The American theater director and artist on his process, politics and hope
‘If you slow things down, you notice things you hadn’t seen before,’ Robert Wilson once said. For nearly six decades the playwright and artist has been articulating a vision for theater and opera through a highly experimental and prolific body of work that is aesthetically striking and emotionally charged. Whether collaborating with Marina Abramovic or Philip Glass, leading psychologists or social activists, the soon-to-be 80-year-old artist has rigorosly questioned the foundations of theater, while sensitively engaging philosophical and political ideas through performances staged across the globe.
Ahead of the premiere of a new performance inspired by ‘Ubu Roi’ (1896), Alfred Jarry’s play known for captivating Joan Miró, and on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Personae: Masks Against Barbarism’ at Es Baluard Museu d’Art Contemporani in Palma, Wilson sat down with the museum’s director, Imma Prieto to discuss his artistic origins, thinking and their new collaboration. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.
Imma Prieto: Something I’ve heard you say a few times before is that, before starting your career, you needed to get into your body to be able to come out of it with your own voice. What do you mean by this?
Robert Wilson: We’re all very different. Both of us are sitting in a room and our bodies are very different. Our skin is very different, our hair is very different. I think it’s important that whatever you do in life—whether you’re a fireman, schoolteacher, or actor—that you’re comfortable with yourself as much as possible. This is key to theater too. If actors can be comfortable with themselves, it’s easier for them to relate to other people. To know the weight of your body, how you walk, the color of your voice. That’s what makes each one of us special.
My early works in the theater were performed by non-professionals. Later in my life, I’ve worked with people who had a lot of training. I’ve just directed the opera ‘Turandot’ in Houston. Tamara Wilson, who sings Turandot, has a lot of technical training to be able to sing the complicated music of Puccini. But what’s more important than mastering the skills is how she feels in her body. She knows her body, so she was a very strong Turandot. Not only because she found the uniqueness and the color of her voice, but also because she knew her body.
My work has always been very close to thinking that the mind is a muscle. The mind is not just what’s in your head, but it’s in how you move your arm or how you take a step. Years ago, when I was first in New York, I watched the polar bears at the Bronx Zoo. This big polar bear would go right to the edge of the fake rock and turn, in the figure eight, his whole body, and then walk in a figure eight, and repeat that over and over. They say that within a relatively short period of time in captivity, bears walk in patterns of eight, which is a sign of madness, however that’s another issue. I came to think, watching that polar bear and how he turned his big body right at the edge of the cliff, that is how he knows what he knows. That was a big lesson for me in terms of theater and also just thinking about animals.
The German writer Heinrich von Kleist said, ‘A good actor’s like a bear. He’ll never strike first. He’ll wait for you to move.’ How does a dog walk towards a bird? The way his whole body is listening, the way his foot touches the ground, his back, his tail. Listening not only with his ears, but the whole body. The body has always been essential in my work, and I’ve learned a lot from watching animals.
IP: Your own training has been nourished by painting, architecture and dance—all things that engage the image, space and movement. How has all of this materialized in your artistic practice?
RW: What interests me about theater is that it brings together all the arts. It’s architecture, painting, light, poetry, dance, music and philosophy. All the arts can be found in what we call ‘theater.’ In the Latin sense of the word, ancient theater was ‘opus,’ meaning all inclusive. My early works were called silent operas. And in a sense, they were ‘opera’ in the Latin sense of the word, in that they were all-inclusive works.
IP: In the union of these disciplines—not only dance, painting, and architecture, but also music and video—the body is undoubtedly the vertex: the gesture in painting, the presence in space, and listening to the body in dance. What role does this structure play in your work?
RW: Not until we are mechanical are we free. My work is highly structured, in the way an architect makes a megastructure. If you look at the city of Paris, the composer Mozart, or the choreographer Petipa, you’re given very strict structures, but within that structure there’s a kind of freedom.
Paris is a beautiful city—you have an obelisk, an arch and a place where Frank Gehry can create a building, but it has a cohesion. I make a structure, invite people to come in, and they’re in the play and bring their own personalities to it. No director, architect or composer can dictate what someone feels. Why is it that you have 50 people playing Mozart on a piano, all playing the same notes, but one touches the keys in a special way that makes us cry? Or you find 50 young girls dancing Giselle, but why is there one the most beautiful? They’re all doing the same steps that Petipa made in the 19th century, but it’s how you feel in the form.
