Director Robert Wilson
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
It can truly be said that Robert Wilson does it all. He directs
plays and operas, meaning he comes up with a concept and follows
through to each movement. He designs scenery and lighting,
meaning he visualizes not only the people on the stage but also their
environment. He writes the text for plays and operas, meaning he
creates the original ideas that motivate every action and thought that
is presented. He paints and sculpts and has worked with
sounds. He has a degree in architecture and understands business
administration. He seems to have a hand in every aspect of
theatrical life! He even founded the Watermill Center [where he
was photographed above] as a laboratory for performance and
research. He is the very definition of “forward-looking,”
and pushes the envelope wherever he lands.
While he may not be unique and others may also multi-task, Wilson is
the one who has risen to the top and commands attention from all who
present and appreciate the business.
To learn more and see other photos, visit his website.
In the fall of 1990, Wilson was giving Chicago his version of Alceste by Gluck, featuring Jessye
Norman in the title role. He was kind enough to accept my
invitation for an interview, so we met in a dressing room backstage at
the Opera House after a rehearsal . . . . .
You have just come from a long
rehearsal. Do you do
everything in the rehearsals, or is there anything that you leave for
the performers to do on the first and subsequent nights?
It depends on the performer and on the
situation. The situation is always different with an
audience, so some performers work best when they only mark during
and you know that they’re going to do more when there’s a public.
Some give you everything in a rehearsal. Everyone has a different
rhythm. Sometimes they start out great and get worse.
Sometimes they start out not so good and get better. And
sometimes they start out good and remain good!
BD: Do you
try to mold them so that every
movement is yours, or do you allow them any kind of freedom?
RW: No, no,
no, no. It ultimately has to be
theirs. The movements and gestures are choreographed, but
ultimately the performer has to do them, so they must be theirs.
They’re no longer mine. It’s like giving away your
children; you have to let them grow up and be on their own.
BD: How much
molding do you do, and how much allowing
do you do?
RW: Oh, quite a
bit. It’s like when you spend
certain times gardening; you plant seeds and you try to put each one of
them equal distance apart. But when they grow up, you see that
one grows a little bit this way and one grows a little bit that
way. So that’s the nature of the game, and that’s what makes the
BD: Does the
growing continue in the second and
the fifth and the eighth performance?
RW: It does,
and I have people that watch the
performances just to give notes because it’s always helpful to have
someone on the outside looking at what one’s doing. That’s really
the function of a director. A director is someone who’s outside
looking at the situation, and is there to help the performer be at his
BD: [With a
sly nudge] You have spies? [Laughs]
[Matter-of-factly] No, I have an assistant
who watches each
performance and gives notes.
BD: So you
turn over the reins to the assistant, then?
BD: Do you
allow the assistant to
move anything around or just keep them charting the course that
you have set?
RW: If a new
singer would come in, I think
you’d leave that assistant in charge to make a decision as to what he
thinks is best at that moment.
BD: Let me go
back one step farther. Do you
come to the first rehearsal with all of your ideas in your head, or do
you work with what you have and then modify your own ideas to fit your
conception, their conception, and the growing conception?
depends on the production, but in
general I would say in the last years I come to rehearsal with very
few ideas in mind. When I first started working in the
theater, I used to think that I had to do a lot of homework and a lot
and that I had to have a lot of ideas when I came to the
rehearsal. But after working for a number of years, I found that
often I would lose time because I had done so much preparation, and I
would be trying to mold a situation into an idea that was
preconceived. I prefer, really, to walk into the rehearsal room
with sort of just
a general idea — maybe a direction in which I
think a piece might
go — but to look at the people, to look at the
theater, the space,
and to make the work with them so that it really comes and evolves from
that I’m working with, not from me in a
room alone, dreaming and thinking what it could be.
BD: Most of
that you have done lately have been somewhat esoteric repertoire rather
than the run-of-the-mill works. Is it perhaps easier to work
with something where the singers have less experience — no
productions — so that everything is new, rather
than another Tosca or
I’ve worked, actually, in many
situations. I just directed Shakespeare’s King Lear. In the company I
had an actor eighty years old who performed for sixty-five
BD: But not
always major roles, a big star. In this
case the actor was doing something completely different for the first
time in her life. I don’t know; I think each situation is
unique. Sometimes it’s a play I’ve written and it’s easier
to work, and sometimes it’s a play that I haven’t written and it’s
easy to work, and sometimes when I’ve written one it’s difficult to
figure it out. Each situation is different.
