Avant-garde director Robert Wilson: 'What we see can be as important as what we hear'

L.A. Cicero Wilson onstage

Theater director and stage designer Robert Wilson, left, conducted a master class in Pigott Theater on Oct. 1. Stanford student Donnie Hill, right, participated. Later that day in Kresge Auditorium, Wilson presented the first of the Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts of the 2008-09 academic year.

L.A. Cicero Wilson and Aleta

Virginia Preston, Donnie Hill and Aleta Hayes participated in the master class with Robert Wilson.

There were whispers he wouldn't appear at all.

In a scheduling mishap, his Oct. 1 Stanford appearance overlapped with the opening night of his production of Madama Butterfly at the Los Angeles Opera. But Robert Wilson—considered by many to be the foremost living director and stage designer—kept his deal with Stanford.

He was more than a half-hour late to the 90-minute master class he was to conduct that afternoon at Pigott Theater. (His flight from Los Angeles had been delayed.) Then, a rustle, murmuring and movement at the door, and there he was, himself, larger than his photos might have led one to believe (he's 6-feet-4-inches tall) and, to many in attendance, larger than life.

Wilson was at Stanford last week to present the first of the Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts of the 2008-09 academic year. The lecture series is endowed by the President's Office and administered by the Humanities Center.

He opened the lecture, titled "1. HAVE YOU BEEN HERE BEFORE" "2. NO THIS IS THE FIRST TIME," with several discomfiting minutes of silence at the podium.

"The reason to work as an artist is to ask questions," he finally said. "The reason to work is to say 'What is it?'—and not to say what it is."

Time and space, he said, are "the basic architecture of everything"—time the vertical, space the horizontal. "It's the chair you're sitting on, it's the drip of milk in Vermeer," he said. The hand dropping down vertically on a key to play the next note in a Mozart piece is time; the moving along the keyboard, space.

Wilson's lengthy multimedia productions, heirs to surrealism, often play with the architecture of time and space. He has a reputation for innovation with long performances (one, staged on a mountaintop in Iran, lasted seven days) that are characterized by very slow and painstakingly precise movement and "performed images." He is best known for his 1970s collaboration with composer Philip Glass on Einstein on the Beach, an opera that clocks in at a little under five hours with no intermission.

His Presidential Lecture focused largely on two major influences in his life and his work, both of them adolescents when they met Wilson.

His acquaintance with the first began in 1967, in Summit, N.J., when he saw a black teenager being beaten by a policeman. Wilson intervened and asked what the boy had done.

"None of your business," replied the officer.

"But it is!" answered Wilson, saying that he was a U.S. citizen. Wilson accompanied the officer and the 13-year-old boy, Raymond Andrews, back to the police station and, ultimately, to court. The only solution was adoption. So Wilson, who was 27 at the time, adopted the boy, who had been living in a two-room apartment with 13 other people.

Wilson had noticed something about the boy that others hadn't: He was deaf. Authorities argued that he was unteachable. But he had been tested with words. Wilson argued that the boy was "intelligent, highly intelligent, but he thinks in a different way."

"His body is attuned to vibration. His body was hearing."

Wilson's productions thrive on silence, and they have been influenced by Andrews, who became a collaborator. In particular, the silent, seven-hour Deafman Glance, which ran for five-and-a-half sold-out months in Paris in a theater with 2,200 seats, explores Andrews' world. The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, another Wilson production, used Andrews' drawings to establish the play's motifs.

In 1973, someone sent Wilson a tape recording made by a boy named Chris Knowles, who had been institutionalized as brain-damaged for 11 of his 13 years. Wilson was fascinated and tried, unsuccessfully, to meet the child.

At the time, he was working on The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin—a production that involved eight-and-a-half months of rehearsal with 126 performers. The show was to run from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. It was a very precise, wordless production.

"If I'm performing, I can be very different—a real prima donna," he said. Despite a "do not disturb" sign on his door, however, someone knocked a half-hour before the opening-night performance. It was the boy with his parents.

Wilson asked a question that he said surprised even himself: "Chris, would you like to be in my play tonight?" He had no idea at that moment what he was going to do.

