The Playgoer: Robert Wilson at USC

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Robert Wilson at USC

By Steven Leigh Morris

On the evening before his production of Madama Butterfly returned to L.A. (at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), Robert Wilson addressed an assembly of students, faculty and a few invited guests at the Bing Theatre on the USC campus.

In rumpled black jacket and trousers and soft black shoes (over a white shirt), the designer-director walked onto the stage and stood still, and in silence, for about five minutes – eliciting a few awkward giggles, but mostly a kind of hypnosis.

When he eventually spoke, which he did for almost two hours, he sometimes stopped, mid-sentence, and froze, for longer than the standard attention span usually tolerates – either to gather his thoughts, or to make a point about the standard, diminishing attention span.

TV and even theater, he noted, contain a rhythm of stop-start-stop-start. Quick bursts and cessations of energy. “No no no no no no,” he squealed in a falsetto, chiding, as though speaking to children.

Because each movement of music, each motion of gesture is connected to the preceding movement or motion. Animals understand this. They remember through their muscles. For this reason, he, explained, beginning actors must first learn how to stand on a stage in silence, and then how to walk across a stage, like a cat.

“When we're aware of the movement, the line continues. . . Proust said he was writing the same novel. Cezanne said he was always painting the same still life.”

This is why in Wilson's marathon performances, he feels no qualms about audiences leaving after an hour or two and returning later, or not. Because unlike in Shakespeare, a missing act, or hour, doesn't render a Wilson event diminished or incomprehensible.

Nor does he start with words, he explained, complaining that American and British theater is burdened by a pathological dependence on words and sounds. He starts with silence. Only in silence can anything be understood. Sometimes he devotes entire scenes to the sculpting of light.

His presentation was part lecture, part autobiography. The history of Robert Wilson and his work has been well documented, but coming from the man himself exposed both the narcissism and brilliance that's led to alternate realities onstage – or, from Wilson's perspective, the reality of his designs that exposes the alternate reality of our lives and more traditional entertainments.

(So as not to ignore the stage design, the set included a projected image of a pair of old shoes, in duplicate, which yielded to Wilson's designs from epics ranging from The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin to Einstein on the Beach.

Wilson shares with neurologist Oliver Sacks an adulation for the penetrating insights coming from those with senses and brain function impaired – the deaf, the autistic, whose comprehension of the world is, by necessity, more animalistic and consequently more true, and therefore artful. Much of his presentation was an homage to two such men (one he met as child) who participated in the creation of his works and understood them innately. They were, for Wilson, a window onto the world of his art. When he recorded the utterances of one brain-damaged, autistic child, he discovered that the sounds, when inscribed onto paper, formed a sculpture that had the form of a perfect geometry, while the sounds we use to exchange what we think are lucid ideas are comparatively erratic.

“If I had gone through Yale and studied theater,” he said, “I would not be making the kind of theater I'm making.”

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