• Robert Lepage was born in Quebec City on 12th December, 1957
  • One of four children, mother was mostly a house-wife and father was a cab driver
  • A rarity at that time, they were a truly bi-lingual family
  • Lepage’s mother had lived in London serving with the army during WWII and his father was in Royal Navy, so they both learned English during that time
  • They adopted two English-speaking children, then had Robert and his sister some years later – he saw his family as a “cultural metaphor for Canada”
  • Growing up (60’s & 70’s) Lepage felt the effects of cultural and family politics in Quebec – dominance of white French Catholic, Anglophone minority had economic power while the francophone majority lived in rural areas or were working class – Lepage did not fit into either group
  • He was also struggling with his sexual identity, and he had alopecia which caused him at age six to lose all his body hair…all this caused him to assume the role of the outsider
  • He was very shy and prone to depression, and drama classes were a way to overcome this.  He says in Needles and Opium, “Well, you see, I suffer from a very low self-esteem.  It is problematic for someone in theatre, because people’s opinion is very important; it’s part of my work. It either empowers me or completely destroys me…”
  • His mother told him war stories and stories about old Quebec as a child
  • His father would take people on tour of Quebec City in his cab and regale them with stories that were a mix of myth, fact and fiction and would alter depending on who was listening and Robert would often accompany his father just to hear the stories
  • Was very interested in geography, then moved over to theatre – he became interested in the geography of human experience or the human environment…intercultural theatre
  • Lepage was studying geography at college before he shifted his focus and attended Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique in Quebec City where he didn’t do all that well – he had a difficult time creating psychological realism and was told he was acting without emotion. He says “I was taught a definition of emotion which I learned but never managed to produce on stage. But from my very first professional shows, however, I managed to move the audience. I didn’t really understand what made this happen and it took me a long time before I began to sort it out, before I could really distinguish the difference between the emotion that an actor feels on the stage and the energy he needs to generate that emotion in the audience.”
  • He did however gain a lot from studying with Marc Dore, a student of Jacques Lecoq
  • Then took workshops at  Alain Knapp’s theatre school in Paris (Insitut de la personnalite creatrice) – here he learned devised theatre and it was there that he realized he could be an actor/creator, he could be the focus of the mise-en-scene, in effect he could create and control the mise-en-scene
  • These experiences largely shaped the theatre he would end up creating
  • It’s worth mentioning that Lepage would’ve grown up with all the political, social and cultural tension happening in Quebec during that time – theatre in Quebec was already breaking with tradition, and was in essence rebelling again all the foreign “masterpieces” – in fact Quebec critic Michel Vais credits Michel Trembley with bringing “joual” (language of the streets) to the stage – he called a 1968 production of Les Belles-Soeurs “the birth of Quebec theatre”
  • When he came back to Quebec he started creating original work, and in 1982 joined Jacques Lessard’s  and Irene Roy’s Theatre Repere where he did much of his early work, including the internationally recognized Dragon’s Trilogy
  • With Theatre Repere he also created Vinci (1986), Le Polygraphe (1987 – 1990) with long-time collaborator Marie Brassard, and Tectonic Plates (1988 – 1990), all of which toured the world
  • He was the artistic director of the National Arts Centre Theatre Francais from 1989 – 1993 during which he created Needles and Opium among many others
  • I saw his production of A Mid Summer’s Night Dream at the National Theatre in London in 1992 – he was the first North-American to direct a Shakespearean play at the National Theatre
  • In 1994 he created his own theatre/multi-media production company Ex Machina, of which some of the more significant projects have been The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994), Geometry of Miracles (1998), and The Far Side of the Moon (2000)
  • He has directed and acted in many films – who can forget him in Jesus de Montreal a film by Denys Arcand, and has directed numerous Operas around the world, as well as permanent show in Las Vegas for Circe du Soleil called Ka
  • In 1993 he staged Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Tour, and did the same again for his Growing Up Tour in 2003
  • Recently he’s even done unique projects like The Image Mill which celebrated Quebec City’s 400th anniversary – it was the largest projection in the world , and was projected on the Bunge grain elevators – it offered 4 centuries of human and material development in Quebec City in 40 minutes and did so with a focus on past, present & future
  • The Blue Dragon, a sequel to The Dragon’s Trilogy came out last year and recently was part of the Cultural Olympiad in Vancouver
  • He continues to be involved in all kinds of projects…he never quits…
  • It’s no wonder he’s been dubbed “the ambassador par excellence of Quebec culture”