Before an audience of 2,000 people at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Wilson walked onstage with the child and recited verbatim a spiel from the boy's tape recording—a few sentences riffing on the idea that "Emily likes the TV."

"And there was applause," he said.

He learned that, for Knowles (who is now a poet and artist, as well as a collaborator with Wilson), "what appeared to be arbitrary was not arbitrary at all—it was extremely precise," an expression of his "private kingdom"—rather, in fact, like a Wilson production. If Knowles looked at a page, he could note in one glance without counting that it had 68 words. He could make complicated patterns with the alphabet and sound repetition. In one case, he puzzled listeners when he decided to speak in an invented language where every pronounced sound was precisely 12 letters removed in an alphabet.

Wilson said he admired "the way he could see the whole picture very quickly. He took the whole world and put it all together."

One day Knowles began speaking in a flowery Victorian language—reciting from memory a message he had read and remembered from somewhere. That speech became the basis of Wilson's 1974 Letter for Queen Victoria.

The show was a critical success, but not for everyone. Wilson recalled a "blue-haired lady from New Jersey" who left after an hour but said to the usher on the way out, "I know it's a turkey, but what does it mean?"

The opening of the master class earlier in the day was not auspicious. Dancer, choreographer and performer Aleta Hayes of Stanford's Department of Drama had prepared a scene to perform with Stanford graduate students Virginia Preston and Donnie Hill. (Hayes had worked with Wilson in Bernice Johnson Reagon's Temptation of Saint Anthony.) Drama Professor Michael Ramsaur designed the lighting.

At first, fresh from an aggravating airplane journey, Wilson's invisible presence in the darkened theater was unnerving. "What I was trying to do"—he sighed a heavy, weight-of-the-world sigh—"the last few days in L.A., Madama Butterfly …" The sentence petered out. As he asked Ramsaur to run through the "light vocabularies," he grew a little irritable—"let me see it at 60, 40, 30 … Wait! Stay with me!" he chided more than once.

As soon as he walked to the stage, however, Wilson had the audience in his hand. He corrected actors who tried to speak to everyone. "If I speak to that boy there," he said, pointing to an invisible someone in the darkened house, "you get everyone, because there's a focus."

"If I speak only for me, and no one else, you get everyone. It's like a magnet."

He spoke to the audience on "Drama 101": "In my 40 years [in theater], I can count on two hands how many people knew how to stand on a stage. It's not easy. There are hundreds of ways of standing," he said. He recalled working with a "super superstar" from the Peking Opera, who said she began learning how to stand on a stage as a toddler. Now in her 70s, she is still going to her teacher, now in her 90s, to learn more. And the teacher is "still hitting her with her fan."

"The stage is different—it's not like standing on the street," he said. "I hate naturalism. To stand on a stage is something artificial. If you think it's natural, it's a lie."

Standing, gestures and movement begin with the solar plexus, he said. "If it's from here"—he swung his arms from his chest—"it's false, I don't believe it."

"Do. Not. Speak. In phrases," he said. He told Preston that, at one moment in the scene, "you adjusted your weight and dropped your attention. There are no stops in theater."

He reminded the actors that "the space behind you is as important as the space in front of you." He remembered asking a Kabuki actor how he held the audience's attention as he simply walked away from the viewers. "My eyes in front of me go to Mars. My eyes behind now go to downtown Tokyo," the actor replied.

"There are 250 ways of moving your eyes," a young Balinese dancer had told him, "everything is dance."

Referring to the "vocabulary of eyes," Wilson said, "We've lost that in our theater."

Wilson is trying to recover some of this lost ground, with a theater designed around light and sight, composed according to a "visual book" so that "what we see can be as important as what we hear." The effect may be as subtle as a bar of light moving across a stage for a quarter-hour—or unsubtle, such as a seven-day play that culminates with dynamiting the top of a mountain.

In a world in a hurry, he is not worried about taking his time.

It's not for everyone. He recalled quizzing a 7-year-old boy named Steven about his show. "What did you think?"

"Eh," the child answered, and Wilson imitated the child's shrug.

"Did you like it?" he asked again.

"Eh," the child repeated, with the same shrug.

Wilson assayed several more queries before the child finally replied, "You know, Bob, it's a little slow."