Does anyone actually enjoy reading plays?
For all but the most dedicated theatre enthusiasts, deciphering a script can be a difficult task – trying to keep track of which character is which and remembering the location in which a scene is set, all without losing track of the plot.
When it comes to the stage creations of Robert Lepage, sifting through his scripts can be a somewhat unrewarding experience: The appeal of his work relies not just on the words spoken but the impressive images and sounds that surround them.
And so, Lepage and his theatre company, Ex Machina – perpetual innovators that they are – have come up with a clever way of publishing a recent play by Lepage and his long-time collaborator, Marie Michaud, in a format that would make the average person actually want to read it.
They turned it into comic book.
Out this month from House of Anansi Press, The Blue Dragon is an attractive, 176-page mise en images of the play of the same name, illustrated by Quebec City's Fred Jourdain.
Using a variety of artistic techniques, from ink drawings to watercolour paintings, Jourdain fleshes out the world around Lepage and Michaud's script to tell the story of Shanghai-based art dealer Pierre Lamontagne and his ex-lover, Claire Forêt, who has come to China to adopt a baby.
Much of the dialogue appears in classic comic-book speech bubbles, while longer conversations are printed at the side of or under illustrations, with miniature heads to indicate who is speaking.
Turning stage plays into comic books may be an idea on the rise – and Canadians appear to be leading the way. Toronto playwright and performer Rebecca Singh's one-woman show My Origami Motorcycle recently appeared on bookshelves as a self-published comic illustrated by Ruth Tait. And Brad Fraser, the Poor Super Man playwright, who has a passion for comic books, is at work on a graphic novel of his 2000 play Snake in Fridge.
As for The Blue Dragon, there have been definite ancillary benefits that come from having a performance captured in this way, notes Michaud, who originated and continues to play the character of Claire onstage. "[Jourdain]made me younger, more sexy in the album," she says. "I was really happy – though I found it funny that my character took an airplane for 12 hours in high heels."
Jourdain was somewhat surprised two years ago when he was contacted by Ex Machina to gauge his interest in the project. He had dabbled in la bande dessinée – the French language makes no snooty distinctions between "comic books" and "graphic novels" – but the bulk of his work was as a designer, photographer and illustrator. What's more, he had never even seen a Lepage play, though he was familiar with the Quebec director's movies, such as 1995's Le Confessionnal and La face cachée de la lune ( The Far Side of the Moon) from 2003.
Upon attending a performance of The Blue Dragon onstage in Montreal, however, Jourdain was immediately inspired by a theatrical style he (and many others) identifies as cinematic. "My influences come from the movies," says Jourdain, 27, who growing up had read comic-book adaptations of Francis Ford Coppola's film Dracula and Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park. Of The Blue Dragon comic book, he says, "I wanted to put a cinematographic spin on it."
While many pages are broken up into traditional panels, Joudain frequently inserts wide-angle, two-page spreads that fully depict what perhaps was only suggested by a lighting or sound cue in Lepage's production. (Having toured the world and been part of the Cultural Olympiad in Vancouver, The Blue Dragon's next stop is at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre in January, presented by Mirvish Productions.) A brief mention of Hong Kong in the play, for instance, permits Jourdain to draw a lost-in-thought Pierre walking through one of that city's notoriously busy intersections.
As for the sexed-up Michaud as Claire, Joudain explains that, first of all, the actress is being modest; and that secondly, taking a character from three dimensions to two requires a certain amount of adaptation. "Claire Forêt is an irreverent woman, with a certain sexual tension about her," says Jourdain. "When you transform that into design, you have to exaggerate certain things, caricature certain aspects of the character."
While comic books have long been fodder for the stage, the reverse has been much rarer. Shakespeare's works have certainly been packaged as comics, as a way to interest children – there's even a series of Japanese-inspired manga Shakespeare published in Britain – but contemporary plays haven't.
La bande déssinée is a particularly apt form for The Blue Dragon: The play itself was partly inspired by Hergé's The Blue Lotus, the classic 1936 comic in which the young, cow-licked journalist Tintin persued a group of drug smugglers to Shanghai.
"That's how we discovered China," Michaud says, of reading the Hergé book as a child. "We tried to get the rights to include images from The Blue Lotus in our scenography, but Spielberg had bought all the rights to Tintin."
Nevertheless, comic books are alluded to in the play; Michel Gauthier's set design frequently divides the stage into panels. "We tried to keep the text very minimalist, to have the impression that it could enter a speech bubble," notes Michaud.
Which now it has. One wonders what plays will be next.