Avant-garde director stresses the classics

Though some call the works of theater director Robert Wilson radical, he said he sees his style as a “rediscovery of the classics.”

An audience of over 150 undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and community members crowded into the gallery space at the Yale School of Art’s 36 Edgewood Ave. building to hear the award-winning director, sculptor and performer speak Monday night. Wilson — most famous for his opera “Einstein on the Beach” — is widely regarded as one of the most prominent and influential figures in avant-garde theater, and has directed, designed, and performed on the international stage since 1969.

A revival of “Einstein on the Beach,” which Wilson wrote with composer Philip Glass in 1975, opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Friday and will run through Sunday.

Wilson began his speech with a long, two-minute pause, staring at the silent audience from the podium.

“The reason I work as an artist,” he said, breaking the silence, “is to ask questions — that is, what is it that we are doing.”

Though people ask Wilson for a reason behind his work, he said he believes that if he knew what it is he was doing, there would be no reason to do it.

Wilson, who was raised in a small town in Texas, did not grow up going to the theater or art museums. It was not until in 1963 when he moved to New York City in his early 20s to study architecture at the Pratt Institute that he went to the theater and saw a Broadway play, he said.

Though Wilson said he did not like most of what he saw in the theater, he was particularly moved by the classical construction and formal presentation of George Balanchine’s ballets. He cited this as the first major influence in his work.

“The classics are the only things that will remain,” he said. “We must rediscover the classics in each generation.”

Wilson credited Raymond Andrews, who he later came to adopt as a son, as the second major influence in his works. Wilson met Andrews as a deaf and mute 13-year-old African American boy being beaten on the streets by a police officer. Andrews, who had no legal guardian and had never been formally educated, intrigued Wilson by the way he thought in terms of visual movements and signals.

“Often he would see things that I wouldn’t see because I was preoccupied with what I was hearing,” said Wilson.

Together, Andrews and Wilson created a seven-hour silent play called “Deafman Glance,” which received international acclaim and was performed in Paris for a sold out crowd of 2,000 for five months straight in 1971. Wilson’s unconventional methods extended to his choice of non-professional actors: his cast of 65 comprised factory workers, homeless men, bankers and a housewife from New Jersey.

Wilson explained his philosophy of drama to the audience, adding that in all the works he has directed, he always begins directing them silently first.

“I start with the movement,” he said. “Drama 101: learn to stand on a stage.”

His third influence came in a tape given to him by a professor he invited to one of his open houses in New York. The tape, Wilson said, was made by a child named Christopher Knowles, who was living in an institution for brain damaged children. Knowles later came to live with Wilson, and together they wrote “Letter for Queen Victoria,” the text of which was chiefly written by Knowles. Wilson said he learned that Knowles could see big patterns, and had an incredibly mathematical mind.

“He only knew 50, 100 words, but he could say everything,” Wilson said.

In his talk, Wilson showed slides of his works, including operas, plays and sculptures. One play Wilson created was seven days long and had a 24-hour prologue. He explained various structures he developed for organizing plays; “The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin” was built in a spiral structure, centering on the fourth act, while “Einstein” on the Beach consists of various “knee plays” that connect related parts.

Wilson stressed that architectural structure is essential to any play, shouting aloud, “Burn the schools of theater design! We don’t need them!”

Another primary element of Wilson’s work is the use of light, as it creates a sense of space for the viewer.

Lucia Hierro ART ’13 described Wilson’s lecture as akin to walking into the Sistine Chapel for the first time.

“It’s so beautiful,” she said. “I believed for a second that somehow this work is the only work that should be made — and then I realized that it’s not, and there are many musicals that can do beautiful things.”

Andrew Kahn ’14, a literature major, said he found that “[Wilson’s] comments on his art were fairly conventional,” and he was most interested to hear him talk about the personal connections Wilson made with people.

Wilson’s lecture was sponsored by the Hayden Fund for Art and Ideas and the Yale School of Art.

Comments