Robert Lepage acknowledges judgment error in developing Kanata production

The director met with 34 critics of his new production about Canada's settler history, Kanata. He says he is open to dialogue, but continues to defend his freedom to create.

'In everything I've done, I've always tried to make room for Indigenous people, to include them,' Lepage said

The director Robert Lepage says he is open to dialogue, but continues to defend his freedom to create. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Robert Lepage says he might have made a judgment error in the creation of his upcoming play about Canada's settler history, after meeting with Indigenous activists to address concerns about the lack of Indigenous input.

"In everything I've done, I've always tried to make room for Indigenous people, to include them," he said in an exclusive interview with Radio-Canada's Stéphane Bureau

"The misjudgment I had was to think that doing that allowed me to address these themes."

The production is called Kanata. According to publicity material, it aims to tell "the story of Canada through the prism of relations between whites and Indigenous people." It is scheduled to open in Paris in December.  

Last Saturday, Indigenous artists and activists wrote an open letter saying they worried the production would not properly handle topics such as missing and murdered Indigenous women and residential schools.

The letter came on the heels of controversy surrounding another Lepage production, SLĀV, which featured white actors performing black slave songs.  

Lepage met with 34 of his critics Thursday night in Montreal.

The meeting garnered mixed reaction. Some participants had hope that things would move forward, while others said the meeting did little to address concerns.

Lepage made no promises to changeKanata's cast, which has also been criticized for not featuring Indigenous actors.

'Long, heavy and complex'

The director says he is open to dialogue, but continues to defend his freedom to create.

Lepage, who is gay, said he is "the opposite of offended" when he sees a straight man playing a gay man onstage.

"My naivety is to assume people will think there's compassion and solidarity in wanting to play someone even though we are not them," Lepage said.

This debate on cultural appropriation versus freedom of expression, he says, is necessary, but "long, heavy and complex."

Determining the ideal number number of visible minority artists who should be included in these types of productions is impossible, Lepage says.

"It's impossible to quantify. There are people who say, 'It should have been half-and-half," he said. "SLĀV critics say 'It should be all black women.' There are no numbers."

He said he understands the Kanata case is particular because of the pain experienced by Indigenous people when it comes to settler history.

"So, of course I absolutely understand that these people are suspicious," Lepage said.

Before the controversy arose, Lepage worked to make a space for Indigenous art at the Diamant Theatre, which is scheduled to open in Quebec City in 2019.

"It's painful, because I've lost a lot of friends in all of this," Lepage said.

With files from Radio-Canada