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Robert Lepage’s creative alchemy

This feature by Sarah Greene appeared in the November 2011 issue of Q&Q.

Robert Lepage’s impressive artistic career spans theatre, film, and opera, and includes stints as designer and director for Cirque du Soleil and a Peter Gabriel world tour. The prolific Quebec actor, writer, and director has now added graphic novelist to his list of achievements. The Blue Dragon, first published in French earlier this year by Quebec’s Éditions Alto, appears this month from House of Anansi Press.

Adapted from the play of the same name, the book reunites co-writers Lepage and Marie Michaud, both of whom performed in the original 2008 production. The idea for the graphic novel, first suggested by Lepage’s sister and assistant Lynda Beaulieu, seemed natural given the influence on the play of Hergé’s The Blue Lotus, about TinTin’s adventures in Shanghai; the use of Chinese calligraphy, video, and comic panel-like squares in the set design; and the fact that the central character, Pierre Lamontagne, is a graphic artist and calligrapher.

“We thought a graphic novel would be more faithful, do more justice to the piece,” says Lepage. “We saw it as an opportunity to extend the themes of The Blue Dragon.”

A follow-up to the mid-1980s production The Dragons’ Trilogy, the story is set in modern-­day China and revolves around three characters in a love triangle: Lamontagne, a middle-aged Quebecois artist who lives in Shanghai and runs a contemporary art gallery; his ex-wife, a Montreal-based ­advertising executive hoping to adopt a baby; and Lamontagne’s younger Chinese lover. Just as there are three characters interacting in three languages (French, English, and Mandarin), there are three possible endings to the play and the book. Éditions Alto played on the number by printing a first run of 3,333 copies.

To adapt the highly visual play into print, Lepage and his production company, Ex Machina, imagined how they would present the story as a film. They auditioned a number of Quebecois artists for the project, eventually choosing Fred Jourdain, a young illustrator known for his portraits of rock stars and celebrities. Jourdain’s fluid, vivid illustrations of a rainy Shanghai are conveyed by mixing comic-book art with more painterly images. “He was very strong at expressing emotions on his characters’ faces,” says Lepage.

Anansi publisher Sarah MacLachlan fell in love with this combination of graphica and fine art. “I thought that was an extraordinary thing,” she says. The Blue Dragon is Anansi’s first graphic novel for the adult market (its children’s imprint, Groundwood Books, published the YA title Skim by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki in 2009). Canadian fiction editor Melanie Little met Éditions Alto president Antoine Tanguay last January, at the Canada Council for the Arts’ inaugural translation rights fair in Ottawa, and presented an offer within days.

The graphic novel has also had an effect on the theatrical version of The Blue Dragon, which will be remounted by Toronto’s Mirvish Productions in January. “Our work with Fred had a big influence on the piece,” Lepage says. “Both to make it stronger by simplifying some of the storylines, but also by complexifying some things that needed to be more [complex]. A lot of that came from some of the very rich, effervescent exchanges we had with Fred.”

Lepage says the adaptation was so successful it’s changed his approach to publishing: “Whatever play we come up with we should try to find a format – not necessarily another graphic novel – that is as faithful to our visual approach to the stage as it is [to] the written word.”

Éditions Alto and Ex Machina have continued their partnership, producing a limited-­run souvenir book for Lepage’s production of Stravinsky’s opera The Nightingale and Other Short Fables and collaborating on a nine-volume box set for his epic nine-hour opera Lipsynch.

“[Lepage] is a central cultural figure in Quebec right now,” says Tanguay. “Everything he does turns to gold.”

Illustrations by Fred Jourdain, courtesy of Anansi

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