Thursday, November 4, 2010


National Theater New Stage
November 3

"When I'm performing, I can be a real prima donna." 

Robert Wilson may eschew the traditional aspects of his craft, but he is a showman at heart. He opened his lecture last night with a John Cage moment, standing at the podium in frozen silence for about three minutes before greeting the audience with an anticlimactic “Good evening.” And during the next two hours, he seamlessly integrated dramatic readings, dead-on caricatures and musical mimicry into his talk.

Wilson, internationally famous for his avant-garde work in the theater, is in Prague directing a Czech-language production of Karel Čapek’s The Makropulos Case. He also designed and directed a striking new production of Leoš Janáček’s opera Katya Kabanova for the National Theater which premiered in the spring. He discussed neither of those pieces, offering instead a career retrospective and insight into his thinking, approach and working methods.

Wilson’s governing principles are ambiguity and uncertainty. Though his stamp on a production is unmistakable from the opening moments, he aims not to define a work, but to find new meanings in it. “To fix one meaning on something is to negate all of the other ideas about it,” he said.

This is in keeping with his background, which did not include formal training in the theater. When he moved to New York in the early ’60s, it was as an architecture student from Texas who had never seen a Broadway play or an opera. He didn’t like either, but was entranced by the choreography of George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham, which combined formal construction with a revolutionary use of space and movement. This, he said, remains one of the primary influences in his work.

His other key influences were castoffs from society who became central figures in Wilson’s early plays. Raymond Andrews, a black deaf-mute, was 13 years old when Wilson rescued him from institutionalization in New Jersey by adopting him. Far from being an idiot, Andrews had his own internal vocabulary and language which led Wilson to the realization that sound comes from movement, not the other way around. “Ever since then, every single production I’ve ever done, we rehearse silently first,” Wilson said. “Movement comes first, then later we add the text or music.”

Working with Andrews, Wilson created a silent seven-hour play, Deafman Glance. It was given only an abbreviated staging in New York, but when the full production was mounted in France, Wilson was declared a genius, launching his international career.

The third important influence Wilson cited was Christopher Knowles, a young boy who had been classified as brain-damaged and spent 11 of his 13 years institutionalized. Fascinated by an audiotape that Knowles made of apparent nonsense syllables, Wilson spontaneously cast him in The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, which he had spent eight months rehearsing as a silent 12-hour production. Knowles turned out to be a math savant with a “perfectly constructed” inner language that Wilson employed in their collaboration A Letter for Queen Victoria. From Knowles, Wilson said, he learned to “see large patterns quickly” before delving into the specifics of a work.

Make it about one thing first,” he said of his approach to a new production. “Then forget about it and fill in all the details.”

Using slides and diagrams that he drew on a display board, Wilson showed how he applied that working method to pieces such as The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud and Einstein on the Beach. It even applies to the performers. “In my entire career, I have never, ever told an actor what to think,” Wilson said. “They are given a formal device, or structure, which they fill in with their own personality.”

The most extreme example of that was probably KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace, a seven-day play that was staged on seven hills outside of Shiraz, Iran. “We had 600 people filling in this megastructure,” Wilson said as he mapped out a large grid on the display board.

For someone who has been so successful in the theater, Wilson is surprisingly disdainful of it. Asked what advice he would give someone studying stage design, he said, “Don’t. Do not study theater design. Burn all those schools and study architecture instead. Then make theater, don’t make theater decorations.” Recounting the founding of his Watermill Center for the performing arts on Long Island, he said, “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life directing opera at the Paris Opera.”

But his actions belie his words, at least judging from his schedule. He has mounted productions in Berlin, Seoul and Porte Alegre, Brazil this season, and will be debuting new productions in Zurich, Berlin, Manchester and Reggio Emilia, Italy in coming months. In Prague, viewers will also have an opportunity to see a joint exhibition of his work and that of celebrated Czech stage designer Josef Svoboda, scheduled to open November 14 at Museum Kampa.

Wilson’s parting shot was characteristically enigmatic, reflecting his conviction that “the reason to work is to ask questions.” He noted that when babies are born, they come out with their eyes closed but making rapid-eye movements, which are an indication of dreaming.

Wilson’s question: “What are they dreaming?”

Further reading:

Wilson’s website is rather hagiographic, but this page is quite revealing (be sure to check out the technical rider):

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