Robert Lepage

Multidisciplinary artist Robert Lepage is not only a masterful playwright, but also a renowned stage director, actor and producer. Internationally acclaimed by critics for their originality, the works he creates and brings to the stage push the boundaries of theatrical performance, notably through the use of new technologies. His works have garnered numerous prizes, including the distinguished Europe Theatre Prize in 2007.

  • Robert Lepage
  • Montreal
  • Stage director
What was your approach with the actors with whom you worked in collaborative projects with Cirque du Soleil?

The approach was very different to what I am used to in the theatre because actors coming from Cirque work in a primarily non-verbal way—things are evoked rather than named. It requires a much more poetic level of acting; psychology or dramatic framework rarely comes into play. That means the actors have to be receptive, multi-skilled and fired by a desire to surpass themselves.

In KÀ—and at Cirque du Soleil more generally—we’re in the realm of hyper-theatre, not unlike opera. Everything is larger than life: gestures, distances to be covered and the strength all of this takes, not to mention the volume needed to express anything vocally… So we’re confronted with hyper-humanity. For the artists—actors or otherwise—this requires being able to surpass oneself and a far more wide-ranging awareness.

Actors come to Cirque du Soleil with a wealth of training and experience combined with work on naturalism and research into the characters they play. When they first get here, they mostly need to work on their characters’ energy with respect to interacting with other characters. Energy is a very peculiar thing—while it can destabilize actors, it remains the vehicle of choice for communicating emotions. Basically, it has a lot in common with Japanese kabuki theatre, Greek drama and physical theatre like commedia dell’arte. So contemporary actors must adjust to such physical acting.

What do you find most interesting about working with actors with diverse backgrounds and nationalities?

This universal community reflects the beauty of Cirque du Soleil shows. The language barrier, the clash of cultures and ways of doing things—all this forces people to be diplomatic, to agree with and listen to one another.

Joining forces to create a show with Cirque, despite differing faiths, nationalities and languages, is succeeding in conveying the impression that we all come from the same place: the world depicted by the show itself. What you get is shows that have a universal rather than local flavour, shows that all spectators can relate to.

How would you describe your creative philosophy?

I’ve always believed that a creation is a work in progress and in guided collective efforts imbued with a vision, because the material, the ideas and the humanity of the work come from the group. Cirque du Soleil has an organic way of working that closely resembles that of Ex-Machina, my production company, which is that the material is developed jointly with the artists. That’s why I feel at home here.

Of course, it all starts with a storyboard, but you have to take it further. Meeting the artists forces you to travel down different paths and byways you might never otherwise have ventured on. Because, to create order, you first need chaos, and that order will be coloured by the workgroup. For all this to work, you need a stage director who is open-minded and knows which way the wind is blowing.

How do you see the role played by actors and acting at Cirque du Soleil?

Cirque has a special way of talking to the audience, of forging a relationship and transmitting its energy, and the actor plays the role of narrator. The actor is a bridge between the acrobatic aspect of the show and the spectator. Actors form a dividing wall, such as you find in big opera houses, where the players are centre stage, between the singers and the dancers, linking oral expression with the physical aspect.

Actors are also good mediators. During the creation of KÀ, the actors helped me a lot to convey my ideas, to get across a character’s performative or dramatic aspect to certain other artists. I think their presence in Cirque shows is important.

What do you find most stimulating about working with Cirque du Soleil?

The all-prevailing desire to surpass oneself. As a general rule, it is always difficult to reconcile a love of sports with a love of culture—people usually like one or the other. Cirque, however, manages to reconcile the two camps.

The most stimulating aspect of my work here is this idea of surpassing oneself that you find among performers. With all these people trained in gymnastics, you find great discipline and concentration—sometimes even beyond understanding. For a stage director, being able to bring all these sportspeople and stage artists together is really exciting.

What advice would you give a future Cirque du Soleil actor?

Approach acting without any preconceived ideas about the craft. In the same way that acrobats must be open to theatre, actors must expect the game to be different and to take it to entirely new levels.

Being very open-minded is also a must. Because in a group where people speak different languages and come from different cultures and disciplines—and therefore hold different ideas about what a show should be—you find total chaos. To contribute to the work, actors need to be antennas; they need to come up with ideas and carve out their place.