BD: When you
have written a play, would you
rather direct it yourself, or would you rather turn it over to someone
who can see it from the outside?
RW: Up until
this date, all the pieces that I
have written I have directed and designed myself, with one or two
exceptions. I think it’s interesting to see someone else direct
and design a
work that I’ve conceived.
BD: Has this
been done later with other performances
of the work, or other productions of the work?
RW: It was Einstein on the Beach. [Photo at right of first page of
the manuscript] It was
recently redirected, redesigned, by Achim Freyer in Stuttgart.
Several of my plays have been redone. There was recently a
Canadian production of a play
I did called The Golden Windows;
there was a production last year
of I Was Sitting On My Patio This
Guy Appeared I Thought
I Was Hallucinating. It was a very short play, an hour and
long, directed by a young director in Belgium. But
for the most part, my work and things I have done thus far probably
won’t be directed by other
people. It’s been created by me and performed at one time, and
probably won’t be performed
so much in the future.
[Wistfully] Ah, but that’s what they said of Alceste and all
of these other great works! They were performed, and Gluck would
be perhaps even horrified that it’s being done two hundred years
That’s true! Who knows?
BD: Are you
going to be horrified if something that
you have written is done in two hundred years?
RW: No, I’d
be very pleased!
BD: Will the
audiences in two hundred years
understand your work?
RW: I don’t
know; I would hope so. I think that
my work is quite accessible. I’ve been privileged to work all
over the world — in the Far East, in the Middle
throughout Europe, South America. I’ve actually worked a lot more
outside the United States than I have in the United States, and I
think one reason that I’ve had this opportunity to work internationally
is that the work is somehow accessible to a large public. For me,
one of the basic things of theater is that it should
be accessible to anyone; the man on the street or the man from Mars
should be able to walk into the theater and appreciate something.
Susan Sontag said in her essay Against
Interpretation that “the
mystery is in the surface.” And I think that’s true, that somehow
the surface of a work must be mysterious and accessible. Whether
one’s doing Shakespeare or Gluck’s Alceste,
be something very simple about it. One must be able to tell one’s
self, if one is an actor or a director or author, the work is about
something, very simple. Then it can be about many
you are often a creator on your own
behalf, do you then interpret other people’s creations differently than
someone who doesn’t have any hand in writing works of their own?
Perhaps. My background was primarily in the
visual arts, in architecture and painting, so whatever I do, I usually
bring a very strong visual book to the work in terms of light, in
terms of gesture, sometimes scenery, props, furniture, sculpture.
I always think that what we see is what we see and what we
hear is what we hear, and what we see should be as important as
what we hear. So often in the theater, what we see is secondary
to what we hear,
and we think that the most important thing in the theater is the text,
is the book, is the word. In an opera, it’s the music, but
the two primary ways in which we communicate with one another is
through our eyes and through our ears. So I try to make the
visual book not necessarily a decoration, or there to simply support
the audio book, but it can parallel, it can be as important. It
is an equal partner and can reinforce what we
hear, without having to illustrate or decorate.
BD: When you’re
play, do you believe that it can stand on its own without music, as
opposed to when you perhaps collaborate with Philip Glass, that it’s
something that cannot stand without the music?
visual book can stand alone in all of my
works, even with Gluck. I can take away this music and
just run this as a mute work, and hopefully it would be interesting to
BD: An opera
as a mime show?
RW: I think I
could take away the music and I’d just
look at the lights and at the movements, and hopefully it
could stand on its own, yeah. Architecturally it’s conceived
BD: Then how
does it relate to the music,
which will be all-pervasive?
parallels the music. It’s a parallel
event. It can reinforce the music.
BD: Is it
parallel in a different car, or
parallel in the same car going along the road?
varies. Sometimes it’s a parallel track,
and sometimes it’s a track that crosses and meets. If one
believes anything too much, it’s a lie or it’s a mistake, so
it’s always important to contradict one’s self. Frequently in my
work one can imagine two screens that are seen
parallel. They can be out of phase or they can be in phase, in
line or out of line. Maybe they’re slowly shifting so that
they’re out of line, and then at some moment they suddenly line up and
are parallel. Then they can shift out of focus and not be
parallel. But those moments in which they do line up maybe are
moments that sustain this long line, these contradictions.
