At a time when art forms increasingly intermingle and overlap, Québec’s stage directors are gradually investing in the province’s music ecosystem. Previously reserved for large-scale spectacles, their music is now recognized as essential in all kinds of productions, regardless of budget. Following is an overview of a phenomenon that’s grown steadily over the past decade.
A pioneer in stage direction, dating back to the colourful shows back in the day of his old band – Doc et les chirurgiens – Yann Perreau had an epiphany in 2004.
His curiosity was piqued by the Michel Faubert-directed concert by Pierre Flynn, Vol solo. “I wondered what possible use a singer could have for a stage director… It was quite nebulous to me,” Perreau remembers. “So, after one of the shows, I met both men at L’Esco [a popular watering hole for artists in Montréal]. I was so enthralled by our conversation that I immediately asked Michel to direct my next show. He’s the one who told me to trust my music instead of constantly addressing the audience and sticking my foot in my mouth.”
Armed with this new-found confidence, the singer-songwriter trusted himself for the creation of Perreau et la lune, a show that earned him the Stage Director of the Year award at the 2007 ADISQ Gala. Increasingly renowned for that talent, he followed up by directing shows for Queen Ka, Ines Talbi and Chinatown and tapped Brigitte Poupart for her feedback in creating his own Un serpent sous les fleurs tour.
Mainly known for her theatre work, Poupart had tried her hand at music concert direction when she collaborated on electro duo’s Beast’s stage show. “Initially, the producers could hardly justify my role,” she says. “To them, I only represented useless additional costs. I had to show them how important I am… I explained that I was there to ensure that a certain quality standard was in place and respected.”
“Back then, a lot of people saw stage direction as high-falutin’,” remembers Perreau, who’ll be at the helm of SOCAN’s Montréal Gala on Sept. 12, 2016. “In actual fact, a stage director is simply an outside eye. It’s thanks to them that a show starts to shine.”
In other words, beyond artistic direction, stage direction and lighting, a stage director acts as a co-ordinator. That, in any case, is how Poupart approaches her role for smaller-budget productions such as Alexandre Désilets’ La Garde. “There were fewer people onstage, so we put a lot of thought into the show’s pacing and the interpretation of the songs. Désilets is such an accomplished musician, all I had to do was shine a light on him,” says the director of other contemporaries, such as Louis-Jean Cormier, Lisa LeBlanc and Misteur Valaire.
“Brigitte’s main advantage is that she knows the industry inside and out,” says Désilets. “She has an uncanny ability for mapping precisely the artistic direction imagined by the artist.”
Perreau also favoured an understated stage direction for Patrice Michaud’s latest tour. “For his first show, he mostly sat, a bit like a raconteur,” says Perreau. “For this one, he wanted things to rock a little more. So we worked on pacing, so that the show would grow in momentum. I did away with anything superfluous to create a show as efficient as a Springsteen concert.”
Working “Like a Duck”
At the other end of the spectrum, certain stage shows call for a lot more creativity and expense. Both memorable events, Pierre Lapointe’s Mutantes (2008) and the collective 12 hommes rapaillés (2009) marked their era through their theatrical stage direction by, respectively, Claude Poissant and Marc Béland.
More recently, Perreau himself went all out for an event called Piaf à 100 ans. Vive la Môme! presented during the Francofolies de Montréal. “I wanted to re-create Paris in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s by developing a dream-like fairground cabaret concept,” says Perreau. “I got the same argument over and over: it should be very understated… for me it was exactly the opposite,” he says, amused, reminding us that there was a real carousel onstage. “But in the end, I decided to take it as a compliment. The secret to good stage direction is to make it look easy. It’s very much like a duck: on the surface, not much happens, but underwater there’s a lot going on!”
Albeit in a completely different style, stage director Antoine Laprise faced quite a challenge when creating the stage show for Keith Kouna’s Le voyage d’hiver.
With a “minuscule” production budget, he managed to breathe life into this masterpiece, which re-visits German composer Franz Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle. “It’s the kind of challenge that thrills me,” says Laprise. “When the budget is limited, imagination kicks in. We worked with a slanted backdrop that had, way at the back, a perspective-distorted fridge. From that, we worked on 24 different scenes for the 24 different songs. It wasn’t always a cakewalk, but I was blessed to work with a very motivated actor. In the end, we created nothing short of a one-man opera.”
“That’s when I understood that restraints also bring about liberty and creativity,” says Kouna himself. “When you don’t have budgetary constraints, it’s easy to get lost and end up with a much less interesting artistic result.”
An Indispensable Expertise?
Thrilled by his experience, Kouna nonetheless believes that the expertise of a stage director is not always indispensable. “It does serve more conceptual shows, but otherwise, I wouldn’t want to do a regular Keith Kouna show where I know exactly everything that’s going to happen,” says the artist, who also sings for punk band Les Goules.
On the contrary, Poupart’s steadfast artistic vision leads her to be convinced that any and all artists benefit from a stage director. Moreover, she believes that it’s at least in part because of the renewed quality of stage shows that the Québec music industry has continued to flourish despite the decline in record sales. “Regardless of the changes in this industry, the audience will always seek a collective experience,” she says. “That’s why there are still movie- and theatre-goers, and why there will be concert-goers for a long time to come.”
Less certain, Alexandre Désilets remains cautious about this widespread belief. “For 10 years now, everybody’s been saying to go all-out with your stage show, because that’s where the money is,” he says. “Yet it still feels like we’re all struggling to survive. It’s not true that because your show was created by a stage director, your ticket sales are going to increase… It’s not that clear-cut.”
But regardless of the economic stakes, Perreau believes that such collaborations between stage directors and music creators are the signs of a positive evolution of our music scene.
“It’s always a good idea to ask for the help of a stage director when your art needs a second wind,” he believes. “And it’s also good for the audience… I really think it’s a good thing we’re seeing less and less crappy shows where the guy onstage doesn’t know what to say between his songs, or tunes his guitar for five minutes.”