Mary Zimmerman is one of the theater world's most acclaimed directors, known for her inventive productions of everything from Candide to The Arabian Nights. But the piece that has brought her the greatest attention – as well as the 2002 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play – is Metamorphoses, which tells the stories of seven ancient myths from Ovid, set in an on-stage pool. Zimmerman recently spoke to TheaterMania about the enduring popularity of the piece, why she chose to direct a new production of the work at Arena Stage in Washington D.C, and her thoughts on the work's future.
When did you first begin working on this show?
I started when I was at Northwestern University in 1988, when it was called Six Myths. However, it was almost the same show as it is now, except without one of the stories. I started with the idea of a pool and telling myths in the water. I originally wanted to do The Odyssey in the water, but then it developed into telling these stories.
Why did you choose water?
To me, water is the emblem of change. And I think water is also sort of this lush, erotic medium. Of course, I had no idea if it would work until we went into tech.
Why do you think people still not only want to see the show after so many years, but react so positively to it?
I think it's the archetypal nature of the stories. Somehow these characters and these tales are so fundamental that audiences still feel they relate to their own experiences. And because they're mythological, it can be comforting for audiences to know it was ever thus, so you feel like you're part of the way the world has always worked and still works.
Did you ever think the show would resonate so strongly with young audiences?
I think for younger people, it's thrilling that [it's] in water. That feels more unexpected to them than a traditional play and it opens up to them the possibility of what theater can be – that theater isn't always naturalistic or set in a room. It can be strange and quirky.
Are you surprised how often this play gets revived?
I don't know. Theater is the thing that goes on both a micro and macro level. I certainly did not cultivate my taste to mirror the high school curriculum, but I know there is a tremendous trade in high school and college productions. But it's not done that often regionally. I think it's because theater people wonder if it's transferable to other directors. And I have to admit when I was younger, I thought my plays were never transferable to other people. But I found out that at least some of them are.
Why did you choose to direct this particular production?
I don't need to direct my work anymore, but I am actually exhilarated and a little nervous about this production, because it's the first time I really had to think about how to do this show in 14 years. The Fichandler is a very different space than other theaters, because everyone is looking down at the stage. And this time, the pool is going to work differently. Plus, we are trying out some new devices – like raised areas for the Gods and an underground entrance. It's like the old days; I feel like I have this mathematical problem I have to keep solving.
You also have a long history with Arena Stage. Did that affect your decision?
Yes, it's great to be comfortable with Arena. That building is amazing; it feels like a contemporary art museum with all that grandeur, but it really works for shows. And it's marvelous to have your housing right across the street. My commute is 2 1/2 minutes. To be able to go home for lunch or dinner is marvelous.
You are also excited about working with this particular cast, right?
Yes, one of the joys in remounting is that it's a reunion. Some of the cast, like Chris Kipiniack and Louise Lamson did this with me at Northwestern. Some of them did it on Broadway. And I am so happy to have Geoff Packard, who starred in Candide, in my little water play. He did it recently with us in Chicago at the Lookingglass Theatre, but in a different track. He's one of those actors who should be working constantly.
It sounds like you're really happy to be back in Washington.
I love DC audiences. They're very political, which I admire, and I love that political celebrities come to the theater. It feels kind of like being in a "company town."