As the Quiet Revolution advanced, Robert Lepage was growing up in a crowded apartment in a working class neighbourhood in Quebec City, part of a rather unusual French-Canadian family of six.
The children were bilingual, but the siblings were split by language. Lepage's father had served in the navy and, while stationed in Halifax, far from French schools, the family had raised the first two children mainly in English. While their older brother and sister continued at an Irish-Catholic academy in Quebec City and spoke together in English, Lepage and his younger sister were educated in French.
"You'd watch Hockey Night in Canada, and Saturday nights there would be these big fights: 'I want to watch it in French!' 'I want to watch it in English!'" the theatre director recalled in a recent interview in Toronto. "My brother, because he was stronger and he was older, he would steal the knob so we couldn't change the channels any more. So, there was this odd thing going on in our family … even though we weren't necessarily about politics."
His father drove a cab but his experience in the armed forces had made him a proud federalist who encouraged his children to see English as an opportunity, while Lepage's mother had some sympathy for the separatists in those years marked by the rise of the Front de libération du Québec.
Lepage returns to this rich chapter of personal and social history in his new solo show 887, which he will unveil in Toronto at Panamania next week. The title is taken from the family address at 887 avenue Murray, where the Lepages lived from 1960 to 1970.
The show is filled with that kind of specific biographical detail: Lepage calls it auto-fiction, saying, "I reorganize the truth a bit to make interesting theatre." And yet, 887 began rather abstractly with Lepage's desire to address the theme of memory.
"Why is it that I have problems learning my lines? You turn fiftysomething and you go, 'Oh, my God, I can't learn this any more.' But I could sing to you the opening to Gilligan's Island. … Long-term memory is so persistent, but as you age, short-term memory is so brittle, so fragile."
And so Lepage went back in his own memories to those years that culminated in the October Crisis of 1970 with soldiers patrolling the streets of Quebec. He recalls that fall working his paper route, which included the heavily guarded home of Jean Lesage, the Quebec premier whose policies had nurtured the Quiet Revolution. Every day the soldiers searched his bag of newspapers: "It was over the top, even at 12 years old I knew it was over the top."
It was his version of an incident that fellow playwright Michel Tremblay once described, when Tremblay's lunch box was searched by police during a spate of FLQ bombings in 1963, and that budding nationalist thought to himself: "The bombs aren't in my lunch box; they are in my head."
Lepage, who has never publicly endorsed separatism and has tended to position himself as internationalist rather than nationalist, recalls the fight as one of French workers against English bosses:
"The nationalist movement has been taken in hand by the bourgeois class because most Quebeckers have become very bourgeois … what they do has become very ill-informed of the origins. It was a class struggle. It happened that the people who had the power and the money spoke English and the people who didn't spoke French, but it wasn't a racist or cultural clash."
But this kind of capital-H history is never interesting if it isn't seen through the lens of personal anecdote and daily detail, Lepage figures. So, in his show, on a set that features a doll's-house version of the avenue Murray apartment building, he revisits his cab-driving father.
"When the FLQ manifesto was read on television … my father was agreeing with everything, but saying they are wrong to be doing what they are doing. It was this paradox of identifying with the message yet taking action meant destroying everything he had been defending."
As his father became his protagonist, 887 changed the way Lepage saw his own relationship with the man, who died in 1992.
"I never thought my father had a huge influence on my life. … I loved him, he was a great guy, I admired him, but I wasn't close to him, yet this show sort of revealed that it's all about him, who he was, how amazing he was, and what I inherited from him."
Among other gifts, he had crammed English into his children's heads: He produced a son who can play French- and English-language versions of his plays on alternate nights when he visits bilingual cities. The new show marks Lepage's first solo work since The Andersen Project in 2005, but the director-playwright-actor says the only reason for the 10-year gap is that he's been busy.
"I always do these big collective things, nine-hour shows with nine actors, it's all about collaboration and democracy. That's great, I love it, but the individual can't always express himself 100-per-cent," he says, referring to recent productions such as Hearts and Spades, his pair of playing-cards shows. "The solo show, you are alone on stage, but it is also about loneliness. You feel like an outsider, part of your personality is about being an outsider, not being like other people, and that can only be expressed in that format."
He also notes the freedom of solo work, in which the performer can switch between naturalistic speech spoken to unseen interlocutors and interior monologue or direct address to the audience: "It allows you to be there and not be there; it allows you different ways of reading the story."
And it makes the audience more forgiving: "A solo show is full of permission. … When you are a company, people want good acting, they want proper stuff, they've paid to see what people saw the night before, but in a solo show there is something that is more eventful and more of a marathon. There is a guy standing on his feet for two hours and 10 minutes, for you – and he's not in his early 20s any more."
All he has to do is remember his lines.
887 plays Toronto's St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts July 14-19 (Toronto2015.org/Panamania)