Artistic soulmates who refuse to be typecast, Robert Lepage and his protégé Matías Umpierrez borrow from various disciplines to furnish their eclectic, maverick productions.by Robert Cushman — January 2018
It was during a visit to a Kabuki play in Tokyo that Robert Lepage knew he had teamed up with a kindred spirit. Canada’s leading theatrical artist had been inspired by the classical Japanese dance-drama 35 years earlier when the Grand Kabuki troupe performed The Fox in Montreal. “I knew there was something there that was for me,” he recalls.
So, while touring his latest production in Japan, Lepage took protégé Matías Umpierrez to see the same play and was delighted to discover the actor playing the title role was the nephew of the man he had seen in the same part all those years before.
The overwhelming sense of tradition, of art passed from generation to generation, also affected Umpierrez, who found the sense of continuity inspiring. “I felt that everything that happened on the stage [had] happened for maybe a thousand years.
“For me it’s not important whether you do traditional theatre or if you do whatever you want, but it’s most important that it happens in the present moment,” he adds.
Their time in Japan marked the blossoming of a mutually beneficial mentoring year under the Rolex Arts Initiative, less one of top-down instruction, more a sharing of philosophies and approaches between theatre artists committed to expanding the boundaries of the medium.
Lepage’s talents are diverse, his accomplishments extensive: playwright, director, actor, producer, designer. Aged 59, he was born in Quebec City, which has remained his base throughout his career. As well as taking his home-grown creations all over the world, he is also in demand internationally as a director of other companies’ productions. He has directed films and especially opera, including a controversial Ring Cycle, for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
But his reputation rests on the theatre pieces he has created for his company Ex Machina. These vary considerably in style and form. Some are huge political and metaphysical dramas, such as The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1995), which plays for seven hours and whose settings wander extraordinarily far in time and space while still telling a coherent story.
At the other extreme are the solo pieces, such as his latest, 887, which he has taken over this past year – with Umpierrez in attendance – from Tokyo to London. He looks back in this piece to his boyhood; the title refers to his family’s Quebec address. He functions as a charming, funny and ultimately powerful performer (in that sense it’s a one-man show) and as a master director, creating seamless patterns of sight and sound. Projections are by now a familiar device but in 887, it’s impossible to tell where the live action stops and the video begins.
This blurring of the lines is what attracted him to the work of Umpierrez when the younger man presented his portfolio. “My work is multidisciplinary,” says Lepage. “It’s principally in theatre but I’m always seeing what I can borrow from opera, circus and so on. I saw that Matías was engaged in the same way, but with a more contemporary sensibility than other candidates [for the mentorship].”
Umpierrez’s commitment to multimedia goes back to his earliest years. “Since I was a child,” he says, “I was influenced by pottery and sculpture [his father is a plaster cast maker], painting and performing arts.”
Later, his versatility was further fuelled by necessity. He began his career “in one of the worst economic periods in Argentina. There was hardly any money in the country and the big arts institutions were almost broke. Theatre became the place where I could do whatever I wanted without the concern of money.”
So, he worked for theatres all over the country in various capacities. “For artists, I became a graphic designer, a prop man, an actor. That’s how I made it my resolution to become interdisciplinary.”
My work has always had a reflection of theatre but it’s not the theatre.
Some of the artists he worked for were theatre people, others not. “[But] I still think that theatre is the place I start my journey. My work has always had a reflection of theatre but it’s not the theatre. It doesn’t look like theatre but,” he adds with a winning kind of mental shrug, “maybe it is.”
Lepage’s productions, however eclectic their ingredients, are conventionally theatrical in that they take place on stages, in theatres, before audiences seated in rows. Umpierrez’s, on the other hand, are better described as installations. Distancia, for example, is performed before a theatre audience and with a live orchestra. The actors, however, are somewhere else: in several different locations, in fact, with their contributions being streamed live. “And all the streamings and connections between all those different platforms are happening at the same time in front of the audience.”
