinore, where Lepage (playing all the characters from Hamlet) is seated in a complex, gimbaled frame of gleaming metal that rotates and circles continuously. The intention was to create an image of individualism -- both as solo performer, and as the traditional tragic figure embodying intellectual consciousness -- set against mechanization in a sort of high-tech version of Chaplin's Modern Times. But the dependence on machinery turned out to be a straightjacket. When the ponderously twirling steel construct, together with the minicams embedded in it and on the sword points in the duel scene that threw multiple images of Lepage on surrounding screens, all worked, then the effect became little more than a display of technological virtuosity. And when a single steel pin sheared during the Edinburgh Festival, all the subsequent performances had to be cancelled since it took too long to manufacture a replacement.

However, after that fiasco Lepage has taken to minimalist representations of contemporary technology, focusing on its philosophical implications rather than actual mechanics. So The Far Side of the Moon centers on the difference between American astronauts as materialists on a set mission to a fixed point, and Russian cosmonauts as poetic explorers of the infinite -- a contrast projected into two brothers, both played by Lepage: one a socialist Ph.D candidate whose thesis on lunar exploration as narcissism has been rejected by his University; the second a materialistic TV weatherman whose vision of the heavens is limited to meteorology. And apart from projection screens, for simultaneous video of Lepage's own performance or film from the space race launched by the Soviet Sputnik in 1957, there was only a Laundromat washing-machine, with the circular glass window doubling as a goldfish bowl, the porthole of a space capsule with a slowly revolving Lepage as cosmonaut peering out, or a screen onto which images of the fish and the constellations of the Milky Way were projected.

Although both his other recent performance-pieces include robots -- a gigantic naked eyeball with a staring pupil that swiveled round to follow the actors in Geometry of Miracles, or crab-like figures that scuttle about the scaffolding of Zulu Time to shine lights from their extended arms on the performers -- otherwise, with the exception of the projection screens that have become ubiquitous in Lepage productions, technology is left to be visualized by the spectators. The stage for Geometry of Miracles was a bare sandpit, with toy cars and miniature model buildings as ciphers for the mechanized modern lifestyle that had failed to live up to Frank Lloyd Wright's principle that "Architecture is the music of life".

Performed in 2000 at Expocité in Quebec, Zulu Time (named after airline flight schedules) used parallel catwalks that rose and descended through a high cage of scaffolding like elevators or moving escalators, to present vignettes of human beings whose actions are channeled and synchronized by their mechanized context. The result of this dehumanization, we are shown, is to intensify the deep yearning for emotional connection that global travel denies. The only spoken dialogue is recorded: airplane safety instructions (repeated in different languages as three men copulate with a flight attendant to the rhythm of the clanking bottles on her drinks trolley) or the messages of would-be lovers on a dating-service voicemail. Anonymous sexual encounters are encapsulated in a hotel-room scene where a lonely traveler resorts to pornographic dreams, embodied by a female contortionist whom his lips can never reach.

From Polyograph, one of his earliest works where the stage is conceived as a lie-detector, Lepage has been interested in the interface between machine and mind, technology and thought. As he described Elsinore: "the technology ... enabled me to "X-Ray' certain passages of Hamlet, and while the action apparently only takes place in the protagonist's head, it occasionally has the look of an electro-encephalogram." [xii] And as with the surreal eye in the desert of Geometry... or the simultaneously duplicated images on stage and video-screen in so many of his pieces, this raises acute issues about perception. At the same time, always (like the mirror-scenes in Seven Streams of the River Ota, or the division of its action into seven strands) Lepage's style of presentation and script-structure both mirror the underlying subject of his pieces: the psychological dimension of our high-tech modern life. Fascinatingly -- but not always successfully (after all, by definition experiments risk failure, and so far Lepage has attempted something new in almost every piece) -- he combines pure performance art with post-industrial automation, transforming the theatre itself into a machine of the mind.


[i]. For instance, LePage commented that Bluebeard and Erwartung were "two operas at the end of the century. When they were written it was the end of the rule of kings. Now it's the end of totalitarianism and communism. In many ways, it's the same." Interview with Simi Horwitz, Theaterweek, 15 Mar 1993, p.15

[ii]. LePage, cit. Nigel Hunt, TDR 33 No 2 (Summer 1989), p.115 & Horwitz, p.16

[iii]. Cit. Mark Swerd, Opera News, 30 Jan 1993, p.18

[iv]. Cit. Mat Wolf, New York Times, 6 Dec 1992, p.H5

[v]. LePage, cit. Denis Salter,Books in Canada XX No.2, p.27, & Hunt, p.28

[vi]. LePage, cit. John Lahr, New Yorker, 28 Dec 1992, p.190

[vii]. LePage, Vinci, cit. Hunt, p.109

[viii]. LePage, cit, Remy Charest, Robert Lepage: Quelques zones de liberte, Ex Machina 1995, p.118

[ix]. LePage, interview, Globe and Mail 17 May 1995, p.C2

[x]. Vinci, cit. Hunt, pp.108-9

[xi]. LePage, cit. Salter, p.27, and Isaac Gregson, Plays International, Oct 1994, p.11

[xii]. Programme Note to Elsinore, 1995.


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