The form in the long run is not so important. It’s just a means to get you somewhere else. But without structure, I don’t know where to go or what to do. My mother once said when I was maybe seven or eight years old, ‘Bob thinks by drawing.’ So working here on Ubu, one of the first things I did was think about the simple architectural structure of the room. There was a horizontal line, and there was a perpendicular line. Within the structure, you find freedom.
‘You could see that, although just beginning a landscape with maybe one or two strokes, Cezanne was looking at the whole page. He was always looking at the whole canvas.’—Robert Wilson
IP: I like this idea of how creating megastructure somehow leaves things to organize themselves as scenes inside of the universe. I love to understand the process of artists rather than just talking about the finished work, and over the recent weeks observing you working on ‘Personae,’ I had the feeling that you were painting the stage. You are one of the leading choreographers of the 20th and 21st centuries and of course bring your experience and aesthetics to a project, but from my point of view, when you are working, it’s almost like the painting of the scene.
RW: The best class I had in school was with Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, and she taught the history of architecture. It was a five-year course, and in the middle of the third year she said, ‘Students, you have three minutes to design a city. Ready? Go.’ You had to think quickly, what is the whole? If I’m directing Wagner’s 17-hour ‘Ring’ cycle, can I tell you in less than three minutes what it is to see the whole?
Starting out, I was not a very good painter. I would work on one area of the painting until it seemed to be working. Then I would try to work on the whole painting to make it work with this one little area I had first made that I thought was the direction. It was a big lesson when I was given access the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam for two days while it was closed to the public. I was working on an exhibition, and the director of the museum gave me the keys to the Cezanne gouache cabinet. There were many of his unfinished works, and you could see that, although he was just beginning a landscape with maybe one or two strokes, Cezanne was looking at the whole page. He was always looking at the whole canvas.
In all of my works, I can see the whole quickly because I code it in math. In 1973, I wrote ‘The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin,’ which contained seven acts. One and seven related, two and six related, three and five related, four was in the center, it was the turning point. This was a 12-hour play, but I could understand the whole. ‘Einstein on the Beach’ is in four acts and three themes. Act 1 is A and B, Act 2 is C and A, Act 3 is B and C, and Act 4 is A, B and C together for the first time, ABC. It is five hours long, but I can see the whole quickly.
Theater has to be about one thing first, otherwise it’s too complicated. So make it simple for yourself. If it’s about one thing, it can be about a million, but if it’s not about one thing it’s too complicated. It really doesn’t matter what the one thing is, but it just helps to give a focus to what you’re doing.
IP: The first time we got in touch, almost two years ago, I proposed working with the text ‘Ubu Roi’ by Alfred Jarry. The original text is a certain sort of absurdist theater which anticipated some of the great dictatorships of 20th century, as well as influencing the visual world of artist Joan Miró for more than two decades. What interested you most in all of this?
RW: First of all, I think what Miró did was incredible and very much put his signature on Jarry’s work. It would be wrong for me to try to imitate what he did because this was right for him. If I’m performing Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet,’ which I did, I can’t rewrite it. Shakespeare is maybe the greatest playwright that ever lived, and ‘Hamlet’ was one of the greatest plays ever written. You have to pay respect to the master but be careful not to become a slave. It’s always the balance between trying to respect ‘Ubu Roi’ and what it was saying at that time and trying to find a way where it’s relevant today. Respecting Miró and his influence, but in some ways you have to destroy what he did in order to find your own way. So it’s a kind of strange collaboration, a balancing act.
IP: The character of Ubu has materialized too many times our history. In fact, he continues to do so. How do you maintain, in place we are doing it, that political despotic and ironic voice in the work you are doing now?
RW: We can’t ignore our time. We can’t work without thinking about the war in the Ukraine and Mr. Putin. It’s there, but I think the great thing about theater is the unique function it performs in society. Throughout time, you have people with very different economic backgrounds, political backgrounds and religious beliefs that come together and share something. This is why it’s lasted so long, this need for people to come together in this forum and share ideas. I’ve never wanted to make theater to change the world, but to support the world. With the inherent belief that in the nature of man, he’s good. I think of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ living in terrible condition in Amsterdam at 14 years of age, she writes in her diary, ‘In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.’
