Robert Lepage: You have to start with chaos

Robert Lepage is a multi-disciplinary artist; an actor, a director, a playwright and a stage director.  Back in 1992 Peter brought Robert in to work on the stage show for the ‘Secret World Live’ tour.  In 2002 they worked together again on the ‘Growing Up Live’ tour, and for the i/o tour, Robert is once again working his magic to bring you an incredible show.

We caught up with him at the initial ideas workshops in London in March 2023 to get a deeper insight into their creative relationship and how it all comes together.

Creatively, you seem to cover all bases – how do you describe what it is that you do?
Well, actually, I do many things. I wear many hats on many projects, and when I get to work with Peter it’s always very exciting because I get to learn from all these different disciplines that I’ve been working on. So, I’m here more as a creative consultant. I’m here to trigger scenic, stage-oriented ideas. I’m here to help spark ideas for Peter and try to have some of his ideas gel and make decisions basically, because Peter has tons of ideas but he’s more of an auditive sensitive person. He has interesting visual ideas, but needs someone to come in like a magnet to gather all of those ideas and have them take a shape, take a form, because of course the recording world is one thing, but the live performance thing is a completely different set of rules.

In a show like this it seems you have endless possibilities.  Is part of the challenge to rationalise the options into something that works?
If you want to create something new and innovative you have to start with chaos. If you start with something that’s already organised or digested, you’ll come up with something that’s organized and digested and you don’t want that. You want something that’s crazy, that’s new, that’s innovative. So, there’s a moment where you have to let the show present itself to you, but for that you need the chaos. You need the original chaos and eventually you see there’s connections between this idea and that idea. And slowly you let the show reveal itself to you. So, it’s a longer process. It’s a very challenging process because there are no guidelines. The show will give you the guidelines as you go on. But, it’s very adventurous. The thing that’s great about working with Peter is that he’s a very playful person. He likes playing, in every sense of the word, and he says yes to everything and he tries everything. So, anything we bring to the table he squeezes it, we try to get the juice out of it and all the dead skin falls off and we only keep the really, really rich juicy ideas.

Do you come to the process with a preconceived idea of what you want to achieve or not?
Of course, listening to the music is a good place to start, but also knowing who Peter is and knowing the history of Peter and knowing what his vocabulary is, what his sensitivity is. If you have a good knowledge of who he is, and I’ve known Peter personally for maybe the past 25 years, but before that, when I was 14, I would go to the early Genesis shows. I know the guy from the very start. I know what he does. I know his journey and when you know that, you know what fits and what doesn’t. That’s one thing. But I never come with a plan. I never come in with an established list of things to do. You have to trust that there’s something there that’s going to show itself to you and that you’re going to grab it. So, it feels a bit like being Christopher Columbus, you know, you’re on a boat, you know there’s a continent there, but you don’t have any idea what it looks like and you have to say to the troops or to the people on board the boat that they have to trust you; “I can’t describe to you where we’re going, but I know that we’re going somewhere!”

How long is the history between you and Peter?
Well, the thing is, I do what I do now, I’m in the theatre and I do a lot of visual stuff and all that, because of Peter Gabriel. When I was 14 I saw this really great show in Quebec City, he was touring in the very, very early days of Genesis and what he did was so theatrical. The music was interesting, the storytelling was interesting, but also the theatricality… there was even an expression at the time called Theatrical Rock, what these guys were doing. I was very excited by that. But because I wasn’t a musician, I kind of went into theatre and Peter’s work has always had a great influence on what I do.

What was it like the first time you were asked to work with him?
Completely by chance I was performing at the National Theatre in London, doing a show called Tectonic Plates, I think that was in 1992, and Peter came to see the show and came to the stage door and asked if I wanted to work with him on his new tour, which of course was a big shock for me. It’s strange because he’s not conscious to what extent he had an influence on me. Of course, he probably recognized himself in my work, having been influenced by him for so long.

That was your first ever rock show – was it daunting to work on that scale for the Secret World Live tour?
Of course, the scale of a touring rock show, if we can call it that, I had never really embraced that kind of challenge before. But, very early on, the setlist had been tried in a small club in Montreal and I could understand that there’s certain material that you can do in a small room that you can’t do in a big room and vice versa. So, that was a big challenge. It was more at that level to try to help Peter select the right songs, because we knew this was going to be my very first show with him, it was going to be a very, very big thing, so to really find a way to do something as intelligent and sensitive and creative as he’s used to doing, but for it to be accessible to a much larger audience, a much larger venue. All the challenge was there, all of the theatricality and the sets and the technology, I wasn’t afraid of any of that. I had dealt with that before. But, how do you convey a story to 20,000 people in the same room? It’s not the same rules to when you’re in a smaller theatre. For me, it was trying to find that fine line between keeping the authenticity of Peter’s persona without making any compromise and keeping the people bewitched by the experience.

