Stages of change
Canadian theatre legend Robert Lepage's new Quebec City venue, Le Diamant, may mark not only a new era for the old city, but a game-change for performing arts across the country
The two adjacent façades of the 1879 YMCA building at Quebec City's Place d'Youville stand at right angles, like covers of a book whose pages have been ripped away. A construction crane slowly lowers materials into the empty space behind, where a centre for creating and performing new stage works is being built, under the aegis of theatre star Robert Lepage.
It's called Le Diamant – the Diamond – and it could mark the start of a new era for a city better known for stone fortifications and horse-drawn carriages than for the performing arts. The new $54-million complex will house Lepage's acclaimed Ex Machina production company, and offer a venue and incubator for Canadian and international theatre-related arts.
Lepage is one of Canada's most successful theatre artists, whose original pieces and opera productions are seen around the world. His work often involves ingenious or monumental stage machinery, such as the 41-tonne set of rotating planks used in his Metropolitan Opera production of Wagner's Ring cycle. Lepage's ongoing Cirque du Soleil show Kà, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, required a new theatre with a multipart floating stage that cost $165-million (U.S.) to build.
Le Diamant is at a smaller scale – more relatable to the intimate works Lepage has created with fewer cast members and less specular machinery. But his ambitions for the place are huge.
"We want to shake the tree," the 60-year-old director said during an interview at Palais Montcalm, the concert hall opposite Le Diamant. He plans to present his own and other companies in all forms of theatre, as well as circus, puppetry, British Christmas panto ("done in an Ex Machina way"), virtual reality and even wrestling.
Le Diamant will be a home for the Carrefour international de théâtre de Québec (a spring festival, and Ex Machina's partner in the arm's-length building project), and could provide a hub for the Quebec City Film Festival, Lepage said. He also wants to renovate the way theatre is programmed, promoted and experienced by audiences, although how that will happen, he said, remains a matter for experiment.
"What we do has to be disruptive," he said, and he's willing to put his own money down to achieve that. Last month, he pledged $500,000 to the building's capital budget. "But we also had to insert ourselves carefully into the local theatre ecology. We had to reassure everyone that we weren't going to steal their audience."
He told them that Le Diamant would stress collaboration, not competition.
Le Diamant will include a black box theatre with room for 600 spectators, configurable as needed, as well as offices, meeting spaces, a restaurant and front-of-house areas. There will also be a studio for shaping new works, similar to the one the company uses at La Caserne, the converted fire station where it has developed all of its shows since 1997.
"The Caserne has an ideal shape and height and equipment," said Lepage, adding that the physical arrangement of offices and technical resources in the old space made for a perfect synergy.
So why leave? Why take on the headache of running a performance space, rather than continue to rent theatres as needed?
"The Caserne was ideal for starting ideas and projects," Lepage said, but for big projects such as the Ring, it became very tight. Le Diamant's performance space, he said, will be used part of the time as a larger secondary incubator for projects that begin in the creation space upstairs.
He also said he wants Ex Machina to have a bigger presence in Quebec City as a performing company, and to that end, existing theatres have limited appeal.
His works make advanced demands on lighting, projection and other technical systems and, as Kà showed on a grand scale, often require something other than a standard proscenium stage.
"We go all over the place, but we also want people to come to Quebec to see what we do," he said. "The identity of a company has a lot to do with where it comes from."
Bernard Gilbert, Le Diamant's incoming general manager, has no doubt that longer runs by the company will bring audiences to its home town. "Ex Machina shows are the hottest theatre ticket in Quebec," said Gilbert, the former production manager for Lepage's opera projects.
"The last show [ Lepage's one-man memory play, 887] ran here for four weeks," he said. "It could have played for three months."
Le Diamant is coming up during a renaissance for the city, which has spruced up some dilapidated areas and added a layer of high-tech to its industrial base. Its tourism profile is also changing, attracting more visitors from China and Japan, and prompting a 30-per-cent rise last year in cruise-ship traffic at the Port of Quebec.
Placing the new performing-arts centre on Place d'Youville was a delicate task, according to architect Marie-Chantal Croft, of the Quebec City firm Coarchitecture. The plaza is just outside the historic city walls, but is included in the protected zone of Old Quebec.
"The program is so big and the site is so small, and we have a historic building adjacent," Croft said, referring to the Théâtre Capitole, which stands very close to Le Diamant's tight footprint.
The most striking feature visually will be the crystal that will cut diagonally across the building, creating an atrium, bringing in light and bridging between the old Second Empire façade and the new envelope. Croft said that the idea for the diagonal came from an old land route along the same axis, which used to connect the upper city with the lower.
The project has received $30-million (Canadian) from the Quebec government, $10-million from Ottawa and $7-million from the city. Gilbert said that about two-thirds of the private fundraising goal of $10-million had been achieved, including an unusual gift of $1-million from Japanese businessman Takeya Kaburaki, whose food-distribution company sells Quebec's maple syrup in Japan. Kaburaki has also sponsored performances in Japan by Ex Machina, Cirque du Soleil and choreographer Marie Chouinard.
"He's going to be one of our great collaborators," Lepage said, "not just financially, but also in helping us rethink the presence of Japanese culture in theatre and music."
Gilbert said he expects the building to be ready by the spring of 2019, with the first programs opening at a date yet to be determined.
The Caserne, meanwhile, will be taken over and adapted by Les Gros Becs, a children's theatre company in Quebec.
Lepage's long-term intention includes forming a new relationship with audiences, in which marketing concerns have less influence over programming. The details have yet to be worked out, and the vision may sound utopian, but Lepage has done the seemingly impossible before. His next act is about to begin.