Or there is TeatroSOLO, performed by one actor for one other person, who functions as both audience and collaborator. But since the show has been done all over the world from Buenos Aires and São Paulo, to Madrid and New York, with five simultaneous performances at different sites in each city – the audience has grown exponentially. “It exposes the audience,” says Umpierrez, “to a primal theatrical experience – the oral tradition.” In New York, an actor started talking in confessional fashion to a volunteer spectator on the subway platform; the interaction continued as they boarded the train and concluded after they left it.
Umpierrez says of himself and Lepage: “We’re both part of a generation of artists that doesn’t define themselves by one discipline – I’m not aware that generation exists but I like to think I’m part of it,” he adds with a laugh.
But, of course, they do belong to different generations, as Lepage is well aware. “That’s the most exciting thing about this mentorship programme. When you’re an established artist, you’re mingling with other established artists, you feel you’ve seen it all, then suddenly somebody like Matías comes along. He’s into social media, he has his own concept of what theatre should be, what installations and creative events should be – you feel at the same time very jealous. It’s putting me up to date on the new trends.” Their relationship, therefore, has been less formal instruction, more spontaneous interchange. Mentorship, as has often been noted, can be a two-way street.
After that initial meeting in Japan, Lepage and Umpierrez reconvened in November 2016 when Lepage was again directing at the Met. During Lepage’s residency in New York, Umpierrez was sitting in on meetings and rehearsals, observing, learning, asking questions and making his own suggestions. He was there to absorb, to be in Lepage’s affectionate description, “a sponge”. “Matías will come up to me in coffee breaks and say ‘is this really how singers work?’ And, of course, he has his own opinion. It refreshes my eyes and ears to have someone who’s as passionate about it as I am, but comes from a completely different generation and background.”
We’re both part of a generation of artists that doesn’t define themselves by one discipline.
In 2018, both men will be mounting their own productions of traditional classics. Umpierrez faces the daunting prospect of directing a Russian masterpiece, Chekhov’s The Seagull, in Russia with local actors. Lepage is making his long-awaited debut at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival with a production of Coriolanus. In anticipation of this, he went with Umpierrez to see the same play in New York. Lepage “wasn’t too interested in the production” but was “impressed with the performances”. Umpierrez wasn’t. “Maybe it’s a generational thing,” adds Lepage. “When you’re 50 you know much more, you have doubts. He’s more affirmative.”
In common, mentor and protégé are multitaskers, within a particular work and in the manner they organize their careers. Umpierrez has found this reassuring: “One thing I’ve found fascinating is the way Robert conceives his rehearsals and produces his projects. They’re generally global collaborations with people from all over the world. He’s able to work professionally and artistically and collaborate on such a diverse range of projects simultaneously. It reinforces my own idea that I can work on several things – some take a couple of months, some take years – but they’re all developing at the same time.”
Lepage concurs: “In our early weeks we’d be having conversations and he’d have to go off and attend to this installation in Buenos Aires. I think there are many compartments in his head, working at the same time.”
And they’re both restless travellers. Umpierrez now lives in Madrid, but he has projects in several cities across the world. Global is a word he uses a lot.
Perhaps surprisingly, he doesn’t believe in improvisation; his actors have, in Hamlet’s phrase, to say no more than is set down for them. Lepage, in contrast, believes in actors as “great storytellers. I come up with the basic idea and situation, and they become responsible for writing it. They know what to do and how to say it, and I leave the actual editing to when the show’s opened or if it’s going to be published.”
“On this,” says Umpierrez, “we have different points of view. But I think Robert’s is absolutely natural and it’s fantastic because it works very well. And maybe in the future I will change. I’m open to that.” And that is what this mentorship programme is about.
Robert Cushman has been theatre critic of the National Post (Canada) since 1998, and was theatre critic of the Observer (UK) from 1973 to 1984. He is also a broadcaster and performer.