Robert Lepage was born in Quebec City, Quebec, on December 12, 1957. He was raised in a bilingual English-French household (two siblings were adopted Anglophones), and as a youth showed an interest in both geography and drama. After high school he studied at the Conservatoire d’art dramatique de Québec from 1975 to 1978 and then went to Paris, where he studied for three weeks at Alain Knapp’s theatre school, renowned for its emphasis on the multiple creative roles of the stage artist.
In 1978 he returned to Quebec and formed Théâtre Hummm… with fellow Conservatoire graduate Richard Fréchette. He also worked with an improvisational group, the Ligue nationale d’improvisation, winning the most popular player award in 1984. In 1982 he and Fréchette joined the Théâtre Repère, a theatrical collective, where Lepage made his reputation as a performer, director, designer, and writer, serving as its artistic director (with Jacques Lessard) from 1986 to 1989. He left this position at Théâtre Repère to become artistic director of the Ottawa National Arts Centre’s Théâtre français (1989-1993).
In 1994 he founded Ex Machina, a multidisciplinary production company, for which he is artistic director. With Daniel Langlois he started a film and multimedia production company, In Extremis Images, in 1995. In 1997 he became founding artistic director of La Caserne Dalhousie, a multidisciplinary production centre in Quebec City, where Ex Machina resides.
His plays been produced in various venues world-wide, and Lepage has often personally toured as actor, director, and designer. Circulations (1984) won the best Canadian production award at the Quinzaine internationale de théâtre de Québec (1984). The Dragon’s Trilogy (1985) won a number of performance and staging awards on its various tours, including the best show of the year award from the Association québécoise des critiques de théâtre (1987), Dora Mavor Moore awards for the best production and best set design by the Toronto Theatre Alliance (1989), and the best production award at the Gran Festival de la Ciudad de Mexico (1990). Vinci (1986), a one-person show, won the best production award from the Association québécoise des critiques de théâtre (1986), the best production award at the Festival de Nyon (1987), and the Prix Coup de Pouce at the Festival "Off” d’Avignon (1987). Polygraph (1988) won the Time Out best production Award in London in 1989 and the Ontario Arts Council’s Floyd S. Chalmers Award for best Canadian play in 1991. His direction of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream for Théâtre du Nouveau Monde> won him the 1988 Prix Gascon-Roux for best director. Needles and Opium (1991) won the Chalmers Award for best Canadian play (1995).
In 1992, Robert Lepage became the first North American to direct a William Shakespeare play at London ’s Royal National Theatre (A Midsummer Night’s Dream); that year he also staged opera productions of Béla Bartók’s Blue Beard’s Castle and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung, which subsequently won the Edinburgh International Critics’ Award (1993) and the Scotsman’s Hamada Festival Prize (1993). The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994-96) won the Masque for the best production of the year, awarded by the Académie québécoise du théâtre (1996), and the Dora Mavor Moore Awards for outstanding production, direction and lighting (1996). The Far Side of the Moon (1999) won him the 2001 Evening Standard Theatre Awards for best play and 2001 London Critics Circle Theatre Award for Best Director. He won the Odense City Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2004 for his upcoming 2005 one-person show about Hans Christian Andersen.
The Confessional (1995) was Lepage’s first foray into film writing and directing: it opened at the Cannes Festival Director’s Fortnight in 1995, and won Canada’s Genie Awards for best film, best direction, best artistic direction, and the Prix Claude-Jutra Special for best first feature film (1995); it also won the International Critics Award at the Istanbul Film Festival (1996) and was selected to represent Canada as best foreign film nominee at the 1996 Golden Globe Awards and Academy Awards. Nô (1998) won the best Canadian feature film award at the 1998 Toronto Film Festival. Possible Worlds (2000) won two Genie Awards in 2001 and was nominated for best picture, best director (Lepage) and best actress (Tilda Swinton). The film version of The Far Side of the Moon (2003) was nominated for 2004 Genie Awards for best picture, best actor (Lepage), and best director (Lepage), winning for best adapted screenplay (Lepage).
For his body of work, Lepage has received the Creation Award from the Conseil de la culture de Québec (1986), the Prix Metro-Star (1987), the National Arts Centre Special Award of the Governor General’s Award for the Performing Arts (1994), and the Prix Denise-Pelletier from the province of Quebec (2003). He is Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France) (1990), an officer of the Order of Canada (1994), an officer of the Ordre de la Pléiade (Assemblée des parlementaires de langue française) (1995), an officer of the Ordre National du Québec (1999), and a Knight of the Order of the Legion of Honour (France) (2002).
Robert Lepage’s work is difficult to characterize summarily, because his modus operandi is to push at the boundaries of all genres. He interprets the "text" of theatre as being more than simply words: as he says, "Generally speaking, theatre belongs to the world of literature. Everything begins with a text. But I find myself more than ever returning to the idea of the theatre as a meeting place for architecture, music, dance, literature, acrobatics, play, and so on. In all my shows, this is what has interested me most of all: gathering artists together, combining different styles and disciplines" (Charest, trans. Taylor 26). Hence he has tried almost all visual performance genres – drama, opera, film, rock concert staging, multimedia installations, and musical theatre – and he often combines these genres. (His production company, Ex Machina, deliberately excludes the word "theatre" from its mandate.) Most of his productions are in essence collaborative with other artists, whether creators or performers. And his "texts" are quite fluid, often changing between productions and between English and French versions. Furthermore, his works (no matter whether they are "English" or "French" versions) contain dialogue in both English and French and often other languages, demonstrating how even linguistically Lepage eschews formal purity.
Overall, his work demonstrates an interest in history, both political history and theatre history, and often grapples with issues surrounding sexuality, language politics, and power. He has been willing to take on the most traditional dramatic texts—Shakespeare, most notably—yet has created original works that are avant-garde both in staging and scripting. He has also addressed weighty historical moments in risky ways—such as combining the bombing of Hiroshima (and Japanese theatre) with the Quebec separatist movement in Nô, or meditating upon jazz great Miles Davis and surrealist Jean Cocteau through his own biography in Needles and Opium. His productions are characterized by the use of multimedia to complement technically elaborate stagings: his collaboration with Montreal’s human circus, Cirque de Soleil, in 2004 is in this sense inevitable. (Vivian Zenari)
Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services