Themes in the Work

  • Lepage is not interested in theatre as a pedagogue, and he is not trying to establish a system or an approach to be analyzed and studied
  • Due to his experiences growing up Lepage seems to have a several recurring themes in his work, travelling, geography, the local and global cultural intersection, language, non-verbal language, global communication, memory, cultural differences between countries, otherness or alienation, displacement, decalage, what is art or artistic integrity and how these things are defined, the role and identity of self in the context of the work, the role of the audience as a participant in the process – and he is interested in all parts of the theatre having equal value…total theatre
  • Transformation and connection is a very big theme…at the heart of much of what he does
  • His sense of otherness seems to have informed this idea of travelling – many of his productions contain an element where the main characters travel to another place, country or environment and learn something significant about themselves that radically changes their lives
  • The actor/creator often offers a personal account of what is going in the story – the audience gets let into the very personal world of who is telling the story, who the story is happening to, we get their perspective and understand their relationship with the story – the story-teller is defined by who they are in the context of the outside world
  • Not unlike the way he grew up, his theatre lives in-between worlds
  • The main character (usually young and usually a Quebecker and usually an artist – Pierre Lamontagne) will often have to travel or go out into another world to discover something…some truth about themselves…somehow by travelling out, we learn something about who we are within…this can be liberating…this is often the reason we travel when we are young…we discover who we are…it’s a rite of passage
  • Asia has influenced his work quite a bit and his fascination with the east helped him understand the west

La Caserne/Ex Machina

  • After founding Ex Machina in 1994 Lepage ultimately was able to create “a place where people don’t feel they have to produce to be productive.”  This place was La Caserne, Ex Machina’s artistic home – a kind of theatre artist’s dream facility where the members of Ex Machina can create at will.  The facility itself is a statement as it combines the old and the new, a traditional facade and a very modern rear section.  All the work spaces are very flexible, there is no fixed seating in the auditorium, all the separate sections of the floor can raised and lowered independently, it is also equipped to be able to do audio and video and multi-image production, editing, recording, etc.  It also houses scene and costume shops, make-up rooms, rehearsal halls, etc., and was built with over $5 million dollars of public money.
  • General Manager Michel Bernatchez defends the space by stating that “this is not Lapage’s toy, but rather a collective project that has the goal of uniting artists, scientists, architects, set designers, engineers, video-image specialists, and other people in various fields.”
  • La Caserne is in essence a theatre laboratory

Repere Cycles/RSVP Cycles

  • When Lepage was working with Theatre Repere, Jacques Lessard had just come back from studying with post-modernist dancer/creator Anna Halprin in San Francisco where her and her partner/husband, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin has recently created the RSVP Cycles
  • The RSVP Cycles were created as an approach to creative methodology that can be applied across all disciplines, and as Halprin states “describe all the procedures inherent in the creative process”
  • R: Resources – what you have to work with, human & physical, and what they might used for, what is their aim or goal
  • S: Score – the description that leads to performance
  • V: Valuaction – analyzes the results of action and possible selectivity and decisions…action-oriented and decision-oriented
  • P: Performance – the final result of all the scores used and becomes the style of the process as well
  • There is an inner cycle that has to do with the “separate self” and the outer cycle that has to do with the “collective self”…and all this is based on awareness…the point is to make the creative process visible and transparent
  • This approach was initially conceived to enable work in the area of urban planning and architecture
  • The Repere Cycles at Theatre Repere are based this:
  • RE: Resource, P: Partition, E: Evaluation, RE: Representation (reference pp. 88 – 89 in The Geography of Creation)
  • Lepage used this approach in much of his work with Theatre Repere
  • The relationship between the personal and the collective is very important. As Dunjerovic states, “Subjectivity (as an extension of one’s own subject self into an outer world) is central to the creative process