Out of oppression and dark times, I’m hopeful. The darkest moments need light. I think that this is one of the functions of theater. If you’re performing ‘Electra’ or ‘Medea,’ the dramas of darkness, how do you put light? How do you perform ‘Medea,’ where she’s murdering two children, if you have a child in the front row? There has to be a way to do it where you bring light. If you take my black pen and put it on my black jacket, it’s one thing. But if you take the white pen and put it on the black jacket, the black gets blacker. In that sense, I think political theater is necessary. In these dark moments that we live through, can we bring light?
‘I’ve never wanted to make theater to change the world, but to support the world.’—Robert Wilson
IP: In a way, we have been developing a two-part collaboration: on the one hand, the sound piece ‘Ubu sounds the alarm’ that you made to accompany or inhabit the original Miró puppets in the exhibition ‘Personae: Masks Against Barbarism’; and on the other hand, the new performance that you have been working on this month here in Palma.
What were your references when preparing the sound piece? From the moment I heard it, it reminded me of a crazy cabaret, perhaps from an underground space in the ’30s, somewhere in Germany or Europe between the First and Second World Wars. What were you interested in conveying in this work?
RW: I like that there is humor in the puppets, but the sound is also terrifying in some ways. It’s like a prism of many facets of emotions.
I was greatly influenced by the work of Daniel Stern, who was head of the department of psychology at Columbia University. He was studying preverbal communication, and between ’67 and ’68, he made over 250 films of mothers picking up babies in natural situations. The baby would cry, and the mother would pick up and comfort the baby. In eight out of ten cases, within the first 3/24th of a second, the mother appears to be lunging at the crying child. The following two or three frames, the mother and the child are something else. The next two or three frames, something else again. In just one second of time, it’s very complex what’s going on between the mother and baby. When the mother watches frame by frame she is shocked and says, ‘But I love my child,’ but perhaps the body is moving faster than we think. It’s the same with language—a single word, scream or laugh is full of so many different emotions.
In making ‘Ubu sounds the alarm,’ I thought of it as a kind of carousel of sounds, of noises. There is the counterpoint that is terrifying and funny—it’s all those things. You can’t really put one label on it because it’s full of different emotions. It’s not really an intellectual thing, but something you experience.
IP: Following the death of the Spanish dictator Franco, Joan Miró collaborated with Joan Baixas to create the theatrical adaptation ‘Mori el Merma [Let the Freak Die]’ which premiered at the Teatre Principal of Palma in 1978. Together, they created a series of puppets inspired by Miró’s previous studies of Ubu. It was an austere performance that ridiculed Franco. Is it a coincidence that your first work made in 1969, also featuring grotesque characters and masks, was called ‘The King of Spain’?
RW: When I was seven years old, and I was in the second grade in elementary school, the teacher asked the students, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Other students replied, ‘a fireman,’ or, ‘a nurse,’ or, ‘a schoolteacher.’ When it was my turn, I said, ‘The King of Spain.’ It just came into my mind, and I said it without any thought. Years later when I made my first play, I had seen a comic strip of Franco, the dictator, which was a little like Charlie Chaplin’s film of Hitler, ‘The Little Dictator.’ So I rethought ‘The King of Spain.’
IP: Maybe it’s causality? Do you think that it somehow came back to you now, here in Mallorca, the opportunity to work again with those ideas, but in relation to the contemporary world?
RW: Actually I came here with no idea in my head of what to do. Somehow the idea of taking the newspaper and having it crushed or destroyed, with the news of today seemed to be a fitting material on which to build this play. Yesterday I came to the rehearsal and the actor who’s playing the bear and has a costume made of newspaper was holding a piece of his costume and reading the newspaper, and I took it and crushed it. I don’t know, it was a poetic thing, but somehow it seemed to be appropriate for this work at this moment.
Usually my stages are very minimal, with very few things. And I thought to walk in and see this big mess of trash, would be a surprise. Then it changes, moments after that. It becomes a completely different space. I had a friend who was a hairdresser, and he did the hair of a number of celebrities—Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, etc.... With Tina Turner, it took about two and a half hours to tease every hair, to spray it, to get it in place. Every night before she’d go on stage, she’d take it and mess it all up, but they had to go through that ritual of putting everything in order to make a mess.
IP: So funny. In this work, somehow you are recovering an aesthetic that take us back to some of your more humble works, far from the great operas or some of your most well-known plays. Like you say, much of your work is characterized by a strong minimalist imprint, but there is also something your current working project that remind us of the idea of ruin—not only the newspaper, but maybe also the space on the stage with stones set around.