Do you like to bring a strong narrative to the show?
Peter always makes fun of me. He calls me the ‘dramaturdge’ with the word turd in there, because even in a music show or when a band tours, there has to be some kind of dramaturgical line. There has to be a beginning, a middle and an end and there’s a storyline. Whatever the set list is you have your peaks and your lows and your moments of reflection, your moments that are very energetic. All these things work together and they eventually tell a story and you have to make sure that you know what that story is. Anything you change in the storyline affects everything. It affects the set, it affects the music, it affects the way that the whole thing is going to unravel. Peter is very open to that kind of thing because he is a storyteller. He comes from storytelling, as I say, the early Genesis shows were all about telling stories and playing characters and he put costumes on, and all that, so he knows what a good story is. He’s very theatrical in that sense. Even if now, he’s shifted into maybe another kind of music, it’s still about telling a good story, getting the people engaged and it’s not just changing the energy of the show as it goes on. When I work with Peter we divide the concerts into five acts, you know, and what happens the first act, the second act, and the third act. It’s very traditional dramaturgically in the way that we approach it, even though it doesn’t seem that way.

Where do the big themes come from, is it from brainstorming together?
As I said, there’s tons of ideas there that are really interesting, crazy ideas and all that, but if you want to organise them you have to identify a thing that will naturally, organically put things in a certain order. What’s great with Peter is that you meet him for the first time and he only understands stuff if you put colours on them. He says, okay, this is a red song and this is a, let’s call it a yellow song, right? And we work with colours and eventually we almost create a painting and we go, okay, well this is the kind of painting we have with these colours. And then we give them genders, and this is more of a male song, more female, this is more undecided… this sort of thing. So, eventually the kind of conversation we have is very organic, poetic, artistic, so you organize things and you group things in that way.

It’s been 20 years since the Growing Up Live tour, has technology presented you with all sorts of new possibilities this time?
It’s interesting because on this i/o tour it’s all about, I and O and what they mean. And he chooses that title for a song that becomes a title of the album for a certain number of reasons, but then I help him understand there’s other reasons why it’s called that way, reasons he never really figured out. If the concert is going be the i/o concert then there’s a reason why it’s called that way. And we play around with the origins of the words and what they refer to and so the way we group things is very artistic. On this show, particularly, a lot of great visual artists have been invited into the realm. Each song is connected to a commission for new work. There are these amazing artists that we get to speak with and the show is almost like pictures in an exhibition. We’re in a completely different type of concert here because it’s intimately connected to visual arts, the art of painting, the art of sculpting… there are people who work with electronic arts and so it’s a very different kind of dialogue artistically when you bring people like that on board.

It’s easier to integrate all sorts of crazy ideas now because of the definition of video now. It’s so precise. It’s even more definite than what the naked eye sees, so you can create these amazing 3D illusions without any 3D glasses, you know, and you get these amazing video blacks, which you didn’t get before. You can actually present, in a very authentic and respectful way, a painter’s work of art and get a good definition and a sense of the texture. You can do things you couldn’t do 20 years ago. But for me, technology, even though there’s a lot of it around, it’s an echo of what the artist is singing about. It’s not there as decoration. It’s not there as ‘oh wow, look at this,’ it’s an extension to the story that’s being told. The poetry that is communicating to you. It’s an extension or an echo of who Peter is. I always try to use it that way and not in a flashy way. Sometimes people say, ‘oh, that’s so flashy,’ well, yeah, because maybe you’re not used to seeing this kind of thing. But, it’s a way to magnify the artists.

Both Secret World Live and Growing Up Live had notable set piece moments, like the emerging from a phone box or disappearing into the suitcase, or the hanging upside down or riding around on a bicycle. Are you always looking for these kinds of moments?
In the process, a lot of things emerged from the conversations and from the new songs. Daniel Richardson’s design of the stage is quite interesting because we started to explore with shapes and, eventually, we found there was a way for us to have a moon present. So, we started to play around with the moon. And of course, Io is also the name of one of Jupiter’s moons, a very famous moon that was discovered by Galileo. We started to play with the idea of the moon and in this whole i/o concept Peter, at every full moon, releases a song, so it was all connected with the moon. So, okay, let’s have a moon up there. We created a moon and then we realized that if we have this kind of circular thing there and these orbs, that we also have to see the earth and we have to see the sun. So where is the sun in the show? Where is the earth? Where are the other moons? Where are the stars? You eventually create a kind of cosmology, and you see that the show is all related to that. A lot of the imagery of the show has a kind of a dramaturgical line that’s connected to these celestial orbs and planets and solar systems.

