Robert Lepage's journey to the Far Side of the Moon

Theatre artist reflects on the loss, and the washing-machine door, that launched a beloved play; plus his growing ties to Vancouver
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Inspiration hits at the strangest times and in the most unlikely places—as Robert Lepage discovered while moping through Quebec City during a rare creative lull some years ago. At the time, he was still mourning the death of his mother, and wondering how he could put his conflicting feelings of loss and liberation into theatrical form.

“I always had these nightmares where suddenly there was no gravity—that the day my parents weren’t there anymore, suddenly I’d start disappearing into space,” he reveals, reached in New York City during rehearsals for the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of The Tempest, which he’s directing. “This was a horrible nightmare when you’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey and you’ve seen the guy disappearing and screaming and you can’t hear him. So that was kind of a stress.

“My father died first,” he adds. “And then when my mom passed away, it didn’t feel like that at all. I suddenly felt so connected to life: suddenly life had a different taste, and I had this urgency to live fully—to eat and taste things and to be very, very, very, very much alive. So it was a very odd impression that I wanted to express.”

Lepage was also struggling with trying to tell the story of Buzz Aldrin, the second human ever to walk on the moon.

“I even got to speak to him a couple of times on the phone—which was a bit odd, actually. We forget that these guys are actually military men,” he notes. “And he agreed to do something, but he was always calling it ‘the TV project’, or he was calling it ‘the film project’, and I was trying to explain, ‘Well, I’m doing theatre.’ And he wanted to have complete control over everything. It became hell, basically.”

Then serendipity struck.

“I was walking in an alleyway and saw an industrial-washing-machine door that was in a garbage can,” he recalls. “It was a beautiful object, really beautiful, and I looked at it and that object seemed to contain both shows. The show about my mother, because it reminded me of when the washing machine at home would break and we would go to the laundromat in the ’60s. That would always be a great day, because I’d pretend I was at mission control. And at the same time it really looked like the porthole of some kind of lunar module, or some kind of spaceship. So that tiny object suddenly seemed to be literally a door to explore both themes. With a few more elements—just a blackboard and a couple of chairs—there’s this whole show that came out.”

The show in question is Far Side of the Moon, which Lepage’s Ex Machina company will present, in conjunction with SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs and Théâtre la Seizième, at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. Quebec actor Yves Jacques stars during the first part of the run, from November 1 to 4, and then, once The Tempest is up and running at the Met, Lepage will take over for the remaining six shows, from November 6 to 10.

Although the piece debuted in Quebec City in 2000, in typical Lepage fashion it remains a work in progress. “I performed it a lot—like, a whole lot—and when I stopped performing it this other guy [Jacques] stepped in. And you look at the show and you listen to the script, and you go, ‘Oh, my God, this is horrible.’ So it’s good to have somebody step into your shoes, because you have a real chance to get a sense of what it’s really about.

“So I kind of rewrote it and rehacked at it, did all this work.…And recently I’ve been going through it again, because I’m actually performing it, and when I was reading it I went, ‘My God, this needs another rewrite.’ But in the meantime I’ve been doing a few plays where you learn that simple is good, and short is long, and long is bad. So I guess in Vancouver, by the time I get to perform it, it’s a new script. But it’s basically the same show and the same story: it’s just the words that change.”

The new and presumably improved Far Side of the Moon isn’t just a continuation of Lepage’s increasingly close relationship with SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts. (Lepage inaugurated the SCA’s Woodward’s locale with a 2010 production of his The Blue Dragon.) It’s also a sign of his growing engagement with Vancouver, where he’s thinking of buying a condo, and with Vancouver-based or -trained artists, including Kidd Pivot dancer and choreographer Crystal Pite.

The Tempest, with music by Thomas Adés and libretto by Meredith Oakes, is their first collaboration, but probably not their last.

“It’s been a great surprise—not that I was surprised that it went well, and that it was rich and fun and all of that,” says Lepage. “It’s just that in the case of the opera, she only worked on a few segments. I felt, ‘Well, she probably won’t want to do that, because it’s too little for her to work on.’ So I offered for her to work in a less choreographic way with some of the singers—and she did amazing stuff with everybody. I thought she’d feel underused, but she worked 10,000 times more than I did on this show—and of course we’re looking for other excuses to work together.”

Pite apparently feels the same. “Robert Lepage surrounds himself with masterful people, so that’s also very amazing to see all the machinery around him,” Pite, who appears with Lepage in a November 8 talk at SFU Woodward’s, told Georgia Straight arts editor Janet Smith in a recent interview. “I’m just amazed at the clarity of the vision.”

Working with other, equally skilled artists is just one reason why, 28 years after his first major production, Lepage continues to be in love with theatre, even though he’s also explored film, concert design, and opera. Isolation is one of his favourite themes, but the theatrical life is anything but lonely.

“I’ve chosen to work in theatre more than any other artistic expression because it doesn’t exist without a community,” he stresses. “Even if you do a one-man show, even if you’re alone on-stage, you’re not really alone: there’s a community of people, a group of people, that surrounds you to help you out. I’m interested in that paradox: you feel lonely, you want to express loneliness, but you’re in a crowd, actually. You have a whole crowd of people helping you out, doing it.”

And if the artist often called theatre’s greatest living Renaissance man decides to do more work with our crowd, in our city? Well, then, we’ll be lucky—and richer for it in every sense.

Far Side of the Moon runs at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts from next Thursday (November 1) to November 10. Robert Lepage and Crystal Pite will discuss collaboration and The Tempest at a special Creative Collaborations panel at 5 p.m. at the same venue on November 8.

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