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Mary Zimmerman Explains It All For You

Jonathan Abarbanel chats with the director about classic texts in the Age of Image. logo

Siren Songs: The Odyssey
Photo: Liz Lauren
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.

Long Night's Journey:
The Odyssey
Photo: Liz Lauren
"I will start on the first day, and there will be a scene I'm thinking of doing or an episode or a story. And we'll sit in a circle and pass the book around, and everyone reads a paragraph or stanza and passes it on to the next person. And we talk about it, talk about what we like in it, what seems to be important about it. So there is always a text that's backgrounding. So it's not a total free-fall at all."

The script comes next, but it's not developed through improv. "I'm very controlling about that," she confesses. "I'm a real stickler about saying this: I don't do verbal improvisation. I write it. But what I will do is tons of physical and imagistic improvisation. Like, I've this idea how to do the camel, or I've this idea how to do the boat. And then we try it. Usually, 80% works or doesn't, and then we ditch it or improve, and go on to something else."

While she admits she may be "kind-of tap dancing" with her cast, "trying to keep them occupied while I get ahead," she says she usually has some text by the second day. She adds, "sometimes there's text because I had to write some scenes for the auditions. Sometimes those scenes end up in the play and sometimes they don't, but I can start there. I don't ever start anything dead cold. If you're doing The Arabian Nights, you're doing it because you like this story and that story. I just dive into what I know I'm going to do. I know I love this scene, so we'll start there. I start with the thing I have confidence about, and we'll branch out in all directions from there."

Proust and DaVinci aside, Zimmerman's most notable works have been drawn from various antique texts of the non-Western world, and all have had strong narrative lines. In addition to what she calls her "narrative compulsion," she believes she's drawn to them because they all originally were oral texts.

"To me, they translate extremely well back into performance because they come from performance. They come from being told aloud, and then are fixed in some print form or another. Also, the things that novels or stories do--different than things written for the stage--are interesting. The way they move through time really quickly, or slow down time, or dwell on a moment, or go over 15 years in two sentences. They can invoke the absolutely fantastical in a way a playwright would not because he knows he's writing for the theatre, and that this would be an impossible image. I like to confront those impossible images and try to do them."

Zimmerman says she doesn't know where her arresting visual ideas come from but they are memorable: A giant shadow puppet as the Cyclops in The Odyssey, a pool of water to reflect the changes in Metamorphoses, or floor-to-ceiling drawers--some as large as a pull-out bed--to reflect the multi-faceted and orderly mind of DaVinci. "They tend to come when I'm in motion," Zimmerman says, adding that she pays attention to dream images and that she has "books and books and books of photographs."

Half-jokingly, she explains that she came to directing because she couldn't express herself in other ways. "I sort of felt like I'd found my vocation, because I used to have fantasies of being able to record my dreams on a machine, or hire someone to paint the images I saw. This was an adolescent fantasy, because I didn't have the skill. I suppose if I'd trained, I could've, but it just sort of felt beyond me. I don't know the conventions of translating three dimensions onto the page."

Mona Mary: From The Notebooks of
Leonardo da Vinci
Zimmerman cites Peter Brook (who's Hamlet comes to Chicago Shakespeare Theatre next season), Julie Taymor, and choreographer Pina Bausch as major influences, but she mostly credits her Northwestern professors most of all, particularly Galati.

"I can remember many, many quotes from Frank. I was a sophomore; I remember his saying to us, 'Don't act, be.' And I also remember him saying 'Concern is concentration.' But mostly the things I picked up from Frank are very practical, canny, showbizzy things, of which he is a genius. Instead of staging left to right, stage upstage to downstage. How much more dynamic that is. I think he was teaching me that there is a craft to it. He's an intensely generous director."

But most of all, she credits Galati with giving her a generous world view of theatre. "I began to understand from him that the truly sophisticated position isn't to dislike things, but to like things. And that the truly sophisticated theatergoer understands the essential virtue of everything he or she sees. Not what's stupid and bad about it. Frank always saw the love and the effort in everything he went to. He could find the affirmation and the joy in the silliest little nothing. He could see that it was remaking the world in its own little way."

Eleven Rooms of Proust is an unanticipated pleasure for Zimmerman--"the most joyful thing I've done for a long time," she calls it--which came about when a large industrial space became available unexpectedly. Although it will run the same 55 minutes as the original mansion version, Zimmerman reports that it will "differ hugely, because the whole center of this performance is to respond to the place that you're in, and the architecture that you're in. It's an extremely different space. A lot of the text will be the same, but the staging and the locales of the staging are all different."

Once again, small audience groups--30 maximum--will move through the space, witnessing the 11 scenes. A new group begins every half hour, with a total six groups meandering about each evening. Zimmerman readily acknowledges that few audience members will have read all 3,000 pages--or any--of the original work, but she insists the audience will be able to access the piece.

"It's always been a point that the evening not just be, 'Oh, that was very interesting and very cool,' but that it be an emotional experience. Part of the way to make it an emotional experience is that there has to be some narrative that they can attach to. Almost all people, when they try and do anything with Proust, attach to the Swan-Odette narrative, because that's the most novelistic and conventional narrative in the book. It's told in fragments, but you get the rudimentary idea. He meets her, he is crazy for her, and the relationship starts to go south, and it becomes obsessive."

For the future, Zimmerman will stage the Philip Glass opera Akhnaten for Chicago Opera Theatre this summer, remount The Odyssey in the fall, and then develop a new project of her own to inaugurate the 400-seat Owen Bruner Goodman Theatre in January, part of the new North Loop Goodman Theatre complex.

"I have the opportunity to work at my (full) capability in the theatre, and I'm sort of relaxed about that now," Zimmerman says. "Sometimes I miss the kind of really scary challenge of new things." Even so Zimmerman has no desire to follow Galati or her Goodman boss, Robert Falls, to Broadway, although she admits that she'd like to stage "an old-timey musical, like Guys and Dolls...You know, the really good ones. I always say it's my musical 'unsophistication' that I don't like contemporary musicals at all, but I'm really being disingenuous. I really don't think they're very good. Sometimes at the Goodman they talk about letting me do a Gilbert and Sullivan, which I think would be really fun and interesting." She also finds the idea of directing plays by other people--especially more Shakespeare--engaging. "I've done three Shakespeares now, and he is difficult and stimulating enough to keep me interested."

As only a MacArthur "genius" could phrase it.

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