Another challenge is presumably not to repeat what you’ve done before?
It’s often a rule with Peter is that you’re not allowed to do something you’ve done before, which is always very exciting because we know artists are always very insecure and you know… not Peter. Peter likes throwing himself in the… well, literally throwing himself into the air and he actually used to do that in a show where he would just fall back and trust that the audience will catch him. That trust in the process, Peter forces you to let go of what we’ve done before, let’s go into something… and for sure, something interesting, exciting, innovative, something that’s in phase with our times will come up, and that’s what motivates me to continue working with Peter.

Is it difficult to incorporate all aspects of who Peter is in the show?
It’s always a tricky thing, because Peter’s a very shy person, which is a bit of a paradox because he has such an amazing stage presence. He’s a larger than life character when on a stage. In real life he’s a very shy person, very humble person, so you have to do a show that reconciles these two ideas. Peter doesn’t have any big ego, so the show doesn’t reflect that. The show’s not an expression of how big he is or how successful he is, the thing is to try to create this beautiful, bewitching experience, but with a lot of humility, and for it to be about Peter’s humility, but also about the message of humility. And that’s pretty much what Peter conveys in a lot of his work and in his stage presence. He’s larger than life, but he remains very humble and I think people feel that the pleasure is through the senses all the time, that it is a very sensual experience.

Peter Gabriel, Sandy Powell, Daniel Richardson and Robert Lepage during the initial ideas workshop for the i/o tour.
Photo; York Tillyer

Is there a parallel between your company ‘Ex-Machina’, and Peter’s ‘Real World’ both of you building environments where you can express yourselves creatively?
Well, of course, I’ve been very influenced by Peter’s approach of Real World and the water mill and all of those extraordinary things that he’s created around his work, for him and for other people and for other artists. I’ve created my own system, my own studios and I have my own way of working, but I think that the thing we have in common is that we have tons of ideas. We do a lot of stuff but it’s the way we use time. People say, ‘oh, Peter’s so slow, it takes forever for him to release a new record.’ It’s not that he’s slow, he just takes the time to do things and he lets things cook the right amount of time. I think the way we work at Ex Machina is exactly the same thing. We accept a project but people have to accept it’s not going take eight weeks of rehearsals. It’s going to take two years of five-day rehearsal, then six months go by, then two months rehearsals and then another six months go by. We take the time to cook the stuff and let the stuff grow and appear to us. And that’s how Peter works with his music, he just lets stuff just kind of happen and it’s a very organic, very rich way of working. Something that I didn’t necessarily learn from Peter, but we agree on that thing that; you can’t pull on a flower if you want it to grow. You have to let it grow. And some of them grow fast and some of them don’t. You have to be sensible, sensitive to the animal that you are helping to be born here. An elephant takes two years to come out. A human being takes nine months, but there are some other animals it takes two days. You have to be conscious of what it is that you are working on and the time of gestation and that is something that has its own rules. The kind of incubators that we’ve created for our work allows that to happen.

Taking your time to get things right seems to be an approach you and Peter are very much aligned on. But does your way of working sometimes put you in conflict with other clients?
When somebody’s interested in working with me or with my company we always say, yes, but you have to agree to work the way we work and some people say, well, we can’t work that way. Well then good, we won’t do that project. But there are some people who love the challenge and they’re ready to invest in advance and to wait and to be patient. If they’re patient, there’s always something exciting that comes out of it. Sometimes what comes out is not what you expected and it’s even better that way. The best thing is not to follow. You have to have a destination, but as you’re going there you have to go into these side streets and there’s all this extraordinary stuff that helps you be innovative and create new stuff.

Was it a surprise to get a call from Peter to ask you to work with him on this show?
Peter’s always a bit last minute, of course, you know? But it wasn’t surprising because I’ve stayed in touch with Peter, regularly. He’s a friend. The thing is that Peter has his songs and his studio but he’s also interested in projects about the brain and he’s interested about new technologies and about AI. He’s into all this stuff and sometimes I bump into him at the MIT because we go to the same convention about the brain or whatever. I have a lot of conversations with him outside of the music or shows. He’s into all these different fields of interest and very often that’s where we meet, so, this is just one of the many ideas that we have in collaboration. We have tons of other ideas and stuff we want to do and so I try to follow his other stuff and he tries to follow my other stuff, too. We’ve been having a creative conversation like that for years now and it’s very inspiring.

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Interview by Matt Osborne, photography by York Tillyer.