Decalage and Performance as Process

  • This was a very difficult thing to define but it is really at the core of Lapage’s work
  • The actual Quebecois definition is something like jet-lag, or time-lag, or offset, or shift, or gap, or staggering, or maybe skew
  • For Lepage it “combines autobiography, coincidence and paradox, and the performance moment.  It is a way of working, thinking, living, which gives Lapage’s work a relentless indeterminacy and a dynamic, unique imagistic inner life – even in (because of) the work’s chronic “unfinished” state.”
  • “Decalage is the main impulse, the principle mode of working, and a major result of his productions, both onstage and in the audience”
  • “It is an acknowledgment of gaps, indeterminacies; it is a way of working that trades on impulse, intuition, and broad creative freedom; it results in a theatre of simultaneity and juxtaposition in which actor, image, text, and audience are brought into dialogue, a questioning, and an active co-constitutive role.” (refer to pp 89 – 90 in the Geography of Creation)
  • “Decalage fuels the impulse to create…it is not logical or idea-based…it is visceral, intuitive, and therefore very personal.”
  • Lepage would call it “omnipresent”
  • “Theatrically, decalage is most often manifest in the use of simultaneity, often achieved by the manipulation of performers”
  • This leads us to Lapage’s idea of rehearsal as private performance and performance as public rehearsal…in other words it’s all process…nothing is ever truly finished, everything is in a state of “unfinishedness”, a work in progress, and the audience then becomes part of the creative process because they participate in these public rehearsals, they help to articulate what the piece is, what its meaning is
  • Lapages’ shows will continue to change and grow over the course of a run or a tour…quite often Lepage will follow the tour for the first while to continue to affect the production based on the audience, not that he is trying to make the show into something that the audience will like necessarily, but that the audience response is a key factor in the creative process
  • Lepage uses this idea of decalage in many ways and his hope is that it is experienced by the audience as well as the performers…sometimes the collaborative performers are asked to perform and create in a language that foreign to them.  One of Lepage’s close collaborators Marie Gignac says that “In your own language you hide behind the words. When you improvise in English you have to get to the point, to the emotion, to the situation, to real feeling, to the essential.” And Lapage states “The process of translating is like an x-ray of our own writing where we can see all our thoughts.”
  • Material and meaning are only found through interaction with the audience
  • He deliberately invites chaos into his work…this is part of the process
  • He sees his role as much more a facilitator than a director. He is very influenced by the actor-creators he has in his collective. Lepage says, “directing is not the sole property of the director. With our approach, it comes out of a collective effort. When we rehearse with actors, we discover and uncover the play. When I direct, my approach is closer to that of a student than that of a teacher. I think this is what makes the play continue to evolve right until opening night and even beyond.”
  • He expects each actor-author to find their own personal mythology through the process
  • Even Picasso realized that often artists will create things and then discover what they mean…Lepage and Picasso are similar in this way
  • For Lepage, the theatre is something wild and untamed, without rules…he wants to keep it that way
  • Chaos plays an important role in his work. He is like Peter Brook in this way. Brook says, “the creative process begins with a deep, formless hunch, which is alike a smell, a colour, a shadow. I have no structure for what doing a play because I work from that amorphous non-formed feeling, and from that I start preparing”
  • Chaos is the generator of creativity an needs to be present in both rehearsal and performance. He says “out of chaos the cosmos was born – the order of things, yes, but a living, organic, changing one. This is where true creation lies.”
  • Lapage dislikes extreme organization. “creating lists, for example of all the works written by Jews in order to destroy them and, in this way, destroy the very idea of Jewish people – this organization is completely contrary to the process of creation that comes out of chaos.”
  • Two types of creativity: Psychological and Visionary as Carl Jung describes them:
    • Psychological – “works with materials drawn from man’s conscious life, made of all general human experiences, emotions, events”
    • Visionary – “derives from primordial experiences, dreams, the unknown depths of the human soul, ‘from the hinterland of the human mind, as if it had emerged from the abyss of pre-human ages, or from a superhuman world of contrasting light and darkness.’”
    • The purpose of technology is to tell stories that bring people together, and in some way unify them. Lapage says “In the great black of night, we gather around the fire to tell each other stories. Fire is used to inaugurate important events: the Olympic Games are opening with the lighting of a torch, which however, does not illuminate the whole stadium. Fire is the symbol of gathering. When we assemble in a cinema we are plunged into darkness and the light is restricted to the screen. It’s like watching a fire, a light whose shapes and colours are in constant motion.”

