What happens when an internationally acclaimed theatre producer is accused of cultural insensitivity? He puts on another production – about another nation’s culture, writes Amanda Parker.
Whilst the UK grapples with issues around creative production and cultural appropriation, Canada’s arts sector is ahead of the curve in ensuring voices from diverse communities and cultures are heard and seen in its cultural output. But it’s far from an easy course to navigate – and lived experience doesn’t make anyone exempt from making mistakes.
Robert Lepage is Canada’s most prolific cultural export, straddling film and theatre as a writer, director, producer and actor. He holds the country’s highest honours for his creative achievements, which include productions for Circe du Soleil, Peter Gabriel, Vegas, The Royal Opera House, Sadler’s Wells and New York’s Metropolitan Opera – to name just a handful of stellar names which litter his biography.
As a native of Quebec he is fluent in conceptual and practical notions around the duality of culture and heritage. His comfort with duality makes for an all-embracing creativity that results in transcendent productions of technical wizardry and genre-busting unconventionality.
I meet him hours after his arrival in the UK for a revival – and re-working – of his critically acclaimed ‘The Seven Streams of the River Ota’. Originally conceived in 1994, over time it has grown from a two-hour show to become the daunting seven-hour epic that will play at the National Theatre for just nine performances this month. Given his dominance of his nation’s cultural scene for twenty-six years as Artistic Director of his company Ex Machina, perhaps unsurprisingly he’s been “put through the mill” of several debates about culture, identity, and creativity. All of these serve as salutary lessons for UK theatre makers.
‘A Christopher Columbus experience’
Lepage speaks with the joy and curiosity of a creator without boundaries: he talks with energy about the element of play in his creative process, and how with play comes the potential for unforeseen outcomes.
“There’s something in the way I work that’s very unprepared – not completely thought through.
“As a director I compare it to a Christopher Columbus experience: you start something and you feel there’s a continent there … you don’t know what shape [it will be], but you have to communicate your vision and your intuition in a way that people go, ‘OK I trust you’.
“But it’s also a very playful process. [In improvising] there’s always something extraordinary and fantastic - something you’ve never expected and that’s very liberating for actors.
“There’s a moment where you are improvising something you’ve never done before – it’s always accident, no one can order this – it can only happen in the playful process. And you can run into some situations where you go ‘Oh my god that’s a wrong choice’. Then you run into questions about how to make amends. How can I change this? Do I want to change this? And that’s what happened last year.”
What Lepage ‘ran into’ last year was a very public backlash from indigenous groups against his 2018 production ‘Kanata’, a story of Canadian history that featured a non-diverse cast. The criticism came just months after another show, ‘SLAV’, which featured 19th-century slave songs, performed by Caucasian actors. ‘SLAV’ was eventually cancelled after funding was withdrawn.
“For me there was no intention of keeping other people out. You’re full of good ideas and good intentions but then you’re in the middle of a process.”
Given what must have been a very bruising experience, I wondered if he felt cultural considerations restrict the creative process.
“Absolutely. Absolutely…in Canada if you want to have your subsidy [grant aid arts funding] you have these percentages, you have to have a certain amount of men, a certain amount of women, you have to hire people with visible disabilities, invisible disabilities and so on and it’s really… you can’t apply these rules to every project in the same way. I cannot generalise and say from now on 50/50 men/women - that would be contrary to what this theatre is about”.
Given Arts Council England’s recent warning of sanctions for organisations who fail to meet diversity targets, is there something we in the UK could learn from such an explicit articulation of funding requirements?
“It’s a good thing if it’s going to make you conscious – if you’re going to think, OK, in general what’s my season about? Is it inclusive? Do we have the right consultants? It’s a good thing if it makes me think in a general way but I can’t apply it to a project in the same way.… the project is a project. Art is art – you have to see if it works. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t work and otherwise you’re compromising – and compromised art is not effective.
“I’ve been through the mill with this – there was the case of ‘SLAV’ which turned out to be a very positive experience, when I met the group that I thought would lynch me. One of them wrote a review and panned us and everything she was saying explained the dramaturgical challenge that we had.
“We then re-rehearsed with them in the room: they could see what our intentions were, we could see what caused the upset and it became a collaboration and we have consulted together since – it was very positive.”
‘The Seven Streams of the River Ota’, created in 1994, takes within its creative sphere Japanese puppetry, Kabuki theatre, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. To say it divided critics is an understatement. How does a producer who’s faced such public censure for cultural appropriation return with a show rooted in Japan’s history and creativity?
“Since [the first production in 1994] the company’s grown. We have more resources, we have Japanese actors [playing the Japanese parts] but we don’t do it because we’re obliged – we do it because it’s a new reality, we have access to people and Quebec has changed: Quebec has diversified. Theatre schools now have great actors from every culture that we can work with.”
What can UK theatre makers learn from Lepage as we stumble our way through our own difficult conversations about multiculturalism?
“I don’t have that many conclusions but what I know is that while this whole debate happened, the French press – whether it was in France or in Quebec – gave completely the opposite opinion from the English press! I thought, ‘That’s interesting – you guys are only getting half of the debate!’ but nobody wants to talk about that in English Canada as it then begins a whole debate about separatism and so on – but I was caught in the middle!”
“You’re in a very different place if you’ve been a coloniser and now you have to repair a lot of stuff and I think it’s a good thing to have that consciousness. But if you’re part of a community or a culture that doesn’t feel that – we’re completely disconnected from France now – that’s a debate nobody wants to have and it’s an interesting one.”
“You have to let people just kind of” – he demonstrates a moment of Zen-like, deep breathing. And the ambivalence, the duality that informs his work rears its head. He acknowledges he is in a powerful position “because I have the resources, so I take on responsibility to make amends,” and then reflects:
“There’s a movement of isolation in this attitude that I find a bit…" He doesn’t finish the sentence, but takes up another thread.
“Many times – as was in my case – they’re shooting on the allies: I’m an ally so don’t hit me! Go to the really right-wing fascists who can control some of the media!”
“Nobody wants to believe in this argument: that to understand the ‘other’, you pretend to be the other, to put yourself in the place of the other and that’s what theatre’s always been about.”
Smell of chicken
Almost as light relief, we talk about Le Diamant, the stunning venue opened last year in Quebec, costing more than $165m US dollars: the product of a “dream realised” for Lepage to provide Quebec with its own cultural hub. He’s talked in the past about making theatre in Quebec a viable alternative to Netflix, making performing arts accessible through competitive pricing.
He lights up: “We have price policies like if you’re fifteen years old you pay fifteen dollars. We’re also blending into the season things like wrestling matches, drag queen shows – anything that’s theatrical. And those [programme] activities are cheaper, the people who don’t normally come to our theatre come to those shows. The main thing is to curate events: theatre will survive if it’s eventful.”
Lepage’s focus is not concerning himself with ensuring his productions are ‘accessible’, but instead making sure the venue itself offers a sufficient range of content to appeal to wider audiences.
“Yes: whoever in the crowd has an eye for whatever else we’re doing will come. The best publicity for Kentucky Fried Chicken is the smell of chicken,” he laughs. “So go to the theatre and if there’s a smell of theatre you will want to come back. And if it felt good when you came and there’s something there, a sense of community – you’ll come back. That’s the smell of chicken”.