“It is a very difficult thing as an artist to renew oneself, but I think the best one can do is keep on the run,” says Deborah Warner. “One tries to take the form a step further or it dies on you.”
Over the past decade, the English director has succeeded in keeping her work fresh by taking on new challenges in theater and opera. This year, Warner won an Obie award and nominations for Drama Desk and Tony Awards for a vividly modern take on Medea that starred her frequent collaborator and fellow adventurer, Irish actress Fiona Shaw. Now, the Lincoln Center Festival unveils her latest work: The Angel Project (July 7-27).
Once again, the intrepid director is working without a net: The Angel Project has no actors and no text. There’s just you, alone in New York City. “This is a walk, a guided walk,” Warner explains. “You have in your hand the information you need to answer questions as to how to get from one place to another from the moment you embark on the journey. So you have a sense of being invisibly ushered through the city.” The locations have been carefully selected and, in some instances, dressed by Warner and her team; the audience members start out on Roosevelt Island and, from there, move to various spots throughout the city.
At the time of our conversation Warner had yet to finish The Angel Project for New York, but the history of the work goes back to 1995. Invited by the London International Festival of Theater (LIFT) to present a piece in any building in London, Warner created The St. Pancras Project — a haunting installation/walk through the Midland Grand Hotel, an 1885 architectural gem that closed prematurely at the turn of the century. “It is a wonderful building,” says Warner, “five floors high but with probably four or five miles of corridors and a grand staircase. I used to go and visit it by myself and think, ‘What shall I do, what shall I do?’ My first thought was to find a text that somehow applied to the building. I was looking through 19th century literature and I thought of maybe Fiona doing The Lady of Shallot on the staircase. But the more I visited, the more I realized I was very much on the wrong track. The experience I was having — which was perplexing and evocative and romantic, and sometimes a little bit unnerving by turns — was the one that I should be offering the audiences. What was dynamic in my experience was the solitary nature of it.”
The previous year, Warner had begun exploring new directions in her theater work, and that exploration had an impact on the site-specific St. Pancras Project. With Shaw, Warner had conceived a daring new production of Beckett’s Footfalls in which the actress moved to different places in the theater, including the balcony, to perform sections of the text while the audience stood in the middle of the auditorium. Unfortunately, the Beckett estate took exception to Warner’s deviation from Beckett’s stage directions and withdrew all rights to the play. Defending her approach, Warner says: “I think it was very valid. It was an attempt at exploring text in a very different form of theater. It was also an exploration of the commercial theater format because we went to the heart of the commercial theater [London’s West End] and, instead of once a night, we did it three times a night. Instead of charging 40 pounds, we charged four.”
Having become interested in poetic text, Warner and Shaw next decided to stage T.S. Elliot’s landmark poem The Waste Land. “What was interesting about that journey is that we had a text and then we went out to find a suitable place to put it,” says Warner. “One found the building that most chimed in some ways with the poem at the time.” Their production traveled the globe playing varied locales, including an armory in Dublin, an abandoned brewery in Toronto, and an underused cinema in Montreal. New York audiences experienced the work, with all its millennial resonance, at the Liberty Theater in the pre-gentrified Times Square of 1996. Warner provides an ironic footnote to that production: The first space she had chosen for New York’s Waste Land was the 97th floor of the World Trade Center. The deal was almost completed but then fell through because somebody decided that the WTC should not be associated with such a title.
The immediate ancestor to The Angel Project, however, is a second project that Warner created in London for LIFT. In 1999, she chose the top floors of the Euston Tower — one of the few high rises in North London — for a new festival project. The word “angel,” which Warner likes to interpret as “a benign presence,” can be traced to this so-called Tower Project. “The idea of being very high and looking down at London — if we think about what creatures might do that, we have this notion that they may be angelical,” says Warner. “There’s a wonderful quote from Rilke which says that angels are uncertain if they are walking amongst the living or the dead. I think the idea very much comes from there.” Following the London incarnation, Warner reimagined the work for the 2000 Perth International Arts Festival in Australia, where it acquired its current title. For Perth, Warner also expanded the scope of her vision to encompass 13 different locations in the city. Given her unquenchable spirit of adventure, it should come as no surprise that the work has now alighted in New York City at the invitation of the Lincoln Center Festival; the Western Australian capital shrinks to the size of a small provincial town when compared to the Big Apple.
In recent weeks, as Warner walked alone through the NYC locations that she selected, she “read” — with same acute theatrical insight she has brought to the classic texts of Shakespeare, Euripides, and Ibsen — the unwritten content of the buildings and passageways of New York. Once again, she is counting on the solitary nature of this unusual work to provide a fresh view of the familiar for those who participate. “I think, like an animal, one becomes more acutely aware,” she offers. “One sees and hears better.” A visitor to the original St. Pancras Project remarked that the experience was like “being in one’s own poem.” Warner can understand that response: It’s the viewer that writes the text. “When Fiona went to the project in Australia,” Warner notes, “she described it as The Waste Land without words.”
The director jokes that it may seem as if she has switched professions to become a tour operator. “But what interests me is the nature of theater,” she says, “and this is a very similar job to directing an opera or a play. The score or the text is silent, but it is nonetheless cacophonous in its possibility.”