The 7 Faces of Robert Lepage (documentary)

Below are all quotes directly from Robert Lepage unless otherwise stated:


  • What am I trying to say? I’ve no idea! Everybody used to criticize me: “What is is trying to say?” I don’t know. And I’m just beginning to understand that…maybe it’s a good thing. It’s my way of doing things.
  • I’m not very interested in “casting” actors. I don’t think that way, “I have to get so-and-so for the part”. Instead I’ll go, “is he or she interesting? Oh they’re intelligent, I like the way they work. Can they tell me something about the part?”
  • I’m the traffic director. My job is to make sure that all those ideas turn into…


  • When you set a play down in writing, print it, publish it, it should be the very last step, not the first one. The performances are actually part of the writing process.
  • But I’m sorry to see that here in Quebec, more and more plays are written and published without ever being put on. And theatre departments in various universities actually make their students read such plays, plays that haven’t gone through the production process, that haven’t gone through the meat grinder…plays that haven’t found their true voice yet.
  • Theatre isn’t literature. Theatre is about writing. And literature and writing are two different things. People tend not to realize that. Writing is an ongoing process. It’s full of unfinished sentences, crossed-out words…and when I’m told my writing is awkward, it stimulates me. My answer is “Yes! We have to make that statement. We have to welcome that type of writing.”

Private (Solo)

  • Even when I do my one-man shows, whether it’s improv or things I’ve written, prepared myself, it always become a team project at some point. I can’t focus entirely on my own. I’m not the kind of guy who’ll “do his own thing.” Frankly I don’t see how else I can explore my own complexity, my own purpose…Not entirely on my own. I can’t.
  • I can see myself through their eyes and find myself there too.
  • I always start off from a rather naive point of view. I tell myself, “Just doing something on Vinci is worth it.”
  • Any part of anyone’s life is worth telling about, except that I need to have those limits…that distance between public and private life. So I suggest things; I don’t tell them outright. Robert Levesque said it best I think. He said that I didn’t really reveal myself, but that I trusted the audience.
  • Speaking of his relationship with his brother: It’s a recurring theme for me and I want to talk about it, but it’s also a private thing between my brother and me. So I don’t want to do what a lot of other people do. They’ll write the actual story, and that’s that. A lot of people believe that you have to suffer…to relive things through some sort of gestalt process. Personally I don’t need therapy. I try to be attuned to the feelings, the impressions that I get when I’m writing. So that theme of two brothers, their conflicts, the way they interact on different levels…does show up fairly often in my work. It used to be in veiled terms but it’s been surfacing more in films like “The Confessional” for instance.


  • I think that the audience – and that’s probably why I’m a bigger success with the public than with the critics – the audience knows that I’m actually still looking for things…that I’m a seeker, not someone who’ll walk onstage with this…aura of intelligence and culture, or someone who makes statements, “This is it.” I think people see that my works are in progress, so to speak.
  • You’ve got to trust your public, to appreciate it deep down.  The public never stinks…but sometimes, we do. We’re responsible for our own successes or failures. We have to communicate with our public. We get to…to decide everything: how the game is played, and where, so the ultimate responsibility is ours. The public will follow our lead.
  • “…sometimes the audience lacks the culture, or the educational background required to understand every ramification of the text or of a metaphor, I don’t know…but the audience is intelligent, and it does want to learn…and play too.
  • Speaking about the reduced sense of playfulness in the theatre: And even though I can’t say that it’s actually gone, it seems to me that it’s been replaced by a cult of “acting” created by the movie industry, and which has now invaded theatre circles. So now we get to see “Actors” onstage…so I’ll see them spilling their guts in front of me, drawing on every feeling they’ve ever felt, doing their number with such subtlety, such skill, except that I’m sitting there, in the audience, and I don’t feel much. That’s a huge issue right now, and a lot of people don’t share my point of view. But I think that the feelings they’re spilling out onstage rarely – if ever – reach the audience sitting out there. And that emotion, those feelings should be the audience’s. I’m not against their being onstage too, but I’m trying to get the public to feel them. That’s my priority. Well, I think that’s a noble goal, although that too can be dangerous. When you’re trying to make the audience feel certain things, well, you’re liable to make mistakes. Sometimes I’ve created thrills instead of true emotion.
  • When you go to the theatre, you’re part of a group. It’s a random group made up of people from various strata of society and assembled in the same room. And they become one, because the room with laugh, and cry, and feel as a whole. And this will have an impact on the show. It’s not merely communication, but a sort of communion…and that only happens in theatre. This doesn’t happen at the movies…you’re dealing with one-on-one communication at the movies, but at the theatre we become a community.