RW: From the beginning, I always thought I wanted a place that would be contemplative and quiet. I had moved from Texas to New York, and most of the theater—well, all the theater—I saw was too busy for me. So my early works were silent, and then I added texts, but I always tried to create a space where there was time to think. Especially in our cities, it’s rare to find a place where you can have time to think, and I think theater can be that place.
That’s one of the things in the back of my mind when creating something. What’s important is always the duality of spaces. It’s the space behind the words that give them power. It’s the space behind you, if you’re standing on stage, that gives the space in front of you power. In the space of theater, if you look at the city of Palma and the busy life it has, or New York or Paris, there’s a facade or something in front of the busy life of the city.
IP: I have seen just one of the rehearsals of your latest project. Tomorrow we are going to see it again, I hope. In one of the scenes, we witness something akin to a bacchanal or last supper. Is this a prelude to a near end?
RW: It is a kind of last supper. It’s a family sitting together. In the opening moments, I have music by Lou Reed and the family are at their table during what is a world war or crisis. It’s absurd, it’s funny, but at the same time, it’s terrifying. It’s a poetic image. But if I say too much about it, then someone will try to think what I’m thinking, so it’s better you go and you see it and experience it and have your own thoughts. The reason we work as artists is to say, ‘What is it?’ If we know what it is we’re doing, there’s no reason to do it.
Great works are full of meanings. They don’t have one meaning. Why do we still perform ‘Hamlet’? Because it’s full of meanings. You can’t say that it’s this or it’s that because it’s all of those things. It’s not timeless but it’s full of time. I think a moment like this crazy family sitting together is something that’s full of eons of time.
IP: Throughout your career, alongside your artistic projects, you have supported and participated in many demonstrations and social demands in favor of LGBT rights among others. You also created your own space for the arts and humanities, The Water Mill Center in New York.
RW: The Water Mill Center building was formerly a laboratory for Western Union, for scientists to conduct experiments in telecommunications. In the central building, which was built in 1926, they had a door over to one side. I rebuilt and created an opening in the central building with the idea that there would always be an open door. At any time of day, any day of the year, you can walk in from the street and enter the building. Metaphorically, it’s an open door.
My first play was written in collaboration with a boy who had never been to school, was deaf and knew no words. I have worked with scientists from the department of psychology at Columbia University and from time to time, we’ve hosted conferences of scientists and artists working together. Just after 9/11, I made a work with 53 people from Indonesia that were Muslim. It was very challenging to bring people with Muslim faith into the United States at the time. I was arrested 11 times and was in civil rights marches. I wrote ‘The Temptation of San Anthony’ with Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, the woman who sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the early ’60s.
‘Our communities need places where we can congregate regardless of political or religious ideas or education. As long as I’m around, there will never be a gate or a door at The Water Mill Center.’
What I’m saying is that if you’re rich or poor, an atheist or religious person, a political activist, whomever, you can ideally walk in that door. We must always support the people of our community, the people of Long Island and the United States, but to be rich as a cultural center, we must support the art of all nations. Whether it’s in Russia, Ukraine or Bahia in the jungle in Brazil, it’s important that we inform ourselves what is happening in the global community.
If you think of the cathedrals of medieval Europe, these were places where a composer’s music was performed for the first time, where painters exhibited their work. It was the highest point in the community. It was the center of the village. If you’re rich or you’re poor, you could enter. Our communities need places where we can congregate regardless of political or religious ideas or education. As long as I’m around, there will never be a gate or a door at The Water Mill Center. It is important for us to have a window on the world.
‘UBU’ by Robert Wilson will be performed at Es Baluard Museu from 15 – 23 October 2022. ‘Personae: Masks Against Barbarism’ is on view from 26 November 2021 – 8 January 2023.
Imma Prieto will talk about Joan Miró’s Ubu at Hauser & Wirth Menorca on 29 September 2022.
Robert Wilson (b. Waco, Texas, 1942) is among the world’s foremost theater and visual artists. His works for the stage unconventionally integrate a wide variety of artistic media, including dance, movement, lighting, sculpture, music and text. His images are aesthetically striking and emotionally charged, and his productions have earned the acclaim of audiences and critics worldwide.
Imma Prieto (b. Vilafranca del Penedès, Barcelona, 1975) develops her professional practice through a dialogue between curating, research and writing. Since 2019 she is the Director of Es Baluard Museu d'Art Contemporani de Palma. As a curator, she has worked on projects in international and national centers and has taught Contemporary Art and New Media at several universities.