Mary Zimmerman proclaims herself "a musical moron" who listens to Prince, says she can't paint or draw but is partial to "really bourgeois" 19th Century representational art, doesn't read any classical languages, claims to know little about history, and isn't a dancer or a choreographer.
And yet the MacArthur Foundation has selected her for one of its so-called "genius grants" precisely because of her remarkable ability to turn antique classical texts from Persia, China, Greece, and Italy into theatrical cloths of gold that are spun with evocative music, sensuous movement and dance, and exotic physical imagery that rivals Xanadu.
Without question a rising star among American directors and adapters, Zimmerman's stagings of The Arabian Nights, The Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci, the Chinese Buddhist epic Journey to the West and Ovid's Metamorphoses have been seen from Lincoln Center, the Manhattan Theatre Club and Boston's Huntington Theatre in the East, to the Seattle and Berkeley reps and the Mark Taper Forum in the West. Next season, the McCarter Theatre in Princeton and Seattle Rep will play host to Zimmerman's version of The Odyssey. All of the above have had their premieres in Chicago either at the Lookingglass Theatre Company, of which Zimmerman is an ensemble member, or at the Goodman Theatre, at which she is an artistic associate. In addition, Zimmerman is on the faculty of the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, where she earned her doctorate as a student of Tony Award-winning adapter and director Frank Galati.
Thanks to her MacArthur Fellowship, Northwestern and the Goodman, Zimmerman now has what most artists crave: the freedom (if not always the leisure) to do exactly what she wishes to do, which is why she currently is working for no pay to stage Eleven Rooms of Proust.
First developed with her performance studies students from Northwestern University, Proust was staged last year at a Chicago Park District field house that once was an elegant private home. Divided into tiny rooms numbering two dozen or so, the audience moves from room to room to observe seemingly random episodes from Proust's monumental masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past. This time around, the work is staged in a rambling, old industrial space, and is a collaboration between the About Face, Goodman, and Lookingglass theatre companies.
Zimmerman is famous for beginning rehearsals without a script (unless, of course, she's directing Shakespeare, as she has for the New York Shakespeare Festival), but she explains that the absence of a script doesn't mean the absence of a text.