  • I get away with everything I’ve done – and I still do – by telling myself that I’m a student of the baroque. You know, aesthetic harmony onstage bores me to tears. I can’t stand it when all the actors play the same way, when they all look as if they’d graduated from the same school. I like when actors have different styles, when they play on different levels, etc.
  • Said of Lepage: He isn’t very bossy. And he won’t impose a rigid set of rules when he works. The climate is open, easy. People will come and go as they please. He’s very flexible. I think he likes it that way. He doesn’t need that kind of rigidity. I think it would hinder him, actually.
  • I tend to work more and more with people from various artistic communities. I intend to go on doing it now that I’m able to without falling into the trap of imitating Brook, because Brook is really in a class by himself. His theatre is somewhat akin to theatrical anthropology, because he uses people from Asia, South Africa, etc. I’m not that international, but in the western world, I’ve worked with Germans, with Swedish actors, and these people have developed a kinship with me, or with my group, my working methods.
  • Quebec City is smaller (than Montreal). People are more focused there. It’s like a monastery, in a way. We work in a closed, almost monastic environment, but afterwards, we’ll actually tour the world and open up to it.
  • Speaking about Lepage and his rehearsals: There’s electricity in the air. It’s quite chaotic actually. It’s a chaotic working process, and I think he likes it that way.




  • Speaking of staging Strindberg’s “Dream Play” in Stockholm: “…it ended up being an extraordinary experience, because I did identify with one of the characters. I found out why I liked the play and why I wanted to stage it: because one of the characters moved me…that was it. I built everything around that. And for me, all of a sudden, that play became quite clear. I had my concept and I could get to work, but I needed that spark first. To me, it made all the difference in the world. And when a classical work is being staged, as they often are, I think the director needs to project himself into the play instead of paying tribute to the play or the playwright.


  • Technology is often rooted in – and I’m going to say something very Buddhist – technology is often a product of the swamp, but we turn it into a lotus.
  • I was thrilled when I worked with Peter Gabriel because a bunch of whiz kids used to knock on his door and show him the gadgets they’d just invented. And he used to pick up the equipment, turn it upside down, and plug the wires any which way, and they’d be horrified. But that’s what an artist does with new technology. Not what he’s supposed to do, but what he feels like doing. He’ll turn it upside down before he uses it.
  • All one-man shows, no matter what your theme or subject is, are about solitude, because there you are, all alone. Whether that individual is fighting outside forces or himself is irrelevant. And how can you protect that intimacy, how can you tell people increasingly personal things and let them peer into your soul, in a way, when theatres have become so huge? This is partly why I use technology.
  • To make people feel closer to you up there on the stage you’ll start doing anything. But one day you end up not needing these props anymore. They’re crutches really. So you give them up because you’ve outgrown them.
  • I think that artists ought to keep track of new technology. They should exploit it, transform it. Because technology is an agent of change. It creates new styles and transforms the old. And my favourite example is, it’s a fairly long example, I’ll try to sum it up. (it’s the painting/photography example) It took painters over 50 years to realize that photography really, had liberated their art. Film liberated the theatre! But in theatre, we’re still trying to imitate the movies, and it’s a dead-end street, unless you create a specific style out of it. And that’s why I used the word “baroque earlier. It’s not just a matter of technology. Television is coming of age, finding its voice, deciding what it wants to say and how it wants to say it. But theatre is quite a different medium. It’s mad, baroque…it allows us to express things that haven’t been expressed yet. When painting was faced with such changes – a metamorphosis really – in the early 20th century, it began to express things it had never even dreamed of expressing before.

International Message by Robert Lepage

There are a number of hypotheses on the origins of theatre but the one I find the most thought-provoking takes the form of a fable:

One night, at the dawn of time, a group of men were gathered together in a quarry to warm themselves around a fire and tell stories.   All of a sudden, one of them had the idea to stand up and use his shadow to illustrate his tale.  Using the light from the flames he made characters appear, larger than life, on the walls of the quarry.  Amazed, the others recognized in turn the strong and the weak, the oppressor and the oppressed, the god and the mortal.

Nowadays, the light of projectors has replaced the original bonfire, and stage machinery, the walls of the quarry. And with all due deference to certain purists, this fable reminds us that technology is at the very beginnings of theatre and that it should not be perceived as a threat but as a uniting element.