BD: In a
musical work, is it the music that
helps dictate the pace of the in and out of phase, or is it your own
RW: In my
work I’m not interested in collages, so
that what I see may be different from what I hear, meaning that the
gesture may be of a different tempi, or out of context with
what is being spoken or sung. It’s not ever thought to be
arbitrary; it’s something that’s structured. As I said, it’s
something there to reinforce, or to help me hear and see.
BD: How much
push-pull is going to propel the work forward, and how much it’s going
perhaps, tear it apart?
RW: It’s all
architectural to me. It’s
construction and time and space, how to support this line of
attention. Sometimes it can be something in contradiction and it
makes more attention on the space, and sometimes it’s not.
They’re aesthetic decisions that are made in a construction in time and
space, so sometimes one can see, maybe, a movement on stage
that’s slower or different tempi than the music. Or it’s
an internal rhythm of the music; sometimes it can be quicker and
sometimes it can be
exactly in the tempi of the music. To me it’s boring if all the
walking and all the movements are exactly in the tempi of
the music, so
sometimes there’s someone walking slower, someone quicker, someone with
the music. It makes a denser work, a more complex work. It
also relates more to the energy of the public. You find that some
people are in different mental rhythms in the audience. Within a
house there are very different mental vibrations of the public in the
theater. And the stage is like a battery, so you can set up
different energies in this battery that maybe relate to the entire
BD: Does it
make any difference if you’re playing in
a very small house or a great big barn of a house?
RW: Sure it
does. You may be doing the same
gestures in a small house that you would do in a large house, but the
weight or the scale of a gesture is different. It may be tracing
the same line, but your projection of the energy, the way you fill the
space, is different. I always say to the actors, “Go on stage,
and look at the back wall. Look at the exit signs on the back
wall. You’ve got to get that far! You’ve got to go to the
back wall. You’ve got to fill this room with your presence.
If you’re looking down at the floor, or you’re just moving your hand to
your hip, the weight of that gesture must get to the person sitting on
the back row
of that theater.”
BD: If it’s a
large theater, is that not
too heavy for the people in the first five rows?
No, no, no. One learns to
project in a house and to fill a house with your just blinking an
eye. That is seen on the first row and maybe felt in the back
row, or seen in the back row. It’s
very curious that we see so often in opera that the singer wants
to make big gestures because usually we’re in big houses, and so
often I find that they’re ridiculous and unnecessary. Actually, a
small gesture in a big house, in big space, is larger than a big
BD: How so?
there’s more space around it. Let’s say if I take a room that’s
size. We’re in a room that’s about twelve feet by
twelve feet. If I put a car in this room, it would be quite full
with this big
automobile. But if I took a tiny toy car that was an inch and a
half by a half an inch and I put it in this room, that little car
would probably be bigger than this big car because there’s so much
space around it.
BD: It’s a
mental trick, then?
RW: Yes, it
is. It’s a question of weight and
space. This tiny little thing, with all this space around it has
BD: Do you
try to keep your sets relatively
depends. This one I have. This
one is very severe. It’s very simple. Gluck says that he
thought of the music for this work and the attitude to perform it as
a noble simplicity. Actually I had that in mind when I was
designing and making this work. It’s very formal; it’s very
classical, very architectural, like the music.
BD: Does it
speak to the audience of 1990?
RW: I think
it does. It’s a classical
design we could have looked at three
hundred years ago, and we can look at today. It’s a classical
composition, which is always of interest. It’s full of time.
BD: So you
haven’t tried to bring it up to
date? You’ve tried to revitalize what’s there?
RW: Someone said to
earlier today, “Oh, this is very avant-garde,” but I
said, “Well, maybe.” I never want to be avant-garde, although I’m
frequently called avant-garde. Actually, avant-garde means
rediscovering the past or rediscovering what we already
know — classicism — and I think that that’s what
is in this work.
BD: If you
don’t want to be avant-garde, what do
you want to be?
RW: I’m an
artist, simply. I never
wanted to create a new form or a new theater. I’ve just done what
seemed right or natural to me. I’m very intuitive in
my work. Martha Graham said a long time ago, “The body
doesn’t lie,” and I think that’s true. Frequently I don’t
know what to do. I just shut my eyes and ask myself, “Should
I do this, or should I do that?” And I say, “Oh, I think I should
do this,” and I usually do.
