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Absolute Genius

Controversial director Robert Wilson talks about his life, his work, and the new documentary Absolute Wilson.

By New York City
There was a time when some people thought of Robert Wilson as an artistic messiah and others damned him as a charlatan. Today, at the age of 65, he has reached his apotheosis as an avant-garde icon -- and that means it's time for a movie about his life. The documentary Absolute Wilson, by German filmmaker Katharina Otto-Bernstein, opens today in New York. We spoke with Wilson earlier this week about his fascinating career.

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THEATERMANIA: You had no formal training as a director. How did you get started?

ROBERT WILSON: I always followed my instincts. I'm best known for working in the theater, but I guess if I had gone to Yale, Northwestern, or Harvard and studied drama, I would not be making the kind of theater that I'm making. It came from personal experience. I came to New York from Texas and looked at Broadway plays and didn't like them. And I still don't.

TM: So you tried something different. How did that go at first?

RW: My first work was seven hours long and silent -- and, much to my surprise, it was a huge success in France. Based on that, people asked me to work in the theater.

TM: You've been working in Europe ever since. Why do you think it is that you're more popular overseas than here at home?

RW: I grew up in a small community in Texas where there was no art museum, no theater. One went to New York if you wanted to go to the theater. If you look at Germany, there are these tiny little towns that no one has ever heard of that have programs for contemporary theater, contemporary music, classical musical, classical theater. One town even had a budget of 40 million marks! That's more than two times the amount of money we have for the entire National Endowment for the Arts in the U.S.! Students in Germany go to hear Goethe, Schiller, a new work of mine, John Cage, Bach. And it's not only in the small provinces, but also in the large cities. The diversity of programs, the fact that tickets are affordable, the fact that there is a tradition of going to the theater -- that's why I'm more popular in Europe. I also think one reason that my work has been so widely accepted internationally is because it's so visual.

TM: How much of your work are we missing here in the United States?

RW: I had eight productions in France alone in the past year. Eight! In the past 20 years, I haven't had eight shows in New York City. The people in France know my work much better than they do in the United States. Who paid for Einstein on the Beach, the opera I made with Phillip Glass? It was commissioned by the French government. Can you imagine the American government commissioning two Frenchman to create a work today? No! But art can happen anywhere. Wherever it happens, let's support it. Let's have the means, the doctrine, and the philosophy to do it.

TM: Can you define for us some of the elements that make your work different from that of most conventional directors?

RW: So much of our Western theater is audial, but the Lord gave you eyes and he gave you ears. What you see can be as important as what you hear, and what you see does not have to be theater decoration. In this kind of theater that I make, ideally, I work on the audio score and then the visual score. Then I put the two together. It's a little bit like melding a radio drama and a silent movie; but, in between, you have the space to imagine.

TM: How do you get past the fact that art -- at least, the way you often create it -- is very expensive to present?

RW: Good question. When I did Einstein on the Beach [in New York City], I rented the Metropolitan Opera House. I tried to get them to produce it, but they wouldn't. So I rented it on the dark night, I scaled the tickets from $2 to $2,000 -- and I put the $2 seats next to the $2,000 seats, just to get in a new audience. And we did. But we need to break down that barrier. I think the Lincoln Center Festival is a step in the right direction. They're doing great work, taking risks, and even supporting creation. We've just got to find venues where we can bring in other works and where we can make it affordable. It's so damned expensive to work in the theater in this country because of these unions. Stagehand labor at Lincoln Center makes more than a U.S. senator!

TM: Let's talk about acting. What's your philosophy when it comes to judging talent?

RW: A good actor is like a bear; he'll never strike first. He'll always wait you out. You can stand there a long time if you're a good actor. You don't have to do anything. Already, there's a lot going on.

TM: Do you ever teach actors?

RW: I did master classes at Juilliard. I said, "Can you stand on stage?" [Wilson shakes his head in disgust]. "Can you walk across the stage?" [He shakes his head again]. No, no, no. You have to learn how to stand on a stage and walk on a stage. Drama 101 is learn to stand on a stage. Forget all that nonsense in books. It's all too intellectual and too complicated. How do you walk on a stage? You've got to learn it!


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