The survival of the art of theatre depends on its capacity to reinvent itself by embracing new tools and new languages.  For how could the theatre continue to bear witness to the great issues of its epoch and promote understanding between people without having, itself, a spirit of openness? How could it pride itself on offering solutions to the problems of intolerance, exclusion and racism if, in its own practice, it resisted any fusion and integration?

In order to represent the world in all its complexity, the artist must bring forth new forms and ideas, and trust in the intelligence of the spectator, who is capable of distinguishing the silhouette of humanity within this perpetual play of light and shadow.

It is true that by playing too much with fire, we take a risk, but we also take a chance: we might get burned, but we might also amaze and enlighten.

Robert Lepage

Quebec, 17th February 2008

Secret World Tour

  • Transition and transformation
  • Round stage and square stage – feminine and masculine – the tree and the phone box

Show opening of Secret World Tour (1st track), and opening of Tectonic Plates


Billy Bishop Goes to War is an amazing piece of Canadian theatre history.  Since its first appearance on stage at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in November 1978 its creators Eric Peterson and John Gray have toured it across Canada many times; they have taken it to Broadway, London’s West End, Los Angeles, the Edinburgh Festival and it has been produced for television in Britain, Canada and Germany.  It is still one of the most produced Canadian plays both here and abroad.  And now 42 years later, the original cast is back again in Toronto at Soulpepper Theatre Company, and what a treat!

I’ll preface this critique by acknowledging that this is a play I know quite well.  I’ve been honoured to play Billy in two productions of Billy Bishop Goes to War, one in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan.  So my hope is that my intimate knowledge of the play will only help to provide some added insight to this critique that one might not otherwise get.

Both Eric Peterson and John Gray are in their sixties, although you wouldn’t know it.  Although little parts of the script have been updated to make sense of their age, there are times when the spry Peterson is so youthful and energized that I could actually see the boy he once was, even at age 62.  As actors we will often use the term “to play” to describe what we will sometimes do in rehearsal when we are discovering a role, or when we are in the studio working on some element of a character that might have us blocked, and it’s true that when we do this, we will often make these discoveries by getting in touch with our child-self.  Watching Eric Peterson go through Bishop’s first solo flight or his first dogfight was like watching a kid in a sandbox.  It’s amazing to me that the age of the performers did not detract at all from the liveliness of the production.  While it’s true that a younger actor might be able to leap around a bit more and perhaps be more agile overall, Peterson finds a way to deliver every bit of that story in his 62 year old body without losing any of the youthful energy Billy Bishop had…and he makes it look easy.  Now I notice that Peterson and Gray also had an Alexander Coach (Kelly McEvenue) on the production so I’m sure that helped!  None-the-less Eric Peterson has an ease and a comfort on stage that is almost unparalleled.  He handles the story-telling with simplicity and efficiency, and when it comes the twenty-some characters he brings to life, he does so with grace, specificity and fluidity.

Peterson is called upon to play everything from Bishop’s patron, the old matriarch Lady St. Hellier and her butler, to the French lounge singer the lovely Helene, to various soldiers, pilots, generals and captains in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), and even the celebrated British war hero Albert Ball.  This would be a huge challenge for any actor to pull off and if it is done so successfully it is a tour-de-force!  It is exactly this for Peterson.  He weaves in and out of these characters with ease, and his choices with each person are so specific and so simple that not only do we have no problem following the story, but we fully believe the new human being that has just magically arrived on the stage.  Each one of his characters has a speech pattern, a set of mannerisms, a body type, and a voice, and they are just distinct enough to make the character recognizable and clear, and yet not over done.  And it seemed not to matter if the character is male or female, large or small, or powerful or weak.  One of my favourites is Sir Hugh, who Bishop is interviewed by to become a pilot.  Sir Hugh had a single mannerism that immediately invited us into the world of that character.  Peterson is a master of his craft and it is a treat to watch him work.

There must of course also be a shadow side to all that brilliance and experience with the piece.  Peterson is so familiar with the piece and knows so well how audiences react to it that it seems as if he doesn’t really care about all those lines that might not get much of a reaction from the audience.  He skims over them in such a way that I found that even I was losing some of the phrases, and I know the script very well.  It made me wonder what the experience would be like for someone going in not only not knowing the script, but also not knowing any of the history.  I can only assume that they leave the theatre with holes in the story, and certainly having parts of the play that may have enjoyed, but didn’t necessarily understand.  When I reflect on this I am somewhat divided.  On the one hand it’s a shame for some of the audience to lose chunks of that very rich story, and on the other hand by leaping through the text with agility from good bit to good bit Peterson keeps an audience in 2010 on their toes and doesn’t allow them a moment to lose interest.  This might be necessary for a script written by two novice playwrights in the 70’s.

