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In 887, the director, playwright and actor Robert Lepage plays himself as he travels back to his childhood in 1960s and 70s Quebec City.
In 887, the director, playwright and actor Robert Lepage plays himself as he travels back to his childhood in 1960s and 70s Quebec City.

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He’s one of Canada’s most revered theatre and film artists, and for decades has performed to rapt audiences with powerfully inventive works. But when Robert Lepage takes the stage in 887, he’s taking on a role he has never played before: himself.

Named after the number of his childhood home, 887 centres on the theme of memory – what we remember, how we remember, what happens when our recollections falter and why we retain trivial things but forget important ones. (How can you forget the name of an important collaborator, asks Mr. Lepage, but remember all the words to the theme song from Gilligan’s Island?)

In the process, the internationally acclaimed director, playwright and actor – who recently turned 58 – travels back to his childhood in 1960s and 70s Quebec City, and discovers that his father, whom he always considered a relatively small influence, largely shaped who he is today.

“I always thought of my father as an absence more than a presence because he was a taxi driver, and it was so unlucrative that he would work all the time, even at night,” says Mr. Lepage, who adds that his mother was a great storyteller with a warm sense of humour, so he assumed his creative streak came from her.

“What a shock it was to discover how central my father was, how fundamental, and how on so many levels I’ve inherited more from him than from my mother,” he says. “I didn’t think this show would open up a can of worms.”

Of course, the sixties and seventies were also a pivotal time for the Quebec separatist movement, which was in its own adolescence, and 887 touches on the politics of the era – as filtered through Mr. Lepage’s childhood recollections.

“There was this thing going on in the family, like ‘Do we watch Hockey Night in Canada in French or in English?’” Mr. Lepage recalls with a laugh.

“It was extraordinary, because there was a sense that this separatist thing was growing in the background, that it was starting to divide family and divide friends and divide people,” he says. “So when you bring it down to a human scale, inside a working-class family, and see how they deal with it, it’s a much more interesting way of opening the separatist debate.”

Mr. Lepage acknowledges he has always been uncomfortable with doing autobiographical work, in part because it can seem pretentious and in part because there is nowhere to hide. The key, he says, was to poke fun at himself and reveal his flaws (“which is the only way to get away with murder,” he quips) – and to bend the truth, just as our memories do.

“It’s very autobiographical, but it’s an auto-fiction. Otherwise there’s no theatre possible,” he says. “You can’t just tell the truth.”

887 is at SFU Woodward’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts until Feb. 21. The final show will be performed in French (sfuwoodwards.ca).

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