TORONTO — Quebec theatre maverick Robert Lepage wants to go unplugged.
After nearly three decades of blowing away critics with spectacular multimedia effects in productions including The Blue Dragon, which opens in Toronto this week, the director-playwright says he now hopes to do projects with less video and less technology.
“I guess a bit like what a lot of rock bands did 10, 15 years ago, the ’unplugged’ thing, saying: ‘Well, this is a good song, but would it be as good if we did this on an acoustic guitar instead of doing it on a synthesizer, or on some kind of sampler or some kind of over-produced musical element?”’ Lepage, 54, said in a recent interview.
“So it’s going back to the basics, and I feel I’m entering maybe this new phase of my work where I’d like to present things in a more simple way, hopefully, and discover the real strength of it and not just count on technological crutches.”
The founder of multidisciplinary production company Ex Machina, Lepage first carved out his lauded reputation as a tech-loving storyteller with 1985’s “The Dragons’ Trilogy,” a nearly six-hour theatrical epic that examines Chinese communities in Canada and ends with Quebec artist Pierre Lamontagne considering a move to China.
In The Blue Dragon, the sequel to The Dragons’ Trilogy that Mirvish Productions will open at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on Tuesday, Pierre is in Shanghai. There, he becomes entangled in the lives of two women — one a friend from Montreal who wants to adopt a Chinese baby, and the other a Chinese artist exhibiting at his gallery.
Lepage said when he and Marie Michaud wrote The Dragons’ Trilogy, he bore similarities to Pierre, whom he also played in the show. Both he and Pierre were 25, both were Quebec City artists, both thought it best to travel west in order to further their careers (in Lepage’s case, he went to Montreal but eventually returned to Quebec City), and neither had ever been to China.
“Pierre has always been a kind of alter ego,” said Lepage, who’s used 3-D projections and a massive multimedia machine in his ongoing direction of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera.
“It’s an alter ego that actually went in a different direction.”
So when Lepage turned 50 and looked back on his life, Pierre popped into his mind and that’s when he asked Michaud if she wanted to revisit a part of the trilogy that was left unanswered: did Pierre make it to China, and if so, what happened to him and how has China changed?
“I had all these questions about the character and it was a good opportunity for me to also reflect about myself as an artist,” said Lepage, winner of a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award who is an Officer of the Order of Canada and of the National Order of Quebec.
“There are so many things about artistic integrity and questions about being single, not having children, you know, all of the things that come at 50, so it was a good moment for me to reflect about that.”
Lepage and Michaud recently published The Blue Dragon as a graphic novel. He said the adaptation was a perfect fit since the structure of the show is akin to a cartoon.
It also reminded them of their first introduction to Chinese culture — The Adventures of Tintin comic book series that’s now on the big screen.
“Tintin and The Blue Lotus, everybody in the group had read that when they were four or five . . . so that influenced us a lot,” said Lepage.
Lepage’s upcoming projects include Playing Cards, which he’s developing in Quebec City.
He said the project is 12 hours long and is broken up into four, three-hour shows, to be presented on four different nights, called Spades, Hearts, Clubs and Diamonds.
The first show, Spades, will premiere in Madrid in April and will have an international cast.
“I’m interested in the whole writing process more and more, and less by the staging process,” said Lepage, whose other epic productions include the seven-hour-long The Seven Streams of the River Ota and the nine-hour Lipsynch.