Writers & Company

Robert Lepage revisits his childhood during Quebec's cultural revolution

World-renowned for his highly innovative, multimedia productions, Robert Lepage's latest work, 887, showcases his upbringing in a divided Quebec.
In his one-man show, titled 887, Robert Lepage recalls memories of growing up in Quebec City during a time of social and political unrest. (Érick Labbé)

1960 marked the beginning of Quebec's Quiet Revolution — a time of social and political transformation, reflecting new attitudes toward religion, culture and the economy.

Robert Lepage grew up in a working-class neighbourhood of Quebec City during these changing times, fuelled by the rise of a nationalist movement. Now internationally recognized for his visionary work in theatre and opera, Lepage portrays his childhood in his acclaimed play 887, which invites the audience into the Quebec City apartment complex — 887 avenue Murray — that was his home for a decade. 

Produced by Lepage's multimedia company, Ex Machina, the theatrical memoir is intimate and striking in its storytelling, weaving together his personal experiences with larger questions of cultural identity. The one-man play has been touring worldwide for more than a year. Lepage also has upcoming work at the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company next season.

Robert Lepage joined Eleanor Wachtel for a conversation backstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. 

887, which was translated from French to English by Louisa Blair, is a finalist for the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for translation. The winners will be announced on Oct. 29, 2019.

What he owes his father

"My father wasn't very present — he was working all day long as a cab driver, wasn't a very talkative person, and was very secretive about his past life and his exploits and his travels. So I thought, I haven't inherited much from this man. When I started to do 887, it was a shock to discover to what point I owed him everything.

My interest in other languages, in other cultures, the thrill I get from traveling — all that comes from my father, even though I wasn't very close to him.- Robert Lepage

"One of the main things is the fact that my father did not have much of an education. But because he had spent so many years in the Navy, he spoke very good English. And in the 1960s in Quebec City, that was kind of rare. He would teach us English before we went to bed instead of telling fairy tales or singing lullabies. He would teach us English, and it was his pride. I never realized until I did 887 that that's the starting point of so many things in my life. My interest in other languages, in other cultures, the thrill I get from traveling — all that comes from my father, even though I wasn't very close to him."

Eleanor Wachtel and Robert Lepage backstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City. (Eleanor Wachtel)

Start with what you know

"887 does expose me more, because it is based on a real story. But the other solo performances were always an expression of who I am or who I was. I would put on a disguise — I would either change my name or change my hair colour or whatever — but they were very personal shows. This one I thought would be more exposing but actually ended up giving me much more freedom because I always complain that a lot of young theatre artists often tell stories that they don't know about. They don't speak about themselves. Speak about what you know. If you want to do a good film or a good novel or a good play, talk about what you know. And if you talk about that, you will have the answers to all of the dramaturgical problems. So it was very liberating for me to suddenly say, 'Well, why don't I just be myself on stage and go for it?'"

Miracles out of machines

"When Ex Machina​ was founded in the mid-90s, our intention was to do a lot of multimedia work. Our intention wasn't just to do theatre. It was to do a multidisciplinary kind of work, using the technologies that were available, so it was important that the name reflected that. So that's why it's called Ex Machina. Machina is basically the miracle that comes out of the machine to shed light or save the day. We were hoping with a name like Ex Machina, it means that we would produce miracles out of machines.

[I]t was very liberating for me to suddenly say, 'Well, why don't I just be myself on stage and go for it?'- Robert Lepage

"I's always been our challenge to find a balance between the miracle and the machine in the sense that at times the machine is noisy and gets in the way of the miracle. And sometimes the miracle eclipses or makes you forget the machine, but one never lives without the other."

Watch the trailer for 887:

Robert Lepage's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Fondu au noir" composed by Coeur de Pirate, performed by Lupita Harrison. 

 

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