This incarnation of Billy Bishop Goes to War was directed by Ted Dykstra and the set was designed by Camellia Koo with lighting design by Lorenzo Savioni.  Mr. Dykstra is of course another giant in the world of Canadian theatre, although he has found much more acclaim as an actor and a writer than as a director.  This is perhaps for good reason.  While I loved the nostalgia of the set design, presumably Billy’s (or Eric’s) old armchair and various road boxes and road boxes & suitcases supposedly from previous productions and/or tours, I found that the staging was a bit clunky at times and in fact detracted from the magic of simply having one actor and one piano player on stage telling a story.  The use of various models of the Neuport 17 (the fighter plane Bishop flew) in one of the dogfights seemed unnecessary and too didactic.  Almost as if it was more important for us to get the nitty-gritty details of the dogfight rather than the importance of Peterson as Bishop connecting with us by letting us in on this experience.  It ended up distancing us from what was going on rather than drawing us in.

Conversely one of the most visually stunning and gripping parts of the show was the solo attack on the aerodrome at dawn.  With a cloudy blue sky cyclorama in the background, and Billy decked out in his flying jacket, helmet, goggles and gloves, Peterson, holding a single model of a Neuport 17, took us through the adventure of a life time, and it looked spectacular.  This time, with the simplicity of one plane, we were able to see everything that was going on, and what wasn’t there we could see in our mind’s eye with the help of Peterson’s lively text.  The image of that single fighter plane against that sky still burns brightly in my memory.

Another bit of Mr. Dykstra’s staging that seemed overdone was the use of framed photographs that Peterson set up at various places around the stage at various times throughout the play, each with its own lighting special that would highlight it at appropriate times on cue.  One was of Bishop’s beloved Margaret, another was of Albert Ball, another was a WW1 scene, etc., these all being photographs and memorabilia that a war vet might keep hung on the walls in his basement.  Although this was a neat idea and would make sense if we were in Bishop’s basement, they were I’m sure lost on most of the audience.  I was in the 4th row and I could barely make out what the photographs were of, and if it was that bad in the 4th row it was far worse for most of the audience.  In the end I felt we didn’t need them.  If they had simply been up around the set as if they were part of it all along I think we would’ve been able to accept them more readily.  As it was, to have Bishop lift up the photograph, make sure the bracket behind it is holding it properly, and have a light come up and illuminate it made me want to ask, “What’s all the fuss about?  Get on with the story!”

Musically, the production was also very simple.  The music was approached as if it were actually a couple of old guys, hacks really, getting together to tell stories and sing songs.  It had none of the polish and slickness that most musical theatre is known for.  One could argue that this show is more a play with music, songs and live underscoring rather than a musical.  There were however times when I would’ve liked to have seen a little more polish to the songs and especially some of the more tender harmonies.  The beautiful Friends Ain’t Supposed to Die ‘Til You’re Old comes to mind.   And the underscoring of the first dogfight could’ve used a little more finesse.  This feels a bit strange to say this of the creators of the show, but I guess we see what we see.

This play is about many things including a boy’s dramatic journey into manhood, a statement of the glory and ugliness of war, and perhaps at its core is the theme of survival.  Bishop ultimately learned how to survive in a brutal world where, as a drunken pilot says truthfully to Bishop in a bar, “the average life expectancy of a new pilot is about eleven days.”  Bishop became a machine, not unlike his plane, designed for one purpose, and that is to gain victory in the sky by taking down enemy planes.  Bishop learned survival.  Peterson says that “surviving such great difficulties reshapes our self-awareness as individuals and as a country.  (Billy Bishop Goes to War) is a metaphor for life.  We’re all trying to survive, and we all pay a price for it.”  Peterson and Gray found survival in the harsh realities of the theatre industry in Canada in the 1970’s through telling Bishop’s story of survival.  And here they are 42 years later, having survived, like great theatrical giants, a marvellous, meaningful and courageous life in the theatre, and still gaining victories in the sky!