As a child, he reached for the French-language TV dial only to have his bigger, older brother change the knob to English. Hockey, in the Lepage home in Quebec City, was more often a game watched en anglais.
For celebrated man of the theatre Robert Lepage, his childhood home was a place where the deux solitudes co-existed under one roof. Two of his siblings, both adopted, were English-educated in Nova Scotia, he said, but when his parents moved to Quebec and “had better luck” conceiving, they had two children they sent to French school.
“Our family was a kind of bicultural experience,” said Lepage, sitting in a regal, powder-blue armchair flanked by a cultural power couple.
For two of the three conversing in the large drawing room at Rideau Hall, the governor-general’s official residence was once home. For the third, Lepage, it was a grand place that evening to receive an award he was “shocked” to have won.
Hours before the Glenn Gould Prize for a “unique lifetime contribution” to the arts was presented on Monday evening, the trio – Lepage, former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul – held a wide-ranging conversation, exclusive to The Globe and Mail, touching on creativity, technology, art and culture.
“There’s this sort of illusion that Canadian culture was about Montreal or Toronto speaking to the rest of the country, but it’s never been like that,” Saul said. “Culturally, this country has always been deeply decentralized, deeply complicated and deeply contradictory. And those are all good things.”
The trio’s connections are myriad, reaching back more than two decades when then-CBC journalist Clarkson interviewed Lepage, to more recently, with Saul a member of the Glenn Gould jury that selected Lepage as winner of the $50,000 prize in honour of his edginess – his ability to show where art could go next in theatre, film and opera.
The conversation this day, however, was also about where Lepage had been: around the world, at centre stage, in the wings, across Canada, behind the lens, bridging divides.
From 1989 to 1993, he was artistic director of Théatre français at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, a period he described as an “interesting playground” in which he forged relationships with talented Canadian anglophone directors. “It was still in the days where you could try things, which is kind of nice,” he recalled. “You were less obsessed by programming and selling tickets … Before me, I don’t think anybody had really reached out to do bilingual ventures.”
Even in the bilingual capital – within walking distance of Quebec – there is a French theatre community and an English theatre community, he noted, adding that while he enjoyed his time in Ottawa, he “of course” had to return to Quebec City.
“Of course you did,” Clarkson agreed. “That’s always the pull isn’t it, for you?”
At this point, Lepage tapped into his memory of 1960s Quebec, and the jockeying for control of the language dial during hockey games. When Toronto played in Montreal, or vice versa, “it was a way to play out the drama, the tension.”
The drama and tension are today being played out in the Quebec provincial election, though all three agreed that Canada’s bicultural experiment is not under imminent threat.
“The debate about [Quebec’s proposed] Charter of Values was an interesting debate,” Lepage said. “It provided a way of knowing how people in your community think and stand … That was what supposedly triggered the election, but nobody talked about it.”
And few people, they all agreed, talk about Canada’s ties to the North – one of Clarkson and Saul’s greatest emphases during their tenure at Rideau Hall. “We shouldn’t reject it because nature will always come back and tell us – this winter told us – that ‘You are a northern country’ … I think we’re deeply afraid of nature, and nature, at its cruellest is cold and snow,” Clark-son said.”
Lepage said that when he works in northern countries such as Norway, Sweden and Russia, he can feel a certain connection – “there is a such thing as the culture of the North.” He even suggested to an artistic director in Stockholm that they create a Theatre of the North Alliance, but the woman said, “Not a good idea,” he recounted, then joked, “She had enough of the North.”
When Saul asked Lepage whether he feels there’s a difference in the way people receive his work depending on geography, the playwright said that he isn’t sure, but that there seems to be something more “easy going” in his conversations with artists in northern countries.
Lepage returned in December from Russia, where, Saul and Clarkson noted, Glenn Gould launched a celebrated tour in 1957. But Lepage needed no reminding: the historic moment was to be featured in his acceptance speech that night.
Saul said the award is not a “reward for past services,” and Lepage shows no sign of slowing. He’s working on another one-man show, for example, slated to be a meditation on memory.
Lepage exited the conversation in the drawing room stage left, off to pre-award interviews before later accepting the Tenth Glenn Gould Prize. Clarkson and Saul stayed behind and renewed their discussion of creative experimentation. “The leaders will always experiment,” Saul said. “The arts are supremely uncontrollable.”
And Lepage? Clarkson was succinct: “He loves taking risks.”