RW: For me,
BD: Let me
ask the big philosophical question,
then. What is the purpose of theater? Or perhaps even
bigger, what is the purpose of the arts?
RW: In this
case, theater, it’s a
forum, and it serves a unique function in society in that it brings
people together. It brings people together regardless of
political viewpoints, economic backgrounds, political backgrounds or
social backgrounds. We come together and we share something
for a brief period of time. And in this profession, theater,
it’s unique in that it brings together, for me as an artist,
my interest in painting and sculpture and light and poetry and music
and movement and architecture. All of the arts can be brought
together into this forum in which we have an exchange with the public.
BD: Do you
get something back from the
public, as well as giving the public something?
Exactly. That’s why we make theater.
We make theater for the public. The best performer is one who
performs first for himself, but we always have in mind
that we’re doing it for the public. We perform for ourselves, and
we invite them to come and experience what we have made for
them. My theater is not a theater of interpretation, so
therefore it differs from most other theater that we see today, or work
by other directors and authors. For me, interpretation is not the
responsibility of a performer or the director or designer;
interpretation is for
the public. That’s why we make the work, and we invite the
audience to come in to see this. When we present this work to
them, we present it with a question. We say, “What is it?”
And the reason we ask this question is to have the audience there, and
they can say what it is. We try not to say what something is, but
to ask a question, and that’s the reason to
have people in the forum — to have an exchange.
BD: So you
put performers on the stage to say, “What
am I doing?”
BD: I assume
there is no right or wrong
RW: There are
many answers, but we’re not in
the theater to dictate to the audience. That’s fascism. I’m
not interested in that. I’m not interested in telling an audience
how to think. That’s what I find very disturbing about most
theaters — they’re too fascistic for my taste.
BD: Are you
not leading the audience at all in a
RW: One can
indicate directions, but one never
insists on a direction if one’s doing a work like Alceste, or a work like King Lear, which I just finished
Germany. It’s impossible to fully comprehend Shakespeare; it’s
too complex. If one has an interpretation of Lear, it’s a
lie! Lear’s too
complex; there are too many facets and meanings
to it. That’s what makes it great; that’s what makes it
rich. That’s why it’s been with us so many years, and it’ll be
with us many years to come. It’s a mystery. I can read Lear
tonight, and I can read it one way, and I can read it tomorrow, and I
can read it another way. Two weeks from now I can read it still
another way. There’s no one way to read through King Lear; there
are many ways, and to have an interpretation of Lear narrows the
possibilities of all these caustic meanings.
BD: Is this,
perhaps, what makes certain works greater
than others, that they have so much depth to plumb?
RW: I think
so. I think that they are
multi-faceted and have many sides to them. Why are we still
Medea? Because we can identify with that woman. We don’t
really understand her, but we can see ourselves in her. It’s a
very complex subject matter. She’s a very contemporary
woman. We read about her every day in the newspaper; we hear
about her on the radio. She’s still with us today, very
BD: So could
you do a season of a couple of
plays that are about Medea and the various operas that are about
Medea — all these different ways of looking at
RW: I think
so. I’ve done three or
four productions of Medea
myself. I’ve done a Marc-Antoine
Charpentier baroque opera of Médée.
I did a Euripedes
Medea. I also wrote an
opera based on Euripedes’
Medea. I did Heiner
Müller, the East German playwright’s,
Medea. And I did them
all at once, actually presented them
together in the opera house in Lyon, and then they all
moved to Paris where they were shown in various theaters. At one
time they were all in one theater in Paris, the
BD: And you
still didn’t get to the bottom
RW: No, I’m
still fascinated. I met Montserrat
Caballé last January in Amsterdam. She said, “Oh, I want
Cherubini’s Medea with you!”
BD: So then
did you try to pencil that into
RW: Yeah, I’m
thinking about it. I’d love to
work with her. She’s such a great lady! Such a beautiful
voice. The light, the color in the voice is so special.
BD: Let me
ask about your calendar. You get offers for all kinds
and you have all kinds of ideas in your head. How do you decide
what you are going to spend your limited amount of time on?
