In anticipation of The Andersen Project, Emerson professor Magda Romanska talks to Lawrence Switzky, professor of English and drama at The University of Toronto and author of The Rise of the Theatre Director: Negotiations with the Material World. Prof. Switzky specializes in modern and contemporary dramatic literature, the history of directing, technology and media studies, and modernism.
MR: Robert Lepage is considered by some to be one of the most innovative theatre directorsof our times. His work often includes cinema, photography and technology. The multimedia approach is essential to his work as it permeates every aspect of each production, from character to space. As Lepage put it: “Sometimes we have a character that brings us to a medium; sometimes we’ve found a medium that will eventually conduct us to a character.” In what way is Lepage’s use of multimedia a reflection of modernity?
LS: Lepage thinks of modernity as the condition of being permanently in transit. We’re forever en route from one place to another. Lepage is a master at conjuring railway stations and airports, spaces of arrival and departure that you can pass through a thousand times and yet never entirely know. And we’re always between languages. We speak one language at home, conduct business meetings in another language at work, and listen to translations of a third language on the news at night.
For Lepage, screens are points of access between worlds: they join one place and another and one medium and another. In The Andersen Project, Lepage begins with a screen that seems like a canvas, which then becomes a three-dimensional wall that an Algerian graffiti artist paints the title sequence on, and the title sequence is meant to remind us of watching a movie. In one brief segment, Lepage has shown us a two-dimensional space that is also a three-dimensional space, and a painting surface that is also a stage surface that is also a film screen! In his recent work, Lepage has even made his screens responsive: in The Damnation of Faust or the Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, characters touch a screen and complex computer algorithms alter the images on the screen accordingly. Soldiers walk up a vertical pond in The Damnation of Faust and you can watch the water scatter after each footfall. But screens can also frustrate our desire to cross borders; they promise and deny contact at the same time. Paris can never truly become a portal to nineteenth-century Denmark, no matter how many elaborate technological (and psychological) projections you superimpose from one onto the other.
Lepage works in the tradition of directorial titans like Richard Wagner, Max Reinhardt or Robert Wilson who see the theatre as an occasion to marshal all the arts into a vibrant, absorptive vision of the world. As often as we see the different media or arts acting in harmony to produce gorgeous or disturbing stage images, though, the characters in Lepage’s productions tend to be isolated: another outcome of the frenzied motion and mediation of modernity. And yet the lonely people we watch do not reflect the communal way we experience Lepage’s work. Lepage is after the redemption, or at least the redemptive potential, of technology. Lepage’s massive theatrical machines often serve to give us an intimate experience of another person’s life, in all its dignity and tedium. This is, I think, what Peter Brook meant when he observed that in Lepage’s theatre “the terrifying and incomprehensible reality of our time is inseparably linked to the insignificant details of our everyday lives—details that are so important to us, so trivial to others.”