RW: I plan very far
in advance. I plan that in the next four or five years
I’m doing three or four creations, and that takes time. At the
same time, I had planned some years ago that I would do more
traditional works in opera. I’m directing Tristan and Isolde at the Bastille
in Paris. I’m doing the
Magic Flute of Mozart there
next year. I’m
doing Don Giovanni and Lohengrin, and I’m doing Parsifal
in Hamburg. I’m doing three Wagners and three
Mozarts, but I’m also writing three new operas, too.
writing the text for these operas?
RW: And the
BD: And then
you give that to the composer?
RW: Yes, I
work with a composer on the timing and the
structuring of the themes and the ideas.
BD: Are you
ever surprised with what kind of music
comes out of the composer’s mind when he sees your directions?
Sometimes, yeah. I’ve worked with many
different composers. I just created a work with Tom Waits in
Hamburg that’s going to Paris this fall and is going to make a world
tour. The year before that I created a new opera at La Scala
with Giacomo Manzoni, an Italian composer. The same year I
created a work with Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. I was just
on the phone last night with a thirty year old composer from
Leningrad, and we’re going to do a work at the end of next year
BD: Will it
be in English or in Russian?
going to be in Russian.
BD: One last
question — where is opera going today?
RW: I think
opera is gaining a public.
In ’76, when I did Einstein on
the Beach with Philip Glass, at that time we thought of opera as
being something that’s part of the nineteenth century. Young
people didn’t really go to the opera so much. But now I see in
Europe, I see in America, more and more people of my
generation or the generation below me writing operas, and a young
public going to see these operas. I think that we’re getting
a larger public. I think that the works are becoming more visual,
and that way perhaps more accessible. More of the visual artists
are participating; painters and sculptors are involved in the making of
operas, in the creation of operas. I think it’s becoming more
like a renaissance art form.
BD: Are we
working on this form, or are we
reinventing the form?
RW: I think
we are rediscovering, yeah.
BD: I hope
you’re part of it for a long time!
you. I hope so, too.
Robert Wilson (director)
Robert Wilson (born 4 October 1941) is an internationally acclaimed
American avant-garde stage director and playwright who has been called
"this country's — or even the world's — foremost vanguard 'theater
artist'" . Over the course of his wide-ranging career, he has also
worked as a choreographer, performer, painter, sculptor, video artist,
and sound and lighting designer. He is best known for his
collaborations with Philip Glass on Einstein
on the Beach, and with numerous other artists, including William
S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Waits, and David Byrne.
Wilson was born in Waco, Texas, and studied Business Administration at
the University of Texas from 1959 to 1962. He moved to Brooklyn in
1963, receiving a BFA in architecture from the Pratt Institute in 1965.
He also attended lectures by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy (widow of
László Moholy-Nagy), studied painting with George McNeil,
and studied architecture with Paolo Soleri in Arizona.
In 1968, Wilson founded an experimental performance company, the Byrd
Hoffman School of Byrds (named for a dancer who helped him overcome a
speech impediment while a teenager). With this company, he created his
first major works, beginning with 1969's The King of Spain and The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud.
He began to work in opera in the early 1970s, creating Einstein on the Beach with Philip
Glass, which brought the two artists world-wide fame.
In 1983-1984, Wilson planned a performance for the 1984 Summer
Olympics, the CIVIL warS: A Tree Is
Best Measured When It Is Down; the complete work was to have
been 12 hours long, in 6 parts. The production was only partially
completed — the full event was cancelled by the Olympic Arts Festival,
due to insufficient funds. In 1986, the Pulitzer Prize jury unanimously
selected the CIVIL warS for
the drama prize, but the supervisory board rejected the choice and gave
no drama award that year.
Wilson is known for pushing the boundaries of theatre. His works are
noted for their austere style, very slow movement, and often extreme
scale in space or in time. The Life
and Times of Joseph Stalin was a 12-hour performance, while KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace
was staged on a mountaintop in Iran and lasted seven days.
In addition to his work for the stage, Wilson creates sculpture,
drawings, and furniture designs. He won the Golden Lion at the 1993
Venice Biennale for a sculptural installation.
Louis Aragon praised Wilson as: "What we, from whom Surrealism was
born, dreamed would come after us and go beyond us".
© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded backstage at the Opera House
in Chicago on September 6, 1990.
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB a few days later to promote the performances. A
made and published in The Opera
Journal in December, 1991. It was re-edited and posted on
website in 2009.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.